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Psychol Bull. 2012 Sep;138(5):876-906. doi: 10.1037/a0028251.

Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination.

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Department of Psychology, Grand Valley State University, 1 Campus Drive, Allendale, MI 49401, USA.


Numerous authors have suggested that religious belief has a positive association, possibly causal, with prosocial behavior. This article critiques evidence regarding this "religious prosociality" hypothesis from several areas of the literature. The extant literature on religious prosociality is reviewed including domains of charity, volunteering, morality, personality, and well-being. The experimental and quasi-experimental literature regarding controlled prosocial interactions (e.g., sharing and generosity) is reviewed and contrasted with results from naturalistic studies. Conceptual problems in the interpretation of this literature include separating the effects of stereotypes and ingroup biases from impression formation as well as controlling for self-report biases in the measurement of religious prosociality. Many effects attributed to religious processes can be explained in terms of general nonreligious psychological effects. Methodological problems that limit the interpretation of religious prosociality studies include the use of inappropriate comparison groups and the presence of criterion contamination in measures yielding misleading conclusions. Specifically, it is common practice to compare high levels of religiosity with "low religiosity" (e.g., the absence of denominational membership, lack of church attendance, or the low importance of religion), which conflates indifferent or uncommitted believers with the completely nonreligious. Finally, aspects of religious stereotype endorsement and ingroup bias can contribute to nonprosocial effects. These factors necessitate a revision of the religious prosociality hypothesis and suggest that future research should incorporate more stringent controls in order to reach less ambiguous conclusions.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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