Religion without stories = action without empathy

by Kristin on May 1, 2012

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Flickrized

“Are Highly Religious People Less Compassionate?”

I’ve gotta say, I hate reading headlines like this. I hate it even more when I’m not really surprised by them, because I’ve witnessed and experienced their effects firsthand.

In case you’re wondering, the study, which is to be published in full this July, says yes, “highly religious” people do tend to be less compassionate:

A provocative new study from the University of California, Berkeley suggests highly religious individuals are less likely to help a stranger than less religious people.

In three experiments, researchers discovered the highly religious are less motivated by compassion when helping a stranger than are atheists, agnostics and less religious people.

Instead, when religious people do help others, their generosity is driven more by factors like doctrine or reputation than by emotions like empathy, the article says. Which makes perfect sense, because doctrine motivated Jesus, and Mother Theresa, right? Oh, wait…

Stories lead to more empathy

Clearly, this makes me upset (and therefore snarky). How did we get here—to a place where caring about others (if we do at all) comes out of our heads rather than our hearts? More importantly, how do we navigate our way out of this tangled, confused mess?

The life of Jesus seems like an obvious place for Christians to start. Jesus was born on this earth with the heart of God, which definitely gives him more than a leg up. But he also worked really hard at giving his compassion meaningful direction, and at cultivating it in others. The way I see it, his two key tools were relationships and stories.

First of all, Jesus went out of his way to connect with all kinds of people, including the last people you would expect him to interact with (at least from a cultural and historical standpoint). And how he connected is also significant. The relationships were intense—even the ones that were built on mere moments and brief interactions. When Jesus connected with people, he stopped and focused, truly seeing people for who they were, and listening with not just his ears, but also his heart.

Those relationships are intricately tied to Jesus’ love for stories: The people Jesus connected with became the main characters in his stories as well as the audience. In other words, the relationships we build feed the stories and provide people to share stories with. Together, the whole process cultivates compassion. A recent guest post on Donald Miller’s blog points to a study connecting reading (ie: stories) to empathy:

Raymond Mar, a professor at York University, noticed a link between reading and empathy. In a study of children, Mar found that the more a child reads, the likelier he or she is to be able to understand the emotions of others.

…the people I know who haven’t picked up a book since high school or college do their professional work just as passionately, but with “me”-centered blinders, unable to see the possibilities outside of themselves.

Loving what is mirrored

One way or another, whether we’re the tellers or the listeners, stories force us to orient ourselves outward, toward others. I love how Newberry Award-winning author Gary Schmidt put it during his recent Festival of Faith & Writing talk: “Story makes us more human—it gives us more to be human with.”

During his talk, Schmidt also shared this quote from Victorian-era art critic John Ruskin: “You will never love art well, till you love what she mirrors better.”

What she mirrors, of course, is the world. The stories. The individuals, each with their own joys and pains, hopes and needs. If Christians can’t grasp that even better because of our faith, something is fundamentally wrong with our relationship with God. We must get better at loving those created in the image of God—those who mirror him—if we are to love God well.

What do you think of the study tying religion to compassion? What has cultivated more compassion in you?

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  • Lisa Colón DeLay

    A thoughtful gem you have here, KT. : )

    Stories lead to empathy. I concur.

    In a short volume that will be introduced on May 10, I unpack the 4 parts of God’s Grand Story (it comes out of a meta-narrative look at God and the bible, and is not focused on the intricacies of doctrine).

    Experience disciplines our doctrine. That is, it trains it.

    There are simple themes that help us understand who we are and want God is up to. When we see our lives meshing with a grander story each word or deed is steeped in meaning and consequently empathy as we enact grace through our overflow of it. In doing we learn.

  • suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    i’ve never considered the connection between reading and empathy, but it makes so much sense. human connection and stories help us to see outside ourselves.

  • Lisa

    It is always problematic to be responding to an article about a study rather than the study itself. Nonetheless, let me go boldly forward ;-) and say that the article about the study is less than as careful as I’d like to see at distinguishing between the findings of the study and interpretations thereof. Having not seen the data, I will only observe that theoretically being less motivated by compassion than other reasons does not automatically equal being less compassionate. One could be more compassionate than someone else but still even more motivated by principle than by compassion.

    For what it is worth, I could write an equally troubling headline – “nonreligious people only swayed by emotion not ethical principles” – is it really so noble to be swayed by an emotionally manipulative video as opposed to deeply seated ethical commitments?

    For what it is worth, I’m more concerned that people are motivated to help each other – whether by head or heart – and concerned if the motivation is lacking altogether. Do we really need to set up head and heart in competition (which is such a wonderfully American thing – we like to set up these dichotomies as Deborah Tannen pointed out in her great book “The Argument Culture”)?

  • Lisa

    And, to share my perspective (bias?), I’m always a bit skeptical of studies that set up “experiments” to test things like compassion. Not sure compassion can even truly exist in a non-real situation. That’s the philosophy major in me coming out…

  • Lisa

    Okay, so I was able to access the full scholarly write-up. The study itself is about what drives prosociality (which gets mostly reduced to generosity in the write-up about the study) and finds that compassion drives prosociality for the nonreligious more than for the religious … but isn’t really focused on which group is more prosocial. And, in fact, the article includes these two quotations that are rather under-reported in the article about the study that have some rather positive things to say about the religious/more religious folks:

    “Trait comparison was related to religious identity (r = .12, p < .001) and prosocial behavior (r = .20, p < .001) such that those who reported a greater tendency to feel compassion were more religious individuals and people who reported behaving more prosocially. Religiousity was marginally related to prosocial behavior (r = .05, p = .077), with more religious individuals reporting greater prosocial behavior."

    "More religious people likely act prosocially based on a variety of influences, compassion being just one of them."

    Please know I think you still have great points to make about the power of stories, engagement, etc. It is a pet peeve of mine when articles about scholarly studies put a provocative twist on things in order to make the research interesting to the greater public but in doing so distort the nuances of the findings. My apologies if my pet peeve with this issue have overtaken your blog comments!

  • Addie Zierman

    Great article, Kristin, and Lisa, I found your thoughts really helpful too. I’d heard that story yesterday too on the radio…which launched, naturally, into talk about megachurches and evangelicals and dying mainline churches. It was fascinating to me about how quickly they made the jump from “religious people” to “evangelicals.”

    Kristin, I love how you weaved in story to the discussion of compassion. And Lisa, I loved your line in the comments about studies and compassion and not being sure that compassion can even truly exist out of real-time. I wonder what it is that drives our urge to measure everything, categorize it, dissect it, make judgments about it.

    For me, the story got me thinking about myself: my own compassion, and also my own desensitization. It makes sense to me that a response to the video wasn’t compassion that resulted in action, because these videos are everywhere. We are exposed to so much pain in such far away places, and we can’t possibly help everyone or solve every injustice.

    The challenge for me is finding tangible ways that I can live a compassionate life within the reality I currently find myself: a young mom on a tight budget with two really little kids. What does that look like right now in this stage of life?

  • Lisa

    Addie – all the more interesting if you read the original study and find out that “religiousity” is actually “strength of religious identity” in which people self report a level of religiosity. So, this is a “how I rate myself” measure – not based on how much engages in practices affiliated with a religion, definitely nothing about *which* religion, etc. In case you are wondering, in experiment 1: 712 were Protestant, 320 Catholic, 17 Jewish, 7 Buddhist, 4 Hindu, 8 Muslim, 199 not religious (i.e. no identity), 4 did not report, and the remaining other out of 1337. In experiment 2, of 111 people there were 39 Christian, 7 Jewish, 2 Muslim, 36 atheist, 12 agnostic, 8 spiritual but not religious, remaining did not report or were other. In study 3, of 210 college students who got course credit for participating 72 Christian, 10 Jewish, 10 Buddhist, 5 Hindu, 36 atheist, 23 agnostic, 26 spiritual but not religious, 11 did not report, and remaining were other. None of the results compare people in different types of religions.

    Wish I could just link to the article but unfortunately this is a case where academic research is locked up behind subscription paywalls with no way for the public to see the original.

    When I used to teach a critical thinking course to first-year college students, one assignment was to find a news article about a research study and to then also read the study itself. Students were fascinated and appalled at how things “evolve” from research findings to broad generalizations about things not even discussed in the original piece!

  • Joi

    So many angles here! Lately it seems like the media is full of amplifications of some so-called Christian or religious behavior that is meant to discredit the entire domain of people of faith. It feels so totally political! What were the qualities used in this study to define those considered religious? I think it is rather fascinating that what this study is magnifying is the very truth that Jesus preached continually to the religious leaders of that day, and that the Bible continues to preach to us today. Religious rituals and things done perpetually to “win favor” with God may certainly be religious; but only a real heart-change that comes from surrender to God in one’s life will eventually change us from self-centered to compassionate human beings. Going through the motions of religious behavior without absorbing the life of Jesus/God deep into our innermost being will keep us from viewing the world through the eyes of Christ, and that will register as nominal compassion to all who are wondering if Christianity is for real.

  • Heather

    I have a hard time separating stories from doctrine. They’re so woven together throughout the Bible that whenever we try to have one without the other, we often mess up. (Even the Law or the Epistles are caught up with the story of the people.) At the same time, I think it’s important that we’re always trying to work through the meaning of the stories–of the Gospel or the Exodus or Revelation–which is what doctrine essentially is.
    I think that it’s okay to be motivated by doctrine because doctrine is love. It’s love for God and love for his people and his creation. And sometimes we have to act in love even when we don’t feel love (which often produces empathy).
    I don’t think I’m differing from your point, in that we need stories (multiple stories–see Adichie’s TED talk) to help us understand humanity and humans as individuals. As a fiction writer, I’m a big fan of stories. I just want to be careful that we don’t judge people who are doing good work because they’re motivated by “doctrine” (a usually undefined point by these studies, which are horribly unreliable because how do they choose their samplings to study?). I’ve seen so many “religious” people doing good work because they care about people, because they care about God, because they know this is what the Church does, and they all have different personalities, which sometimes seem empathetic and sometimes don’t. Also, I’ve seen God work through people who don’t seem to care at all about anyone but themselves, and they’ll have to answer to God someday for that.
    In the meantime, I want to concentrate on the myriads of “religious” and even “non-religious” people God uses to do his work of justice and peace on earth for his kingdom as we wait for Christ’s return. And I’ll keep telling stories influenced by my theology and talk about theology influenced by stories (especially The Story) because I am story-teller and theologian wrapped up together in one, which I think is a lot of what you’re saying here.

  • Paul VanderKlay

    Oh this is a good post and it touches on so many things for me.

    For all of my professional career I’ve had a visible position as a provider of emergency aid (3rd world missionary, pastor in an economically struggling community) and I was raised by a father who did this all of his life. Providing emergency assistance has been part of my life all of my life. What have I noticed? People who do this for a living, or have it as an inescapable aspect of their life very quickly develop “doctrine” with respect to their generosity. The number of requests (and their position making them available in an inordinate number of requests, often far beyond what they are able to respond to) creates in them a more systematic approach to the relationships. There are down sides to this too.

    What often happens to people in this situation is that they learn to temper the compassionate impulse. Talk to workers in psych unites, nurses with the elderly. We get conditioned to things, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. This give us an insight into the emergence of “doctrine”, the importance of good doctrine (don’t abuse the weak) and the reason for indoctrination (not really a bad word if the doctrine is good). We have in our anti-institutional culture maligned the innocent word “doctrine”. Doctrine is simply a considered set of beliefs or best practices in approaching a relationship, a context, or a body of knowledge.

    Generally speaking people who participate in religious organizations probably have far more exposure to philanthropic asks. Answer the phone or take in the mail at a church. Every day requests come from all over looking for mostly cash assistance. Sometimes from individuals (power bills, rent, food, gas, bus fare) other charitable organizations, missionaries and ministries of all stripes. We are a church of less than 100 people but an amazing number of people give out our number to people in need of help because word travels that we do help people.

    How does this impact the connection between story and compassion and doctrine? We hear a lot of sad stories, sometimes we believe them, sometimes we don’t. I don’t know if it’s good or not, but we’ve learned to curb our emotional impulse of compassion and instead developed doctrines surrounding when to help, how to help, and when to say “no”.

    A book like “When Helping Hurts” is probably an exercise in doctrine with respect to training our filters for experiential compassion. pvk

  • Angie Mabry-Nauta

    I haven’t read the report, and to be honest I’m not sure I will. That is another topic…

    I’m pondering something, playing with some adjectives. I consider myself to be “deeply religious”, and believe myself to be quite compassionate towards victims of injustice, new people. While, according to the report, those who are “highly” religious” are legalistic, dogmatic and lacking in compassion and empathy. What I wonder about is the “locus” of these two adjectives. Perhaps a “deeply religious” person’s faith is one primarily of the heart and a “highly religious” person’s faith is one primarily of the head? I say this not to flatter myself (by no means). But I do see a correlation between “deep” and the heart or soul and “high” and the mind.

    That said, I do not feel that the solution is to have a world full of heart-and-soul people of faith. What we all need is a godly balance of head and heart/soul. This took on flesh at my former congregation where I (the heart/soul) person wanted us to aid the poor with less discrimination and the deacons (each primary “head” guys) wanted me to screen the people that came our way. I would have bankrupted the church in a heartbeat; and they would have scarcely helped anyone. Neither is a good situation, nor godly. We needed the balance of compassion and wise stewardship. It seemed like we were always tugging at one another, but it was good and healthy. At least we were engaged in ministry together (at that point).

    Good, thought provoking post, Kristen! :)

  • Paul VanderKlay

    The relationship between narrative, mirroring and emotions is also an interesting one. I’m working on Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 to Pisidian Antioch in which he essentially tells the story of Israel now with Jesus in it to the Synagogue. You’ll find this is a common sermon technique in Acts, see Peter in Acts 2. Emotions are the way we become aware of our subconscious construals of this world. Stories are so powerful because they construct these construals below our conscious level.

    Mirroring happens because we are unable to know our selves apart from a world through which we mirror our selves. We both attempt to discover and construct our identities through this process of mirroring. Add to mirroring our propensity to project.

    Now we see an abandoned child. What is going on in our hearts? Are we projecting fears of abandonment onto that child and are therefore acted to move to help that child? Are we attempting through that child to see ourselves (mirroring) as generous and compassion or to construct an identity with these elements because this is the kind of person we’d like to be?

    We might say “what does it matter as long as the child is helped.”

    OK, but this brings us further into the reason why Americans are horrified when children that look like our own are suffering, while many others with less visibility or less connectability suffer all the time and we do little or nothing about it. This gets us into reasons why compassion is often short lived (name the last three fashionable emergency causes we saw pass through twitter) and how often the short bursts of compassion sometimes do more harm than good. Are we really compassionate or are we using an occasion to really simply construct a narrative about ourselves. Do we really love the other?

    Here doctrine comes in again because “love your enemy” is the most unnatural thing we can imagine. We have no natural compassion for our enemy. By definition we are acting or merely wishing for their harm.

    Love is always more difficulty, challenging and costly than we care to imagine.

    Thanks again Kristen for the terrific and stimulating post. pvk

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  • Dolly@Soulstops

    Great post! To answer your question, what has cultivated compassion in me? Suffering and experiencing Christ’s compassion towards me…to receive His love within me is to then experience compassion for others because it is His life within me.

  • Kristin T.

    Lisa Colon DeLay, I love this: “Experience disciplines our doctrine.” Yes! Now I’m *really* looking forward to your “God’s Grand Story” release next week. :)

    suzannah, I know! I took a rather complicated route to make my point about stories and empathy, but the whole idea has really been taking root in me…

    Lisa, I’m really glad you brought up those concerns. There is so much information available to us today, that it’s easy to get really sloppy about how we interpret and use it. I definitely need to be more aware of that danger. Of course, in this piece, I wasn’t getting into the details of the study as much as I was just intrigued by the idea that more religious people might be less compassionate. My mind went immediately to questions like “Could that be true? If so, why? And is it problematic?” Anyway, thanks again for digging deeper and sharing your findings with all of us. I would love to write an entire post of this subject some time (or maybe you could write a guest post!). :)

    Addie, great job bringing this all home! “The challenge for me is finding tangible ways that I can live a compassionate life within the reality I currently find myself….” That’s what it all comes down to. What motivates me toward action? What gets in the way of me acting at all?

    Joi, you have said perfectly what I was trying/needing to say: “Going through the motions of religious behavior without absorbing the life of Jesus/God deep into our innermost being will keep us from viewing the world through the eyes of Christ, and that will register as nominal compassion to all who are wondering if Christianity is for real.” Amen!

    Heather, that’s a great point about stories and doctrine being so enmeshed. I’m not sure it works equally as well both ways, though. In other words, I think we’d be hard-pressed to find a story that doesn’t contain the bones of doctrine, but there are way too many examples of people scattering doctrine about without wrapping it in story. I agree with you that it’s OK to be motivated by doctrine, at least initially, but I’m not sure it’s a sustainable way to serve others (at least not for me). Without the story and compassion I grow detached and deal with competing guilt and bitterness. (A lovely peek into ME, eh?!?)

  • Kristin T.

    Paul, your in-the-trenches perspective on this is good to hear. I’m wondering how much this whole issue—our ability to help others and what motivates us to do so—is more dependent on personality than we think. As I was reading your comment (this, in particular: “…we’ve learned to curb our emotional impulse of compassion and instead developed doctrines surrounding when to help, how to help, and when to say ‘no’”) my first impulse was to say “My helping can only help so much and go so far without the fuel provided by emotion/compassion.” Maybe I just haven’t been in the trenches enough, but it’s also possible that what drains one person in this realm can feed another, right? We each need some doctrine and some story/compassion, but perhaps in proportions that are tailored to how we best function? (Your Acts 13 sermon sounds like it’s going to be great! Thanks for working through some of your thoughts/ideas here with us.)

    Angie, yeah, those reports/studies can be maddening, can’t they? (But getting me riled up is sure to spark a blog post and interesting debate, so there’s that!) I love the correlation you’ve drawn between those adjectives people often use with religious—“’deep’ and the heart or soul and ‘high’ and the mind.” So much to think about there! And this is right on: “What we all need is a godly balance of head and heart/soul.” That doesn’t mean it should always be 50-50 (as I mentioned in my response to Paul), but an either/or approach is definitely not healthy or helpful.

    Dolly, I’m so glad you brought up how God’s compassion toward you has deepened your compassion toward others! It’s one of those things I always knew *should* be the case for me, but it wasn’t until my life took a nose dive several years ago that I fully grasped what God’s compassion was like, and how it changed my approach to others. Thanks for taking the time to comment!