It seems likely that religious people in the West give more to charity – in the narrow sense of financial donations, at least (see Atheists are generous – they just don’t give to charity for more details).
But what is it about religion that has this effect? Is it that the fear of being watched makes people behave nicer. Perhaps it’s that religious teachings simply encourage charity. Or maybe it’s being in a religious congregation and having someone demand that you hand over cash.
One way to dig into this is to take a look at other cultures. Taiwan is a good case study, because it has a good mix of folk religion, atheists, and world religions (Buddhism and Christianity).
Hiewu Su and colleagues, from the National Dong-Hwa University in Taiwan interviewed 410 Taiwanese about their charitable and religious habits, among other things.
Christians gave the most, followed by Buddhists, then Folk religionists and finally those with no religion.
These were not large differences, and indeed they also found that giving is a “rational and planned behavior for both religious and nonreligious people”. In other words, regardless of religion, what people give can be predicted on the basis of their income, age, and whether they felt that charities were open about how they spent their money.
There was one other, crucial, factor that affected charitable giving (the most important, in fact), and that was religious service attendance.They found that religious service attendance was the most important factor determining whether and how much people gave to charity – even for people with no religion.
However, there were big differences here between the religions. Buddhists who went to religious services were 2.4 times as likely to give to charity, and Christians were 2.2 times as likely. However, folk religionists and atheists who went to services were only 1.7 times as likely to give as those who did not attend.
When it came to the amount of giving, they found that this was significantly increased for Christians and Buddhists who went to religious services, but not for folk religionists and atheists.
What I take from this is that we can discount simplistic ideas that a watchful ‘eye in the sky’ encourages us to give more. After all, it doesn’t seem to encourage folk religionists to give.
On the other hand, religious gatherings do seem to encourage charitable giving. That might be because people are actually encouraged to give on the spot, or it might be that giving to co-religionists is easier than random giving, or it might be something to do with religious teachings.
And with that last idea in mind, I find it fascinating that the effect of religious gatherings is largest for Christians and Buddhists. These are two very different religions – about the only thing they have in common is that they are both “World Religions”.
What that means is that they are religions that ahve been adopted by people from a wide variety of different cultural backgrounds. As a result, they have special features that make them especially attractive to people who live in large, organised mega-societies. The kinds of societies in which dealing with strangers is commonplace.
Previous research has found that world religions are linked to the emergence of ideas of fairness to and sharing with strangers. This research adds to that, suggesting that it’s only in the religious congregations of these world religions that charity gets a boost – it’s not an intrinsic consequence of religion in general terms.
Su, H., Chou, T., & Osborne, P. (2011). When Financial Information Meets Religion: Charitable-giving Behavior in Taiwan Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 39 (8), 1009-1019 DOI: 10.2224/sbp.2011.39.8.1009