“Love thy neighbor” is preached from many a pulpit. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that the highly religious are less motivated by compassion when helping a stranger than are atheists, agnostics and less religious people.
Why is this the case?
“Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study. “The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”
Anyone who has read Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity, which was translated into English by George Eliot (this brilliant 19th century mind also translated Spinoza's Ethics), we will not be surprised by this finding. To believe that there is a better world beyond than the one that's here and now, here and all around us, is to see your time on earth as a great big test, a great big life simulator. For them, the world is fallen, the world is not real, the world is the shadow of a better place that's really real (Christianity is indeed a footnote on Plato). Those who believe in this kind of thing (the temporary world of life is fallen) will necessarily convince themselves that they are by nature bad and that all good acts do not come naturally to humans but are the fruits of great labor, soul-toil, vigilance, and fortitude.
On the other hand, those who do not believe that this world is preparing them for eternal life in the next, that this world is it, are more likely to see acts of kindness, compassion as a normal and necessary part of social existence.