In June, I wrote a brief essay about the new poll from Barna that had determined that atheists were less charitable and satisfied than theists which I titled (not surprisingly) Poll: Atheists and Agnostics are Less Charitable and At Peace. According to the story, Barna polled a cross-section of the general public asking questions about (among other things) religious preference and charitable giving, and used the data collected to draw a correlation between the amounts people gave and their stated religious preference. The data, when analyzed, revealed that atheists and agnostics were significantly less charitable than theists. The news report ofn the Barna poll read:
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.
Naturally, some thought that the results of the poll were too inconclusive because there was no control group. As one commenter put it:
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 [sic], the results of the study are completely worthless.
Of course, the poll was not intended to be a scientific evaluation so the criticism is somewhat unwarranted, but the commenter did have a valid point. This was simply a poll and used statistics based upon the size of the sample to reach a conclusion. Everyone who has ever read the polls prior to an election knows that polls are not as accurate as scientific tests, but they are overall pretty darn accurate.
Still, if a person hopes for "scientific proof" in the form of some type of lab test to become satisfied that religion leads to more altruism, their hopes may have been answered. According to an article entitled Thoughts related to God linked to altruism in Science Daily, a scientific study has provided evidence that when people think about God they become more altruistic. According to the article:
More than 100 study participants were randomly assigned to do a word game to unscramble sentences with words such as spirit, divine, God, sacred and prophet -- while a control group was given the same task with non-spiritual words. Afterward, all participants played an anonymous dictator game, whereby subjects were given $1 coins and asked to decide what to keep and what to share with an anonymous recipient.
The study, published in the September issue of Psychological Science, found 68 percent of subjects from the religious word game group allocated $5 or more to anonymous strangers, compared to 22 percent from those using neutral concepts.
"These are compelling findings that have substantial impact on the study of social behavior because they draw a causal relationship between religion and acting morally -- a topic of some debate," [researcher Azim] Shariff said in a statement. "They by no means indicate that religion is necessary for moral behavior, but it can make a substantial contribution."
This study, of course, is not the final word on the subject. However, it does add to the growing mound of evidence that suggests that atheists -- despite all of their talk about how one doesn't need God to be altruistic -- are not as altruistic as their theistic neighbors. This does not mean, as Azim Shariff makes clear, that atheists cannot act morally. Anyone who says that atheists are incapable of acting morally simply ignores reality. But what it does mean, if this study is confirmed by further tests, is that Christians are right when they say that atheism's failure to provide an intellectual warrant for moral behavior will eventually trickle down to the general public if the Christian base is eroded resulting in less charitable giving.
Ideas have consequences. The idea that God does not exist makes morals relative and takes away a strong intellectual warrant for commiting acts of altruism. The failure of atheists to give as much to charity as theists is simply the result of their worldview.