Having gone to church at one point on a regular basis, I do know that charitable giving of both time and money is pretty high on the to-do list of most churches. There's little doubt that church-goers everywhere contribute a substantial amount of money to charity. I also know that many religious people like to point out that they believe atheists are more inclined to be morally challenged than their religious counterparts. I found myself thinking about this and I wondered if perhaps your average religious person was more charitable than your average atheist.
According to the American Association of Fundraising Council, the religious person may have a valid point.
-Faith-based charities, including churches, received the most charitable gifts in 2010, capturing $100.63 billion – 35 percent of total contributions in 2010. Religious groups received more than a third of all contributions in the U.S. Faith-based donations increased 0.8 percent from the previous year.
-Charitable giving to colleges, universities and educational organizations accounted for the second largest share of all charitable giving at 14 percent. Educational institutions and organizations received $41.67 billion in gifts. Charitable giving to the education subsector increased by an estimated 5.2 percent in 2010. This follows a drop of 5.6 percent in 2009.
-Giving to foundations rose slightly in 2010 by an estimated 1.9 percent. The estimate for giving to foundations includes gifts made to independent, community and operating foundations.
-Social or human service charities raised $27.08 billion in 2009. Giving to social service charities in 2009 increased 2.3 percent following a drop of 5.9 percent in 2008.
Pretty impressive numbers, especially considering the economy of late. It also shows the overwhelming generosity of Americans.
The trend seen in the example above doesn't seem to be confined to just America though. Canada also shows similar numbers, which were illustrated in a MacLean's article that was published in 2010:
Last summer, Statistics Canada released a survey on Canadians and their charitable habits. While less than one in five attend church regularly, those who do are far more likely to give to charities, and are substantially more liberal in the size of their gifts to both religious and non-religious organizations. The average annual donation from a churchgoer is $1,038. For the rest of the population, $295.
With respect to volunteer effort, two-thirds of churchgoers give their time to non-profit causes while only 43 per cent of non-attendees do likewise. And churchgoers put in twice as many hours volunteering.
Again, those are some pretty compelling numbers. So compelling in fact, that evolutionary biologist and atheist, Richard Dawkins, decided to publish a rebuttal on his web site. Here is what it said:
In the May 10th editorial "Do atheists care less?", the author makes a deeply misleading use of a Statistics Canada figure that states that the average annual charitable donation from weekly
churchgoers is $1,038, compared to $295 for the rest of the population. The simple conclusion is that atheists are less benevolent. Appropriately enough, the devil is in the details.
Deeper research into the Statics Canada data from which the $1,038 figure is derived shows the majority of that amount in the form of donations to charities whose only stated purpose is "the advancement of religion". These charities do not feed the poor, operate blood banks, provide literacy programs or lead other activities we generally consider beneficial. When we filter out such donations, we find that weekly churchgoers, who represent 17% of the population, are said to be responsible for 20% of donations to "non-religious" charities. That no longer seems so impressive.
Clouding the issue, Statistics Canada somehow managed to count missionaries, seminaries and religious publishers and broadcasters as "non-religious" charities for this particular survey.
The real issue here is the unfair government imposed wealth transfer from the non-religious to the religious in Canada by granting charitable status to organizations simply for propagating religious opinions and nothing else. The tax expenditure from the public coffer for registered charities whose only stated purpose was to advance religion was $1.18 billion in 2007.
When these factors are properly accounted for, the proposition that weekly churchgoers are more generous than atheists is simply incorrect. Charitable donations may be higher, but this is only because Canadian law still upholds the outdated principle that espousing religious opinions is in itself a legitimate charitable activity.
The study was also deficient in not being able to count contributions by atheists to benevolent non-charitable organizations, such as volunteers in medical, scientific, educational and ethical societies. Ironic for those who arrogantly profess atheists should - and could - do more, is the fact that legally, ethical societies that do not contain an element of theist worship may qualify as a charity only with great difficulty and cost. Go figure.
I'm not a fan of Dawkins myself, but I do think he makes some good points. However, the disparity between the numbers is still very high. I began to wonder what could account for these differences? Are religious people just more charitable than non-religious people? Because these sorts of numbers don't just hold true for Christians, but every major religious faction.
In my search for answers, I came across this article:
In a review published in Science last month, psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff discuss several experiments that lean pro-Schlessinger. In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one's reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is
bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them.
Maybe, then, religious people are nicer because they believe that they are never alone. If so, you would expect to find the positive influence of religion outside the laboratory. And, indeed, there is evidence within the United States for a correlation between religion and what might broadly be called "niceness." In Gross National Happiness, Arthur Brooks notes that atheists are less charitable than their God-fearing counterparts: They donate less blood, for example, and are less likely to offer change to homeless people on the street. Since giving to charity makes one happy, Brooks speculates that this could be one reason why atheists are so miserable. In a 2004 study, twice as many religious people say that they are very happy with their lives, while the secular are twice as likely to say that they feel like failures.
Could this be the answer? I think it's part of the answer personally, but I also think it goes deeper than that. For example, I think it's just easier for a religious person to give. After all, they frequent a church that passes around a collection plate asking for donations. An atheist on the other hand, is far less likely to frequent a place that does this. Some churches also allow you to give through your debit card, making it even more convenient. Atheists on the other hand, are reminded usually by large disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
I've been accused of attacking or hating religion several times here on NV. I think those charges are false, but I do have to give credit where credit is due. In this case, I think parishioners do deserve props for being so charitable, whatever the reasons for it. And to anyone who does give their time and/or money to charity, I want to thank you. I think if everyone gave just a little bit of their time for the less fortunate, we'd all be better off as a society.