Cover Story

Among the Good Believers

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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It may be a world ravaged by religious fury but several secular scientific studies show that faith makes people compassionate and socially responsible

TWO YEARS AGO, I had gone to meet Father Davis Chiramel in the town of Thrissur in Kerala. In 2009, he had given his kidney to a Hindu electrician in the village where he had his parish. It had been done in the most casual of manner. Some villagers who were on a fund collection drive to purchase a kidney for the man had come to him, and the priest, recognising that it was illegal to buy an organ, had simply offered his own. News of the deed made him a spiritual celebrity of sorts in Kerala and led to his floating an organisation, Kidney Federation of India, and starting a movement for organ donation.

His office was on the first floor of a shopping complex and I had to wait for a while as he spoke to a family who had come to visit him. I did the interview, got the story, and towards the end of it, he said something curious. That he kept getting requests of help not just for kidneys but for myriad problems people faced. The family that had met him before me was, if I remember correctly, about to get their house seized over debts. The Father was somewhat exasperated at his own inability to do enough for those soliciting his assistance.

In March this year, a research paper, ‘Social Support Networks and Religiosity in Rural South India’, based on a study conducted in two remote Tamil Nadu villages, was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. It touched upon a probable reason for what Father Chiramel had been experiencing. The study aimed to learn not just whether religion led to people doing acts that benefited others, called ‘prosocial behaviour’, but also whether the needy reciprocated. So if someone was in need of help and had a choice between a religious and non-religious person, who would he turn to?

The villages chosen for the study were Tenpatti and Alakapuram, a couple of small, poor rural settlements, which meant that the villagers also depended on one another to get by. Hindus were the majority, but there was a significant number of Christians too. Most were religious in the villages, a large majority going to temples and churches. The author of the study, Eleanor Power of Sante Fe Institute, USA, did a household census to decide who could be identified as more religious than the rest. This was based on how much extra effort a person put in towards being ostensibly religious. Like going to a temple or church at least once a week, doing public religious acts which entailed more expense and also getting ‘possessed’ or giving ‘up control of her body to the divine, remembering little of the experience afterwards’ at religious gatherings (7 per cent of Hindus exhibited this regularly).

The villagers were then asked who they had sought assistance from in times of need and got it. To quote the paper, ‘Respondents were asked to free-list those individuals who had provided them with twelve different types of social support in the past few months.’ This included ‘friendship and emotional support’, ‘instrumental aid’ like helping out with errands and lending items, ‘financial assistance’, ‘facultative relationships in which one person vouches for another’ and ‘guidance’ such as advice on important issues.

A statistical analysis of the data showed that people turned more to the religious. The paper noted, ‘It appears that religious individuals are perceived as being reliable helpers regardless of the type of support. When a person is in need, the question is not what is needed, but rather who will be willing to provide it; those who worship regularly and undertake greater and costlier public religious acts are often those to whom people turn.’ And there was a basis for this faith in their generosity. ‘The findings reported here also provide strong evidence that greater evinced religiosity is indeed associated with prosociality: people who worship regularly and undertake costly public religious acts are more likely to undertake acts that benefit others.’

It appears that religious individuals are perceived as being reliable helpers regardless of the type of support. When a person is in need, the question is not what is needed, but rather who will be willing to provide it; those who worship regularly and undertake greater and costlier public religious acts are often those to whom people turn

Most such studies, even those related to India, are initiated by foreign academics. An exception was Arpit Yadav, a psychology student with Delhi University whose paper was published in 2015 in The International Journal of Humanities & Social Studies. The objective was to explore gender differences in prosocial behaviour among Indian youth, but the role of religion was also included. She took a sample of 100 college students, half male and half female, and collected data on their religious orientation, empathy and prosociality, using psychological tests. She says, ‘Religion seemed to affect the prosocial behaviour of people. And Indians seem to do a lot of work and help saying it’s dharma and farz. Plus, the review of literature also suggested that religion affects the prosocial behaviour of people.’

BESIDES SURVEYS, ONE of the main methods to study the behaviour of religious people is the use of economic games. A few people in a controlled setting are typically given small amounts that they can keep or distribute, and depending on what they do, their acts are categorised as prosocial or not. In 2009, there appeared such a paper by a researcher, Ali M Ahmed, from the University of Gothenburg and Växjö University, Sweden, based on a study in a mofussil town called Nowganwan in Uttar Pradesh. Titled, ‘Are Religious People More Prosocial? A Quasi-Experimental Study with Madrasah Pupils in a Rural Community in India’, this study used students of madrassas who were studying to be imams. The same economic experiment done on them was also performed on students of secular institutions; comparing the two would reveal the impact of religion. Of the 102 total, 42 students were from two madrassas and 60 were social science students of local colleges. Their average age was 17.

Two tests were run separately on the groups. One was called the Public Goods Test. In this, everyone was given a green and red envelope. In the green one, there were 10 notes of Rs 10 each; the red was empty. ‘Participants were told that they had been randomly paired with two other participants so as to form a group of three people and that the other members of their group also had received the two envelopes. Participants never knew the true identity of the others in the group at any stage of the experiment. However, they knew that their group members belonged to their own school. They were told that the green envelope with the money belonged to them but they had the opportunity to invest some, all, or none of their [Rs] 100 in a common project with the other group members. They could keep the money they did not invest. They were told that the money that each participant in the group chose to invest would be added up and multiplied by 1.5, increasing the total amount of money that a group of participants contributes by 50 percent. The new sum of money would then be divided and distributed equally among the group members’

They were then asked to put whatever money they chose to give in the red envelope. After the envelopes had been collected, a second test, called Dictator Game, was conducted. Once again, two envelopes—green with money and an empty red—were distributed. But a small trick was used this time. ‘Participants were told that the money in the green envelope belonged to them and that they had been paired with another person who had not received any money. In reality, however, participants were not paired with anyone. Participants were told that they could share some or none of their money with their partner,’ says the paper. After opening the envelopes collected, the researcher could make out who had been willing to part with their money for the benefit of others.

An important catalyst in religion as a violent self-serving force to one that makes people good is the presence of institutions. They can foster good or bad actions among members, depending on the political and social climate

In both the games, madrassa students were found to be more generous. In the Public Goods game, they gave 66 per cent of their money, while the non-religious students gave 51 per cent. Only 3 per cent of the madrassa students kept all the money to themselves, whereas for the others it was 15 per cent. In the Dictator Game, madrassa students gave 22 per cent of their money, while the others gave 13 per cent. It was noted, ‘The results in this paper offer experimental evidence in favor of what is a common assumption in most theories of religion: religion has the effect of emphasizing prosocial behavior.’

The niceness might go against what we see around. Those who fight for ISIS, after all, are as God-fearing as they come. The Catholic Church has a terrible record of wars and inquisitions in its past. And every gau rakshak is at some level using his faith as an excuse for violence. On the other hand, despite the history of bloodletting, every religion has an aspect of exhorting good behaviour—turning the other cheek, charity, forgiveness, compassion, etcetera.

Consider an Indian who does Vipassana meditation daily as a mental health discipline even while professing himself an atheist. One tradition of this meditation which is prevalent in India has its roots in Myanmar and is taught in 10-day silent retreats. The course begins with meditators taking a vow to observe the five Buddhist ethical precepts— not stealing, not lying, not killing, not taking intoxicants, not doing sexual misconduct—that are preconditions to the spiritual practice. Even though this atheist denies religion, by acceding to the precepts and practice of a faith, does he become religious? There is no universal definition of religion, but there is a broad consensus that the observing of rites and rituals as part of a larger community with some supernatural component present qualifies for it. On the other hand, in Myanmar, Buddhist monks in whom this particular technique had its genesis and who clearly identify themselves with their religion and participate in the same rites and meditation as the atheist, are now part of a violent movement persecuting a Rohingya minority. How does one explain this dichotomy?

An important catalyst in religion as a violent self-serving force to one that makes people good is the presence of institutions. They can foster good or bad actions among members, depending on the political and social climate. Many academic studies try to find whether religion, discounting the influence of institutions, make people better human beings—its psychological effect on a personality.

The Oxford Handbook of Prosocial Behaviour , published in 2015, has a chapter with an overview of research in this field, and some of the questions that it looks at are: Does religious instigation for behaviour that benefits others translate into actual practice? Is it genuine compassion or for show? Does it extend to everyone or to just members of their own religion?

Jo-Ann Tsang of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Baylor University, Texas, was one of the co-authors of the chapter on religion in The Oxford Handbook . She says that the reason to make a distinction between the psychological and institutional levels is because people may support institutions that do a lot of good but this does not tell us much about their individual motivations. “Do they help because they care, or do they help to look good? This may be related to an additional question—why does it matter if people help out of compassion, as long as they help? Many times it may not matter. Sometimes it does, such as when help differs depending on group membership. Help based on compassion might also be more sensitive to the needs of the person who needs help, and people helping out of compassion may be more willing to expend more time and resources to help if needed,” she says.

There have been academic studies that showed religion making people compassionate towards animals. One of them looked at the attitude of Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh towards snow leopards and wolves that cause them losses

While there have been studies which showed religion leading to helpful behaviour, the connection, says The Oxford Handbook, is not straightforward. Many studies use a technique called ‘priming’, where subjects are given a religious goad to test its effect. For example, in one 2013 study to test cooperation, church-goers were asked immediately after a service to read two passages on charity from the New Testament and then tested in an economic game called Prisoner’s Dilemma. Those who claimed that the passages had resonated with them cooperated more.

On whether religion limits prosocial behaviour to adherents of the same faith or is more universal, Tsang says, “It actually depends on what part of religion you are talking about. Dr Jesse Preston (a social psychologist from Warwick University, UK) has done research suggesting that if religious institution is primed, then help is more related to adherents of the same religion. However, if God or the divine is primed, then this can lead to more universal helping.”

India has witnessed numerous communal riots throughout its modern history. This is ostensibly a clash between religions. But the two parties involved also have another status—that of minorities and majorities. The conflict itself is an eruption of suspicion and distrust. In 2013, a study was conducted to find out whether social status trumped religion when it came to trust between communities. It was conducted in two border villages, one in Bangladesh and the other in India. This was because the populations were similar, except for one key difference; on the Indian side, the majority was Hindu with a Muslim minority, while it was the opposite in Bangladesh. If they ran a test on both sides and if the reactions were the same no matter what the religion, then it would indicate that status—minority or majority—was a bigger determinant of behaviour than religion per se. Pushkar Maitra, professor of economics at Monash University, Australia, who was one of the researchers, says, ‘There are very good arguments as to why status affects how individuals perceive their own identities. Generally, minorities associate strongly with their identities relatively to their majority counterparts. To disentangle the effects of religion and minority/majority status, we needed to find two places that are relatively similar in terms of other factors except for religion. West Bengal and Bangladesh provided us with that opportunity.’

They tested for trust or the absence of it using three experiments—Trust Game, Dictator Game and Risk Game. In the Trust Game, a person A is initially given some money and has the choice to part with some of it to B, someone he does not know. B then returns what he feels like to A. What A gives is tripled by the research team. If A trusts B, he will give a lot more knowing that B will return a chunk of it. The Dictator Game follows the same method, except that B does not have the choice of returning the money. So A knows he won’t receive anything in return and whatever he gives B will be from altruism. In the Risk Game, both players can put a part of their money into an imaginary project that has a half-half chance of a complete loss or tripling of profit. The more they trust the other, the more they are willing to risk. What the players don’t invest, they get to keep—the safe option.

The research team then looked at how the players responded when matched with someone of their religion but from a different village; and when matched with someone from another religion from a different village. The results showed that people were acting based on their status as minorities and majorities on both sides of the border. ‘We find that minority individuals (Muslims in West Bengal and Hindus in Bangladesh) exhibit more trust to their own group relative to outsiders (majority status individuals). Similarly, members of the majority (Muslims in Bangladesh and Hindus in West Bengal) are more trustworthy towards outsiders (minority status individuals) than members of their own group. In other words, Muslims and Hindus when they have minority (majority) status behave in similar ways, implying that it is status that dictates behaviour,’ says Maitra.

This could be extrapolated to infer that if communal behaviour is being dictated by status rather than by religion, then conflict too might be dictated by the same phenomenon. The blame need not rest entirely on religion’s door.

THE SCIENCE OF religion and good social behaviour is far from settled. There have been studies that show no impact of religion on prosocial behaviour. The Oxford Handbook talks of a study in an Israeli kibbutz where religious men were more cooperative than religious women. Another study showed that being part of a world religion like Christianity or Islam made its adherents more generous than those in a tribal religion or non-religious. One study has also showed that religious children were less altruistic than those from non-religious families. Then there is the motivation itself for religious people to do good. The Oxford Handbook spells out two: ‘Helping motivated by the helper’s own needs rather than care and compassion for the person in need’ and one that ‘is focused on the person being helped rather than on the self’. There is no clear answer to which might be the larger driver. Tsang says, “Different aspects of a situation might make one motivation more likely than the other. Dr Dan Batson (an American social psychologist) has shown that when a person empathises with the person in need, then altruism—helping motivated out of compassion—is more likely. In the absence of empathy, we might help for more selfish reasons.”

There have also been academic studies that showed religion making people compassionate towards animals. One of them, published last year in Human Dimensions of Wildlife, a journal, looked at the attitude of Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh towards snow leopards and wolves that cause them economic losses. Since almost everyone in the villages they surveyed claimed to be religious, they looked at how the degree of religiousness affected attitudes to carnivores. “Here, we found that Buddhists who professed to be ‘more religious’ had more positive attitudes towards carnivores,” says Saloni Bhatia, the lead author of the paper and part of the National Conservation Foundation, Mysore. “In the Buddhist villages, attitudes towards snow leopards and wolves were positively correlated to religiosity (extent of religious practice). In the case of wolves, men and less educated people had more negative attitudes. In the Muslim villages, women and individuals with poorer awareness of wildlife laws had more negative attitudes towards snow leopards. No pattern was found in the case of wolves in the Muslim villages.”

Such studies are important because they can translate into strategies to make people more interested in conservation. “The other important finding was that while the philosophy of both Islam and Buddhism is based on compassion, the relationship between humans and nature is interpreted differently. In a nutshell, Islam believes that humans are trustees of the Earth, and mandates the ethical treatment of animals. Buddhism, on the other hand, postulates the theory of dependent origination in which sentient beings (including humans) can function only in relation to others around them and therefore, do not have an independent existence. This has important implications on how we frame conservation messages in areas inhabited by Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh,” Bhatia says.

After Father Chiramel’s kidney donation, in Kerala’s Catholic clergy, a long line of priests followed who gave their kidneys to strangers. Last December, a priest from Wayanad, who had a reputation for being charitable, too donated one of his. What were the forces operating on that priest? It was clearly a Christian act, given his calling. Was he signalling his virtue? Or was it an act of selfless charity? Or it could be many factors operating together. What was certain was that someone in desperate need of a kidney had got one and it turned out to be a Muslim woman.