Are Religious People Really More Generous Than Atheists? A New Study Puts That Myth to Rest

Last year, a study released by The Chronicle of Philanthropy suggested that the most religious states were also the most charitable:

Donors in Southern states, for instance, give roughly 5.2 percent of their discretionary income to charity — both to religious and to secular groups — compared with donors in the Northeast, who give 4.0 percent.

Before you jump to conclusions that religion and generosity were somehow connected, keep in mind that those numbers included giving “both to religious and to secular groups”… In other words, church counted as charity.

But when you excluded donations given to churches and religious groups, the map changed dramatically, giving an edge to the least religious states in the country:

Of course, that didn’t stop the media from using headlines like this:

Religious States Donate More To Charity Than Secular States

Earlier this week, a new report released by the National Study of American Religious Giving put a rest to that myth that religious people are more charitable than the non-religious. It turns out nearly 75% of charitable giving by all Americans… benefits places of worship and faith-based charities. A lot of the money isn’t helping the poor and less fortunate. It’s going to the church.

Jay Michaelson of Religious Dispatches explains:

… The study found that 65% of religiously-affiliated people donate to congregations or charitable organizations. (More on that statistic later.) 80% of Americans are religiously affiliated. And 65% of 80% is just about… 55% of the total. In other words, the religious people who are giving say they’re giving because of religion. And they’re overwhelmingly giving to religion as well.

Probably the most notable statistics, though, are those which compare religious and non-religious philanthropy. Religion is supposed to make us better people, which includes, I assume, being more generous. So, is it the case that religious people give more generously than the non-religious?

Well, yes and no. Remember that statistic, that 65% of religious people donate to charity? The non-religious figure is 56%. But according to the study, the entire 9% difference is attributed to religious giving to congregations and religious organizations. So, yes, religion causes people to give more — to religion itself.

A lot of religious giving, then, is self-serving, in the guise of helping others. Often, the donations benefit their faith.

Donations to religious congregations — primarily for religious activity or spiritual development — represent about two fifths of household giving nationally

“Much of what has previously been thought of one-dimensionally as giving to ‘secular’ purposes actually goes to religiously identified organizations,” said report co-author Dr. Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, professor of economics and philanthropic studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. He added that innovative research methods allowed for a clearer picture of the way religious ties shape the giving landscape.

It’s not like there aren’t secular alternatives to religious charities. There’s no shortage of secular groups that feed the hungry and house the poor and fight for the under-privileged. But religious people aren’t giving to those groups as much as they’re giving to groups that do good while also proselytizing. (Which means some of that money being donated is going toward spreading the faith, not actually helping other people.)

In any case, we now have even more proof that religion doesn’t make you any more likely to be generous or willing to help other people. What religious people have that people like us don’t are excellent vessels for giving. But if we can offer secular ways to give (insert plug for Foundation Beyond Belief), there’s no reason our numbers can’t match theirs — and be more cost-effective at the same time.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • the moother

    How many millions of church donations have gone to moving pederast priests to new locations where they had, well, fresh meat? How many millions are spent printing and giving away one of the worst books ever written? How many millions are spent purchasing and the upkeep of buildings that are used for only a few hours a week? How many millions are spent putting up billboards with disgusting and immoral messages?

    • twinbeech2

      Way too many!

    • Houndentenor

      I currently live in the land of the megachurch. While some money donated to churches does indeed go to charitable causes like feeding the hungry and emergency relief, much of it is the equivalent of tax-deductible dues to a country club. I know that most of what goes on and my local churches is hardly “charitable” and probably just allowing people in the northeast to deduct their gym memberships would level the playing field.

    • Franklin Bacon

      It is a terrible waste. Percentage-wise, it’s shocking the huge amount of hours of the week the sanctuary sits empty, but is maintained like a palace. Heating those huge things while homeless people endure the cold outdoors is sickening.

  • Rationalist1

    If they want to be fair and balance out what religious people find important (funding churches and seminaries) for the sake on non believers they should include spending at libraries, bookstores, art galleries, symphony concerts and museums. If those in the south complain, we’ll let them count Nascar.

    • Anny

      Not book purchases and concert tickets, but I suspect a lot of measures of charitable giving include donations to organizations that promote the arts. It would be interesting to see a more detailed breakdown of what types of “religious and secular groups” are popular in each region.

      Where I grew up, it seemed that a lot of the giving involved parents donating to local education groups, sports teams, scout troops, etc. that benefited their children. Certainly not a bad thing, but not what comes to mind when I think of charity. I’m sure there were others who donated to groups working outside our affluent suburb. Similarly, churches can use their resources to serve the poor, or they can use them to reinforce existing class hierarchies.

      It seems a great challenge to hold charitable organizations accountable for where the money goes while also allowing them room to work and experiment AND avoid promoting the notion that charitable giving isn’t worthwhile because “most of it never reaches people anyway”.

  • C Peterson

    While the numbers here are interesting and useful, they still don’t paint a complete picture of charitable giving. These studies always seem to limit giving to monetary contributions. Charity goes far beyond that. I never give any money to causes, but I do donate many hours of my time each week. How is that counted? Where is that seen?

    • onamission5

      This is also a common complaint about studies which look at charitable contributions from the wealthy as compared to the poor. People with less money tend to give what resources they do have– which can amount to free child care, meals for sick or elderly neighbors, along with other expenditures of precious energy and time– but are not counted because those actions have no tax deductible monetary value.

      • wmdkitty

        Yeah. I don’t have a lot of money, but I will happily share my food with those who need it.

    • UWIR

      It’s impossible to objectively quantify charity. Does volunteer work count? Does it still count if the people find the work meaningful and fulfilling? What about people who choose a career that they feel is socially useful, but pays less? And what about helping family members? Etc.

      • C Peterson

        Of course volunteer work counts. And only a Christian would think it only counts if it’s uncomfortable or unpleasant. It would not be difficult to directly equate volunteer hours to dollars.

        • UWIR

          Well, if you aren’t motivated by helping others, or if you have other motivations, is it really charity? Birds don’t eat bugs off of rhinos out of charity, they do it because they’re hungry.

          • C Peterson

            So does monetary charity count when a Christian gives it, not because of a motivation to help, but because he considers it a religious obligation?

            We’re looking at charitable contributions. We can’t practically look at motivation. But we can look at dollars and hours.

      • smrnda

        I will agree here, adding that ‘charity’ is not the only way to be generous. I would prefer that my taxes increase to pay for better social welfare programs and better schools, but if I got my wish, my increased tax burden motivated by *exactly the same reasons that motivate charity* won’t show up as generosity, but a someone donating money to some cult would appear to be ‘charity.’ People are measuring what is easy to measure – $ given, hours spent volunteering. Despite doing a lot of volunteer work, I definitely understand that some problems are not going to get fixed by volunteers.

        There also has to be some way of measuring effectiveness. It is possible that a lot of time and money donated to charity doesn’t actually fix the problems it’s supposed to solve. A lot of faith based drug rehab programs don’t work but are getting counted as ‘charity.’

    • smrnda

      A point I should make as well, given that I spend between 8 and 20 hours a week doing volunteer work or running a non-profit. At least I can guarantee that all the activity I do benefits real persons and not imaginary deities.

  • cyb pauli

    Maybe I’ve been studying a little too hard, but those differences don’t seem all that significant to me. I’d sum it up as Americans give about 4.5% to charity including churches. (Or ~1.1% not including churches).

    • Feminerd

      The difference between 0.9% and 1.4% is definitely statistically significant. The difference between 0.9% and 1.1% is also probably significant. Small differences across very large sample sizes are still important.

      It doesn’t mean that more secular areas are awesomely generous, of course. 1.4% of income is still not a lot. It just means that when Christians talk about how they’re so much more generous/better people than other people, we have data to show that this is untrue.

      • UWIR

        “The difference between 0.9% and 1.4% is definitely statistically significant.”

        One would have to know the sample size and the in-group variation to know whether it’s statistically significant. Making proclamations of significance based solely on sample means is statistical nonsense.

  • mobathome

    This graphical presentation of the percentages by region has many faults:

    – All regions are presented as thickened. While this makes for pretty 3D-looking perspective graphics, it adds no information to what is presented, and may mislead as the next two points propound.

    – Egregiously, the western region’s thickening is not shaded, unlike the thickening of the other three regions. This may make it appear relatively less important than the other regions.

    – Similarly, the perspective view makes the “closer” southern region thicker so it may seem relatively more important than the other three, especially when compared to the north-east region.

    - Each region has different area, with the southern region being largest while the northeast region is smallest. Again, this may affect the perception of the relative importance of the regions.

    This “importance” may be relevant to the perception of the percentages presented. While these numbers are directly comparable, the viewer may feel each region’s number be weighted by its presentation. For example, in the second image, the southern region’s 0.9% may feel more than the northern middle region’s 0.9%.

    A better presentation would have been to give the data in a table. The spatial identification of regions could be done with an orthogonal projection that leaves the relative areas untouched. Then three other columns should have presented additional information about the regions:

    - The percentage of the net domestic product.

    - The percentage of the population.

    - The percentage of the population below the poverty line.

    With these data in one table, the percentages of discretionary income given to charity can be meaningfully evaluated and compared.

    • VCP

      I also thought that the regions were arbitrarily large. Including Washington and Utah in the same region would tend to obscure their vast differences. Come to think of it, including anything with Utah would be a mismatch. Maybe Utah should be a region by itself?

      • mobathome

        And I forgot to ask “Where are Alaska and Hawaii?”

        • Little_Magpie

          And every time I see something like this, I wonder if anyone has studied whether trends in Canada are the same or different, because a lot of people sort of figure it’s kind of all the same north American culture so stuff is probably similar, but that’s not always true.

          Although your question is more directly relevent, since Alaska and Hawaii are, after all, part of the us. (I also wonder about the territories ie Puerto Rico.)

  • Jeff

    There are too many holes in this for the data to be useful, to many vague or outright missing variables. It also seems to me we can get into an argument that if I give to an animal shelter, my “contribution” is of less value than someone who gives to a homeless shelter. I don’t think we want to go there. We should make our own choices about what, how, and how much we contribute, and spend a bit less time worrying what others give.

  • twinbeech2

    I think it’s interesting that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both atheists, have gotten together a group of some 50 billionaires (most who are themselves atheists) to donate their billions to the charities of their choice. More are expected to join. Meanwhile the Vatican still maintains its immense wealth in the form of paintings, gold and silver artifacts and wine collection.

    When the pope decides to give all that to the poor, I’ll listen to what he has to say.

    • Keyra

      Bill Gates is not an atheist

      • L.Long

        But I have not heard of any of his groups asking if the recipients have received jesus into their hearts either.

      • C Peterson

        That’s uncertain. At the very least, he’s a “none”, and his charitable work is driven by humanism, not religion.

    • blarghhh

      Warren Buffett is an agnostic

      • C Peterson

        That’s what he said. An atheist.

    • Little_Magpie

      I also like that those two guys have come out saying, we should be paying more taxes, this system is ridiculous.

  • newavocation

    If you include churches, countryclubs should also be included.

    • islandbrewer

      I was thinking mob bosses running protection rackets should be included with churches.

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    I wonder how many donate because they feel forced to do so. I myself do not donate money because I don’t make a lot myself. I simply don’t have it to spare but I’m sure there are plenty that give to their church when they simply shouldn’t.

  • Kraut

    I know that in Germany regular church goes donate more money to charity in general than religious people and even more so than atheists. This whole debate seems like a waste of time to me at any rate. So what if going to church regulary makes you donate more ?

    • VCP

      It really wouldn’t matter, except that the religious often use the perceived difference as a point against atheism.

      • mobathome


    • L.Long

      They do??? ANd you know this How??
      Hopefully not ‘just cuz they say so.’

      • mobathome

        Perhaps he’s counting the fact that in Germany, tithes are collected directly by the state and handed over to the churches?

  • FlyingFree333

    On average a religious charity only spends 19% of donations on actual charitable work, the average secular charity spends 91%. Religions aren’t monitored and can do anything they want with the money, secular charities are strictly monitored, religious charities deny aid to people based on gender, race, sexuality, religion, etc. and frequently require recipients to attend religious rituals. Religions are not charities, they simply pretend to be in order to gain donations, press and new recruits.

    • Anathema

      Out of curiosity, where did you get those percentages from?

      • randomfactor

        I think the secular percentage is substantially less than that. Not because they’re cheating, but because overhead is overhead.

    • Keyra

      Same could be said for Hollywood celebrities, but we’d just be making assertions like you are

    • wmdkitty

      “religious charities deny aid to people based on gender, race, sexuality, religion, etc. and frequently require recipients to attend religious rituals.”

      That totally jives with my experiences — you’ll get “help”, with lots of strings attached…

    • Karen

      Well said. One only has to look at the churches, housing, cars, travel, salaries, icons, etc. of the religious leadership to see where the donations are going!

    • UWIR

      ” they simply pretend to be in order to gain donations, press and new recruits.”

      And special governmental treatment.

      • smrnda

        I get really irritated by the special treatment religious organizations get when it comes to not having to document and disclose their finances. I help run a volunteer organization, and unlike a religion we at least deliver concrete, real world results you can measure, but yet religions, whose benefits are kind of dubious, are getting a better deal.

  • Keyra

    Religion and generosity do not connect. Jesus and generosity however, do. And when has it ever been official that either religion or atheism are morally superior? It depends on the person.

    • Feminerd

      What does Jesus have to do with generosity? Most religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, have commands or commandments about helping the poor. Judaism does, Christianity does, Islam does (it’s actually the most important of the five pillars). Believing in Jesus in the US, though, is associated with giving less to charity, though more to churches.

      Thus, there is only a negative correlation between Jesus and generosity. The more Jesus, the less generosity.

      As for your moral superiority question, atheism doesn’t even enter that question. It depends on the philosophical outlook of the person. Humanism is definitely morally and ethically superior to any religion, though.

    • Carmelita Spats

      WTF? The 33-year-old virgin carpenter was not generous. The Nazarene was extremely stingy with his magic tricks (healings, miracles) which he only doled out to help a select few so as to draw attention to himself. Jesus was CONSTANTLY behaving like a gum-snapping, annoying, Facebook girl. In one scene, the bigoted, sexist, racist, insufferably tribalistic, Jeebus, calls a woman a “dog” and makes her grovel for a healing. In my book, that makes the Nazarene a complete jackass and NOT the funny, gut-busting, skateboarding jackass…the OTHER kind of jackass. The virgin carpenter was also known to destroy other people’s property when throwing a tantrum. A generous person is magnanimous not just with their time, talents and treasures but with their kind ATTITUDE towards others. Jesus fails horribly in all areas. He deserves to flash his trademark dazzling grin, for all eternity, from a bowl of instant mashed potatoes at a truck stop in Bowling Green, KY. Appearances on grilled cheese sandwiches, giant tortillas or oil spills on freeways are reserved for deities that have less of an attitude problem.

      • Franklin Bacon

        Quite the Princess, He.

      • Grace

        The scene you mentioned — the one where Jesus says “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” — bothered me a lot as well. Those words definitely do seem racist/tribalist. (I am a Christian who still questions her faith.) But I read this blog post about that scene:

        It gives some more information about the cultural context, which greatly changes the scene’s meaning. I recommend reading the whole post, but this is probably my favorite part of the post:


        “And here is what is truly astonishing. DeSilva tells us that a challenge of the sort Jesus offers was a common social interaction in ANE honor-shame cultures– but only for men. He explains:

        ‘[H]onor can be won and lost in what has been called the social game of challenge and riposte. It is this “game,” still observable in the modern Mediterranean, that has caused cultural anthropologists to label the culture as “agonistic,” from the Greek word for “contest”. The challenge-riposte is essentially an attempt to gain honor at someone else’s expense by publicly posing a challenge that cannot be answered. When a challenge has been posed, the challenged must make some sort of response (and no response is also considered a response). It falls to the bystanders to decide whether or not the challenged person successfully defended his (and, indeed, usually “his”)own honor. The Gospels are full of these exchanges, mainly posed by Pharisees, Sadducees or other religious officials at Jesus, whom they regarded as an upstart threatening to steal their place in the esteem of the people.’ p. 29, emphasis added.

        The rest of the exchange between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman is just this sort of challenge-riposte. Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” He uses a diminutive word for “dogs,” (Bailey, p. 224), which slightly softens the challenge. But he flings up to her the attitude of her people towards the Jews, as well as their attitude towards her people. She (perhaps wryly acknowledging that the tables are turned between them, a Hellenized woman in her own territory and a lowly Jew) answers with a pithy response– which Jesus then acknowledges as having bested Him in the challenge!

        The challenge-riposte, if offered to a man, would be an attempt to gain honor at his expense. But Jesus offers it to a woman who, according to every social convention of both their cultures, has already forfeited her honor in this situation. In doing so He raises her to the status of an equal. And in acknowledging her win, he restores her honor in the sight of the audience.”


        Of course, most people reading the Biblical passage would probably only look at the text on the page and read it with very little information about historical context (I’m guilty of this of course), which I think is unfortunate.

        • Jeremy

          Read the article you suggested. That article was blabbering apologetics with no real evidence. anybody can string together meaning from poetry. That was the most subjective piece of writing cloaked in “research like term paper” I have ever read. Sorry but nice try

          • Grace

            Hi Jeremy. :) I wasn’t trying to win a debate, if that’s what you meant by “nice try.” I wanted to mention a different interpretation I had read of the passage, which is one I found convincing. I didn’t expect everyone to agree with that interpretation — sorry if I came across that way.

            I think the article provides useful cultural information, which changed the meaning of the scene in my eyes at least. I don’t think the writing was too subjective, though of course I would need to do more research if was going to make a case for that interpretation and debate it. I would like to research further when I have more free time. Still, I think after I read the article, I had much more information to go on than I had before.

        • Anny

          Grace – glad you mentioned this article! The context totally changes the meaning of the story. I’m with you in supporting Bible readings that take the historical setting into account.

          • Grace

            Yay! Glad you found it useful, and glad to have you with me on that, Anny. :)

      • UWIR

        Why do you keep repeating the term “virgin”?

      • smrnda

        Plus, Martha was busting her ass while Mary was boosting his ego by hanging onto every word and he completely dismisses her hard work.

  • L.Long

    They are correct to leave ‘religious charities’ as they are not necessarily ‘charities’, and that is because they are protected from disclosing what they spend. They may get $X but spend only $X-$Y on actual charity. Since they are not obligated to show anyone their books then they are not allowed to count $X as charity.

  • kevinkarstens
    • Franklin Bacon

      It’s not a race. It isn’t a contest.

  • Franklin Bacon

    It just seems like secular giving is much more effective, due to low overhead costs like feeding the minister and his family, maintaining the church building and in the case of some, gold chalices and statues of their founder.

  • MichaelNewsham

    This whole attempt to check the numbers falls apart by not showing what percent of donating to churches goes to actual charity rather than the churches spending on themselves. If I pay for the upkeep of the lawns at my social clubs lawn-bowling green, that’s hardly the same as money to a soup-kitchen or typhoon relief.

  • Anny

    “A lot of the money isn’t helping the poor and less fortunate. It’s going to the church.”

    A Christian might say that these are not mutually exclusive, particularly if the money is going to churches that are active in caring for the poor. A Christian who gives $1000 to a local church is not necessarily more/less generous than an atheist (or another Christian for that matter) who gives $1000 to a religiously-unaffiliated nonprofit. Regardless of whether the church’s primary service to the community is material or spiritual, that Christian is giving to an organization that they see as helpful to others beyond themselves, and I’d call that generosity.

    However, I’d be cautious about lumping in church-giving with charity-giving as a whole, because I think churches do have a greater potential to use the donations in a self-serving way. Churches have a responsibility to use their resources to reach out and do good in the world rather than using funds primarily for the benefit of “insiders”.

  • Timothy McLean

    I’m reminded of how I said on a previous post that religious aid (e.g, Bibles as opposed to food) displaces non-religious aid (e.g, good as opposed to Bibles).