Expert Commentary

Link between religion and helping others: Role of values, ideas and language

2011 study from DePaul University published in the journal Sociology of Religion exploring the relationship between religious values and altruistic, humanitarian behavior.

There has been considerable research into the question of whether or not high levels of religiosity are linked with “prosocial” behaviors such as volunteering, charitable giving and helping others through one’s employment. However, religiosity may not be the best measure or indicator of the level to which someone has internalized religious values and formalized them into language, as a DePaul University scholar notes in a 2011 study.

Published in the journal Sociology of Religion, “The Link Between Religion and Helping Others: The Role of Values, Ideas and Language” uses data from 88 in-depth interviews, all randomly selected from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study, which involved more than 3,000 subjects. It examines how religious values and the ideas and language that accompany them can motivate prosocial behaviors. As the author notes, many prior psychological studies “find only moderate correlations between religiosity and helping.” The researcher ultimately attempts to capture the full range of “internal religiosity” — the kind of personal belief that does not always register in surveys that count only congregational membership and attendance at services.

The findings include:

  • Of the 88 interviewees, 27.3% made an explicit connection between their religious beliefs and helping others, and 20.7% stated that God had created them for a particular mission that included helping others.
  • Overall, the results showed that “finding inspiration in Jesus correlated with two prosocial behaviors, equating religion with morality correlated only with religious giving, and feeling that God had a specific mission for one’s life did not correlate significantly with any helping measure.”
  • Of the 88 interviewees, 79 identified themselves as Christian. Of these, 8.9% stated that Jesus was their main inspiration for helping others, either through his teachings or through the example of his sacrifice.
  • The volume of prosocial activities an individual engaged in predicted the importance of religion: “People who did volunteer work, gave money to religious charities and gave money to secular charities were significantly more likely than less prosocial people to have a strong sense of religious identity, equate religion with helping, find inspiration for helping others in Jesus, and experience religious growth or change over the life course. This suggests that the relationship between religiosity and helping may not be strictly linear. For people who do ordinary amounts of volunteering and charitable giving, religion is just one motivation among others, but for highly prosocial people, religion seems to be very important.”
  • “Born-again Christians were more likely to mention religious motives for helping than liberal Christians, but liberal Christians nonetheless did connect religion and helping. The difference between the two groups seems to be in how they make this connection. While born-again Christians cited both Jesus’s teaching and example and Christ’s sacrifice as inspiration for helping, liberal Christians only cited Jesus’s teaching and example.”

The author concludes that “while quantitative studies have found that subjective religiosity was not as strong a predictor of … [pro-social] helping, this paper suggests that this finding may be explained by inadequate measures of subjective religiosity.”

In related research, a 2007 study from the University of British Columbia, “God Is Watching You: Priming God Concepts Increases Pro-social Behavior in an Anonymous Economic Game,” demonstrated experimentally that invoking “God concepts” significantly increased prosocial behavior in a game setting.

Tags: religion