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Religious People are Stupid and Mean (Studies Show)

Well, to be fair, that’s not exactly what the researchers said.  But it would be easy to draw those conclusions from a casual reading of two recent reports.

The first study, from the University of British Columbia, notes that “Analytic Thinking Can Decrease Religious Belief.”   (Although, considering the methodology, which appears to have involved having people do a questionaire measuring religious belief, do some mental activities like filling out additional questionaires intentionally printed in hard-to-read fonts [to engage analytic reasoning skills], and then retesting their belief levels, I’m not really sure what this study actually shows).

The second report is from UC Berkeley, which states, “Highly Religious People Are Less Motivated by Compassion Than are Non-Believers.”   This study assessed levels of religious faith of participants and then examined how likely participants were to give “10  lab dollars” (??) to a stranger after watching a video about children living in poverty.

According to the lead researcher  “Overall, this research suggests that although less religious people tend to be less trusted in the U.S., when feeling compassionate, they may actually be more inclined to help their fellow citizens than more religious people.”

Um.  Okay.  Maybe…

On the surface, these would appear to be fairly damning critiques of religious faith. But I wonder if a little perspective might help…

Stages of Religious Commitment.

Obviously, people go to church for different reasons and with different motivations.  These motivations vary greatly, impact behavior differently and tend to evolve through predictable stages.

Stage 1.  Coerced Commitment–  This is the stage where people go to church solely because their mom and dad make them or they feel obliged for some reason to go.  Individuals at this stage have no real personal connection to their religion.  They go because they have to.

An interesting sub-set of this group are the people with a Rule-Based Commitment to their faith.  These individuals tend to be driven by an internal sense of coercion to comply with the rules of their particular religion but they tend to have very little connection to the heart of their faith.

Religious people in this sub-set are often perceived as “orthodox” adherents of their faith community but really are just suffering from scruples or, perhaps, a case of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder  with religious features.  (Incidentally, that’s OCPD, not to be confused with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is a different kind of disorder entirely.)

Stage 2.  Social Commitment–At this stage, people attend church because of the social benefits they achieve from going.  Perhaps there is a good youth group.  Or perhaps a person has found a good group of people to hang out with. Or perhaps a businessman goes to church largely to make useful contacts.

Individuals at this stage aren’t necessarily sure they believe what their church teaches, and they don’t necessarily have well-defined personal beliefs,  but they’re happy enough to go along to get along because they’ve found a group of people they feel comfortable being with are beneficial to be associated with in some way.  Most periodic  (1-2 times/month) church-goers are at this stage.

Stage 3.  Emotional Commitment–At this stage, people have begun to experience a sense of personal meaning from their faith community.  They “draw comfort” from their church’s rituals and devotions and find their church involvement personally meaningful.  They don’t necessarily believe everything their church teaches (in fact, they may disagree with a lot of it) and their personal lives may or may not reflect a deep internalization of their faith, but they are attached to their church and would be deeply offended if anyone questioned their devotion.

Many people at this stage are at least minimally involved in some charitable or community service work as well mostly because it makes them feel good to give back in some way.  Most regular (i.e., weekly) church-goers are at this stage.

Stage 4.  Personal Commitment (aka, “Lived Religion”)–This stage represents about 10% of regular (weekly) church attendees.  This group does draw comfort from the devotions particular to their faith and they are socially involved in their church community, but their commitment to their faith primarily revolves around a quest for personal and spiritual growth.

These are the folks who challenge themselves to conform their lives to the teachings of their faith.  They are seeking metanoia–personal transformation/conversion.  They strive to understand and live up to the requirements of their church, but they are differentiated from the Rule Based Commitment individuals by their relative lack of judgmentalism and their increased sensitivity to human struggle.  They can be perceived as dogmatic in their beliefs, but they tend to be fairly pastoral in their dealings with others.

Religious People are Mean and Stupid–Redux

Ok, now that we’ve concluded our orientation, let’s get back to the research I cited at the beginning.

The problem with studies like these is that they don’t differentiate between types of religious commitment.  It is difficult to say anything meaningful about “religious” people without identifying what kind of religious people you’re talking about.

Religiousness and Reasoning

For instance, more Emotionally-Committed religious individuals, since they tend to have a more intuitive-emotional experience of faith, may very well go through a bit of a faith crisis, and even a loss of faith, as their analytic powers are engaged.  In fact, this is often exactly what happens to teens who lose their (formerly emotionally meaningful but intellectually immature) faith in college.

People have a tendency to assume that their experience of religion is the only experience that exists, and it can be confusing to suddenly have to intellectually justify things that they always just felt were true.  Ignorance of the possibility of an intellectually-enlivened faith often causes people to think that, now that their cognitive powers have been engaged, they are obliged to evolve past the emotionally-focused faith of their youth and into an much more enlightened agnosticsm.

That said, religious people at the Personal-Commitment stage tend to be fairly well-developed intellectually and take a robustly analytical and emotional approach to their faith.  They are aware of the intellectual challenges their faith presents and they have actively worked–or are working–through them.

Religious people at this stage are committed to challenging their whole person–their mind and hearts–to conform to the teachings of their respective faith because they see it as a path to  actualization, true freedom, enlightment, or all of the above.  They aren’t saints, but they believe in the importance of demonstrating integrity between their life and their beliefs and they work hard at being living examples of what they profess.

Clearly, these individuals’ religious faith does not suffer by engaging their analytic powers. In fact, their religious experience is enhanced by bringing their intellect to bear upon it.

Religiousness and Compassion

But what about compassion?  Well, returning to UC Berkeley study, I have no doubt that the Emotionally-Committed religious individuals would be among those who gave their “10 lab dollars” to a stranger after watching a emotionally charged commercial about poverty-stricken children.

They, very much like the non-religiously engaged participants (who are similar to their religious opposites for their largely emotionally-based agnosticism),  would be very susceptible to spontaneous, emotionally-based acts of giving (not–as Jerry Seinfeld put it–that there’s anything wrong with that).

But Coerced/Rule-Based religious people would not do well in this study because, for them, religion is not about compassion, its about rules that separate “us” from “them.” Likewise, the Personally Committed religious people might not have done well on the Berkeley compassion study either because they are, by definition, more conscious about their charitable commitments and are probably already more charitably/pastorally engaged on an ongoing basis than their more Emotionally-Committed counterparts.

Since they are most likely already consciously doing what they believe they can do to respond to the needs of their community/world, they are less likely to be surprised by an emotionally manipulative commercial into the need to do even more in this moment.

In other words, just because someone is more easily emotionally manipulated into spontaneous giving doesn’t mean they’re necessarily more compassionate overall. If I were on this grad student’s dissertation committee, I would have recommended a much more interesting study comparing rates of sustained giving and general awareness of human suffering between highly religious and non-religious individuals.  That, I suspect, would be a much more valid assessment of this study’s hypothesis.

Religious People: Not All the Same Under the Hood

None of this is to say that the studies cited above–and others like them–aren’t interesting. It’s just to say that you have to take any study about “religious people” with a grain of salt.  Likewise, when you think or talk about religious people, it would help to have an understanding of which kind of “religious people” you’re talking about.  They are definitely not all the same.

Rosary photo available from Shutterstock.

Religious People are Stupid and Mean (Studies Show)

Dr. Greg Popcak

Gregory Popcak, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping people-of-faith find effective solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.

The author of over a dozen popular books integrating solid theological insights and counseling psychology (including; For Better...FOREVER! , Holy Sex!, Parenting with Grace, Beyond the Birds and the Bees), Dr. Popcak directs a group pastoral tele-counseling practice that provides ongoing pastoral psychotherapy services to faithful couples, individuals and families around the world.

Together with his wife and co-author, Lisa Popcak, he hosts More2Life, Airing M-F, Noon-1pm Eastern (Tune in online or to podcasts at A sought after public-speaker, Dr. Greg has been honored to address audiences across North America, Australia, and Hong Kong.

For more info on books, resources, and tele-counseling services visit

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APA Reference
Popcak, D. (2012). Religious People are Stupid and Mean (Studies Show). Psych Central. Retrieved on January 21, 2019, from


Last updated: 10 May 2012
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 10 May 2012
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