Guest post: Are the faithful really more charitable?

October 19, 2011 • 4:50 am

Today we have a guest post by the estimable Sigmund, who analyzes recent claims that religious people donate more to charity than do nonbelievers.

Faith and Charity – what the evidence reveals

by Sigmund

While many on the pro-faith side of the science/religion debate are hardly shy about claiming nonscientific but “equally valid” means of acquiring knowledge, in particular, religious experience and revelation, there remains one circumstance in which the religious do insist on empirical data:  when it appears to support their particular religion.

One such topic is the question of whether religion promotes increased levels of charity. Several previous studies have tacked this topic, most coming to the conclusion that higher religiosity is positively associated with higher levels of charitable giving—both religious and secular -—and that religious individuals are more likely to volunteer to help out in the community.

However, the question of religion and charity is not a simple one. A complicated relationship exists between political viewpoint, levels of religiosity and practical measures of involvement in a religious community such as frequency of church attendance.

Direct donations to churches and to religious charities make up nearly half of all charitable giving by US households. It is questionable, however, whether this figure alone is evidence that church donations help the needy of society at large rather than simply support the religious organization itself. Mark Chaves, in his book Congregations in Americapoints out that even religious congregations that promote social service activity spend less than 3 percent of an average congregation’s budget on these programs.

However, despite the low percentage of charitable spending by churches as institutions, religious individuals seem more likely to donate to charity. As noted by Arthur Brooks in “Religious Faith and Charitable Giving” Policy Review (2003), “Believers give more to secular charities than non-believers do.” This tendency towards charitable giving was not simply a question of religious people financially supporting their own church, as the average religious household’s donations to nonreligious charities is 14 percent more than that of the average secular household.

The question therefore remains what particular factors motivate individuals to donate to charity.  Is it a question of religious belief, practice or political ideology, or are there other factors that may be of primary importance in encouraging higher levels of charitable donations?  Of particular interests to readers of WEIT is the question of whether religion is a cause of charitable giving or is simply facilitates it as a side effect of particular practices that could also exist in a non-religious context. In other words, is it belief in God that makes people charitable, or the sociality that goes along with belonging to a church or a religion?

Several earlier studies have tried to separate the factors discussed here, examining how differing aspects of religiosity and politics contribute towards the levels of charitable donations of individuals. Here we summarize the findings of three papers published in the past year (here, here, and here), written by sociologist Brandon Vaidyanathan and colleagues from the University of Notre Dame and Calvin College. The studies examine whether earlier conclusions about religion, politics and charity can be clarified by a finer analysis of recently collected sociological data.

To address these issues, the authors examined several sets of sociological survey data involving the nexus of religion, politics and charitable giving.

In ‘Religion and Charitable Financial Giving to Religious and Secular Causes: Does Political Ideology Matter?’, published in the ‘Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion’ the authors examined which factors best explain the finding that individuals who describe themselves as evangelical Christians donate higher amounts to charity compared to religious liberals. Conservative academics, such as Brooks, have suggested that political ideology is the key issue here: in other words, political conservatism, to which evangelical Christianity is closely associated, encourages a higher level of personal charitable donations than does political liberalism, which promotes the notion of higher taxes being used to help the needy.

Using data produced by the Panel Study on American Ethnicity and Religion, Vaidyanathan and colleagues concluded that:

“For both religious and nonreligious giving, the effect of political ideology is completely mediated by participation in religious and civic practices. These findings support recent arguments on “practice theory” in cultural sociology and suggest that it is less the effect of ideology than of active participation in religious, political, and community organizations that explains Americans’ financial giving to religious and nonreligious organizations.”

In other words it is the community aspect of religion rather than political viewpoint that seems to be the most important factor in donation to charity. Those individuals who were less regular churchgoers – such as the average mainstream Protestant—donated on average considerably less than did evangelicals. On the other hand, evangelicals who were less regular churchgoers donated less, while non-evangelical liberal Christians who were more frequent churchgoers tended to donate more.

In the remaining two studies, ‘Substitution or Symbiosis? Assessing the Relationship between Religious and Secular Giving’, published in the journal ‘Social Forces,’ and ‘Motivations for and Obstacles to Religious Financial Giving’, published in the journal ‘Sociology of Religion’ the authors tackled the question of whether charitable giving to religious causes impinges (either positively or negatively) on giving to secular causes, and examined, in an interview setting, the reasoning of the faithful themselves about their charitable donations.

In the former paper the authors confirmed earlier studies showing that higher religious donation is associated with increased donations to secular charities.

Examining three waves of national panel data, we find that the relationship between religious and secular giving is generally not of a zero-sum nature; families that increase their religious giving also increase their secular giving.

They concluded that” this finding is best accounted for by a practice theory of social action which emphasizes how religious congregations foster skills and practices related to charitable giving.”

In other words, certain practices encourage traditions of giving that result in individuals becoming more likely to donate to charities as a whole, both religious and secular. This conclusion resembled that of Brooks 2003 study in that practical advantage of religious practice appeared to create an environment for teaching practices to the younger generation—in this case the positive practice of donation to charity.

The final study involved the question of explaining of the self-described motivations for charitable and religious contributions, taken from personal interviews and church financial information from the Northern Indiana Congregational (NIC) study. This paper confirmed some of the findings of the previous two papers.

One feature worth noting from personal interviews was that much of the pattern of charitable donations seemed highly socialized—in other words, it was something an individual’s parents had done and the offspring were simply carrying on a family tradition. In other cases it seemed normative—individuals were doing what they thought everyone else was expected to do in the congregation. One interesting finding was described as “giving illiteracy”: data showed that a large fraction of religious people claimed to have donated far more than the church financial records reveal they actually gave.

While these studies may provide some small comfort for faitheists who claim that religion has certain valuable aspects with positive effects on society, the effects themselves are clearly not exclusive to religion, but are, rather, a side effect of the congregational nature of religious practice. Membership in an active community, religious or secular, promotes the communication of information about specific social problems that can be addressed through charitable donations or through volunteering time and effort.

What remains an open question is whether secular-based alternatives can replace the current church led dominance of the US charity scene. Nevertheless, the fact that 60% of religious charitable donations are provided by just 5% of congregants suggests that religion is itself an inefficient device towards this end.

Finally, I should note that the studies discussed here are confined to the United States. The picture of charitable donation in societies with lower levels of religiosity suggests that church attendance is hardly a prerequisite for altruistic behavior, for some of the least religious countries are among those donating the highest amounts to charity.

47 thoughts on “Guest post: Are the faithful really more charitable?

  1. Interesting, the Salvation Army has built a new church in my town, costing £2m, thats pounds sterling, not your funny monopoly money.

    1. hehe, “monopoly money”. You know, in the US, our money is all green (terrible idea, I know), but our monopoly money is multi-colored, so that means everybody else’s money in the whole world looks distinctly like monopoly money. Lucky for me, I live fairly close to the Canadian border, so I learned from a fairly young age that the perception is mutual! 😀

    2. When many people give to the Salvation Army they imagine they are helping support hostels for the homeless and soup runs. As one homeless musician I once met put it “They have nice instruments.”

      1. This is absolutely true, but it’s worse. The homeless taken in by the Sally have half around £25/week of their benefits taken from them by the hostel to contribute to their ‘half board’, but the hostel also gets in the region of £250-£320/week from the local council per person to cover that persons housing & feeding. This money is attached to each homeless persons tax records. Therefore to get a bed in the hostel… Yes ~ you must be carrying I.D. !!! (there’s a 6-bed unit for those with no I.D. which is usually good for one night only)

        The sally army hostel near me has around 80 beds ~ not nearly enough. All the hostels in my area share information & once a degenerate alcoholic (say) is thrown out of one hostel he’s in a pickle ~ access denied everywhere.

        The Sally here in the UK has virtually ceased supplying beds for females. A female rough sleeper in Birmingham will have a tough time getting a roof.

        Finally ~ nearly all the services at the sharp end of the Sally hostels are provided by civilian employees – the Army staff are involved in the religious, ceremonial & back office functions. A homeless persons caseworker in the hostel is usually a civilian.

  2. What about the possibility that the religious motivation to give to charity involves the belief that god is watching and, like Santa, keeping track of who is naughty and who is nice?

    1. The third paper looked into self reported motivations for giving. They didn’t find the sort of ‘God is watching so I’d better donate if I want to get into heaven’ answers that you ask about.
      In fact they found something else that seems to point in the opposite direction. They found what they describe as “giving illiteracy” – basically a large fraction of religious people claimed to be donating far more than the church records reveal they actually did (in the paper the authors try their hardest to avoid the awkward conclusion that this is simply the participants lying!)

      1. Obviously motivation is hard to gauge since a person could be lying or unaware of a subconscious motivation. I always wonder about why people “do the right thing.” Is it because they expect an external reward (public recognition, god’s approval, a ticket to heaven, etc.) or the satisfaction of doing it because it is the right thing?

      2. It sounds to me like in these communities, charitable giving is a way of “competing with the Jones'”

        IOW, while some tend to compete by buying a more expensive car than the neighbors, it is not ahistoric to note that many communities tend to compete with each other as to “who gave the most”.

        it might have been a religious concept at one time, but is now just a competition.

        which of course would exactly explain why people falsify the amounts they gave; they get to brag about having given “more” without actually having done so.

        1. There’s also the other aspect of that- when donations are being publicly collected,it reflects badly on you if you’re seen as not willing to cough up as much dough as the Smiths. With churchgoing being, of course, a very social event that, especially in smaller communities, is practically tailor made for gossip spreading, people are very likely to at least try to give the impression of being generous.

      3. They found what they describe as “giving illiteracy” – basically a large fraction of religious people claimed to be donating far more than the church records reveal they actually did (in the paper the authors try their hardest to avoid the awkward conclusion that this is simply the participants lying!)

        Indeed, that euphemism and its possible (likely?) real meaning jumped out at me when I first read it in your post.

        Additionally, I noticed that the data in the Arthur Brooks study you reference are all self-reported. Isn’t there quite a lot of evidence that such studies are notoriously unreliable?

        Also, the secular component of the data was “disproportionately” male, unmarried, and young (relatively–compared to the religious portion, anyway). All of these factors might contribute to charitable giving being less likely. IME, all of life’s experiences–raising a family, living long enough to witness the misfortunes of friends & family, etc.–change one’s perception of the need for charity, and all might be more important factors in the level of giving than the professed religiosity or lack of same reported.

        1. Speaking as someone who’s young, single, secular, and male, I’m also an unemployed college student. I simply don’t have the financial resources to make large charitable contributions, and I’m sure I’m not unusual in that respect for my demographic.

          1. Absolutely, I totally agree. Thing is, in the study, ‘relatively young’ was defined as being in one’s 40’s… (So the Xtian contingent must have been substantially older.)

            Sounds to me like not the best random sample…

            Lots of things are confounding random samples these days. E.g., last I heard they relied on land-line users, a demographic increasingly skewed to fogies.

            –Diane, fogey…

  3. So in short (and this was my perception prior to reading the article, so PHEW!, I didn’t have it wrong), the answer is: Yes, but not by nearly as much as is often claimed, and the picture is complicated.

    Nevertheless, we nontheists can and ought to do better in this category. I very much include myself in that, as it always seems like I convince myself that it’s the wrong time for me financially to give. The fact that liberals like myself feel that the social safety net is far more efficiently and reliably woven via taxation rather than charitably giving does not change the current sad state of the social safety net in the US.

    1. I think the data from these papers suggests a couple of ways that atheists can do more in terms of charity.
      First, it seems that involvement in an active community is the best environment for promotion of charitable donations or volunteering in the community. If we want to see an increase in charity from the non-religious we could take advantage of the various freethought communities (atheist/skeptical/secular etc) to promote this activity.
      Second, it seems that being charitable is often a learned behavior. Those of us who are bringing up children may do well to teach our children the value of charity. I guess a lot of us already do this but the research on which this article was based suggests that following a behavior of charity that was taught a person’s parents is one of the major reasons people give for being charitable.

    2. actually, I don’t agree that the results of these papers show there is a religious bias towards giving more.

      as is noted several times, there is a community effect here, and since the VAST majority of americans claim to be religious, that gets conflated with the numbers for giving.

      So, in short, no, there is no religious effect on giving, but rather just a community level one.

      I prefer the competition hypothesis I noted above:

      In many communities, people compete with each other for how much they give to charity, like others might compete with each other by the type of car they drive.

      1. I agree with you but I think the problem we face with this sort of model is that it will result in an indirect effect on charity. The sector of society that encourages or requires a community, such as religious congregations, are going to inevitably give more to charity.

        1. Yes, it’s just on the hypothesis made by these studies of whether religion itself is conducive to charity that I disagree with.

          the conclusion that community leads to more charity is certainly established well enough.

          stressing community is certainly a good thing, IMO, but as we discussed on the threads regarding an “Atheist Church” over on Pharyngula, religion itself is also not a requirement in encouraging community, it’s more an issue of habit, than utility.

  4. My poorest friends (one or two being quite destitute) give the most away as a proportion of income.

    My female friends give more than my male friends.

    My atheist friends are far more critical givers than my religious friends. The latter have no idea that sending food to a famine area will destroy the teetering local micro-economy of small traders. So an African village needs a goat or a well dug. No inquiry into how this donation will tip the economics of the community. The religious think their money thrown at a distant ‘issue’ is a good thing, but they will not give money to the addict on their street corner. A coffee, a Bounty or a sarnie, but no cash. *Monty Python screechy female voice* ~ “It’s for your own good dear” smug b**tards. Obviously this is my little rant, but I have noticed the religious do love to rub in a moral message before handing over the goodies.

    Finally potlatch is the new big thing with the ultra-wealthy & I hope to see that increase. Especially with the mega-churches & the preacher multi-millionaires. What’s the chances?

    Potlatch:…hierarchical relations within and between clans, villages, and nations, are observed and reinforced through the distribution or sometimes destruction of wealth, dance performances, and other ceremonies. The status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources. The hosts demonstrate their wealth and prominence through giving away goods

    1. “Sarnie?” Babelfish doesn’t offer an English/American translation…

      Potlatch–great native American practice–but do you have refs to its embrace by the rich?

      1. $600 Billion Charity Challenge

        Philanthropists Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have asked 400 of the richest Americans to pledge half of their fortunes to their favorite causes either during their lifetimes or in their wills.

        Both Gates and Buffett are worth about 50 billion dollars each, and both are large contributors to charity, including Buffett’s annual contribution to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which Gates has invested over 30 billion dollars in.

        At, the two call upon other rich people to make a conscious commitment now rather than putting it off, and to go public with their pledges to motivate others to do the same.

        “People tend to wait,” says Gates. “They may not know all the neat things going on.”

        Buffett started it all in 2006 with his own pledge: 99% of his wealth. He says he commits it “to benefit others who, through the luck of the draw, have received the short straws in life.”

        There are currently just over 1000 billionaires worldwide. So far, four have stepped up to the pledge plate. If all make what Gates and Buffett are dubbing the “moral” commitment, 600 billion dollars could be generated for philanthropic causes

        Check out The Giving Pledge

  5. I’ve come around to the idea that around half of a person’s personality is down to a genetic predisposition, and that there are around 4 main temperament types (lots of debate about the definitions and mechanisms).

    On that basis it is possible that people of a certain temperament type (or two) are more likely to be charitable and also more likely to be religious.

    In which case the religious impulse is correlated with charity rather than causal.

    1. Good point. EVEN IF people who go to church more often are (on average, by whatever measure) more generous than people who go less often, this could be because generous people are more likely to join a church than selfish people.

      Why would this be? We are constantly being told that churches are all about charity, so generous people may grow up thinking that church is the best place to do the generous things they long to do. They would then have a slightly stronger motivation to join than selfish people.

      In this case, they’re in congregation because they’re good people, rather than the other way around.

  6. In 1990, Alfie Kohn wrote a book titled You Know What They Say: The Truth About Popular Beliefs, in which he examined the validity of such nuggets as swimming after eating, increased suicide rates around holidays and whether creativity requires a touch of madness. On page 129, he brigs up the topic, Religious People Are More Altruistic; here is what he wrote (with notes:In a society that teaches us to associate morality with religion, it is easy to assume that a strong relationship exists between piety and pity, between god and good.“…After all, the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, like those of most supernatural belief systems, contain reminders to be compassionate and charitable.These familiar injunctions…have not been sufficient to prevent the commission of a range of horrors under the banner of one religion or another, from the Hebrews who utterly destroyed] the men, women and children, of every city” as they invaded in Canaan (Deut 3:6) to the barbaric Christian Crusaders to fanatics killing in Allah’s name. Less dramatically there are also exists a “long parade of findings demonstrating that churchgoers are more intolerant of ethnic minorities than nonattenders”A careful study of about 2,000 Episcopalians in the 1950’s turned up “no discernible relationship between involvement [in the Church] and charitable acts.”“ In a questionnaire based study of altruism involving several hundred male college students in 1960, there was only a slight correlation between altruism and belief in god and none at all between altruism and attendance of religious services. In interviews with randomly selected adults in 1965, “the irreligious: [were] nearly as frequently rated as being a good Samaritan, having love and compassion for their fellow man and being humble as the most devout and religious of our group studied.”Two experiments with undergraduates during the 1970s found essentially the. same thing: Min one, the students who believed in the bible’s accuracy were no more likely to come to the aid of someone in the next room who appeared to have fallen off a ladder. In the other study, students who were classified as being “born again Christians”, conventionally religious, nonreligious or atheists. There was no statistically significant difference among these groups to volunteer time with retarded children or to resist temptation to cheat on a test (There was only one group in which a majority did not cheat: the atheists).In 1981, a researcher who surveyed more than 700 people from different neighbourhoods in a medium-size city expected to find that religious people were especially sociable, helpful to their neighbours and likely to participate in neighbourhood organizations. Instead, she reported, religious involvement was virtually unrelated to these activities Finally, an ambitious new study of people who risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Nazis found that “rescuers did not differ significantly for bystanders or all non-rescuers with respect to their religious identification, religious education and their own religiosity or that of their parents.Notes: Churchgoers’ intolerance: G.W. Allport & J.M. Ross “Personal Religious Orientation & Prejudice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP). (5:432, 1967). Episcopalians: C.Y. Glock, B.B. Ringer & E.R. Babbie, “To Comfort & To Challenge, (Berkeley, U of Calif. Press, 1967, 182-83). College Males: R.W. Frederichs, “Altar Versus Ego” “American Sociological Review (25:496-508, 1960). The 1965 interviews: V.B. Cline & J.M. Richards Jr., “A Factor Analytic Study of Religious Belief and Behaviors”, JPSP (1:577, 1965) Biblical Literalists: L.V. Annis “Emergency Helping & Religious Behavior”, Psychological Reports, (39:151-58). “Volunteering & Cheating”: R.E. Smith, G. Wheeler and E. Diewner “Faith Without Works”, Journal of Applied Social Psychology” (5:320-30, 1975). Neighborhood involvement: S Georgianna, “Is a religious Neighborhood a Good Neighborhood?” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations (11:1-16, 1984). Rescuers: S.P. Oliner & P.M. Oliner, “The Altruistic Personality (New York: Free Press, 1988, p.156).

  7. The hypothesis/conclusion is that higher rates of charity are a phenomena of community, not religion. I think that the best way to test this would be to look at non-communal religions. Can anyone think of any?

    1. I guess the closest to that in the US would be those claiming to be Christians but not members of any official church. This group contains a sizeable proportion of believers with which you could do a comparison with the more mainstream churchgoers.

    2. Non-communal religions?

      Hmm, solitary Wiccan and Neopagan practitioners are the only ones who immediately come to mind as such, since those religions tend to be anarchic and lack the structured hierarchies of the Abrahamic religions.

  8. Who is all interesting but how can we ascertain the trutg behind any of these claims? All of these studies are based on self reporting. Why can’t it simply be that theis secular people are more truthful than the religious when it comes to reporting the charitable activities?

    1. Yum. Especially with a refreshing beer ~ Cobra & Kingfisher go well with spiced dishes. Also I’ve had these recommended, but not tried yet: Mongoose, Bangla & Lal Toofan ~ must get down the curry house soon!

  9. “Direct donations to churches and to religious charities make up nearly half of all charitable giving by US households.”

    The vast majority of the money donated to churches isn’t charity.

    I did a study once using xian sources. 88% of church collections are used internally on building, utilities, and salaries. Homeostasis. Much of the rest is “pass through” to the national organization.

    Small amounts of it go to charity work and missionary work. Really small amounts.

    1. Much of the rest is “pass through” to the national organization

      In the RCC very handy for hush money, lawyers & fines

    2. From what I’ve seen with my parent’s churches, it seems like the majority of their charity work doesn’t involve money, but rather providing sites for homeless people to sleep, organizing groups of volunteers to go out and clean up stuff, bring meals, cheer up old people. In short, a lot of ‘charity work’ doesn’t even require an infusion of cash money at all, but rather space and people. Then they hold that up as example of their goodness and ask for a percentage of your income that goes to everything else a church does, most of which more directly benefits its members.

  10. “60% of religious charitable donations are provided by just 5% of congregants suggests that religion is itself an inefficient device towards this end”

    That doesn’t suggest inefficiency! That simply suggests income inequality. Few rich people have the means to donate large sums.

    1. I guess it could be consistent with either explanation. However the data from the third paper “Motivations and Obstacles”, particularly the comparison between claimed donations and actual donations, suggests that religiosity per se, doesn’t result in charitable (if we accept this type of giving as “charity”) donation.

  11. I don’t see any mention of the practice of tithing anywhere. Many churches base their income stream on tithes and would count it as charity from it’s members, whereas it is usually a socially-enforced membership fee. Take tithing out of the mix and you’d see a big change in the numbers.

    1. SimonC: That’s right. Churches are not-for-profit organizations, so donations to churches are regarded as “charity.” But 98% of that money goes to pay the priests and take care of the church, the grounds, the silver chalices and silk chasubles. As you say, it’s not charity, it’s a membership fee for a private club.
      Another funny thing about tithing is that although religious advocates make a big deal of it, very few Americans do it to a significant degree. The average donation by churchgoers to their church is less than 2% of household income. Not a huge sacrifice.

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