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Lack Of Belief And Lack Of Compassion – What’s The Connection?

This week, a study of children’s behavior published in the journal Current Biology concludes that children who are raised by religious families are less compassionate than children who are raised in non-religious households. Specifically, children from Christian families were less likely to share with others and were more likely to be judgmental of other children, urging their punishment. What’s more, the longer children had been in Christian households, the greater their divergence from their more compassionate secular peers.

Medical Daily calls these findings “perhaps counterintuitive”, meaning that they are the opposite of the presumptions that most people prefer to make about the world. Of course, in the United States, the majority of the population is religious. To members of the non-religious minority, which is regularly subjected to the majority’s high handed attitude, the results posted in Current Biology aren’t so surprising.

No single scientific article delivers the final truth on any subject, of course. Studies can be flawed, and aren’t worshipped as infallible, the way that religious texts are. So, we should seek our alternative sets of data, to see whether the Current Biology study holds up to scrutiny.

As luck would have it, the recent Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life provides data that, when combined with data on state mental health spending, provides us with a good test of the hypothesis that religious influence leads to a decrease in compassion. The Pew Forum provides data on the portion of the population of each state in the USA that does not believe in God, rejecting the central pillar of our nation’s dominant Christian ideology.

If Christianity leads to an increase in compassion, we ought to see that states that have more Christians – and fewer atheists who reject belief in God – provide greater funding for services to people who have mental health problems. Mental illness isn’t something that people can be plausibly blamed for. People often claim that people wouldn’t be poor if they just tried harder, but few people assert that mental illness is just a luxury for the lazy. It’s widely recognized that people with mental health problems need help. Furthermore, the prevalence of mental illness is roughly equivalent from state to state. So, if a state is providing greater per capita funding for assistance to the mentally ill than its neighbors, it probably isn’t because there are more mentally ill people in that state. It’s because the state is showing more compassion for its citizens who are in need.

The chart below shows what these two sets of data look like when they are combined. Each dot represents one of the 50 states, and there’s an extra dot for the District of Columbia. The placement of each dot on vertical axis shows the percentage of people in each state that don’t believe in God. The placement of each dot on the horizontal axis shows the amount of annual spending per capita on mental health services in each state. Measuring spending per capita eliminates the skew created by big mental health budgets in states with big populations.

atheism and compassion by state

The pink line on the chart is the best fit line, showing the statistically-calculated relationship between the two variables. The line shows what the scatterplot of dots suggests: States that have larger portions of their populations that do not believe in God tend to show more compassion to their mentally ill citizens than states with higher rates of religiosity. All of the states that spend more on mental health services have a higher than average population of atheists.

This data doesn’t provide a replication of the study recently published in Current Biology. Instead, it looks at the larger question in a different way. The overall conclusion from these different sources is the same: Despite the bragging Christians do about their moral superiority, Christianity isn’t associated with a higher practice of compassion.

5 thoughts on “Lack Of Belief And Lack Of Compassion – What’s The Connection?”

  1. Mark says:

    What’s the r2 value of the regression line? Is it significantly different from a slope of zero?

  2. Rowan says:

    Good question, Mark. R^2=0.25

    It’s not an absolute determination. There are some states that lie quite a bit outside that line.

    Take Nevada, for example. Nevada has 12 percent of its population not believing in God. The national average, as measured by Pew, is 9.2 percent. Yet, Nevada spends only $68.32 per capita on mental health. That’s below the national average of $127.39.

    Nevada is not a great example – both in the sense that it’s not representative of states that have high atheist populations, and in the sense that its spending on mental health is not what we should wish for in the rest of the country. Yet, there it is.

    Keep in mind that this is a %100 percent sample. So, the relationship between these two variables is there. It’s not absolutely consistent, but the trend is there.

    What’s undeniable is that the opposite trend is absent. It cannot in any way be argued that prevalence of Christianity is positively related to spending on mental health.

    The average per capita spending on mental health by states with above average rates of atheism is $98.02
    The average per capita spending on mental health by states with below average rates of atheism is: $166.12

    That’s the opposite of what the hypothesis that Christianity leads to greater compassion predicts.

    1. Charles Manning says:

      “The average per capita spending on mental health by states with above average rates of atheism is $98.02. The average per capita spending on mental health by states with below average rates of atheism is: $166.12.” Did you get that backwards?

      The statistical argument isn’t that strong. But my experience suggests it’s true that “children who are raised by religious families are less compassionate than children who are raised in non-religious households.” It follows that adults raised by religious parents seem to have the same compassion deficit.

      We’re born with a moral seed that grows into a moral tree as we age. If properly nourished and protected as it grows, the mature moral tree has leaves and flowers of love, respect, empathy, sympathy, tolerance, fairness, honesty, forgiveness, generosity, and compassion (I may have left out a few). Like trees in the forest, the moral tree’s development depends on proper care and nourishment. Religions and other ethical systems affect the care and nourishment. I believe some of the influences of some religions stunt and deform the moral tree’s growth (other negative influences include disease and traumatic experiences). It appears, from the studies cited in this article, that non-religious families provide what’s needed for the moral tree’s proper development.

  3. John says:

    While most religious Americans are indeed Christian, not all are, so if you’re going to draw conclusions about a (fairly weak) negative correlation between “compassion” and “Christianity,” you technically shouldn’t use “Belief in God” as a proxy variable for Christianity. BTW, what happens if “compassion” (toward the emotionally needy) is measured in terms of % of State GDP or % of Total Operational Expenditures? And/or: What happens to the strength of the relationship between “Belief in God” and (any) measure of spending om mental health if income and education are held constant?

  4. Dave says:

    I suppose one could factor in all the services, mental health, counseling, family services provided often free for nothing by churches out there in Jesus-land.

    Areas that have many churches providing for community needs may actually relieve government of much of the expense. I would think that would level the pink line somewhat.

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