Do Religion and Compassion Go Hand-in-Hand?

Are altruistic actions such as volunteering or donating money for good causes related to religious involvement? Are religious people more likely to do this? Moreover, are religious people more likely to show compassion or kindness towards others? In this column I will discuss these questions and examine objective research that has attempted to answer these questions.

Here are some quotes from our national leaders:

“A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained. It can afford to extend a helping hand to others. It’s a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other signs of insecurity.” – Jimmy Carter

“The act of neighbor helping neighbor has been one of the distinguishing marks of America and one of the primary causes of our nation’s greatness.” – Ronald Reagan

“From now on in America the true measure of success will have to reflect man’s commitment to his community.” – George W. Bush

Here are some scriptures from the Bible:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.” (1 John 4:7)

“Above all, love each other deeply.” 1 Peter 4:8

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” John 13:34

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

What are some of the ways that people can be altruistic or show love or compassion towards others? One way, as indicated above, is to volunteer time and talents to a serving organization, whether that is a church, a food pantry, an organization that cares for the homeless, disaster relief, mentoring, or another helping group. A second way of demonstrating altruism is by donating money to a non-profit organization that is trying to improve the lives of people, clean up the environment, or advance a worthy cause. Examples include giving money to support a missionary, to help feed the poor in Africa or other under-developed areas, provide micro-loans or jobs to the poor so that they can help themselves, or give scholarships to those who could not otherwise afford an education. A third way might be to show compassion to those who are hurting in some way, perhaps by taking the time to listen, understand, and share similar experiences, provide companionship to the lonely (visit the sick in the hospital or a nursing home), or to simply be polite and courteous to others, whether at work, at home, or on the road. Some of the latter examples, however, are more difficult to measure than time spent volunteering or money donated, since those can be easily quantified and tracked over time.

There are various groups that monitor the donations that people make and the time spent volunteering for community organizations. One of the most active organizations in this regard is the Independent Sector, which published the New Non-Profit Almanac (2002). This book, and their website, contains a lot of objective facts on who volunteers and donates money.  Here are some of those facts. In 1998, 56 percent of Americans volunteered in 1998, providing 20 billion hours of service worth an estimated $226 billion. What do people volunteer for? In 1998, 24 percent volunteered to provide informal services to those in need, 22 percent volunteered for religious organizations, 18 percent for youth development, 17 percent in schools, 16 percent in human services organizations, 11 percent in health areas, 10 percent in work-related organizations and 9 percent each in environmental programs, the arts, and recreation (coaching). Unfortunately, the rate of volunteering in the United States is decreasing. In the late 1980s, Americans who volunteered spent an average of 4.8 hours per week. By 1998, the figure had dropped to 3.5 hours per week.

Religious involvement is related to volunteering. Among those who attended religious services weekly or more frequently, 73 percent volunteer. Those attending religious services at least weekly volunteer an average of 4.0 hours per week compared to 3.2 hours per week for less frequent attendees. Overall, 60 percent of those who belong to a religious organization volunteer, compared to about one-third of those who are religiously unaffiliated. With regard to donating money to non-profit organizations, again it is those who are religious that give the most. In fact, regular attendees at religious services account for an astounding 80 percent of all giving in the United States. Weekly attendees gave 2.8 percent of their incomes in 1998, compared to 1.6 percent for those who attend less than weekly and 1.1 percent for non-attendees. As with volunteering, however, donations of money are also decreasing even among the religious. In 1989, weekly attendees gave 3.8 percent of their incomes to non-profit organizations, whereas in 1998 (a time of unprecedented economic prosperity), they gave only 2.8 percent.

Nevertheless, research consistently shows that religiosity is one of the strongest predictors of volunteering (if not the strongest). In our systematic review of religiosity and altruism/volunteerism (Handbook of Religion and Health, Second Edition, 2012), we found that 70 percent of studies (33 out of 47 systematic studies) found statistically significant positive relationships between the religious involvement and altruism. If organ donation studies are excluded (for some reason, religious persons are slightly less likely to donate organs), the percentage of positive studies increases from 70 percent to 79 percent. The same is true for expressions of kindness/compassion and gratefulness, although in this case, the research is unanimous. In our systematic review above, eight studies (5 on gratefulness and 3 on compassion/kindness) examined relationships with religiosity. Every single study (100 percent) reported significant positive associations.

Based on the objective evidence that is available, it does indeed appear that religious involvement is associated with more altruism, compassion, and kindness, whether that involves donation of money, time spent volunteering, or otherwise seeking to provide care to others. This is not terribly surprising, given the emphasis placed on such actions by many different religious traditions – especially Christianity. According to Jesus, loving one’s neighbor as oneself is second only to loving and serving God, and as we care for others, we are literally caring for Christ himself (Matthew 22:38-39; 25:40). Tremendous needs exist in the world around us both locally and more distant. There is little doubt that it is often the religious people who are meeting those needs.

Harold G. Koenig, MD

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Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc., completed his undergraduate education at Stanford University, his medical school training at the University of California at San Francisco, and his geriatric medicine, psychiatry, and biostatistics training at Duke University Medical Center. He is board certified in general psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and geriatric medicine, and is on the faculty at Duke as Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Associate Professor of Medicine, and is on the faculty at King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor. He is also a registered nurse. Dr. Koenig is Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, and is considered by biomedical scientists as one of the world's top experts on religion and health.

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