A recent story in U.K. newspaper The Telegraph claims a new study proves religion does not make people love their neighbors more. But a closer look at the study raises questions about its conclusion.
The study, done by economists at Nottingham University Business School, took Malaysians of different religions–Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and non-religious–and placed them in scenarios known as prisoner’s dilemmas to judge their cooperation and generosity.
In one task, researchers gave participants an imaginary sum of money. The participants could either choose to give some to another participant or keep the money for themselves. The other participant could then chose to send some of it back, and the sum would be tripled.
The study found that when participants knew the other person was of a different religion or ethnicity, they cooperated about the same amount as when they did not know anything about the other participant.
When two participants were of the same religion or ethnicity, they were more likely to help each other out. From this, researchers concluded religion does not impact everyday behavior unless people share the same faith.
“This leads us to the sobering conclusion that religion doesn’t affect people’s behavior in general terms,” said Robert Hoffmann, an associate professor of economics and co-author of the report. “Rather, it affects how they relate to different individuals.”
But the study only uses participants from Malaysia, a country where religion and ethnicity are strongly tied together. Most ethnic Malays are Muslim, while many Chinese are Christians and Buddhists, and many Indians are Hindus. Ethnicity could just as easily have affected the level of trust asreligion.
Other studies have repeatedly found that religious people are more generous, donating more on average than nonreligious people. In America, those in the most religious fifth of Americans donate about $3,000 to charity, while the most secular fifth give about $1,000, according to David Campbell and Robert Putnam, co-authors of “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” Most religious Americans give even more to secular causes than secular Americans.
But even looking on the ground in Malaysia shows Christians loving and caring for those in and outside of their religious and ethnic backgrounds. Christian organization Malaysian Care started in the late 1970s helping children in the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement.
Today the organization continues to reach out to the marginalized in society: people in prison, dealing with drug addictions, special needs, and AIDS.
In a letter on the group’s website, Executive Director Wong Young Soon said Christians care because God cares, despite our unbelief and weakness: “To render care or social services to the marginalized is something we do because it is in the character of the God we follow to lift up the poor and needy.”