A variety of previous studies have looked favorably upon religion, concluding that religion correlates with generosity, responsibility, charity, and a host of other virtues. Given all of this data, one would think that, at the very least, religion correlates with certain virtues. However, independent scholar Roy Sablosky challenges these findings. He argues that all of these studies have one or more of the following fatal flaws: they rely entirely on self-reports, fail to precisely define “religiosity,” fail also to precisely define “generosity,” and cannot discern the reason for the positive correlation between religiosity and generosity.
First, Sablosky critiques of value of using self-reports in surveys about religion and generosity. He argues that in both religion and generosity people fall victim to social desirability bias. That is, people lie about certain factors in order that they may be perceived as more socially desirable than they actually are. Sablosky calls generosity the “epitome” of areas subject to social desirability bias. He cites various reports that compared people who actually gave to charity to those who said they gave to that same charity. Not surprisingly, the latter outnumber the former by two to one ratio. As for religion, again, he argues that attending religious services is seen by society as something honorable and noble. People consequently want to be associated with going to them. As before, he cites a study that shows that the people who claim to go to religious services compared to those who actually attend religious services is a two to one ratio. In short, Sablosky concludes that self-reports on either generosity or religion cannot be trusted, and therefore trying to correlate both of these based on solely self-reports is far from a good idea.
Second, Sablosky scrutinizes the meaning of the word “religiosity” in these various pro-religion surveys. Due to the self-reported nature of the surveys, they cannot make the critical distinction between what people say, what they honestly to believe themselves, and what they actually believe (the same goes for doing, valuing, etc.). Typically, these surveys simply asked people to respond to what they believe in and how frequently they attend church services. As before, what people say they believe may not be what they honestly believe or what they actually believe, especially when one factors in social desirability bias. Furthermore, as already seen, people lie about attending religious services, and so this metric is probably not very valuable.
Third, a similar problem occurs when one tries to discern the meaning of the word “generosity” in these surveys. All too often, surveys merely measure generosity by asking about how much one has given to a tax-deductible charity. As already seen, people tend to lie about how much they give to charity and/or how frequently do so. Equally problematic, defining generosity in terms of giving to charity makes little sense. One can give to charity without being generous (by giving much less than one should), and it is also possible to be generous without making donations to a charity (for instance, giving people cash, food, clothing, personal assistance, or anything else that can be given in a way that is more than necessary or expected). Generosity has no business being defined by charitable donations.
Finally, even supposing the above three criticisms are incorrect, Sablosky still wonders whether one can conclude that religion has any positive effect. Assuming a correlation between generosity and religion, one could easily claim with equal credibility that generosity causes people to become religious rather than vice versa. For this reason, perhaps these studies actually point to a person’s generous rather than religious nature.
For Sablosky, researchers should figure out what motivates people to be compassionate and generous, but without a bias for religion. As far as he can tell, no link between generosity and religion has been established. Each will have to judge for themselves whether he has been generous.
For more, see “Does religion foster generosity?” in The Social Science Journal.