Field of Science

Non-religious more likely to donate their bodies to science and organs to other people

Here's a simple, but compelling study. Jon Cornwall (University of Otago, New Zealand) and colleagues from Ireland and South Africa surveyed 200 people who had registered to donate their body to science in those three countries.

They found that body donors mostly (80%) cited a desire to aid medical science as the main reason for wishing to
donate their body. They tended to be older (over 60), and to have been in long-term partnerships (either currently or previously). They were also more likely than the general population to report giving time or money to charity, and to be blood donors or organ donors.

And they were more likely than the general population to report no religious affiliation. As the graphic shows, the percentage of body donors without a religious affiliation, although less than 50%, was much higher than expected in each country (the difference is statistically significant in each case).

Now, there could be all sorts of reasons for this - there was no attempt to adjust for the other differences between donors and the rest of the population. However, in general you'd expect older people with a history of giving to charity to be more likely to be religious, not less likely.

There is an exception, however. Religious people are no more likely to be blood donors than the non-religious, and they seem less likely to sign up to be organ donors.

But it's not just about giving. A recent study in the Netherlands also supports the idea that the non-religious are the most likely to buy into the idea of being an organ recipient, as well as an organ donor.

So is there something special about donating body tissue? Well I suspect there might be. Maybe what is affecting judgements here is essentialism - the idea that all things (especially living things) have some kind of soul or essence that defines them.

After all, if a kidney transplant can make you speak a foreign language, or a heart transplant make you commit suicide, then you need to be a bit cautious!

And perhaps, despite the theological teachings that say a dead body is empty, perhaps ordinary folk-religion takes a different perspective.
Cornwall, J., Perry, G., Louw, G., & Stringer, M. (2012). Who donates their body to science? An international, multicenter, prospective study Anatomical Sciences Education DOI: 10.1002/ase.1278

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Sir,

    If you are going to write about religion, you ought to make a least some small effort to learn about it.

    Nearly all major religions have beliefs about the proper disposal or disposition of the dead bodies of their believers.

    It is the non-believers that think there is nothing particularly significant about their body after their death - after all, they are dead and have no further existence of any kind, so the body is just another piece of dead meat.

    Generally (and that is a difficult thing to say if we must be inclusive of all major religions) religious people tend to believe that at death the spiritual component of themselves is separated from the physical body. We have to stay pretty general here or we'll run up on some doctrinal shoal. What happens next is not generally agreed upon but we can safely say that most believers have some sort of belief about how and why their dead body should be cared for in a particular way. Some of these beliefs conflict with the idea of donating a body to science or even donating organs after death.

    Your flip quip 'And perhaps, despite the theological teachings that say a dead body is empty, perhaps ordinary folk-religion takes a different perspective.' comes across, to me at least, as the statement of someone who is willfully ignorant of the subject he writes about.

  2. Actually, almost all the religious people in this study were Christians, which has no rules against body donation.

    And what about organ donors? Again, the major religions don't block this. e.g. "Malaysian Muslims still reluctant to donate organs"

    "Despite fatwas (religious decrees) allowing organ donation, Muslims in the Malaysia still remain reluctant to donate organs, said the chief coordinator of the National Transplant Resource Centre (NTRC) Dr Lela Yasmin Mansor."

    There has a been some good research into how folk religious beliefs often differ from theologically correct beliefs. For example, even though people often state that their God is omniscient and omniprescent, when you probe their beliefs it's often clear that they intuitively treat there god as neither.

    So we shouldn't be too surprised by these results.

  3. Mr. Rees,

    "...Christians, which has no rules against body donation."

    There is no such thing as "Christians" as far as religious rules are concerned. To use such a generality is to display near total ignorance of the Christian world. There are currently 38000 Christian sects active in the world today and they do not have a common set of rules and attitudes about burial rites, disposal of bodies, donation of bodies to science, or organ donation. Even those that have guidelines for their members, allow for a a wide range of personal choice.

    Some Christian sects believe in the literal resurrection of the body, these sects would definitely be against both donation of bodies to science and organ donation.

    On the other hand, my Christian church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has this official policy: 'The donation of organs and tissues is a selfless act that often results in great benefit to individuals with medical conditions. The decision to will or donate one’s own body organs or tissue for medical purposes, or the decision to authorize the transplant of organs or tissue from a deceased family member, is made by the individual or the deceased member’s family.'

    There are few, if any, religions in the world today that have wide-ranging 'theologically correct beliefs' that their members should or are expected to adhere--> no more than 'humanism' has non-theologically correct views that you and other members of the various humanist societies must adhere to and act on in certain ways. To pretend that this is the case, for you can not possibly be that uninformed, is sophistry.

    To attempt to denigrate the deeply held personal religious understandings of people as 'folk...beliefs' displays hubristic ignorance.

    Where in the world did you get the idea that religious belief was a set of rules or decrees from religious authorities that a group of like-identified people all hold exactly the same? A patently silly and improbable thought, and certainly not based on any reality.

    What the members of a religious group have in common is a shared universal view (an enlarged world view) that helps them to understand and deal with the universally-large spiritual dimensions of existence. Not some set of rules or enforced beliefs.

    I suggest a full course in Comparative World Religions to fill out your knowledge gaps.


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