Data Shows How Much Altruism Is Practiced by Americans of All Religious Affiliation

One of the hymns that always sticks me with was written by Catholic priest Peter Scholtes, entitled “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love.” This song was almost always accompanied by the pastor exhorting us to not just speak the love of Christ, but also show the love of Christ in how we serve those around us.

I’m no theologian, but I do know that Protestant Christians believe that salvation comes by the grace of God alone, but that if the love of Christ dwells within believers, then they must bear “good fruit.”

James succinctly states it: “Faith without works is dead.”

So, we should expect evangelical Christians to show their faith to those around them as a means of evangelism. Social science has a term for this concept as well, it’s called altruism. The term has a variety of meanings, but the one that is the most relevant to this discussion comes from psychologists who believe it is “acting out of concern for another’s well-being.”

It’s engaging in activity that will benefit others more than it benefits oneself. I think everyone agree that the world will be a lot better place if we all acted altruistically just a little bit more.

Fortunately, now we have some hard data about just how much altruism is practiced by Americans. The General Social Survey asked respondents about acting in selfless ways in a number of scenarios both in 2012 and 2014. Here are the eleven situations that were asked about on the GSS: gave blood, gave food or money to a homeless person, returned money after getting too much change, allowed a stranger to go ahead of you in line, volunteered for a nonprofit, gave money to a charity, offered a seat to a stranger, looked after plants/pets for others while they are away, carried a stranger’s belongings, gave directions to a stranger, and let someone borrow an item of value.

Some of these actions are obviously more costly than other ones, but they all speak to a sense of genuine kindness and care for other people, which is something we should expect to see from Christians. So, how often do various religious traditions engage in each of these acts? The figure below tells an interesting story.

Note that there is not a lot of variation between the religious traditions. For instance, almost every group has allowed someone to cut in line in the last 12 months. The activity that was least likely to occur was donating blood, while the most likely was giving directions to strangers.

It may be helpful to look at places where evangelicals seem to do better than average. For instance, evangelicals are more likely to give money to charity than those who have no religious faith, but that seems like a somewhat unfair comparison because the offering plate is passed every week, while the nones have to take some initiative to make a donation.

This same is true for volunteering for a nonprofit. A significant departure also appears on the issue of giving extra money back to a cashier, where evangelicals are ten percent more likely to do so than religious nones.

There are other instances in which the nones are more likely to engage in altruism than evangelicals, though. For instance, nones are more likely to give up their seat to a stranger, as well as giving directions to someone. Taken together, it doesn’t look like people of faith significantly differentiate themselves from those who claim no religious affiliation.

To further test this, I compiled an altruism scale by adding up all 11 items and scaling them from 0 (meaning engaging in zero altruistic activities) and 100 (engaging in each of these activities multiple times a week).

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Source: Christianity Today