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Typically we do not assess the motives of an individual’s actions if the byproduct is positive. Generally, if the ends justify the means, we tend not to look any deeper than the positive or advantageous outcome. I suppose from the standpoint of rationality it does make sense that we would not question someone’s motives they are behaving in a morally correct manner. However, when it comes to seemingly selfless actions are they truly as they appear? I do not question this to denigrate the byproduct of charitable actions or even the fact that individuals have chosen to behave in this manner. What I am really tackling here is a third variable problem that has several potentially confounding variables that are difficult to connect to the causation of altruistic behavior.

Altruism is defined as:

“…. unselfish regard or devotion to the welfare of others…” and  “…  behavior that has no benefit or puts the individual at a disadvantage..” [1]

Purely by definition altruism is an action by a philanthropist that does not benefit them in any form. The question that I am about to pose is certainly a controversial one. Is it possible to be genuinely altruistic if you subscribe to a theological belief system, where you are rewarded by the merits of your actions? I am not attempting to malign religion and I hope no one takes offense to this question. However,  most of the major world religions reward those who behave in a righteous and morally sound manner with a blissful afterlife. Some notable examples are the depictions of paradise in the Qur’an and the Judeo-Christian conceptualization of heaven. The concept of a merit-based afterlife is even prevalent in some eastern religions as well. The most salient example being in Hinduism, how your actions in this life will determine which station of the caste you will be reincarnated in your next life.


It also seems that the vast majority of major world religions do emphasize charitable behavior as well. One of the five pillars, the core tenants of Islam (the fastest-growing religion in the world), is  Zakat, which translates to giving. In other words, the concept of charity is considered a core tenant of  Islam [2]. Islam is considered to be one of the world’s largest religions and it is only second to Christianity. It is well noted the numerous biblical passages that punctuate the virtue charity [3].  So if it is well noted that the majority of religions have a merit-based system for the afterlife and also support the notion of charity, how do we separate the reward from the motives to behave in a charitable manner? As with most third variable problems it is nearly impossible to ascertain whether it is the reward or an individual’s own intrinsic motives for helping others. The only way to make causal inferences would be a carefully executed experiment that heavily controls for sampling error.



The February 2016, article from the Scientific American: Children with a Religious Upbringing Show Less Altruism, attempted to solve the previously mentioned inquiry. The experiment included 1,000 participants, ranging in age from 5 to 12 years old. The subjects were from the countries: United States, Canada, Turkey, Jordan, South Africa, and China. The subjects were given approximately 30 stickers and two envelopes, one for stickers to keep and another for stickers to donate to their classmates at school. Ironically, the children that had more of a notably religious upbringing were less apt to share their stickers with other children. The researchers were anticipating age to be a greater influence than the role of religion. Researchers also acknowledged that there were certain variables that could have impacted the results. For example, children from religious homes may have more siblings, therefore the stickers they chose to keep they may have chosen to share with their brothers and sisters.  Another consideration may be that children may not be the most appropriate stage of development to assess a moralistic attribute such as altruism. Potentially adulthood, an individual would have a more honed sense of morality than as a child. This variable at adulthood has also been examined. In a study, based on an aggregation of data based on IRS charitable donations, it was found that zip codes in areas that had greater rates of religious observance had a greater likelihood of having donated to a charity. However, it is difficult to discern whether these donations were given to local religious congregations [4].



The above study certainly presents some interesting findings, however, because of the multitude of potentially confounding variables, we can not attribute causation.  However, there does seem to be an interesting pattern observed from the results of the study, but religion may not be the variable causing the lower rates of altruism. While this may be an intriguing correlation there it is difficult to judge what was causing the lower levels of altruism among the more religious children. I would certainly contend that in my opinion age is certainly a potential variable. As we age, our comprehension of philosophies, ethos, the rationale behind certain theological tenants and other abstract conceptualizations tends to be more acute. By the time we are adults, these ideas are much more clear to us. My previously postulated theory of altruism being paradoxical if someone is a member of a merit-based religion would certainly be more applicable to adults. Odds are most children would not have a firm comprehension of the clear dichotomy of the difference between heaven and hell, outside of the fact that one is for good people and the other is for bad people.


From the perspective of an adult, it nearly impossible to determine whether or the threat of languishing in hell for eternity is a primary motivator of being charitable. Many may find me taking such liberties with phrasing this claim in such a manner, preposterous.  Then again, the rationale behind the decision may not be overtly known to the individual. While psychoanalytical psychology has long been discredited by the scientific community, the subconscious mind still does play a role in human cognition. It is not so outlandish that we are not directly aware of the reason behind our actions. Especially if we have specific moral doctrines ingrained in us for the vast majority of our life. I would say that we cannot prove this to be a prime reason for the charitable behavior of religious individuals, however, it also cannot be disproved either. Rather than carelessly side with Occam’s Razor and accept the null hypothesis here, I will remain open to the possibility that it could potentially be a variable, even though were are faced with a serious third variable problem.


When looking at this outside of the realm of the science, if we can certainly take this question down a plethora of different avenues, without the restraints of the scientific method. Just kind of analyzing this from my own personal perspective, there is no logical way to confront this problem other than from the agnostic perspective. It really isn’t reasonable to say that religious people cannot be altruistic due to the rewards of a merit-based religion that instills the premise of charity. Simultaneously, it is also not reasonable to discount the notion either. Because this inquiry is inherently tainted by overlapping variables potentially being the cause, it is impossible to make any definite statements. While I do not intend to malign religion, we do need to remember that religion does rely on reinforcement and punishment to support specific moral values. Individuals behaving in a manner that is congruent with the moral principles of a specific theology through the threat of a horrific afterlife is a classic example of negative reinforcement. This entails that you apply unpleasant stimuli to an individual force them to engage in a specific preferred behavior. In other words, utilizing a deterrent to getting someone to do what you want them to do. With that in mind, it is easy to see how the consequential prescriptions in organized religion can influence the behavior of the worshipers and believers. This does not mean that religion is a negative influence nor does it negate the positive results of religious and religiously influence charity. It is merely me questioning whether or not charity can be truly altruistic if an individual believes in the reward and punitive aspects of religion. Altruism being about doing something for someone else with no benefit, if that action gets someone into heaven is it still truly altruism. Now personally, I am an agnostic in regards to religion, so I have more questions than I do convictions on the subject.


  1. This is a very interesting Theory. The one issue that was not dealt with is people who call themselves religious but they are only religious during service on Sunday and then they go back to their regular way of life. Those people may in fact show their children by example how to behave. I would also question those that want others to see them give and want the taxman to see them give. In my opinion I don’t feel that those people are being altruistic. But that’s just in my humble opinion.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That is really a sublime point. The whole premise of the “Weekend Christian”, really is a variable I should have examined. How can someone putting on a facade be genuinely true in thoughts and actions. That is especially true in regards to altruism. Personally I believe your humble opinion conveys quite a bit of truth. Thank you for the insight, it certainly provides some food for thought.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. David Sloan Wilson’s “Does Altruism Exist?” may be helpful in understanding altruism and selfishness with respect to traditional, religious cultures. Essentially the altruism-selfishness divide focusing on individuals is a foreign way of thinking to someone whose identity comes through group membership, say, family or church membership. If one helps a member of the community one is also helping oneself. One helps oneself through helping the groups one belongs to. The traditional view is not individualistic hence both altruism and selfishness are inappropriate concepts. Also Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” describes Moral Foundation Theory which may help clarify what is going on here. Neither Wilson nor Haidt are religious to my knowledge.


  3. When we are looking at “altruism” I think we always need to factor in the idea of “reciprocal altruism”. A particular action we take may have no direct benefit to us right at that moment, but there may be long-term benefits. If we are in the habit of doing favors for friends, then those friends may be more likely to help us when we are in need a favor. Or, even bigger picture, if we do favors for people without expecting immediate return, we are helping create a society in which acting in this way is the standard of normal behavior. (Sort of the “pay it forward” idea.) Perhaps I help a stranded motorist because someone once helped me when I was stranded. Nobody is getting an immediate reward for their generosity, but everyone benefits when we all do this.

    So, looking at the study where religious children were less generous, I wonder what it is in religion that might be stifling “reciprocal altruism” in those kids?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I appreciate the feedback.How we define altruism is often dictated by immediate outcomes. However, I never considered how doing a selfless favor can amount to benefits down the road. If we do a selfless favor and they are more apt to help us out later, is it still altruism in the genuine sense? Excellent point.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I certainly hope we do. While I am an agnostic and not necessarily a practitioner of Buddhism, I like to belief in the concept of Karma. I hope that good acts generate other good acts through inspiring others to return the favorite to another person. So thank you for reminding me to do my part to make this world a better place. Some times I lose perspective and need a stark reality check.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I apologize because although I read your blog and commented on it, I had not put much thought into it after the fact. I have MS, and if you know anyone with MS, our brains move like a snail late for a hot date. That is not an excuse merely a fact.
    When I reread the comments, I began to think about it again. If I understood the query, you posted it was this: can real altruism exist if there are “rewards” for the philanthropist? I would say that it depends on the individual. Some people give because of the benefits to themselves. Take for example those that donate a specific amount at tax time. They only give out of financial gain and not for any positive effect on humanity. As for the religious, I believe that there are those that are told to tithe ten present. I would guarantee that some calculate precisely ten percent then give it to the church. At that point, they put that on their taxes.
    I believe that there are many religious and non-religious people alike that do good things for no other reason but to do good in the greed filled world in which we live. In this me-centric world that we are now living in, I do not doubt that there are those that do have ulterior motives.
    The quote that I made “we change the world by one random act of kindness at a time” is not specific to the religious. I have met non-religious people who also believe in making a difference. They too believe in being a good person and doing good things. As I am sure, you can attest that just because a person is agnostic does not mean that they are a bad person. Just like being religious does not make you a good person.
    This is my humble opinion on an extremely complicated topic.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sir do not apologize. I appreciate the time and consideration . I find all of your comments to be well thought out. I could agree that analyzing the extent that an action is altruistic or the “purity” of the altruism is a very complex endeavor to undertake. I was approaching it from the perspective that if extremely adversive punishment for your transgressions , are you doing the right purely for its sake. Not to pick on religion , but eternal damnation to hell is a very motivating factor . Equally as reinforcing are pleasures of paradise . It is kind of an open-ended inquiry that I certainly do not have a clear answer. I would certainly agree that there are good and bad people of every religious pardigm. I chose to focus on the punishment/reward structure of religion and its impact on altruism because of how compelling the rewards and punishments are.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for visiting my blog Bobbing Around.
    I’ve read this essay with interest, and have a point to contribute. People may act in an altruistic manner for entirely the wrong reasons, e.g., to seem good in the eyes of others. However, if they do so often and frequently enough, it becomes their “new normal,” and eventually they will do so without any expectation of personal benefits.
    This is one of the lessons of research into positive psychology.
    So, if someone conscientiously gives zakat because the Qur’an told him to, and it will count in his favor on the day of judgment, he is also moving toward moral perfection.

    Liked by 2 people

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