I got some terrific responses to my previous articlethat focused on how religious faith can lead to an increased level of altruistic behavior among various religious traditions. The surprising conclusion was that there were very small differences between evangelicals and those with no religious affiliation (often called the “nones”) in regards to the number of altruistic activities engaged in. In fact, the differences in overall altruism scores were not statistically significant between most groups and the gap between the most altruistic group and the least was just 4.6%. That came as a surprise to me and a few people who reached out on social media and via email. I had one careful reader note that he believed that evangelicals showed higher degrees of empathy than those without a religious affiliation.
Like most concepts in the social sciences, empathy is hard to define. The mostly widely accepted definition of empathy is that it has two components: the feeling we get in response to seeing an emotional response in others (crying during a wedding when the couple gets emotional), as well as identifying and understanding someone else’s emotions (walking a mile in someone else’s shoes). It just so happens that the General Social Survey asked a series of questions that were meant to tap into both of these expressions of empathy. One caveat is that these questions were only asked in the 2002 and 2004 waves of the survey, but I don’t have any reason to believe that empathy has changed a great deal in the last fifteen years.
Here are the seven statements:
- I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.
- I describe myself as soft-hearted
- I feel pity for someone being treated unfairly
- When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them.
- Sometimes, I feel sorry for other people when they are having problems
- I am often quite touched by things
- Others misfortunes disturb me
Each statement allowed options ranging from “does not describe very well” (1) to “describes me very well” (5).
The graph below displays the mean response for each of the seven religious groups found in the General Social Survey as well as 95% confidence intervals indicated by the capped lines. The results here are fairly clear and consistent across all seven empathy items: evangelicals show the highest level of empathy of any of the seven religious groups, although there are many cases when evangelicals empathy responses are statistically indistinguishable from other religious groups.
The scenarios in which evangelicals score the highest are varied and include being soft-hearted, as well as feeling protective of people being taken advantage of. While there is certainly a margin of error involved in many of these estimates due to the sample size, the other pattern that emerges is that those of the religious nones express some of the lowest levels of empathy on several of the response items. For instance, when it comes to feeling sorry for people having problems, evangelicals scored 6% higher than those of no religious affiliation.
I wanted to get a better view of what empathy looked like as a cumulative concept as opposed to each individual scenario, so I summed the seven questions previously described and then scaled them from 0 (no empathy) to 100 (very high empathy). I then plotted the distribution of these empathy scores on a ridgeline graph below. As the ridges get taller, that indicates that more individuals in that group had that overall score for empathy. Speaking broadly, there were very few individuals who scored below a 40 on the empathy scale, while the vast majority had empathy scores ranging from 60 to 80.
The group that had the overall highest empathy score was evangelical Protestants at 78 points on a scale from 0-100. There were a number of groups that scored between 73 and 78 including mainline Protestants, black Protestants, Catholics, and those of other faith. However, the group that clearly scored the lowest were those of no religious affiliation at 70.5. In fact, the score for nones was 3.5 points lower than the next closest groups, and was 4.5 points lower than the overall sample mean. Only 13% of religious nones scored a ninety or above on the empathy scale, while 26.9% of evangelicals and 19.1% of Catholics were above the ninety-point threshold.
I had to take a closer look to try and understand why evangelicals indicated such high empathy scores. It might be that going to church more often exposes one to the troubles that others are encountering and that this leads to more empathy. I estimated a simple regression model that included controls for age, education, partisanship, income, gender, race, and view of the Bible to try and isolate the impact of church attendance on empathy scores. The results of that regression are visualized below. A line pointing upward indicates the relationship between attendance and empathy is a positive one.
There are a few interesting takeaways from this model. First, evangelicals who attend church infrequently have higher overall levels of empathy than those of other faith traditions. Note that evangelicals who never attend score about five points higher on the empathy scale than the other three groups. However, as one moves from the left side of the graph to the right side of the graph (which indicates increasing levels of attendance), the slope of the line for evangelicals stays relatively flat, while the slopes of the other three lines begin to climb much more quickly. In actuality, there is no statistically significant relationship between attendance and empathy for evangelicals. Frequent church going evangelicals feel as much empathy as evangelicals who never attend. The same is not true for the other groups, however. Two of the three other groups see their empathy rise in statistically significant ways the more frequently they attend religious services. So much so that at the top end of the attendance scale there is no statistical difference between the empathy scores of evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and the “all other” faith group, which includes Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Mormons.
If you are an evangelical, these results provide some positive news, but some things to ponder as well. The finding that evangelicals show higher levels of empathy in most scenarios than other groups along with higher overall empathy scores is clearly good results for evangelicals. However, what tempers that is the fact that more church attendance does not further boost these empathy scores. Contact theory is one of the most important social science discoveries of the last hundred years. It argues that people coming into contact with others who are different than them (racially, economically, politically) leads to reduced prejudice and strongly feels of community and togetherness. It doesn’t look like that is what happening with evangelicals. It doesn’t take a huge leap in logic to understand that when people hear stories about others going through struggles in church would lead an individual to feel more empathy toward their fellow church goer. However, this assumption is not borne out among evangelicals. The only two conclusions from this that I come formulate are that people aren’t sharing their medical setbacks or financial hardships in church or that evangelicals hear those stories, but aren’t being changed by them.
Neither of those possibilities should provide much comfort for evangelicals. If people feel uncomfortable sharing their struggles with others in their church, that’s not what true community is supposed to be about. And if followers of Jesus are not moved by the plight of others, that seems problematic. While evangelicals seem to being doing well on the empathy front, feeling a sense of concern for “,” seems like something that is always in need of improvement.
Dr. Ryan Burge is a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. He teaches in a variety of areas, including American institutions, public administration, and international relations. His research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior, especially in the American context.