People who recall, or even imagine, being absolved of their sins tend to donate more money to the church, according to British researchers.
"Recent evidence has suggested that people are more likely to behave prosocially, such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating and volunteering, when they feel guilty," said Ryan McKay, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway College of the University of London.
"This raises the question of whether religious rituals of absolution, in which people are absolved of their sins and released from guilt, would actually make people less prosocial."
In a study done by the University of Oxford and Royal Holloway, published in the journal Religion, Brain and Behaviour, researchers posed the question: "If sin is a form of capital, might absolution rituals squander that capital?"
In the study, volunteers – all devout Catholics —were provided two memory tasks.
- First, they were asked to remember a sin, privately, that they had committed in the past.
- Secondly, they had to recall if they attended confession for this sin or, if they hadn't done it in reality, just to imagine doing so.
Each person was given an opportunity to donate to a local Catholic church by putting some money in an envelope.
The participants were divided between those whose money was collected before they remembered being absolved and those who donated after trying to make that recollection.
Researchers discovered that the participants who recalled being absolved, or who merely imagined being absolved, increased their donations.
In addition, donations were extra generous if the person had a strong belief in divine judgment and engaged in religious activities such as praying or Bible reading.
"The results of our study suggest … that 'releasing' people from their sin has a positive prosocial effect. This indicates that the Catholic ritual of confession is an effective means of promoting commitment to the church."
Other religions, including Islam and Hinduism, also have concepts of absolution. Researchers say they would like to analyze adherents of those religions the next time around to see if the results are comparable to Catholics.