Do Religious Fundamentalists Have More Empathy Than You? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Do Religious Fundamentalists Have More Empathy Than You?

Do Religious Fundamentalists Have More Empathy Than You?

By Carl Pettit


Harmony between the analytical and dogmatic mind could be the medicine the world needs right now.

By Carl Pettit

The Star Wars universe teaches us about the Force and the need for balance. These fictional lessons (although Jediism actually exists) can be applied to the human mind as well. A recent study from Case Western Reserve University, which compared religiously dogmatic folks with those who approach the world from an analytic (nonreligious) perspective, underlines the need for this balance — while offering some fascinating insights into the nature of empathy. 

While the report’s assessment that dogmatic belief is negatively associated with analytic reasoning wasn’t big news, the authors were surprised by one particular finding:

Fundamentalists tested higher for empathy than analytically minded people.  

The authors of “What Makes You So Sure? Dogmatism, Fundamentalism, Analytic Thinking, Perspective Taking and Moral Concern in the Religious and Nonreligious” (yes, that’s a mouthful to say) were building on their previous work about how different brain networks — one focused on empathic concern, the other on analytic reasoning — related to dogmatic thought in religious and nonreligious individuals. 

In two studies, the researchers looked at hundreds of people who were either nonreligious or who subscribed to various religious beliefs (Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc.). Dogmatism and prosocial concerns were stronger among the religious, while nonreligious participants were more analytical and less dogmatic — and demonstrated a corresponding decrease in empathy.  

While dogmatism is typically defined negatively, “holding onto a belief is often positive if the belief is more prosocial.”

James Van Slyke, Fresno Pacific University

“It was surprising to us that people who were fundamentalist had more compassion,” associate professor Anthony I. Jack, the study’s principal investigator, says. “When we think of people who are fundamentalist, we think of them as lacking in compassion.”  

Using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), which is essentially a measure of compassion, and focusing on the subscales of empathic concern and perspective-taking, Jack and his team looked at “what happens if you already subscribe to a reductive physical worldview … or if people give primacy to the spiritual dimension? What’s going on with that balance?” 


Riffing off earlier studies showing that among American college students, empathy has been dramatically declining over the past 25 years or so, this study sought to highlight differences between cognitive modes of thought, and more emotional and motivational ways of thinking — “someone is suffering and, wow, I feel bad, and I feel bad in a way that might affect me to help them,” Jack says of the latter.  

While dogmatism is typically defined negatively, “holding onto a belief is often positive if the belief is more prosocial,” points out James Van Slyke, assistant professor of psychology at Fresno Pacific University. He suggests that perhaps the correlation among the religious “between higher dogmatism and prosocial intentions” might be related to the fact that both types of thinking are more social in nature.

What’s tricky here: Just because a certain group (religious) tests higher for empathy, that doesn’t necessarily make them kinder. When beliefs become more rigid, Jack explains, people become activated — even ready to engage in aggression (defending a belief or idea) — over people and causes they care more about than themselves. 

So, a spiritual fundamentalist who believes science sucks or an atheist scientist who thinks spirituality is woo-woo garbage could both be missing the bigger picture. Rather than get locked into a purely analytic way of thinking, with crude emotional messaging (which says a ton about our current political climate), or becoming dogmatic and hostile to all analytical thought? Find a balance between poles. By allowing for sophisticated emotional messages and logical reasoning, and incorporating both insights into how you navigate the world, you’ll be leading a much healthier life. Accomplish this seemingly Herculean task and you’re a very wise person indeed — not unlike an aspiring Jedi Master.

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