Friday, September 26, 2008

Atheists Moral but Not Charitable

Atheists often claim to be “just as moral” as religious believers. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, in God Is Not Great, offers his rather vague and subjective assertion that no statistic will ever find that atheists “commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful.”

Yet, when comparing the morals of believers and nonbelievers, neo-atheist authors are careful to tiptoe around the issue of charitable activity. The reason that atheists studiously avoid the question of generosity is that study after study shows an overwhelming difference between believers and non-believers. Not surprisingly, the believers come out on top every time.

In the year 2000, researchers at U.S. universities and the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut undertook the massive Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, drawing 30,000 observations from 50 communities across the United States. The survey questioned individuals about their “civic behavior,” including their giving and volunteering during the year preceding the survey.

Analyzing the data, professor Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University divided respondents into three groups. He referred to the respondents who reported attending religious services every week or more often as “religious.” This group made up 33% of the sample. Brooks called those who reported attending religious services less than a few times per year or explicitly saying they have no religion as “secular.” These people made up 26% of the sample, leaving those who practice their religion occasionally to make up the remaining 41% of the sample.

Brooks found the variance between “religious” and “secular” giving to be dramatic. Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91% to 66%) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67% to 44%). In real dollars, this translates into an average annual giving of $2,210 among the religious as compared to $642 among the secular. Regarding hours volunteered, religious people were found to volunteer an average of 12 times per year, while secular people volunteer an average of 5.8 times. To put this into perspective, religious people are 33% of the population, but they make 52% of donations and 45% of times volunteered. Secular people make up 26% of the population, but they contribute 13% of the dollars and 17% of the times volunteered.

Interestingly, these data show that the determining factor in predicting charitable behavior is not so much one’s particular religion, but rather the seriousness of one’s religious commitment. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92% of Protestants give charitably, compared to 91% of Catholics, 91% of Jews and 89% from other religions.

Another indicative finding of the study relates to giving to nonreligious charities. It turns out that religious people are more generous than secular people with nonreligious causes as well as with religious ones. While 68% of the total population gives (and 51% volunteers) to nonreligious causes each year, religious people are 10 points more likely to give to these causes than secularists (71% to 61%) and 21 points more likely to volunteer (60% to 39%). As examples, religious people are 7 points more likely than secularists to volunteer for neighborhood and civic groups, 20 points more likely to volunteer to help the poor or elderly, and 26 points more likely to volunteer for school or youth programs. Across the board, religious practice is directly correlated to generosity with both time and money.

Read it all here.


AR said...

It is an interesting but misleading title for the study. The study did not isolate and compare a religious group to an atheist group but religious to secular. Some in the secular group were probably Christians but didn't go to church that often or perhaps felt it was not necessary to attend church.

I first read the study on a Catholic site and feel that it is the usual attempt by the church to paint atheists in the most unpleasing light possible. The title is an absolute lie. Don't want any of the flock straying.

Alice C. Linsley said...

That's a good observation, AR. This certainly wasn't a controlled sociological study.

The question I'd like to explore if to what type of charities or causes do most people who consider themselves atheists give? That would be far more revealing, I think.

AR said...

I would have to agree with the conclusion that religious people give more than secular people, at least based on that study. I did read the original report and the word “atheist” never appears in it. Also, in the latest Pew Research report on religion just a few months ago, only 5% of American claim to be atheist. The study had over 25% of the study group as secular (or atheist if you are Catholic).

If you do a comparison to Europe, much more secular than the USA, you find that Americans give more per individual that the Europeans. That could be because most Europeans countries have far more social services in place to help people that need help (and a lot higher taxes to pay for it).

The favorable USA comparison starts falling apart when you do economic
aid by country. The USA is only 4th behind the UK, France, and Japan when it comes to total dollar amount given.

Here is a real shocker. When you look at it per capita the USA is 19th, behind all European countries except Italy. The #1 country is Luxembourg which gives $519 per person. The USA gives $25 per person. You can find all the stats at:

By the way, I am an agnostic.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Again, thanks for the link and terrific information. The facts are what matter, not our version of them (although one's perspective is a fact to take under consideration).

I've always considered agnosticism to be a more honest approach to real questions than atheism.

I'm a Christian, by the way. And an anthropologist.

Bill said...

seems highly faulty. most giving from religious people is to their own religious organization as well their volunteering. i can imagine most atheists do not spend sunday with a charity organization but they do not call their form of socializing charity. the default belief is that religious activity is charitable whereas most of us know what this is.