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Love thy neighbour

Being religious makes people more co-operative or unselfish only when they are dealing with other people of the same faith, a new study has suggested. The findings were reached by researchers at Nottingham University Business School as part of a government-funded investigation into the role of religion in public life.

A team of behaviour experts there asked a group of Malaysian people with different religious backgrounds to take part in a series of tasks involving sharing money with other participants.  People were given an imaginary sum of money with the option of sending some of it to another participant. Whatever they did not send they would be able to keep but also that the participant could chose to send some of it back - which would then be tripled. Participants included Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and non-religious volunteers.

The team noticed that there was little difference between levels of generosity when people knew nothing of the other person's beliefs and when they knew that they were of different persuasions. But when told that the other person shared their religion they were markedly more trusting and generous with the money.

Dr Robert Hoffmann, co-author of the resulting report, said: 'One would imagine the charity inherent in many well-known articles of faith might have some impact on everyday behaviour. But we discovered no evidence of that when we examined what happens when people who are religious knowingly interact with those of a different or no faith.'

'When we looked at how religious people knowingly interact with those of the same faith, on the other hand, suddenly their religion started to explain their actions. This leads us to the sobering conclusion that religion doesn't affect people's behaviour in general terms. Rather, it affects how they relate to different individuals.'