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Religious People Tend to Be More Compassionate

New research finds reason and empathy are separate but compatible.
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(Photo: Connor Tarter/Flickr)

(Photo: Connor Tarter/Flickr)

It's a paradox so familiar that we often lose sight of it: We spend our lives in a world grounded in reason and analytical thought, but when we seek to make sense of it all, we reject that entire framework in favor of faith.

There are many psychological reasons explaining the pull of religious belief. But the question remains: How, exactly, do most people manage to comfortably live with one foot in each world?

Researchers led by Anthony Ian Jack of Case Western Reserve University have come up with one plausible explanation. They argue in a newly published paper that analytical thinking and spiritual/moral concerns involve separate and distinct patterns of brain activity.

In their analysis, social concerns such as empathy utilize one neural network, while analytical thought stimulates another. That first network is also the one that encompasses religious faith.

Those who demonstrated strong reasoning skills were not only less religious, but also less compassionate.

"There is no contradiction inherent in an individual excelling in both domains, provided they engage and disengage the (respective brain networks) in a manner appropriate to the context," they write in the online journal PLoS One. "Indeed, it is plausible that this feature of the brain's organization is present precisely so that analytic and empathetic thinking do not interfere with each other."

It's a fascinating idea, and a troubling one in some ways. It suggests that "individuals who possess greater levels of moral concern are more inclined to identify with religious and spiritual worldviews"—a notion that will surely chafe the growing number of non-believers.

Then again, in the eight studies they describe (which build on their earlier work), Jack and his colleagues use a vague and inclusive definition of religious and spiritual beliefs. And their findings seem to confirm that compassion is the central theme that unites all faiths—something that is easy to forget in an era of religion-inspired terrorism.

In one study, 236 American adults recruited online were instructed to respond to a series of statements representing empathetic concern. They noted the degree to which they agreed with such assertions as "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."

They also took tests measuring critical and mechanical reasoning skills, and responded to the question "Do you believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit?" on a one-to-seven scale (from "not at all" to "definitely yes").

The researchers found "negative correlations between analytical thinking and moral concern," as well as a "positive relationship between empathetic concern and a belief in God, or a universal spirit." Those who demonstrated strong reasoning skills were not only less religious, but also less compassionate.

In another study, 159 American adults were asked "How much do you identify with (that is, feel a part of, feel love for, have concern for) all of humanity?" The researchers found a significant correlation between religious belief and this all-inclusive type of empathy.

Further studies refined these results, establishing "a clear positive association between moral concern and belief in God, and/or a universal spirit. This relationship was found to be robust even when controlling for the previously established link between analytic thinking and religious disbelief."

The researchers are quick to add they are not denigrating reason or faith.

"Because the networks suppress each other, they may create two extremes," says co-author Richard Boyatzis, a professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University. "Recognizing that this is how the brain operates, maybe we can create more reason and balance in the national conversations involving science and religion."

"Because of the tension between (the neural) networks, pushing aside a naturalistic world view enables you to delve deeper into the social/emotional side," Jack added in a statement released by the university. "And that may be the key to why beliefs in the supernatural exist throughout the history of cultures."

Calling it "the key" is surely an overstatement, but if reasoning and empathy truly operate on separate tracks, we don't want to spend all of our time with one or the other in command. For analytical people, religion may serve as the express train to empathy.

On the other hand, consider this week's events in Belgium, where a group of men utilized their reasoning and technical skills to serve a spiritual calling that has no room whatsoever for empathy. If Jack and his colleagues are to be fully persuasive, they'll have to explain how that sort of fanaticism fits their thesis.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.