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Reading Time: 10 minutes

God is love.

Or something.

Turns out, very often, Christians don’t reflect this ideal. This is kind of understandable given the distinct lack of such an ideal in the Old Testament. But if we park that whole tranche of biblical history for the time being, let’s look a little at the tolerance of Christians.

What can we tell about the tolerance of Christians? Well, this will depend on what type of Christian we are talking about. A conservative Christian, if looking at moral psychology, will be defined by valuing the in-group, purity and tradition above all other moral evaluative components. Where liberals might be seen in terms of fairness and lack of pain, conservatives often see these as playing second fiddle to the other components. Thus, anyone not in the in-group is often seen as morally inferior (I am simplifying the work of people like Jonathan Haidt here).

If, as a conservative, you are a white, male heteronormative Christian, good luck to anyone outside of your in-group.

I see from regular commenters here of the religious persuasion, as well as from pastors and church spokespeople, a distinct intolerance for anyone who does not fit the mould of their in-group ideal. Homosexuals, trans people, atheists, non-Christians and so on are not shown the love that Jesus idealises in his Good Samaritan parable – the quintessential endorsement of out-group morality.

Many religious people claim that, hang on, Christians are far more charitable and thus morally good.

The devil is in the detail.

It turns out that whilst Christians appear to give more money in real terms to charities, it is worth looking in finer detail at the stats. It’s also worth noting that Christian churches are registered charities, and so the vast amounts donated to their own churches are counted as charity.

In simple terms, Christians and the highly religious are more likely to “give to their own” – show moral behaviour towards the in-0group that the out-group. Whilst atheists or liberals might give less to charity in real terms, they are more universally moral. They are more like Jesus’ Good Samaritan. What’s worse, it’s not as if they fail to be prosocial and morally good to out-group members, but research shows they tend to be more morally aggressive.

Jesse Lee Preston, Ryan S. Ritter, and J. Ivan Hernandez, in “Principles of Religious Prosociality: A Review and Reformulation” look into the relationship of religiosity and morality:

Historically, religion and religious belief have often been credited as the source of human morality. But what have been the real effects of religion on prosocial behavior? A review of the psychological literature reveals a complex relation between religious belief and moral action: leading to greater prosocial behavior in some contexts but not in others, and in some cases actually increasing antisocial behavior. In addition, different forms of religious belief are associated with different styles of co-operation. This body of evidence paints a somewhat messy picture of religious prosociality; however, recent examinations of the cognitive mechanisms of belief help to resolve apparent inconsistencies….

All major world religions share a theoretical belief in the Golden Rule – the prescription to treat all others as you would like to be treated – but in practice, the effect of religion on moral action has been less than golden. We have reviewed here evidence that individual differences in religiosity lead to different patterns of prosocial behavior toward others – that religious belief fosters co-operation with only some targets under some circumstances (cf. Saroglou, 2006). We also reviewed recent experimental research using priming methods that showed religious priming can increase prosocial actions in some contexts, but increase antisocial behavior in other contexts. Building from this work, we suggest a distinction between religious and supernatural aspects of the sacred, each associated with different moral principles. Activating the religious principle should motivate the protection of ingroup values, and so can both facilitate co-operation with fellow group members while inhibiting prosocial behavior toward outsiders.

Vassilis Saroglou has done a lot of work on this area. In “Religion’s Role in Prosocial Behavior: Myth or Reality?“, Saroglou states:

But if you turn to empirical research, the answer to our question becomes more difficult and quite complex. On the one hand, self-report measures of different aspects of prosociality—volunteering, helping behavior, agreeable personality (Big Five), low psychoticism Eysenck’s personality model), forgiveness, valuing benevolence, sense of generativity—provide systematic evidence in favor of the above theories: religious people report being prosocial and they do so across the large variety of the abovementioned ways in which prosociality is expressed (Batson et al., 1993, 2005; Dillon et al., 2003; McCullough & Worthington, 1999; Saroglou, 2002, in press; Saroglou et al., 2004). Interestingly, this prosocial tendency as a function of religion seems to be universal. For instance, the high agreeableness of religious people seems constant across countries, religions, and even cohorts (McCullough et al., 2003; Saroglou, 2002, in press), and the importance of the value of benevolence among religious people is typical of Jewish, Christian, Muslim (Saroglou et al., 2004), and Buddhist (Saroglou & Dupuis, in press) samples.

On the other hand, there are many counter-indications or at least findings implying skepticism, especially—but not only—when we move to studies using measures other than self-report questionnaires. First, the tendency of religious people to volunteer may simply be an artifact of belonging to religious organizations that happen to organize volunteer type activities. Second, the size of the associations between religion and prosocial measures is usually weak (not exceeding, for instance, .20 for agreeableness and benevolence). Third, not all religious dimensions imply prosocial tendencies. Fundamentalist (e.g., Jackson & Esses, 1997), orthodox (e.g., Kirkpatrick, 1993), and in some cases even intrinsically religious people (e.g., Batson et al., 1999) often show prejudice, discrimination, or at least lack of prosociality towards outgroups or people threatening their values (Hunsberger & Jackson, 2005, for review). Four, and more importantly, social experiments demonstrate that the motivation of prosocial behavior among the intrinsically religious is not altruistic, but rather egotistic: the need to be perceived by others as good and the nonconsideration of the real needs as expressed by the persons asking for help are dominant (Batson et al., 1993, 2005). Finally, even for forgiveness, which is particularly emphasized within religion, results based on measures other than self-report questionnaires are rather disappointing (McCullough & Worthington, 1999; see also Cohen et al., 2006).

The contrast between the ideals and self-perceptions of religious people and the results of studies using other research strategies is so striking that researchers may be tempted to suspect moral hypocrisy in religious people. For instance, Batson et al. (1993) suspected moral hypocrisy in religious people with regard to prejudice: social  experimental studies did not confirm the universal brotherhood ideals and even provided evidence to the contrary. Intrinsically religious people seem to need to appear prosocial rather than to really be so (Batson et al., 2005).

I have previously quoted Saroglou’s work with Joanna Blogowska (“Religious Fundamentalism and Limited Prosociality as a Function of the Target“):

Two distinct research traditions have established that (a) religiosity implies prosocial tendencies, though limited to proximal targets, and (b) religious fundamentalism (RF) relates to prejudice, often because of underlying right‐wing authoritarianism (RWA). Through two studies, we investigated the idea that RF, due to underlying religiosity, also predicts prosociality that is limited to proximal rather than distal targets. Specifically, we found that RF, unlike RWA and because of religiosity, predicted prosociality towards a nonfeminist but not a feminist target in need (Experiment 1) and willingness to help friends but not unknown people in need in the same hypothetical situations (Experiment 2). Moreover, like RWA, RF implied negative attitudes towards the feminist. This limited, not extended, prosociality of people scoring high on RF was in contrast with their self‐perceptions of being universally altruistic. Fundamentalism seems to combine religiosity’s qualities (in‐group prosociality) with authoritarianism’s defects (out‐group derogation).

In another paper, they looked at aggression towards a moral out-group (gay) person (“Religious Prosociality and Aggression: It’s Real“):

In two experiments using the same measure of religiosity and samples from the same population, religiosity predicted helping, in a real‐life context, of an in‐group member in need (Experiment 1) as well as overt and direct aggression by means of allocating hot sauce to a gay, but not to a neutral, target (Experiment 2). Religious prosociality and aggression are real, concern distinct kinds of targets, and are at the heart of personal religiosity.

Indeed, Saroglou sees “religion as a major contemporary cultural source of intergroup conflict around the world” in “Intergroup Conflict, Religious Fundamentalism, and Culture“.

As ever, there are biases at play when looking at the perceptions of prosociality and agreeableness. Atheists come out lower to religious people regardless of who is doing the rating! As Luke Galen et al investigate in “Personality Ratings Are Influenced by Religious Stereotype and Ingroup Bias“:

A religious prosociality stereotype exists such that religiosity and prosociality are presumed to be positively associated, as evidenced by proxy measures such as personality traits. However, studies using self- and peer-ratings of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness have not simultaneously controlled for the religiosity of the participant and the target. One hundred and sixty students completed measures of religiosity in a prescreening survey. Later, participants rated an array of targets, including a Christian and an atheist, on adjectives corresponding to Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Regardless of participant religiosity, atheist targets were rated as being lower in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness relative to those labeled as Christians. This bias was greater for highly religious participants. This effect was mediated by perceptions of the morality of the target independent of participants’ broader attitudes concerning the target’s religious group. Implications are discussed.

The bias towards the religious in-group is well documented. Religious people don’t seem to like being moral to out-group members, as we have amply seen above. Joanna Różycka-Tran analyses in “Love thy neighbor? The effects of religious in/out-group identity on social behavior“:

In the article, keeping with the hypothesis that people use religious identity to regulate their norm directed behavior appropriately toward in/out-group members, two natural experiments took place in the center of Gdansk city. The samples consisted of bystanders: passengers traveling by tram and customers shopping in a supermarket, where religious identity of the target was manipulated. In Study 1, a female student simulates a broken leg and walks with crutches. She tries to get a seat on the tram in three manipulation conditions, wearing: a religious habit as a Christian nun (in-group), a hijab as a Muslim (out-group), and a black shirt with the word “God” crossed out as an atheist. In Study 2, a male student simulates queue-jumping in a supermarket, wearing: a religious habit as a Christian priest, a Jewish skullcap as a Jew, and a white shirt as a secular men. The results con-firmed the stated hypothesis, that helping and submissive behaviors was directed only to the in-group religious members, but not toward religious outsiders. The given findings are discussed in the context of social identity theory and have led to the conclusion that, in practice, love thy neighbor golden rule applies only to the religious in-group.

She continues, summing up a lot of work I would otherwise have cited here myself:

Findings from Study 1 suggest that intergroup bias toward religious outsider even in need, seems to be stronger that the “Good Samaritan” impulse. The paradox is that the story about the “Good Samaritan” illustrates the need to be helpful toward individuals even if they do not belong to one’s in-group. Theologically, most biblical scholars argue that the point of the parable was to demonstrate that one’s identity and helping behavior should move beyond ethnic boarders to include all humans as their “neighbor.” However, our studied examined reductions in helping toward out-group members; so in practice, this golden rule can be expressed as the more pragmatic and egoistic motive of “love thy neighbor who is similar to you”. Also, the religious in-group seems to have higher compliance for breaking social norms that is permitted for the religious outsider. The results from Study 2 confirmed the hypothesis that customers would become assertive when they saw a Jew queue-jumping (even more so than if they saw a secular man doing the same thing), because this was a violation of the rule about queuing. Customer turned a blind eye to a religious in-group member what can be viewed as an example of compliance with social norms (not being against the sacred authority); however such effect does not apply to religious outsider.

Our findings are consistent with studies about the influence of the identity of the target of prosociality on prosocial behavior displayed by religious individuals (Norenzayan & Shariff, 2008); with studies confirming positive associations between religiosity and hostility toward out-groups (Hall, Matz, & Wood, 2010) or atheists (Gervais et al., 2011); with studies that identifying with a religious group provides individuals with a belief system and set of norms relating to everyday life and that these beliefs and norms reduce feelings of uncertainty (Hogg, Adelman, & Blagg, 2010); also with findings that people are more likely to be cooperative and exercise more personal restraint when using endangered common resources being shared with ingroup members rather than with out-group members, because social identity seems to act as social glue providing stability in group (Van Vugt & Hart, 2004).

Given results can be interpreted in the context of intergroup relations theory and studies, where attitudes toward religious in-group members were very positive and attitudes toward nonreligious others were quite negative (Jackson & Hunsberger, 1999). The perception of prosociality as a characteristic of religious individuals is an intergroup phenomenon, with favoritism determined, in part, by the degree to which an individual is perceived as a member of one’s own religious group (Tinoco, 1998). Saroglou (2006) has suggested the term minimal prosociality to refer to a higher degree of helping on the part of religious people that is extended to friends and in-group members but not to outgroup members and those who threaten religious values. In addition, greater religious humanitarianism is reserved only for in-group members (Hall et al., 2010). This suggests that religion per se is to some extent responsible for antipathy between groups, in that religious groups function according to the same principles as political, ethnic or other groups. A tendency to respond negatively to out-group members is pervasive among people who identify with their religious in-group members (Jackson & Hunsberger, 1999), because so doing enhances their collective self-esteem (Tajfel & Turner, 1986).

It seems that activation of the “love thy neighbor” attitude is positively associated with universal cooperation and helping behavior only in a homogeneous context but not in heterogeneous groups or outgroup member even religious, wherein individuals perceive a conflict of interests between their group and other religious groups. Such findings confirmed empirically the theoretical background presented by Galen (2012), who assumed that when studies assess prosociality in nonplanned, spontaneous context (e.g. bystander helping) and if the target of prosociality is an out-group member, the relationship between religiosity and prosociality is essentially zero, or even negative. Our results are also consisted with empirical findings regarding religion’s dual function as a social identity and as a belief system. Religion offers epistemological and ontological certainty and these can promote individual well-being (e.g., by increasing the availability of social support and providing a sense of belonging to religious group), but it simultaneously serves as a basis for seemingly intractable intergroup conflicts (Ysseldyk, Matheson, & Anisman, 2010). Our findings finally confirm that people use religious identity to regulate their social behavior toward in-group and out-group members. As McCullough et al. (2016) found that people actively seek out information about other people’s religious identity when deciding who to trust, our final contribution to the literature is providing confirmation that people actively seek out information about other people’s religious identity also when deciding who to help and whether or not to protest against an individual’s behavior. This all leads to the conclusion that it is better not to show religious diversity and it is better to hide an atheistic attitude when one is in a needy situation, especially in a religious monolithic society.

See the paper for details of all the citations.Blogowska and Saroglou detail in “For Better or Worse: Fundamentalists’ Attitudes Toward Outgroups as a Function of Exposure to Authoritative Religious Texts“:

Fundamentalism not only predicts prejudice toward outgroups but also prosociality toward proximal targets and ingroups. Taking things a step further, we hypothesized that because fundamentalists tend to show submission to religious authority, their attitudes toward unknown targets and outgroups may vary significantly depending on the nature of the authoritative religious texts to which they are exposed. In three studies using hypothetical scenarios, the association between fundamentalism and prosocial attitudes (a) became negative after exposure to a violent biblical text (Study 1; unknown targets), (b) reversed from negative to positive after reading a prosocial biblical text (Study 2; negligent targets), and (c) became negative or positive following a violent versus prosocial biblical text (Study 3; atheist target). Additional results confirmed the uniqueness of fundamentalism compared to general religiosity, quest orientation, and authoritarianism, regarding such dependency upon religious authority. Findings also support the mediating roles of reported submissiveness to religious teachings and perceived symbolic threat.

Everyone loves a bit of priming…

The point being that Christians often claim God is the source of objective morality and that God is love, but there is clearly a lack of clarity here. It doesn’t seem to matter what the grounding of morality actually is because Christians have wildly different approaches to morality and prosociality, though what can certainly be said is that when they get progressively more conservative and fundamental, they become less universally moral.

If you’re a conservative Christian like your fellow conservative Christian, you’ll be alright by them. If not, good luck.

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A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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