Religion is often seen as a source of conflict — giving insiders a source of community and support while drawing boundaries against outsiders.
A new study suggests religion can also prompt people to be generous to outsiders, even those from groups they distrust.
For the study, entitled “Thinking About God Encourages Prosociality Toward Religious Outgroups,” researchers asked more than 4,700 people in the United States, the Middle East and Fiji if they were willing to share money with people from a different religious group.
Asking those participants about God — or about what God wanted them to do — led to an 11% increase in giving, according to the study, which was published in Psychological Science.
That result surprised some of the researchers, including Michael Pasek, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois Chicago and one of the lead authors of the study.
Some suspected prompting participants to think about God would make them more generous to people from their religious group but not outsiders. Others thought that thinking about God would increase generosity across the board.
For the study, researchers recruited participants from Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Jewish communities to take part in a series of behavioral economics experiments. During the experiments, research assistants gave people small amounts of money in large envelopes.
Participants were also given two smaller envelopes, one labeled “Mine” and the other labeled “Give to Another Person.” They could keep all the money for themselves, give it all away or divide it up. Those who wanted to give money away could put funds into the envelope labeled “Give to Another Person.” That envelope was then placed back in the larger envelope.
Participants were first told to do whatever they thought best when dividing the money. Later, they repeated the experiment after being asked either to think about God or to think about what God wanted them to do.
The experiments in Fiji and some of the experiments in the Middle East were done in person. Others, in the United States and Israel, were done online. All the money that was designated “Give to Another Person” was given away.
In person, they gave people a large envelope with money in it as well as two smaller envelopes. While participants made the decisions, the research assistant would step away so no one would know what participants were doing.
“We always made sure that people were assigned with different people across rounds, so their earlier decisions couldn’t influence their later decisions,” said Pasek.
Azim Shariff, director of the Centre for Applied Moral Psychology at the University of British Columbia and one of the lead authors of the study, has taken part in a previous study about religion and social behavior, including a 2007 study entitled “God is Watching You” and a 2019 study on religion and selfishness.
He said past studies have found thinking about God is linked with higher levels of giving to strangers. But he has long wondered whether that giving is directed only toward people who are like the giver. Or will they give to people from other groups, especially groups they distrust or fear?
This study allowed researchers to look at that issue.
They found no difference in increased giving to in-groups or out-groups.
Shariff said the study is the result of two different teams of researchers working together. The two groups had different expectations for how the experiment would turn out. For his part, Shariff expected that giving to strangers from the same group would be higher than giving to people from a different group. Other researchers expected a different outcome.
“One of the problems in science is that you have to get rid of confirmation bias,” he said. “That is really hard to do when everyone believes the same thing.”
He also said asking specifically about God — rather than a religious identity — was important to the study. So researchers asked people to think about what God wanted them to do — rather than what a good member of their religious group might do.
Shariff said it is often hard to isolate the “God-bit” of religion because ethnicity and culture often play a major role in how religion is lived out.
While religious people tend to give more to both secular and faith-based charities, it’s hard to tell whether religion makes people more generous or if people who are more generous tend to join religious groups.
The study suggests that perhaps the “God-bit” part of religion isn’t to blame for anti-social behavior, he said.
That’s an important finding, said Pasek, because religion is often seen as a driver of conflict. But the reality might be more complicated. Some aspects of religion, he said, might promote more tolerance. He said that other research indicates a belief in God can “decrease the extent to which people dehumanize out-group members.”
Jeremy Ginges, a professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research and one of the researchers on the project, said he wanted to test whether belief in God is associated with cooperation and benevolence across group lines.
Trading ideas across different groups is important to human beings, he said, and “it would be strange if belief in God was a barrier to such trade.”
He said the biggest takeaway was that religious diversity poses no barrier to cooperation.
“This is important because the idea that belief in God is associated with intergroup hostility is quite widespread and often used as a cudgel against immigration and against specific religious groups such as Muslims,” he said.