Do religious people do more good or harm?

Salvation Army helping

The late Christopher Hitchens famously wrote that religion poisons everything. One aspect of this sort of conclusion is the claim that religious people do more harm than good. As Stephen Weinberg once said:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.

So, does religion help people behave better or worse?

Science on religion

One of my favourite blogs is Science on Religion, in which staff and students at Boston University’s Religion and Science program present “news and views relating to the scientific study of religion”. Here you can get all sorts of factual information on religious belief, instead of uninformed opinion.

Does religion help people behave well?

Science on religion has reported on several studies that provide some answers:

Generosity in giving

Not conservatives, but religious people, more charitable reports on US studies that show that people who attend religious services regularly give far more to charities, both secular and religious ones, than do those who don’t. The important factor seems to be attendance, not the actual belief.

Non-religious people who attend civic meetings regularly give as much to secular charities as do religious people, but the religious attenders give far more to religious charities as well.

Ethical behaviour

Studies reported in Does religion make us moral? show that, in the USA at any rate:

Religion does actually seem to make people more altruistic and generous. Religious people give more to charities than non-religious people, including secular charities. …. Meanwhile, lab experiments show that participating in religious rituals primes people to be more generous and caring toward one another.

However it isn’t all good news. Religious participation has some detrimental effects, for example it often inspires people to be prejudiced against outsiders and minorities, although this effect is diminishing in the USA, and it only applies to some forms of religiosity:

Religiosity that emphasized external rewards and social acceptance was associated with negative feelings toward members of other races, while religiousness that was focused on internal, subjective goals wasn’t.

This suggests to me that christians who believe they are responding to God’s freely-given love for us would behave well, while those who attend church out of social conformity would not.

Does religion turn people into haters?

These conclusions are supported by Polish, Iranian and US studies reported in Does religion turn people into haters?, which investigated three different forms of religiosity:

  • intrinsic religiosity, where belief and behaviour is “internal and self directed”; such people are “often described as taking their religious beliefs seriously as ends in themselves.”
  • extrinsic religiosity, where religious behaviour is directed toward non-religious ends such as wanting to fit into the community.
  • quest religiosity, spiritual seeking separate from formal religion.

All three studies found that, if provoked, people were more likely to support violence against their perceived enemies – except the intrinsically religious (and this included Muslims as well as Christians), who were more likely to be less hostile and suspicious towards outsiders.

One of the studies explained these results by observing that when placed under threat, people responded according to the values they felt were most important. For intrinsic believers, these were the ethical values of compassion and kindness, whereas for the extrinsically religious, the strongest values are those of protecting their tribe or social group. The report concludes:

This imbalanced dynamic ensures that religion’s role in human affairs will continue to be as complicated and problematic as it always has been. The only difference is that now we might remove some of the blame from “religion” and put it where it belongs: on the laps of religious people who don’t understand, or willfully ignore, the ethical teachings of the traditions they so earnestly espouse.


Heartfelt religious belief encourages compassionate behaviour, but external religious observance is less likely to.

Read more

Belief vs unbelief – a more detailed assessment, with references.

Photo: Salvation Army


  1. For me the more interesting question is does Jesus teaching do more harm than good, to which the clear answer is that it leads to immense good. If everyone followed his teaching it would be heaven!

  2. It seems that the data on which the results from giving to charity depend come from a survey that relies on self-reporting. It may tell us more about the respondents’ self-perception consequently.

  3. IN, yes, a lot of this has to be researched via self reporting, or via artificial situations, because it is practically very difficult to do it any other way. Some attitudes can be checked factually (I guess you could do giving by asking to see their chequebooks, but that isn’t very likely or practical) – I recall that self reporting on church attendance adds up to more people actually in church on Sunday.

    I think that is why some scientists (e.g. physicists and chemists) do not respect some of the social sciences, but I can’t see how it could be any different.

    Phil, yes, there is clearly a difference between Jesus’ teaching and religious belief, but same as my comment to IN, the researchers have to measure what they can.

  4. I feel that , in reference to Phil that what you said is a nice Utopian way of thinking but, let’s be realistic sir life is not ever going to be like heaven nor like hell on earth but, actually a slice of both . The Yen and the Yang . In my own realistic view God whoever or whatever it is gives out positive and negative forces in the universe. On the other hand one can not exist without the other. People can only work on a balance of the two. And I also feel that humans need to respect each others differences such as the Christians and the Jewish and the Muslims would like you to do in return.

  5. Thanks for your comment Scott, though I note that your view of God is different to mine. I believe God is good, but allows evil so that we are free to choose rather than be forced by him. However I think the outcome is much the same as you describe. I also agree about respect.

  6. Hello Scott, In essence I agree about this earth. In my view Christs teachings are inherently good, that this earth is not heaven, but a future heaven will accommodate those who willingly choose Christ’s teaching – that will be heaven. As has been said by others “Sin cannot enter heaven, it would no longer be heaven”, and so if there is to be a heaven that we are not forced to go to, we have to willingly give up our sinfulness.

  7. No disrespect intended it’s just my feelings in a realistic view but, I was brought up catholic and was told lots of fearful things could and would happen to me if I didn’t do this or didn’t do that. In my own thoughts I think this is a way to use fear tactics to mold a society to a fixated theocracy. In plain Jane words I call it brainwashing! I think these procedures are a way of control by man ,not God and, like all religions have done in the past and future to come. Having a relationship with a Deity is a personal issue between you and that source. The problems start when many people start to use it to form of a church or synagogue it just consumes. It’s like everyone in the world is on a religious team , in this corner we have the Christians and fighting in this corner with the blue trunks we have the Muslin’s and so on and so forth and all it’s has done is gotten a lot of innocent people murdered over God. It starts with the children . When your parents tell you something you naturally believe it to be true so if they tell you about God and a certain type of religion that they were told as kids they will believe like you have. To me this is a vicious cycle of thinking. You can teach a child how to live but , you shouldn’t teach a child what to believe that comes from within yourself. I’m sure that’s a lot for you two gentlemen to swallow but, the fighting will never end here in the America’s or over in the middle east especially. In history religion has done more harm than prosperity for human kind alike. I believe in a Deity and i’m pretty sure it’s the same one as that everyone is talking about but, I keep that within me and personal. Don’t forget when you die you die alone and if you are present of the creator it will be you and you only. You pastor or preacher won’t be there to hold your hand. One more note. I also feel that the churches never pay taxes and in my feeling I think they should. They say there not a business but, they bring in billions of dollars. There routines are the same as a corporation and I feel that hey should be taxed and the business’s owned by the churches should be as well.

  8. Thanks Scott for all those thoughts. I certainly didn’t feel any disrespect.

    “I was brought up catholic and was told lots of fearful things could and would happen to me if I didn’t do this or didn’t do that”

    I’m not at all sure that Jesus intended us to set up enormous organisations and bureaucracies as part of following him – they can easily lose the message in the effort to just keep the organisation going, and people get mashed in the process. Unfortunately, christian denominations tend to become that the bigger they get, and the Catholic church is pretty much the biggest. I’m sorry you appear to have got “mashed”.

    “It’s like everyone in the world is on a religious team , in this corner we have the Christians and fighting in this corner with the blue trunks we have the Muslin’s and so on”

    The thing is, if the christians were really following Jesus, they wouldn’t be fighting, but loving and caring and forgiving.

    I think christians have a lot to say sorry for.

  9. Dear Scott, I echo everything UnkleE has said.
    I think the three of us have a lot of common thinking.
    I was fortunate to come to believe in God and discover Jesus at the age of 40 and so missed out on a lot of the baggage that accompanies formal religion. The decision seriously changed and improved my life, so I’ve always encouraged others to explore the possibility of God but without taking on the many man-made aspects of religion – hence I’ve adopted the phrase ‘Minimalist Christian’ (I have a blog of that name). I also wrote a book called ‘The Leap’ about why true Christianity is actually good news. I think the issue is important for individuals to explore for themselves – your comments about it just being you and God are absolutely right, none of us should judge others, God I think is only interested in each of our hearts – as individuals.
    I hope you manage to forgive the church. Please accept our apology on their behalf.

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