This relates to my Want a Good Marriage? post which was prompted by a commentor who argued that Christianity offered nothing based on his dubious representations of social science data, including the erroneous claim that Christians had the same divorce rate as everyone else. That is not the case, as Christians have lower divorce rates than the national average and Christians who attend church regularly have dramatically lower divorce rates.
Another social benefit of Christianity is its promotion of charitable giving. As Jonathan Haidt, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, notes, “surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people.” (emphasis added).
Dr. Haidt is an atheist. As he states in this November 2007 interview, ”I'm an atheist, I don't believe that gods actually exist, but I part company with the New Atheists because I believe that religion is an adaptation that generally works quite well to supress [sic] selfishness, to create moral communities, to help people work together, trust each other and collaborate towards common ends.”
Unfortunately, other atheists and skeptics seem intent on ignoring the positive influence of religion. This can be a challenging task, because Hadit's conclusion that religion promotes charitable giving is backed up to large extent by data showing that American Christians out-give their Nonreligious counterparts by significant margins. The margins grow even more dramatic when you compare regular attending Christians with the Nonreligious.
Christians Are More Likely to Give and Give More
The following data comes from the General Social Survey, 1998. It is reported with analysis in Passing the Plate, by Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson, whose central argument is -- ironically -- that Christians do not give enough. The first percentage is by religious self-identification and the one in parenthesis is for regular attenders within their respective categories.
Percentage of persons giving nothing to charity in the previous year:
22.1 (4.5), Christian.
11.5 (5.6), Fundamentalist.
4.4 (less than 1), Evangelical.
12.6 (3.8), Mainline Protestant.
28.2 (7.8), Catholic.
Percentage of income donated by average giver:
2.9 (6.2), Christian.
6.2 (8.3), Fundamentalist.
8.2 (9.5), Evangelical.
4.6 (7.1), Mainline Protestant.
1.8 (3.7), Catholic.
Passing the Plate, page 30 (Source: General Social Survey, 1998).
Christians in the United States are far more likely to give to charity and give a far greater percentage of their income to charities than nonreligious Americans. But even among Christians the giving is not the same. Evangelicals are much more likely to give and will give far more than their fellow Christian Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and even Fundamentalists. For all categories of Christians, giving increases significantly for regular attenders.
Christians Give More Across the Board
I have heard atheists respond that this is an artificial measure of generosity because Christians are giving to their churches and religious organizations. This contention fails on its face because we are measuring a willingness to give one’s own money to foster the greater good. To an atheist, that may be “Americans United for the Separation of Church and States” and for the Christian it is more likely to be their own church or other religious institutions. Moreover, churches engage in direct charitable activities beyond Sunday sermons. Most churches provide counseling services and lend their facilities and resources to other charitable efforts, including facility use to organizations such as AA or the Boy Scouts. Here in LA, many churches provide the use of their facilities to shelter and feed the homeless.
Additionally, there are many charities whose focus is on providing material assistance to the poor and disadvantaged that are religious organizations, such as the Salvation Army. My wife and I for example try and make sure we give to poverty relief and disaster assistance efforts and the Salvation Army is our charity of choice for that purpose. The Salvation Army is the second largest charity in the United States. Other explicitly religious charities rounding out Forbe’s Top Ten list are Feed the Children, the YMCA, and Catholic Charities. There is no basis for excluding these and similar charities from the definition of charitable giving even if one is determined to exclude churches themselves.
Finally, even if we ignore all religious giving by the religious and measure giving only to secular charities we find that the religious are still significantly more likely to give, and will on average give more, than their Nonreligious counterparts.
In 2000, 68 percent of households gave money to charities having no religious affiliation. Fifty-one percent volunteered for secular causes.... But these high nonreligious giving levels were not the same for religious people and secularists. Although the charity gap between these groups was not as wide in secular giving as it was in all types of giving, religious people were still 10 points more likely than secularists to give money to nonreligious charities such as the United Way (71 to 61 percent), and 21 points more likely to volunteer for completely secular causes such as the local PTA (60 to 39) percent. In addition, the value of the average religious household’s donations to nonreligious charities was 14 percent higher than the average secular household’s.
Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares, page 39 (Source, Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, 2000).
Moving beyond religious identification we find that the higher the commitment to one’s religious faith the more one is likely to give to secular charities. As Brooks explains, people who regularly prayed were 16% more likely to give to secular charities than people who do not pray. Church members were 18% more likely than nonmembers. And people who “put a great deal of effort to their spirituality” were 28 % more likely to give to secular charities than people who made “no effort.” Brooks, op. cit., page 215, n. 14 (Source, Arts and Religious Survey 1999).
Christians Are More Charitable in Informal Ways
Another objection I have encountered is that the nonreligious are more skeptical of organized charities, but are more likely to help in informal ways, such as giving money to friends in need or other acts of generousity and kindness that do not register in these surveys. Not true. “People who give away their time and money to established charities are far more likely than nongivers to behave generously in informal ways as well. If we consider all forms of generosity, the difference between charitable and selfish people grows.” Brooks, op, cit., page 5.
First let’s examine gifts to family and friends.
Here, too secularists lag behind religious people. For example, data from 2000 on informal giving tell us that people belonging to religious congregations were 8 percent more likely to give money to family and friends than people who did not belong. Furthermore, the value of their informal gifts was, on average, 46 percent higher.
Brooks, op. cit., page 39 (Source, Giving and Volunteering in the U.S., 2000).
Second, how about other acts of charity or kindness that might not register in traditional surveys about giving.
The story is the same even when it comes to informal acts of kindness to others. In 2002, religious people were far more likely to donate blood than secularists, to give food or money to a homeless person, to return change mistakenly given them by a cashier, and to express empathy for less fortunate.
Brooks, op. cit., page 39 (Source, GSS 2000).
Whatever the measure of charity, apparently, the Christians and the Religious in the United States dramatically out give the Nonreligious.
Around 78% of Christians give to charity whereas around 49.5% of the Nonreligious do. Further, Christians give four times more to charity than the Nonreligious. Evangelicals are close to twice as likely to give, and give more than eleven times more, to charity than the Nonreligious. If we look at these groups by those who regularly attend church events, the disparity is even more dramatic. Almost all Evangelicals who attend church regularly give to charity, compared, again, with less than 50% of the Nonreligious. Regularly-attending Evangelicals give almost 10% of their income to charity, whereas the Nonreligious give around .7% of their income to charity.
Even when we focus only on giving to secular charities -- which is an artificially narrow constraint -- religious Americans (mostly Christians) outperform the Nonreligious in giving by at least 10 points. The disparity increases, again, once we look at levels of commitment, such as frequency of prayer or church membership. Religious Americans were also far more likely to give and give more to family and friends in need, to donate blood, and to volunteer their time.
These results are dramatic, but should not be surprising. Christianity is likely the single greatest factor in charitable giving in the West. The spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire fundamentally changed concepts of charity for the better. That shift is still with us today, as the above data demonstrates.