RD Extra: A Skeptical Review of Religious Prosociality Research with Luke Galen

This RD extra features a lecture by Luke Galen “A Skeptical Review of Religious Prosociality” delivered to CFI Michigan June 26th 2013

It is often suggested that religion leads individuals to be more prosocial, that is, more cooperative, generous, friendly, and happy. A commonly held belief is that “religion makes better neighbors”. However, a closer examination of the research supporting these claims yields important qualifications to this relationship. Dr. Galen will offer some common examples of these types of studies and invite the audience to ask critical questions regarding the types of conclusions that can be drawn from the “religion makes you good” literature.

Download RD Extra

Or subscribe and listen in iTunes or any podcast client:



And for everyone who asked for references…get a load of this:


1. Brooks, A. C. (2006). Who really cares: The surprising truth about compassionate conservatism. New York, NY: Basic Books.

2. Saroglou, V. (2010). Religiousness as a cultural adaptation of basic traits: A five-factor model perspective. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, (1), 108–125. doi:10.1177/1088868309352322

3. Myers, D. G. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55, (1), 56–67. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.56

4. Myers, D. G. (2008). A friendly letter to skeptics and atheists: Musings on why God is good and faith isn’t evil. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

5. Putnam, R. D., & Campbell, D. E. (2010). American grace: How religion divides and unites us. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

6. Bering, J. (Jul. 1, 2012).  Don’t Trust the Godless. Slate. http://www.salon.com/2012/07/01/dont_trust_the_godless/

7. Galen, L.W. (2012). Does Religious Belief Promote Prosociality?: A Critical Examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138, (5), 876-906. doi: 10.1037/a0028251

8. Ellison, C. G. (1992). Are religious people nice people? Evidence from the National Survey of Black Americans. Social Forces, 71, (2), 411–430. doi: 10.1093/sf/71.2.411

9. Saroglou, V., Pichon, I., Trompette, L., Verschueren, M., & Dernelle, R. (2005). Prosocial behavior and religion: New evidence based on projective measures and peer ratings. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 44, (3), 323–348. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2005.00289.x

10. Rowatt, W. C., Franklin, L. M., & Cotton, M. (2005). Patterns and personality correlates of implicit and explicit attitudes toward Christians and Muslims. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 44, (1), 29–43. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2005.00263.x

11. Galen, L. W., Smith, C. M., Knapp, N., & Wyngarden, N. (2011[lg1] ). Perceptions of religious and non-religious targets: Exploring the effects of perceivers’ religious fundamentalism. Journal of Applied Social Psychology,41, (9), 2123–2143. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00810.x

12. Widman, D. R., Corcoran, K. E., & Nagy, R. E. (2009). Belonging to the same religion enhances the opinion of others’ kindness and morality. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 3, (4), 281–289.

13. Galen, L.W., & Ver Wey, A. (July, 2012). Unpacking religious prosociality: Personality ratings are contaminated by religious stereotype and ingroup bias. Symposium presented at the 16th meeting of the European Conference on Personality, Trieste, Italy.

14. Naumann, L. P., Vazire, S., Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2009). Personality judgments based on physical appearance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, (12), 1661–1671. doi:10.1177/0146167209346309

15. Highfield, R., Wiseman, R., & Jenkins, R. (2009). In your face. New Scientist, 201, (2695), 28–32. doi:10.1016/S0262-4079(09)60447-4

16. Diener, E., Tay, L., & Myers, D. G. (2011). The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, (6), 1278–1290. doi:10.1037/a0024402

17. American Association of Fundraising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy (2002). Giving USA: The annual report on philanthropy for the year 2002. New York, NY: American Association of Fundraising Counsel.

18. Hodgkinson, V. A., & Weitzman, M. S. (1996). Giving and volunteering in the United States: Findings from a national survey. Washington, DC: Independent Sector.

19. Center on Wealth and Philanthropy. (2007). Geography and giving: The culture of philanthropy in New England and the nation. Boston, MA: Boston Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cwp/pdf/geoandgiving2007.pdf

20. Ben-Ner, A., McCall, B. P., Stephane, M., & Wang, H. (2009). Identity and in-group/out-group differentiation in work and giving behaviors: Experimental evidence. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 72, (1), 153–170. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2009.05.007

21. Fershtman, C., Gneezy, U., & Verboven, F. (2005). Discrimination and nepotism: The efficiency of the anonymity rule. Journal of Legal Studies, 34, (2), 371–396. doi:10.1086/429846

22. Tan, J. H. W., & Vogel, C. (2008). Religion and trust: An experimental study. Journal of Economic Psychology, 29, (6), 832–848. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2008.03.002

23. Norenzayan, A., & Shariff, A. F. (2008). The origin and evolution of religious prosociality. Science, 322, (5898), 58 – 62. doi:10.1126/science. 1158757

24. Saroglou, V. (2006, Spring). Religion’s role in prosocial behavior: Myth or reality? Psychology of Religion Newsletter, 31, 1–8.

25. Pepper, M., Jackson, T., & Uzzell, D. (2010). A study of multidimensional religion constructs and values in the United Kingdom. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49, (1), 127–146. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01496.x

26. Saroglou, V., Delpierre, V., & Dernelle, R. (2004). Values and religiosity: A meta-analysis of studies using Schwartz’s model. Personality and Individual Differences, 37, (4), 721–734. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2003.10.005

27. Orbell, J., Goldman, M., Mulford, M., & Dawes, R. (1992). Religion, context, and constraint toward strangers. Rationality and Society, 4, (3), 291–307. doi:10.1177/1043463192004003004

28. Randolph-Seng, B., & Nielsen, M. E. (2007). Honesty: One effect of primed religious representations. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 17, (4), 303–315. doi:10.1080/10508610701572812

29. Ahmed, A. M., & Salas, O. (2009). Is the hand of God involved in human cooperation? International Journal of Social Economics, 36, (1/2), 70–80. doi:10.1108/03068290910921190

30. Paciotti, B., Richerson, P., Baum, B., Lubell, M., Waring, T., McElreath, R., … Edsten, E. (2011). Are religious individuals more generous, trusting, and cooperative? An experimental test of the effect of religion on prosociality. In D. C. Wood (Series Ed.) & L. Obadia & D. C. Wood (Vol. Eds.), Research in Economic Anthropology: Vol. 31. The economics of religion: Anthropological approaches (pp. 267–305). Bingley, England: Emerald. doi:10.1108/S0190-1281(2011)0000031014

31. Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2007). God is watching you: Priming God concepts increases prosocial behavior in an anonymous economic game. Psychological Science, 18, (9), 803– 809. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01983.x

32. Ahmed, A. M., & Salas, O. (2008). In the back of your mind: Subliminal influences of religious concepts on prosocial behavior (Working Papers in Economics No. 331). Gothenburg School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden. Retrieved from http://gupea.ub.gu.se/bitstream/2077/18838/4/gupea_2077_18838_4.pdf

33. Sasaki, J. Y., & Kim, H. S. (2011). At the intersection of culture and religion: A cultural analysis of religion’s implications for secondary control and social affiliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, (2), 401–414. doi:10.1037/a0021849

34. Laurin, K., Kay, A. C., & Fitzsimons, G. M. (2011). Divergent effects of activating thoughts of God on self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, (1), 4–21. doi:10.1037/a0025971

35. Baumeister, R. F., Bauer, I. M., & Lloyd, S. A. (2010). Choice, free will, and religion. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2, (2), 67–82. doi:10.1037/a0018455

36. Gervais, W. M., & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Like a camera in the sky? Thinking about God increases public self-awareness and socially desirable responding. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, (1), 298–302. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.09.006

37. Pichon, I., Boccato, G., & Saroglou, V. (2007). Nonconscious influences of religion on prosociality: A priming study. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, (5), 1032–1045. doi:10.1002/ejsp.416

38. Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2007). God is watching you: Priming God concepts increases prosocial behavior in an anonymous economic game. Psychological Science, 18, (9), 803–809. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01983.x

39. Bateson, M., Nettle, D., & Roberts, G. (2006). Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biology Letters, 2, (3), 412–414. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2006.0509

40. Batson, C. D., Thompson, E. R., Seuferling, G., Whitney, H., & Strongman, J. A. (1999). Moral hypocrisy: Appearing moral to oneself without being so. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, (3), 525–537. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.3.525

41. Norenzayan, A., & Shariff, A. F. (2008). The origin and evolution of religious prosociality. Science, 322, (5898), 58 – 62. doi:10.1126/science. 1158757

42. Smith, R. E., Wheeler, G., & Diener, E. (1975). Faith without works: Jesus people, resistance to temptation, and altruism. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 5, (4), 320–330. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1975.tb00684.x

43. Williamson, W. P., & Assadi, A. (2005). Religious orientation, incentive, self-esteem, and gender as predictors of academic dishonesty: An experimental approach. Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 27, (1), 137–158.

44. Gervais, W. M. (2011). Finding the faithless: Perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, (4), 543–556. doi:10.1177/0146167211399583

45. Bushman, B. J., Ridge, R. D., Das, E., Key, C. W., & Busath, G. L. (2007). When God sanctions killing: Effect of scriptural violence on aggression. Psychological Science, 18, (3), 204 –207. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01873.x

46. Leach, M. M., Berman, M. E., & Eubanks, L. (2008). Religious activities, religious orientation, and aggressive behavior. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47, (2), 311–319. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2008.00409.x

47. Saroglou, V., Corneille, O., & Van Cappellen, P. (2009). “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”: Religious priming activates submissive thoughts and behaviors. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19, (3), 143–154. doi:10.1080/10508610902880063

48. Van Cappellen, P., Corneille, O., Cols, S., & Saroglou, V. (2011). Beyond mere compliance to authority figures: Religious priming increases conformity to informational influence among submissive people. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, (2), 97–105. doi:10.1080/10508619.2011.556995

49. Vilaythong Tran, O., Lindner, N. M., & Nosek, B. A. (2010). “Do unto others”: Effects of priming the golden rule on Buddhists’ and Christians’ attitudes toward gay people. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49, (3), 494–506. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01524.x

50. Johnson, M. K., Rowatt, W. C., & LaBouff, J. (2010). Priming Christian religious concepts increases racial prejudice. Social Psychological & Personality Science, 1, (2), 119–126. doi:10.1177/1948550609357246

51. LaBouff, J., Rowatt, W. C., Johnson, M. K., & Finkle, C. (2012). Differences in attitudes towards outgroups in a religious or non-religious context in a multi-national sample: A situational context priming study. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 22, (1), 1-9. doi:10.1080/10508619.2012.634778

52. Rowatt, W. C., Ottenbreit, A., Nesselroade, K. P., Jr., & Cunningham, P. A. (2002). On being holier-than-thou or humbler-than-thee: A social-psychological perspective on religiousness and humility. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41, (2), 227–237. doi:10.1111/1468-5906.00113

53. Burris, C. T., & Jackson, L. M. (2000). Social identity and the true believer: Responses to threatened self-stereotypes among the intrinsically religious. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, (2), 257–278.doi:10.1348/014466600164462

54. Alicke, M., & Sedikides, C. (2009). Self-enhancement and self-protection: What they are and what they do. European Review of Social Psychology, 20, (1), 1–48. doi:10.1080/10463280802613866

55. Burris, C. T., & Navara, G. S. (2002). Morality play or playing morality? Intrinsic religious orientation and socially desirable responding. Self and Identity, 1, (1), 67–76. doi:10.1080/152988602317232812

56. McCullough, M. E., & Worthington, E. L., Jr. (1999). Religion and the forgiving personality. Journal of Personality, 67, (6), 1141–1164. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.00085

57. Brown, R. P., Barnes, C. D., & Campbell, N. J. (2007). Fundamentalism and forgiveness. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, (6), 1437–1447. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.04.025

58. Tsang, J.-A., Schulwitz, A., & Carlisle, R. D. (2011). An experimental test of the relationship between religion and gratitude. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4, (1), 40–55. doi:10.1037/a0025632

59. Leach, M. M., Berman, M. E., & Eubanks, L. (2008). Religious activities, religious orientation, and aggressive behavior. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47, (2), 311–319. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2008.00409.x

60. Greer, T., Berman, M., Varan, V., Bobrycki, L., & Watson, S. (2005). We are a religious people; we are a vengeful people. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 44, (1), 45–57. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2005.00264.x

61. Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P. C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach (4th ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

62. Blogowska, J., & Saroglou, V. (2011). Religious fundamentalism and limited prosociality as a function of the target. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50, (1), 44–60. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01551.x

63. Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

64. Wilson, T. D. (2002). Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

65. Ji, C. C., Pendergraft, L., & Perry, M. (2006). Religiosity, altruism, and altruistic hypocrisy: Evidence from Protestant adolescents. Review of Religious Research, 48, (2), 156–178.

66. Garos, S., Beggan, J. K., & Kluck, A. (2004). Temptation bias: Seeing oneself as better able than others to resist temptation. In R. L. Piedmont & D. O. Moberg (Eds.), Research in the social scientific study of religion (Vol. 15, pp. 235–260). Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

67. Smith, T. B., McCullough, M. E., & Poll, J. (2003). Religiousness and depression: Evidence for a main effect and the moderating influence of stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 129, (4), 614–636. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.129.4.614

68. Smith, B. G., & Stark, R. (2009, September 4). Religious attendance relates to generosity worldwide. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/122807/Religious-Attendance-Relates-Generosity-Worldwide.aspx

69. Lim, C., & Putnam, R. D. (2010). Religion, social networks, and life satisfaction. American Sociological Review, 75, (6), 914–933. doi:10.1177/0003122410386686

70. Galen, L. W., & Kloet, J. (2011). Mental well-being in the religious and the non-religious: Evidence for a curvilinear relationship. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14, (7), 673– 689. doi:10.1080/13674676.2010.510829

71. Rees, T. (2009, August 6). The happiness smile [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/08/happiness-smile.html

72. Curlin, F. A., Dugdale, L. S., Lantos, J. D., & Chin, M. H. (2007). Do religious physicians disproportionately care for the underserved? Annals of Family Medicine, 5, (4), 353–360. doi:10.1370/afm.677

73. Galen, L. W., & Kloet, J. (2011). Personality and social integration factors distinguishing nonreligious from religious groups: The importance of controlling for attendance and demographics. Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 33, (2), 205–228.

74. Bock, D. C., & Warren, N. C. (1972). Religious belief as a factor in obedience to destructive demands. Review of Religious Research, 13,(3), 185–191. doi:10.2307/3510781

75. Oliner, S. P., & Oliner, P. M. (1988). The altruistic personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York, NY: Free Press.

76. Hagerty, B.B. (Jan 13, 2011). Army’s ‘Spiritual Fitness’ test angers some soldiers. http://www.npr.org/2011/01/13/132904866/armys-spiritual-fitness-test-angers-some-soldiers



  1. Steve Van Nest says

    Interesting talk, as usual. Are you going to put the slides online. I would really like to see them. Thanks.

  2. Elvin Lucic says

    Hi Luke,

    Thanks for nother very interesting and thought provoking lecture.
    I like the quote attributed to Marcus Aurelius:
    The Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is credited with saying “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

    Have seen some debate about this being more likely to be something Epicurus would have said.
    Whoever the originator it seems a good answer to Pascal’s Wager.

    Thanks to all the Doubtcasters for a consistently excellent podcast.

  3. Lucy Harris says

    Excellent, at last someone critically examines the Brooksian claims academically. I wish you had links to the studies discussed, especially the dictator ones.

  4. Andrew Ryan says

    Is that a picture of Luke Galen above? They’re as rare as hen’s teeth! It’s pretty hard to find out what any of the Reasonable Doubts crew look like!

  5. Francesca Salinas says

    my best friend’s mother makes $80/hr on the laptop.She has been fired for seven months but last month her payment was $19677 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more… c­a­n9­9.ℂ­ℴ­M

  6. Basilides says

    Prof. Galen, could you please provide a list of the studies you mentioned in your interesting talk.

  7. CONWAY says

    I don’t miss religion, but I do kind of miss church. Mainly for the pot luck suppers and pancake breakfasts. A neighborhood of people who come together and look out for each other is a good thing.

    But I have found that same thing in my apartment building, without the need for believing in fairy tales. The lady in apartment #3 makes a wicked lasagna.

    The first Saturday of every month we have a big cook out in the back yard. BBQ and beer and music and fun and fellowship. No need for kneeling or bowing or hating those who live in the wrong apartment building.

    And we look out for each other. Giving a ride to the doctor’s office. Helping to organize a yard sale when money was tight. You need an umbrella? Here, take mine.

    No god needed. Just humanity.

  8. andrew3112 says

    If you think Melissa`s story is nice…, last pay cheque my uncles step-son basically also earned $7204 working fourteen hours a week at home and they’re neighbor’s sister-in-law`s neighbour done this for 9-months and brought home over $7204 part-time from a pc. the guidelines on this web-site BAM21.com

  9. ryangerber says

    Just listened to this podcast, and it was pretty awesome. I don’t usually get all the way through the RD Extras, largely because I can’t stand the debate format, but this was very well researched and well presented.

    I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  10. says

    Its always advantageous to learn suggestions like you discuss for weblog posting. As I just started out posting feedback for weblog and going through problem associated with lots of denials. I think the suggestion can be helpful for us. I will let you know if its work for me as well.

  11. andrewviceroy says

    Great lecture. Luke makes a joke at 12:12 about people with business major not being as trusted as Christians. It’s funny, but I wonder if that bias was controlled for in the study. Is a shady reputation of Business majors a possible confound?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *