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CHICAGO — Do differences in religion keep people from being kind to each other? Researchers from the University of Illinois Chicago examined if people who are part of specific religions engage in altruistic behavior that only benefits other people of their religion or if they are willing to treat people of other religions the same good way. It turns out that a belief in God leads religious individuals to show kindness to others — no matter how they practice their faith.

“Religion is often thought to promote intergroup conflict and fuel hostility between people who hold different beliefs. Quite to the contrary — our findings suggest that belief in God, which is an important aspect of most world religions, may sometimes promote more positive intergroup relations,” says Michael Pasek, a UIC assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study.

The social psychologist and his team looked into this by conducting field and online experiments with over 4,700 people from an array of religions in three different political and cultural contexts. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Middle Eastern, Fijian, and American Jewish people had the chance to share money with anonymous people from different religions. The participants played multiple rounds of a real economic game where they split a sum of money between themselves and people of other backgrounds. Participants had to carefully consider their decisions during the first rounds, and then in the later rounds the researchers asked them to think about God before choosing.

Woman praying in church
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Thinking of God leads to more generosity

Thinking about God really played a significant role in decision making, resulting in an 11-percent increase in giving in comparison to the first rounds, irrespective of religious conflict or perceived threats.

“Belief in gods may encourage cooperative norms that help us trade goods and ideas across group boundaries, which is essential to human flourishing. Of course, we are also a parochial species. Our team is now investigating how moral and supernatural beliefs help people balance their parochialism with their need for intergroup cooperation,” explains study author Jeremy Ginges, professor of psychology at The New School of Social Research, in a university release.

Ginges adds that while there is a trend showing that religion may prompt people to lend a hand more often, it isn’t always the case. Some religion members may feel that their belief calls them to support their own group more often than others. Regardless, this research shows that believing in God or gods doesn’t encourage as much harm, suffering, and distress between different groups as once thought. If anything, it does the opposite, which can actually strengthen interfaith connections.

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

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About Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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