Are religious people more generous, giving and cooperative?

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This paper examines the supernatural punishment theory. The theory postulates that religion increases cooperation because religious people fear the retributions that may follow if they do not follow the rules and norms provided by the religion. We report results for a public goods experiment conducted in India, Mexico, and Sweden. By asking participants whether they are religious or not, we study whether religiosity has an effect on voluntary cooperation in the public goods game. We found no significant behavioral differences between religious and nonreligious participants in the experiment.

Source: “Is the Hand of God Involved in Human Cooperation? An Experimental Examination of the Supernatural Punishment Theory” from Working Paper Series, Centre for Labour Market Policy Research, Nr 1, 2009

I skimmed the paper and it’s pretty damning (no pun intended.) Summing up previous research:

In a dictator game, Eckel and Grossman (2004) examined differences in the amount and pattern of giving to secular charities in response to subsidies by self-identified religious and nonreligious participants. The results indicate no significant difference in either the amount or pattern of giving. Tan (2006) used the dictator game and the ultimatum game and similar to Eckel and Grossman (2004) he found that religiosity as a whole yield no significant influence in the experiments. Second, one paper has focused on whether religiosity affects cooperation. Orbell et al. (1992) used the prisoner’s dilemma game to test the hypothesis that religious people are more cooperative. They conducted their experiment in what was considered more religious and less religious towns. They found no general relationship between religious affiliation and cooperation.

The results of previous studies seem to point at one direction: that religiously do not have an impact on either generosity or cooperation…

Discussing their own findings:

We arrive at the following observations. There are no significant differences between religious and nonreligious participants regardless of what country we are studying. Hence, in line with previous experimental results, we found no supporting evidence for the hypothesis that religiosity enhances cooperation.

So it sure looks like religion — at least as it relates to cooperation and giving — doesn’t really change us much…

And yet religious ideas do have an effect. Specifically, this study demonstrated that pro-social behavior wasn’t tied to religiosity but it was tied to the salience of religious concepts: religious people were more generous on Sundays, but not any other day of the week.

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