Many Religious People Are Not Altruistic; the Torah Asks Us to Do Better
A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.
There is a widely held view that people of faith are kinder and more altruistic than non-believers. Let’s face it, we all think that religious people are far more likely to give charity, be nice to strangers, volunteer for needy causes, and use their resources — even if it means that they will personally have less, or even suffer, as a result. After all, isn’t that what religion demands of them?
Every major religion’s primary texts explicitly promote altruism as a core value. In 2007, a widely publicized study revealed that the link between religion and altruism is so deeply embedded, that even when individuals are conditioned to have a more positive view of religion and God-belief, they become more altruistic.
And yet, there is another much darker side to religion and its adherents. History is littered with religious persecution, and violence perpetrated in the name of God. At least one million people were murdered by Christians in their quest to seize the Land of Israel from Muslims during two centuries of Crusades. Aside from those who perished, millions more endured misery and poverty as a result of Crusader fanaticism.
And it didn’t stop there. The Inquisition caused indescribable misery to the population of Europe for centuries, while 200 years of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants beginning in the 16th century resulted in a drastic decline in Europe’s population — in Germany alone, the population dropped by at least a third — as a result of violence and famine, all of it caused and justified by Christian leaders, who saw what they were doing as a necessary expression of their devoted faith and religious values.
And needless to say, Islam is hardly innocent of religious persecution and violence. Beginning with the Umayyad conquests of the seventh century, and ever since, the pain and suffering perpetrated by Muslims against each other and others in the name of their faith has been utterly devastating.
In an attempt to mitigate all of this, you might be thinking that while religious fanaticism does exist, it is a minority of extremists who occasionally dominate and then cause devastation. Meanwhile, the vast majority of God-believers are fine upstanding people, whose natural kindness and altruism are superlative as a result of their devout faith.
But, quite remarkably, that view is wrong, as a number of studies have demonstrated. For example, a 2015 study conducted by researchers from seven universities around the world showed that children who come from religious families tend to be less kind, and more inclined to treat others harshly, as compared to children from non-religious households. The study focused on children from Christian, Muslim, and non-religious backgrounds in an attempt to understand how religion and morality are related — but the researchers were stunned to discover that religious beliefs could actually have a negative impact on a child’s altruistic behavior.
“Overall, our findings… contradict the commonsense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind towards others,” the authors said. Almost 1,200 children aged 5-12 — from the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa — participated in the study. Of those, 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, while 27.6% were from non-religious homes.
In 1973, the “Good Samaritan Study” tried to determine if a person’s religious faith played a role in altruism. Researchers monitored students from a religious seminary walking from one seminary building to another, who encountered an injured person lying in an alley.
Surprisingly, they found that individuals who were highly religious were not more inclined to help the injured person compared to those who were less religious or not religious at all — and that this was even the case if the seminarian in question was on his way to deliver a talk on the Christian parable of the good Samaritan, an emblematic lesson of Christianity’s focus on altruism.
Startlingly, this result has since been confirmed in numerous other studies, all of which indicate that regardless of how morality is defined, religious individuals do not by default behave more morally than atheists, despite their beliefs and claims.
Some people are inherently kind and always put others first, irrespective of their religious faith. Belief in God may enhance their altruism, but it is clearly not the deciding factor. And then there are others — those who are disinclined towards kindness and altruism. For them, faith can even be an excuse to ignore their social obligations, or worse: to be cruel.
They might rationalize their behavior, and claim they are charitable — but in truth, their kindness is tactical: they help those who are like them, or to elicit some kind of benefit or reciprocal act. Such kindness is hardly altruism, which requires self-sacrifice. Rather, it is self-serving, and about as far removed from altruism as it is possible to get.
The Torah has many references to self-abnegation in the pursuit of social justice. We are told countless times to take care of the widow and orphan, categories of people who, in ancient times, were cast to the margins of society — but whom God thrusts to the forefront of Judaism’s quest for social responsibility.
But the Torah is not only hyper-conscious of society’s social needs, it is also acutely aware of the fact that a religious person’s God-focus might very well become their justification for ignoring their social responsibilities. It is for precisely this reason that there is a reference to this Achilles heel in the section of Parshat Emor, which deals with the festivals.
In the course of discussing the Omer offering on Pesach, and the double bread offering on Shavuot, the Torah interjects with a verse that describes a mitzvah that is unrelated to either offering, nor to any of the festivals (Lev. 19:9): וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ בְּקֻצְרֶךָ וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם — “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, nor gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”
Abarbanel provides an insightful explanation for this apparent incongruity — an explanation that has faith-induced social deafness at its very core. Both offerings use grain, he says, and someone who is very devout but not socially conscious might assume that by giving these offerings to God they have fulfilled their religious obligations, and can now do whatever they please with the rest of their grain harvest. Which is why the Torah reminds us then and there that serving only God with our harvest is not enough; we must also provide for our fellow human beings — we must never forget the poor and needy.
It is a powerful lesson embedded at the heart of a section that deals primarily with rituals, and an important reminder that faith has no value whatsoever if it comes at the expense of others.
The author is a rabbi in Beverly Hills, California.