Religion, Atheists, and Helping Behavior

Following the theme of helping behavior, but on a slightly more personal note, I wanted to write this blog post about religious opinions. I don’t believe in any higher power, or God, or even in the concept of organized religion at all; however, treating other people right, and that is all people, of all races, religions, and origins, is one of my most valuable core beliefs. To my surprise, however, there was a survey cited in the textbook that reported “the only group [people] disliked more than Muslims was atheists” that made me wonder about the difference in morals/ethics/charitableness between religious people and non-religious people.

Although I’ve continuously suppressed the thought that this endlessly charitable attitude of religious communities might actually be more of a façade or a marketing tactic than it is a pure and altruistic practice, a piece of evidence from the Chapter 11 reading on Prosocial Behavior and the personal qualities that affect it supported these thoughts a little bit.

As I read this section of the textbook I was somewhat surprised, and even off-put, to read that when it actually comes to helping strangers, or people who are not like them (a.k.a. of the same religion as themselves), religious people are no more charitable than non-religious people; and so this pervasive stereotype that religious people are so much more superior in morals than the rest of us is completely invalid – especially because, what is it to be a moral person if not to be able to feel empathy for the people you are not forced to feel connected to through a given, or already present, tangible similarity?

The social psychological concept this mostly relates to is in-group favoritism. Organized religion is a first rate example of how human beings will behave due to an unconscious preference of people who are like us. Sometimes this is a more conscious form of preference, or outright discrimination, which human beings are definitely capable of; however, the unintentional thought processes that also run through our minds when we unconsciously make the decision of whether or not to help someone on the street can be, whether we like it or not, highly related to how similar or dissimilar to ourselves we think this person might appear to be.

Although it is easy to make the assumption that how much people help is clearly personality-based, as making the fundamental attribution error describes, it is more accurate to understand that peoples’ prosocial behavior is influenced by a large variety of situational factors, and also that cultural differences and in-groups, such as religious communities in this case, affect who we help and why we help them.


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