Is giving to charity more rational for religious people or atheists?

Well, let’s take a look at the numbers with this article by Arthur Brooks, published by the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.

Excerpt:

How do religious and secular people vary in their charitable behavior? To answer this, I turn to data collected expressly to explore patterns in American civic life. The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (SCCBS) was undertaken in 2000 by researchers at universities throughout the United States and the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. The data consist of nearly 30,000 observations drawn from 50 communities across the United States and ask individuals about their “civic behavior,” including their giving and volunteering during the year preceding the survey.

From these data, I have constructed two measures of religious participation. First, the group I refer to as “religious” are the respondents that report attending religious services every week or more often. This is 33 percent of the sample. Second, the group I call “secular” report attending religious services less than a few times per year or explicitly say they have no religion. These people are 26 percent of the sample (implying that those who practice their religion occasionally make up 41 percent of the sample). The SCCBS asked respondents whether and how much they gave and volunteered to “religious causes” or “non-religious charities” over the previous 12 months. Across the whole population, 81 percent gave, while 57 percent volunteered.

The differences in charity between secular and religious people are dramatic. Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). And, consistent with the findings of other writers, these data show that practicing a religion is more important than the actual religion itself in predicting charitable behavior. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92 percent of Protestants give charitably, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent from other religions.

Socioeconomically, the religious and secular groups are similar in some ways and different in others. For example, there is little difference between the groups in income (both have average household incomes around $49,000) or education level (20 percent of each group holds a college degree). On the other hand, the secular group is disproportionately male (49 percent to 32 percent), unmarried (58 percent to 40 percent), and young (42 to 49 years old, on average). In addition, the SCCBS data show that religion and secularism break down on ideological lines: Religious people are 38 percentage points more likely to say they are conservative than to say they are liberal (57 percent to 19 percent). In contrast, secular people are 13 points more likely to say they are liberal than to say they are conservative (42 percent to 29 percent).

It is possible, of course, that the charity differences between secular and religious people are due to these nonreligious socioeconomic differences. To investigate this possibility, I used a statistical procedure called probit regression to examine the role of religious practice in isolation from all other relevant demographic characteristics: political beliefs, income (and hence, indirectly, the tax incentives for giving), education level, gender, age, race, marital status, and area of residence. The data show that if two people — one religious and the other secular — are identical in every other way, the secular person is 23 percentage points less likely to give than the religious person and 26 points less likely to volunteer.

Honestly, I’ve always struggled to understand how giving to charity could be rational, on atheism. If you are only alive for 80 years, and the purpose of your life is to be happy, then the only reason I can think of to give anything away to anyone is because it makes you feel happier or more respected or something. Maybe because you like thinking of yourself as moral, or maybe because you want to be seen as moral, or maybe because you want a tax deduction, or maybe something else. But if this is the only life you are ever going to have, and people are just collections of atoms, then why care about what anyone is doing? We’re all just accidents anyway, on atheism, and we’re going to die out eventually. One set of atoms giving some atoms to another set of atoms, and then in the end all the atoms get scattered: who cares?

Here’s something interesting I found about the leaders of the two political parties in this country.

Excerpt:

In 2009, the Obamas gave 5.9 percent of their income to charity, about the same as they gave in 2006 and 2007. In the eight years before he became president, Obama gave an average of 3.5 percent of his income to charity, upping that to 6.5 percent in 2008.

The Obamas’ charitable giving is equally divided between “hope” and “change.”

George W. Bush gave away more than 10 percent of his income each year he was president, as he did before becoming president.

Thus, in 2005, Obama gave about the same dollar amount to charity as President George Bush did, on an income of $1.7 million — more than twice as much as President Bush’s $735,180. Again in 2006, Bush gave more to charity than Obama on an income one-third smaller than Obama’s.

In the decade before Joe Biden became vice president, the Bidens gave a total — all 10 years combined — of $3,690 to charity, or 0.2 percent of their income. They gave in a decade what most Americans in their tax bracket give in an average year, or about one row of hair plugs.

Of course, even in Biden’s stingiest years, he gave more to charity than Sen. John Kerry did in 1995, which was a big fat goose egg. Kerry did, however, spend half a million dollars on a 17th-century Dutch seascape painting that year, as Peter Schweizer reports in his 2008 book, “Makers and Takers.”

To be fair, 1995 was an off-year for Kerry’s charitable giving. The year before, he gave $2,039 to charity, and the year before that a staggering $175.

He also dropped a $5 bill in the Salvation Army pail and almost didn’t ask for change.

In 1998, Al Gore gave $353 to charity — about a day’s take for a lemonade stand in his neighborhood. That was 10 percent of the national average for charitable giving by people in the $100,000-$200,000 income bracket. Gore was at the very top of that bracket, with an income of $197,729.

When Sen. Ted Kennedy released his tax returns to run for president in the ’70s, they showed that Kennedy gave a bare 1 percent of his income to charity — or, as Schweizer says, “about as much as Kennedy claimed as a write-off on his 50-foot sailing sloop Curragh.” (Cash tips to bartenders and cocktail waitresses are not considered charitable donations.)

The Democratic base gives to charity as their betters do. At the same income, a single mother on welfare is seven times less likely to give to charity than a working poor family that attends religious services.

In 2006 and 2007, John McCain, who files separately from his rich wife, gave 27.3 percent and 28.6 percent of his income to charity.

In 2005, Vice President Cheney gave 77 percent of his income to charity. He also shot a lawyer in the face, which I think should count for something.

In a single year, Schweizer reports, Rush Limbaugh “gave $109,716 to ‘various individuals in need of assistance mainly due to family illnesses,’ $52,898 to ‘children’s case management organizations,’ including ‘various programs to benefit families in need,’ $35,100 for ‘Alzheimer’s community care — day care for families in need,’ and $40,951 for air conditioning units and heaters delivered to troops in Iraq.”

The Democrats are the non-religious party, the Republicans are the religious party. The Democrats are also the talking party, as you can see, and the Republicans are the doing party.

By the way, Arthur Brooks eventually turned this research into a book called “Who Really Cares?“, and it’s a good response to atheists when they tell you that they can be moral without God. If it doesn’t make sense to be moral, then atheists aren’t going to do it. You can read more about that book here.

2 thoughts on “Is giving to charity more rational for religious people or atheists?”

  1. Now there is the point that a liberal or progressive would want the government to. do all of charity’s work. Many of them find charity antithetical to their vision of social justice. Maybe because such a strong power dynamic of “them” or the “other” is essential in charity. Of course it doesn’t help to roll everyone up into a materially redistributed collective.

    Functionally, a left-leaning ideology often serves as religion for its adherents. So in a sense, I find the discussion on comparative charity to be limited. But it’s an excellent point that wealthy progressives would do better to give to direct charities rather than political groups that advocate redistribution.

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  2. When I was an anti-Christian, I did volunteer a little and I did give away a VERY tiny amount of money. But, in both cases, it hurt to do even what little I did. And it was always to make ME look good.

    Now, I give away about 15 times what I used to – on about 40% of the income. It is a joy. And it is to make God look good – not that He needs my help. :-)

    I realize that my case is just anecdotal. But, I truly believe that it is due to a shift of my worldview, horizon, and perspective.

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