Interesting: New research seems to indicate that nonbelievers who help others are motivated more by compassion than are charitable religious folks:
In three experiments, social scientists found that compassion consistently drove less religious people to be more generous. For highly religious people, however, compassion was largely unrelated to how generous they were, according to the findings which are published in the most recent online issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The results challenge a widespread assumption that acts of generosity and charity are largely driven by feelings of empathy and compassion, researchers said. In the study, the link between compassion and generosity was found to be stronger for those who identified as being non-religious or less religious.
"Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not," said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study. "The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns."
Note that this study doesn’t mention whether religious and nonreligious folks are more charitable in general others than one another, but merely looks at their motives for doing what they do. It’s also uncertain whether this study can be interpreted to mean that atheists, agnostics and religious “nones” are actually more compassionate in general than believers are, though I would personally reckon that any such difference, if statistically significant at all, would be too small to merit more than a footnote.
Arguably, the idea is for people to be charitable and helpful regardless of their reasons for doing so. But it does fit within the general atheistic experience that religious folks who aid others are more likely to do so because of religious teachings – ie. habit, or a sense of responsibility – than purely out of the goodness of their hearts. Of course, this isn’t to say that theists can’t or don’t do good for goodness’s sake, but it does bear thinking that those brought up to believe in sin, penitence and post-mortem judgment may well have different ideas when it comes to how – and why – they should help others.