Being religious only appears to make people more co-operative or unselfish when they are dealing with other people of the same faith, it suggested.
The findings, likely to prove controversial, emerge from a study carried out by Nottingham University Business School as part of government-funded research into the role of religion in public life.
A team of behaviour experts asked a group of Malaysian people with different religious backgrounds to take part in a series of tasks involving sharing money with other participants.
In one task people were given an imaginary sum of money and given the option of sending some to another participant.
They were told that 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.
They had to judge how “generous” to be.
Participants included Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and non-religious volunteers
The team noticed that there was little difference between levels of co-operation and 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, an Associate Professor of Economics at Nottingham University Business School and co-author of the 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.”
Bingham, John. 2013. “Religion does not make you love your neighbour - study”. The Telegraph. Posted: January 22, 2013. Available online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9816803/Religion-does-not-make-you-love-your-neighbour-study.html