Atheists are generous, they just don’t give to charity

Atheists are generous, they just don’t give to charity October 5, 2008

Over at NCRegister, one Father Thomas Willams is busy telling us how selfish and greedy atheists are. In support, he’s dug up the analyses that Arthur Brooks (Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University) did using data from the US Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. Brooks showed that, after controlling for other factors, people in the US who profess a religion tend to give more to charity than those who don’t.

On the face of it, these results are a slam dunk. Father Williams certainly thinks they are, and Christian commentators don’t bother to dig further (the data were published in the house journal of the US Association of Christian Economists, after all!).

If you look at different countries around the world you’ll find that there is, in fact, quite a strong correlation between religiosity and how wealth is shared out. But here’s the interesting thing: the direction of the correlation is the opposite of what you would expect if religion did actually lead to more giving. Charity is a form of wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor. But if religion leads to greater charity, it does not appear to have any meaningful effect. So what’s going on?

Well, one possibility is that atheists are just as altruistic as the religious – altruism is, after all, an inherently human attribute. Maybe they just don’t do charity to the same extent.

A major demotivator for giving to charity is the presence of free riders. These are people who don’t contribute, but who benefit anyway. If you give to a heart research charity, then everyone benefits whether they contribute or not. If you give to a charity for the homeless, then unless you give an enormous sum your donation will be a vanishingly small portion of the total. So there is a temptation to be a free-rider yourself. The free-rider effect occurs because the utility of charitable giving (i.e. the benefit that accrues to the donor from giving, compared with the benefit that would accrue from keeping the money) is low.

One way to get round this problem is to make giving non-anonymous. If you do this then the donor benefits because their social standing is increased. Two of the most substantial private donors in recent times, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, both benefited in this way from their donations. Both Buffet and Gates are non-religious. And it’s interesting that non-religious doctors are just as likely to work with the needy as religious doctors. This is an environment in which the the donor and the recipient are directly connected – one human to another. And here religion (or lack of it) makes no difference.

Religion can help to counterbalance the free-rider effect. Those religions that include a reward in the afterlife increase the utility of charitable giving to believers, because it provides them with a personal benefit. So religious believers with an incentive to give, even when there are free-riders around.

For altruistic atheists, however,the free-rider effect is much more pertinent. One secular way to get around the free-rider effect is to make giving from rich to poor compulsory, rather than voluntary. In other words, they might prefer that wealth is redistributed via taxation and the welfare state, rather than by voluntary donations. For the religious, this would actually decrease utility because taxation would reduce their surplus cash and so reduce the potential for them to give to charity and reap supernatural rewards.

But is there any evidence that this is true? Well, if it was then you might expect that countries with a high proportion of atheists would have a larger welfare state. And indeed that is exactly what you see. Gill and Lundsgaarde have analysed a cross-section of countries, and found that those countries with more atheists also have higher state welfare spending.

So you see, it is not true to say that more atheists will lead to a selfish, dog-eat-dog society where the weak go to the wall. Atheists are every bit as caring as the religious. They just go about it in different ways.

A. Gill, E. Lundsgaarde (2004). State Welfare Spending and Religiosity: A Cross-National Analysis. Rationality and Society, 16 (4), 399-436 DOI: 10.1177/1043463104046694

A.C. Brooks (2004). Faith, Secularism and Charity. Faith & Economics, 43 (Spring), 1-8

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