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.


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