Is the Compassion of Religious Liberals Limited or Universal?

A study in the new issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion—the top sociology of religion journal—sets out to determine whether religious liberals are limited or universal in their compassion. 

There’s a bit of background to the new study. The journal published a study in 2002 that suggested religious liberals displayed a limited form of compassion. The authors (Goldfried and Miner) believed that their study showed religious liberals were not compassionate toward people with religious ideas different than their own—namely, fundamentalists. But the authors of the new study (Batson et. al.) found some serious flaws in the first paper’s methods. Therefore, they set out to design a better test and offer a more rigorous investigation, using a system for measuring religious liberals called the Quest Scale. Here’s how they describe their project:

“Quest religion is characterized by religious open-mindedness, viewing religious doubts as positive, and readiness to face existential questions without reducing their complexity. How do those who approach religion in this way respond when confronted with someone whose religious stance violates these values? Are they able to oppose religious close-mindedness yet still show compassion for a religiously closed-minded person? Or do they reject religious closed-minded persons as well? Is their compassion relatively universal, or is it limited to those who do not violate their religious values?”

What their improved test showed was that religious liberals demonstrated significant compassion toward both regular and religiously fundamentalist people. Even if they disagreed with the religious values of someone, the religious liberals still sought to help them out, so long as their efforts weren’t specifically channeled into fundamentalist activities (such as giving the person money to attend a fundamentalist rally). Therefore, the authors of the 2008 study conclude that religious liberals are universal in their compassion: “Quest religion seems to be associated with a broad form of compassion that includes those who violate the quest value of open-mindedness, even religious open-mindedness.”

A second interesting finding was the presence of a population they termed “anti-fundamentalists.” These people had some overlap with the religious liberals, but on the whole seemed to be a distinct religious subpopulation. The results were clearly different for the anti-fundamentalists: they showed significantly less compassion for the fundamentalists, whether or not the help was related to a religious or non-religious activity. As the authors stated: “That the compassion of anti-fundamentalists is circumscribed and that they display general antipathy toward fundamentalists is not surprising. . . Anti-fundamentalist attitudes seem to rely on categorical ‘them-us’ thinking, accompanied by antipathy toward ‘them.’ Quest religion is different. Those high in quest religion appear able to see a person with whom they disagree as one of ‘them,’ yet still very much a person, worthy of respect and care—that is, still one of ‘us.’ For them, the two categories are not mutually exclusive.”

The full details are Batson, C. Daniel, Drew M. Denton, and Jason T. Vollmecke. “Quest Religion, Anti-Fundamentalism, and Limited Versus Universal Compassion.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 47, no. 1 (March 2008): 135-145.


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Filed under Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History

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