Can science discover whether belief in karma affects charitable giving?
Another sociological study appears poised for non-replicability. This one, reported on PhysOrg, tried to study whether individuals’ beliefs in karma affect their readiness to support donations of time or money to charity. For review, what is karma?
Although karma, the belief that the universe bestows rewards for doing right and exacts punishments for doing wrong, is largely an Eastern philosophy, there are numerous examples of the notion in Western culture as well, much in line with the sayings “you reap what you sow” and “what goes around comes around.”
How would you predict the results?
The results from the study showed the situation is more complex. When asked to donate their time to help other people, those who believe in karma responded more favorably than those who do not. However, the favorable response was lost when the focus of the charitable appeal was shifted from a benefit to others to a benefit to one’s self, indicating that people with karmic beliefs can be discouraged from donating if they perceive the motivation to be selfish.
Let’s see how many questions we can raise about this study. How many individuals were tested? Were they adequately sampled for ethnicity, religion, social class and education? Were the testers uniform in their approach? Were gender differences of testers taken into account? How was personality and appearance of the tester controlled? Was time of day a factor? Did the participants know what karma is? Did they have uniform notions of karma? What other factors in the participants’ worldviews contributed to their responses to the questions? Were there controls using participants from the slums of Delhi? The number of uncontrolled variables seem to make any conclusions ambiguous if not dubious.
What’s more instructive is the sociologists’ foray into theology and philosophy:
As a naturalistic principle, karma shares properties with other irrational beliefs, such as superstition and fate, which help explain life events or occurrences that are otherwise difficult to understand. Most Americans are unlikely to admit they are irrational, but a growing body of research shows otherwise, raising previously unanswered questions about the effects of karma on consumer behaviors.
How rational is it to presume conclusions from a poorly-drawn, pseudo-scientific study? Maybe the researchers should examine their own membership in the class of “most Americans” who “are unlikely to admit they are irrational.”
This study seems little better than the debunked Lacour study on how to convince people to accept gay marriage (12/12/14). That aside, we can reason about the effects of theological positions. Eastern karma holds two doctrines in conflict. On the one hand, giving to charity should increase your good karma. On the other hand, people who suffer are getting what they deserve for their own bad karma. Interfering with their karma might hinder their advancement in the next life, so it is not charitable to help them. Consequently, Hindus are not particularly well known for their charity. That’s why Mother Theresa, a European, came from western culture to help the destitute that their own neighbors left to suffer.
The Bible presumes a different kind of “karma” if it is even appropriate to use that word. We reap what we sow, Paul said in Galatians 6, but just prior to that he urged his readers to bear one another’s burdens. The Bible’s principle, also advanced by Jesus and Solomon, involves consequences of choices. It is not fatalistic. It is not some mechanical principle built into mindless nature. It is God’s justice, the reward of obedience and the punishment for disobedience. The Bible replaces karma dogma with love (I Corinthians 13), the highest goal we should embrace by conscious choice.
We are responsible to God for our choices. Choose well.*
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