Poll: Atheists and Agnostics are Less Charitable and At Peace

Barna Research Group in Ventura, CA, has just published the results of a poll that showed several differences between atheists and agnostics, on the one hand, and Christians, on the other. A report on the poll can be found in an article published in Church Executive entitled Study sizes up gaps between Christians, atheists and agnostics. Here are some of the more interesting results.

Most atheists and agnostics (56 percent) agree with the idea that radical Christianity is just as threatening in America as is radical Islam. Two-thirds of active-faith Americans (63 percent) perceive that the nation is becoming more hostile and negative toward Christianity.

Atheists and agnostics were found to be largely more disengaged in many areas of life than believers. They are less likely to be registered to vote (78 percent) than active-faith Americans (89 percent); to volunteer to help a non-church-related non-profit (20 percent vs. 30 percent); to describe themselves as "active in the community" (41 percent vs. 68 percent); and to personally help or serve a homeless or poor person (41 percent vs. 61 percent).

Additionally, when the no-faith group does donate to charitable causes, their donation amount pales in comparison to those active in faith. In 2006, atheists and agnostics donated just $200 while believers contributed $1,500. The amount is still two times higher among believers when subtracting church-based giving.

The no-faith group is also more likely to be focused on living a comfortable, balanced lifestyle (12 percent) while only 4 percent of Christians say the same. And no-faith adults are also more focused on acquiring wealth (10 percent) than believers (2 percent). One-quarter of Christians identified their faith as the primary focus of their life.

Still, one-quarter of atheists and agnostics said "deeply spiritual" accurately describes them and three-quarters of them said they are clear about the meaning and purpose of their life.

When it came to being "at peace," however, researchers saw a significant gap with 67 percent of no-faith adults saying they felt "at peace" compared to 90 percent of believers. Atheists and agnostics are also less likely to say they are convinced they are right about things in life (38 percent vs. 55 percent) and more likely to feel stressed out (37 percent vs. 26 percent).

I largely leave it to the reader to decide the significance of these numbers. However, given the on-going debate that have been taking place on these pages regarding the relationship between morality and God's existence, I do find it telling that atheists and agnostics are significantly less likely to donate time or talents to charitable work. Caring for the poor, sick and unwanted is part of the Christian ethic to "love your neighbor as yourself", and doing this especially for the poor is consistent with Jesus' that that what we do for the least of our neighbors we do for God. Atheists and agnostics, having no such motivation or direction, appear to be falling away from this important work. Coincidence? I think not.


Layman said…
It is actually worse than portrayed by these numbers. The pollsters were careful in most cases to note contributions or volunteering to non-church related charities. But many church related charities do charitable work unrelated--in a technical sense--to running the church, such as food banks, feeding the poor, counseling, helping other members down on their luck, visiting the sick, etc. No reason to exclude those at all.

Also, as I argued before, the more prominence--if any--atheism gets the less charitable we can expect them to be. After all, who will be around to chide them for their not being as kind as Christians? And even if someone is around to chide them, what attention will they give them?
Anonymous said…
The ultimate irony would be an atheist or agnostic using this research as a reason to give/volunteer more. Talk about borrowing moral capital!
Layman said…

The funny thing is, I argued a similar point on infidels a while back and one of them linked to an atheist charity group. They neglected, however, to read the fine print. Turns out, the atheist charity had been started for the express purpose of responding to Christian claims that atheists were not charitable. In any event, it was a simply a wanna be channel of atheist funds to real charities.
Steven Carr said…
I imagine the real gap is even bigger as most Christians will be keeping quiet about their charitable works as Jesus ordered them to do in Matthew 6:3-5.
BK said…
Surprisingly, Steven is partially right. There are certainly Christians out there who will take Matthew 6:3-4 as meaning that a Christian should not tell anyone or admit to anyone that they give to charity. While I think most people would read verses 3 and 4 in context with verse 2 as not requiring such a strict secrecy as Steven suggests, I am sure that this more strict view of the extent of the secrecy directed skews the numbers so that Christians appear to give less than they actually give.
slaveofone said…
Personally, I am naturally inclined to give almost nothing, but when people say how much they gave to this or that, it encourages me to actually reach into my pocket. (Although, I must admit, when it comes to things like Hurricane Katrina or Darfur, I don't need any encouragement to give...). So I say, you Christians that usually don't speak out about your giving--do it. Be a witness to your brothers and sisters of these good deeds to spur them on in the same. And hell, if it spurs an athiest to give also--glory be to YHWH.
Anonymous said…
The ultimate irony would be an atheist or agnostic using this research as a reason to give-volunteer more. Talk about borrowing moral capital!

Good point.
In debating atheists I've noticed this:
1. They'll claim that they are very familiar with Christianity because they were raised in a practicing Christian family.
2. They became disillusioned with Christianity because of it's supposed glaring contradictions.
3. They believe that they can act moral and that belief in a transcendent God is not necessary to act this way.
4. They argue for morality as being something either very apparent or as something inherent to the human condition - but either way not dependent on the existence of God.

They'll say something like, "Well look at me. I'm an atheist and I have these moral tendencies as well; therefore, you don't need God to explain this - because despite my lack in believe of this God I still have these feelings."
This leading to the statement that moral tendencies are either inherent or emergent, or so clearly apparent (don't kill others - so you won't get killed yourself).
But they seem to have neglected the fact that they admitted that they were raised in a Christian setting. How are they to discern whether their moral tendencies are truly emergent/innate (and not in need of God as an explanation) or the product of a believing family that valued these standards as being the product of a loving God.

Assuming they are being sincere on both accounts: raised in a practicing Christian family (therefore more than familiar with Christianity, further supporting their arguments against it) and able to perform morally despite the fact that no transcendent being actually cares.
Steven Carr said…
'In 2006, atheists and agnostics donated just $200 while believers contributed $1,500. The amount is still two times higher among believers when subtracting church-based giving.'

So 1100 of these 1500 dollars were donations to church.
BK said…
Yes, Steven, that's about right. But, as Layman noted earlier in his comment:

The pollsters were careful in most cases to note contributions or volunteering to non-church related charities. But many church related charities do charitable work unrelated--in a technical sense--to running the church, such as food banks, feeding the poor, counseling, helping other members down on their luck, visiting the sick, etc. No reason to exclude those at all.

So, yes, around $1100 of the Christian donations were donations to churches, but every church that I have been involved with gives a minimum of 10% (often more) of their offerings to charities in addition to the charitable work done by the church itself.

Besides, a church's mission to spread the Gospel is also a work of charity, so really, very little of what is given to the church is not used for charitable purposes.
Anonymous said…
'In 2006, atheists and agnostics donated just $200 while believers contributed $1,500. The amount is still two times higher among believers when subtracting church-based giving.'

Steven replied:
So 1100 of these 1500 dollars were donations to church.

Hi Steven,
Does it matter where the funds went to? Giving is giving. I don't think it even bothers to figure out the money given to their respective churches. Everyone has their own reasons why they give to something. So Christians tend to give to an organization that plays an important factor in their lives as well as the lives of others. If I were to fine-tooth comb the donations made by atheists and agnostics to organizations that they felt worthy of receiving such a donation... the trend would be the same - they would be giving the money to something that plays an important role in their respective lives.
I see no reason why church donations should be viewed any differently than the funds that atheists and agnostics donate out.
The church in the town I live uses much of that money to aid the poor and homeless.
Layman said…

Atheists have their church-alternatives they could give to as well, such as Infidels.org, which likes to remind readers that "We have full recognition as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization, making all donations to the Internet Infidels fully tax deductible."

So it appears the difference is one degree of kindness for others and selflessness.
Jim Lippard said…
"Does it matter where the funds went to? Giving is giving."

I strongly disagree. In my opinion, it's just as important to research where you give charitable funds as it is to research where you invest money. There are a lot of charitable organizations out there, and they vary *wildly* in their effectiveness and the extent to which they are actually doing anything helpful. Charity Navigator is a great resource for making sure your donations are put to good use; churches have the deficiency of not filing Form 990s and not necessarily having any accountability on how they spend the money you give them. As an atheist, I don't give anything to churches, but if I were a churchgoer I would want a church that was transparent and accountable to a board with independent members (e.g., drawn from the church membership at large). The Catholic Church does very poorly for accountability, with 85% of dioceses reporting cases of embezzlement in the last five years, and 11% having more than $500,000 stolen.
BK said…
Hello Jim,

I agree in part and disagree in another part. I agree that we need to be careful where we give money. I ordinarily don't give money to organizations unless at least 85% of the funds given go to the work of the charity and not the cost of fundraising.

I disagree in part because I think that Anonymous's sentiments were correct in light of the point. The question relates to the motivation for giving. Even if a person gives unwisely and the charity passes along less than 50% of the donations received to charitable work, the giver is still giving. This differs from not giving at all.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Layman said…

Please stay on point. Reams of comments making mostly tangential points are not helpful. If you want to contribute to this topc, please narrow your focus and condense your material.
Anonymous said…
I was thinking those posts had mostly nothing to do with the OP.

Anonymous said…
Hi Jim Lippard,

I don't see how your response addressess my point at all.
People, at an individual level, have their own reasons for donating. Your response doesn't address that, it just talks about what the receiver of those donations do with the funds.
So? Can those funds be used inappropriately? Certainly. But that's across the board. Also, considering that this thread wasn't about how those funds are handled after the fact of donation I really don't see what your point is.
You may disagree (strongly) with my comment that (again, at the individual level) giving is giving, you certainly haven't shown why church donations should be viewed any differently than the funds that atheists and agnostics donate out.

Please don't shift the target to invalidate the salient point I was trying to make.
Jason Pratt said…
I think Jim was making an importantly related point about proper responsibility in giving. i.e., I don't think he was trying to show that church donations should be viewed any differently than the funds that atheists and agnostics donate out.

One might tease a crit from his response, along the line that we might tend to be more trusting of our institutions than we ought to be, because of our faith committments (and some Christian institutions don't have good setup for demonstrating fiscal responsibility to the laity.) But his solution wasn't to toss the church giving; it was just that if we're going to give this way, there are methods by which we can and should hold the organizations responsible for what they do with our money.

Anyway, I don't believe he was trying to invalidate your salient points, Anon. Unlike some opponents, Jim is usually pretty sharp, in my experience over the past 10 years or so. If he had been really aiming for those, I fully expect he would have done so more directly; not try an oblique tu quoque. {bowing in Jim's direction} {g}

Meanwhile--thank God (and Chris)! I missed a dose of Ed-ification while I was gone! Rejoicing has been achieved!

I think I'll go give some alms in gratitude... {g!}
Jim Lippard said…
Jason: Thanks for the defense, that was indeed my point.

I disagree with the view that "giving is giving" and even if some tiny percentage of what you give gets to the right folks and the rest is wasted, that's better than not giving at all. While it could be, it need not be. The wasted money could actually have *negative* effects, e.g., if it's being embezzled, spent on drugs, supporting third world dictators or terrorists, sent to 419 scammers, or other similar activities which money donated to religious organizations has all been spent on in some cases.

I agree that giving is generally better than not giving, but giving responsibly is always better than giving irresponsibly. Intending to do good is not as good as intending to do good and following through with enough effort to make sure that you actually do good.
Anonymous said…
There outta be a law against any of you reviewing studies because you haven't taken Statistics 101. The problem is this:

"The study further found atheists and agnostics to be younger, more likely to be male and unmarried, earn more and more likely to be college graduates."

These are what you call "confounding variables." If ANY of these other characteristics - youth, being male, being single, earning more or being a college graduate are correlated with being less charitable then it will give the false impression that atheists are less charitable. That's why any study worth it's salt CONTROLS for confounding variables. Without such controlls, the results of the study are completely worthless.

Personally, my guess is that being a young, single male might make one less charitable because that's the demographic most likely to get into trouble with the law or with drugs or alcohol. If atheists as a group have more young, rowdy and unattached males within its ranks, then it's totally irresponsible not to control for those variables.

If you want GOOD studies about morality and religion, or lack thereof, see Chapter 10 of "The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach." The truth is, it's not religion that determines how helpful we are. Experiments have proven it. Read the book.
BK said…
You mean this book: The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, Spilka, Bernard; Hood, Ralph W., Jr.; and Gorsuch, Richard L. (1985)? The one where they apparently try to equate religious experience with drug induced experiences?

Let's see, CSP says about the book:

While this study is not without its serious methodological flaws, it remains the only study attempting to elicit religious experience within a mainline Christian tradition in a normal religious service on an appropriately meaningful day with the addition of a psychedelic substance! Yet it does suggest the obvious — the meaningfulness of a physiological arousal substance or of any substance that modifies or alters one’s typical way of experiencing the world is a question of ideological commitments, not merely of physiology. To be religious is at least partly to have a framework within which to interpret experience, and the interpretation will be part of the experience. Early studies unfortunately not followed up, suggest that among religious persons taking psychedelic drug, the effect was to deepen one’s commitment to already established religious views. In this sense, Roszak notes, part of the protest against the psychedelic movement stems from its genuine religious threat to our existing cultural forms. Indeed, it is not surprising that associated with the psychedelic street movement was the seeking of religious literature, largely from Eastern sources, from a youth alienated from certain contemporary church traditions. Yet it is clear that such movements are not antireligious but rather as aspect of religious rebellion and renewal that is part and parcel of the history of religions ... . (pages 162-164)

We can see now why much of the physiological data on religious experience is limited in its explanatory power. It is almost as if many investigators were trying to explain religious experience outside the context of religion — as if one could somehow see the “real” television picture if they could just manage to view the electrons in the circuits of the set.

Hmmmmmmm. So far sounds like a really good book.

And yes, the data is not complete. Certainly there needs to be controls, but you are missing the broader point: atheism is primarily made up of single unmarried males who claim to be more loving and caring than Christians because, of course, Christianity is evil and the world would have been better off if it had never been born.

I don't know if a study can be done using atheists who aren't single unmarried males. I suspect that that excluding that group wouldn't leave many atheists. If you think its important, go ahead and put the study together. I would be interested in the answer.

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