Are Atheists Less Charitable?

Yes, says Jonah Goldberg, Editor-at-Large of National Review Online. Read his article here.

They printed this column in the commentary page of yesterday’s Chicago Tribune. It ruined my breakfast, I tell you.

Goldberg says the following:

The further to the left you are — particularly to the secular left — the less likely you are to donate your time or money to charity. Imagine two demographically identical people, except that Joe goes to church regularly and rejects the idea that the government should redistribute wealth to lessen inequality, while Sam never goes to church and favors state-driven income redistribution. [Syracuse University professor Arthur] Brooks says the data indicate that not only is Joe Churchgoer nearly twice as likely as Sam Secularist to give money to charities in a given year, he will also give 100 times more money per year to charities (and 50 times more to non-religious ones).

(Sam Secularist? Is that a nudge to Sam Harris?) Anyway, Goldberg does admit the data provides room for plenty of exceptions:

Because Brooks is using vast pools of data, and because he’s talking about averages rather than individuals, there is no end of exceptions to prove the rule. No doubt there are pious Scrooges and Santa-like atheists.

Certainly, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Ted Turner are among many on the list of non-religious, charitable people.

None of this shows that religion is solely responsible for people being charitable; however, it is no surprise that churches do quite a bit of volunteer and charity work.

Atheist groups do these works as well, but it is more concentrated and less collective. I know my local Center for Inquiry affiliate in Chicago volunteers at the local food depository often. But what are the national organizations doing to promote these activities? Not as much as they could or should be doing, and that needs to be addressed.

I haven’t read Arthur Brooks’ book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism yet, but I feel like there’s a strong rebuttal waiting to be heard. Perhaps readers can shed some light on it.

[tags]Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online, Chicago Tribune, atheist, atheism, Christian, charity, secular, Arthur Brooks, Syracuse University, Joe Churchgoer, Sam Secularist, Sam Harris, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, Center for Inquiry, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism[/tags]

  • Deborah

    Has anyone doing these studies controlled for other effects like family income? I don’t know if wealthier people tend to be more conservative or not, but if so, that could explain the results without invoking the idea that liberals or conservatives are more charitable.

  • QrazyQat

    How about controlling for money given to churches and used for prosthelitizing? Take that out and what do you have from the religious side? (I know churchy types might think that “saving someone’s soul” is more important than merely saving their life, but I don’t see it as helpful, and unlike other forms of charity, it can’t be shown to be helpful.)

    How about money given to places like the Discovery Institute and used, therefore, to attempt to screw up kids’ education? That would count as charity by Jonah’s rules, and even IRS rules, but I can’t see a profoundly destructive act like that being actual charity. Same for money given to “abstinence only” education, teaching falsehoods to children and setting them up for early pregnancy and disease — again, charity according to Jonah and the IRS but destructive rather than helpful.

  • QrazyQat

    Let me add as clarification: the rightwing in the USA has, for some years now, systematically and deliberately gamed the system by seeting up “charities” — places where your donated money counts as charity for tax reasons — which are higly destructive to either people’s lives or democracy (or both). This is easier for them because they’re willing to use churches, with their priveleged tax position, for this destructive work. The leftwing hasn’t been this unethical. If you controlled for all these destructive endeavors, funded by rightwingers and counting as charity, what amounts would you have?

  • Rakeela

    Perhaps the more important aspect of what is shown is not the question of religiousness or not, but the question of pro-individual economic stances versus pro-government economic stances. Someone who believes in the government’s ability to effectively operate charities will face a declining sense of obligation to pay to charities as their taxes go up. Someone who distrusts the government’s capacity to deliver charity will feel obligated to give to charities regardless what the tax rate is (although taxes may squeeze their financial capacity to be charitable regardless).

  • Rebecca

    I’m not one to donate money to organizations – mostly because you don’t know where your money is going and what exactly it is being used for. Lots of times your money is being spent on mass mailings and such. I’d rather just donate my time if it’s a cause I actually care about. Also, many charities are church-related, which may be why the atheist percentage is so low; there are fewer charities they support the ideas of.

  • Zeolite

    I noticed that I stopped giving as much money to charities after I came out of my religious stupor. As a church member I would give money to the church and to other organizations supported by the church without looking closely at what they did with my money. Now I research organizations before I donate and often decide not to donate based on what I learn or, like Rebecca, I’ll decide to volunteer my time instead.

  • False Prophet

    I read an interview with Richard Dawkins where he was asked “wasn’t most of the charitable and relief effort in Hurricane Katrina done by religious people?” He gave two responses:

    1. Most people are religious so if 90% of people are religious, it’s not surprising that 90% of the relief work is going to be done by religious people.

    2. Religious institutions are given all sorts of benefits (e.g., tax exemptions) that even non-profit organizations don’t have in our society. If they don’t pitch in when needed, that just makes them parasites.

  • QrazyQat

    The Whitehouse’s web site had links for charitable giving for Katrina; the no. 2 spot was Pat Robertson’s charity. This is a guy who previously has taken charity money and used it for shipping arms and equipment to his mining businesses in Africa. That’s Christian charity — it counts in Goldberg’s summing up. It wouldn’t in mine.

  • Karen

    As a fundamentalist Christian, I definitely contributed more to “charitable” causes.

    However, I put “charitable” in quotes because 90% of my giving was to my church, missionaries and parachurch organizations designed to “further the gospel” – i.e., proselytize the Christian religion. It was not giving designed primarily to MTWABP (although at the time I thought making more converts WAS MTWABP).

    The other factor, along with giving to church and parachurch organizations for purposes of spreading religion, is that as a Christian I was exhorted (I might even say harangued) about giving money on a weekly or even several-times-weekly basis. As an atheist I no longer have such frequent appeals for my money, or such a convenient place to make donations.

    The public, weekly collection of tithes and offerings in church services is not strictly necessary: Why not just let people mail in their checks or send contributions from home via PayPal? Because the church needs visible, highly public reminders on an every-week basis to encourage/guilt people into supporting its ministry (i.e., salaries, facilities, taxes, etc). The fact that others in the same row can see whether or not you are tossing in some change, bypassing the collection plate or putting in a check is an effective means of peer pressure on the scofflaws.

    Even though donations are collected in such a highly-visible, churches still tend to find themselves funded by a core group of very dedicated members. At the church I last attended, only about 10% of the attenders gave significant amounts regularly.

  • Tige Gibson

    I think it’s fairly clear from the other comments that Christian charity is primarily a means to grow their ranks and helping people is a side-effect if there is any money left. This is yet another reason why being friendly to them is inappropriate and sabotages legitimate efforts to restrain this monster.