Who cares more about the needy: Religious people or unbelievers?

Turkey - Society - Sacred and Secular Istanbul
Young Turks – conservative and liberal – mingle on a Friday afternoon near Eyup Mosque

By Alex Fradera

“The believer is not the one who eats when his neighbour beside him is hungry” said the founder of Islam, but many unbelievers see this as the norm: that religious people rarely do the good demanded by their faith. Some evidence seems to support this cynicism. Surveys on tackling inequality and support for welfare often find that the religious show less enthusiasm for helping the poorest in society. This would seem to reflect badly on the faithful, but new research in the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics involving Turkish Muslims offers some redemption. The findings suggest that the religious may be taking a pragmatic approach that expresses their compassion for the needy while remaining consistent with their beliefs about a just deity … and in fact, from a practical perspective, this approach may lead to surprisingly good outcomes.

Ceyhun Elgin and colleagues from Boğaziçi University in Turkey, presented 550 students with a survey that asked them to tackle a resource-sharing problem. This involved a shipwreck where two parties, named Friday and Robinson, had become stranded on neighbouring islands: Island A and Island B, respectively. Each island had 12 fruit plants, and due to a quirk, each plant could only be tended (and consumed) by one person. For reasons unexplained, Robinson can only get 20 fruit from each plant (perhaps he’s a poor farmer), but he can visit both islands (maybe he’s a good swimmer or sailor). In contrast, Friday can harvest 120 fruit per plant, but he must remain on his island, Island A. The question is, what’s the fairest way to divide up ownership of the plants? Decide for yourself between the three options below.

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 09.48.50
From Elgin et al 2016

These options actually represent three different political theories of distribution. The egalitarian Option Three pops out: it flattens out differences to produce equality for all. Elgin and his team measured (Islamic) religious belief in the participants and found that actually non-believers were much keener on this approach, with 38 per cent endorsing it compared to just a quarter of believers. This might seem to reinforce the idea that the religious disregard the plight of the needy. But if so, it would make sense for them to be especially drawn to utilitarian Option One, happy for inequality to thrive as long as the net total value is very high … but in fact there were no significant differences between groups in their preference for this option.

Instead, more than half of believers (55 per cent) settled in for Option Two, versus 43 per cent of non-believers. This distribution, called a Maximin split, aims to reduce inequality only insofar as it creates the best case for the worst off. Here, giving Robinson any more trees would make Friday the worst off – and actually worse off than Robinson is now, so going any further would be prohibited by the principle. The Maximin split is a desirable societal outcome articulated by liberal political philosopher John Rawls. But many on the left find Rawls infuriating because his philosophy shores up the classic liberal compromise: endorsing the variations in wealth we see in our current capitalist system as long as the system promises an efficient route to eliminating poverty. In other words, the position doesn’t support eliminating inequality altogether.

However, the Rawlian compromise seems to suit the religious pretty well. Eglin’s team speculate that as religious people have more faith in a just world, believing in a fair deity that guides affairs, they are reluctant to hobble winners in the name of egalitarianism. Some support for this interpretation came from a followup survey where Robinson’s poor ability to tend fruit was revealed to be due to injury. Option One, which is toughest on Robinson, became much less attractive to non-believers, but believers stuck to their guns. Non-believers see a lack of blame, and are motivated to redress the situation, whereas the religious see fate in action, and are not.

Nevertheless, most religious participants still cared about the worst off. Suspicious of social engineering to correct the way of things, but mindful of the virtue of compassion, they find their preferences best expressed via the Maximin distribution. A half-hearted fudge! we could cry – less compassionate than the non-believer. But look closely at the table, and you can see that Maximin actually leaves the poorest individual, Robinson, better off than in Option Three. In this case, an ideological focus on equality obscures the best outcome for the needy. Assuming these findings generalise to other faiths and cultures, perhaps religious and unbelievers don’t differ in their compassion for others, but in their ideologies – a just world, or the necessity of equality – that can colour how they act when they encounter someone in need.

Religiosity and fairness perceptions

Image under licence via gettyimages.co.uk

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

4 thoughts on “Who cares more about the needy: Religious people or unbelievers?”

  1. “Assuming these findings generalise to other faiths and cultures…” A rather huge assumption I would say! And these were students yet again. There is world out there – get off campus for goodness sake and investigate it and we just might learn something useful.

  2. To assume across faiths and cultures is of course brash, but all faiths do have charity built in as a requirement. The pillars, tithing, Ahavtah et HaGer (you shall love the stranger) in Jewish tradition etc. Therefore any sincere adherent will have had to make decisions about charitable works, the alleviation of poverty etc.

    The reality seems to be that people very often call themselves Muslims (or whatever religion) because of tradition and social expectations. The religion changes to suit its adherents. People use religion for their personal benefit – social, financial, as a means of justifying hate and discrimination. I have never seen greater compassion from the religious as from the non religious, but will concede that I have not been looking.

    Thankfully Christian Charity in the UK has moved away from expecting the recipients of their charity to embrace their faith (or at least go to church for their meals/ bed for the night etc). George Orwell describes vividly in Down and Out in Paris and London the men who were forced to go to Church and hated it so much, or were just bored rigid.

  3. I felt rather shocked that so many people endorsed option 3. When presented right next to option 2, it is obvious that option 3 is objectively worse for both parties than option 2, so it seems like a blatantly irrational choice. I find it striking that equality of outcomes is so highly valued that some people would be willing to leave everyone involved worse off than tolerate a modest amount of inequality. I would have thought that people who in principle are intolerant of inequality assume that producing equality would leave the most disadvantaged better off than otherwise, but seems I was mistaken. I’d be interested to better understand what makes this option appealing, especially to the non-religious participants.

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