Today we have a guest post by the estimable Sigmund, who analyzes recent claims that religious people donate more to charity than do nonbelievers.
Faith and Charity – what the evidence reveals
While many on the pro-faith side of the science/religion debate are hardly shy about claiming nonscientific but “equally valid” means of acquiring knowledge, in particular, religious experience and revelation, there remains one circumstance in which the religious do insist on empirical data: when it appears to support their particular religion.
One such topic is the question of whether religion promotes increased levels of charity. Several previous studies have tacked this topic, most coming to the conclusion that higher religiosity is positively associated with higher levels of charitable giving—both religious and secular -—and that religious individuals are more likely to volunteer to help out in the community.
However, the question of religion and charity is not a simple one. A complicated relationship exists between political viewpoint, levels of religiosity and practical measures of involvement in a religious community such as frequency of church attendance.
Direct donations to churches and to religious charities make up nearly half of all charitable giving by US households. It is questionable, however, whether this figure alone is evidence that church donations help the needy of society at large rather than simply support the religious organization itself. Mark Chaves, in his book Congregations in America, points out that even religious congregations that promote social service activity spend less than 3 percent of an average congregation’s budget on these programs.
However, despite the low percentage of charitable spending by churches as institutions, religious individuals seem more likely to donate to charity. As noted by Arthur Brooks in “Religious Faith and Charitable Giving” Policy Review (2003), “Believers give more to secular charities than non-believers do.” This tendency towards charitable giving was not simply a question of religious people financially supporting their own church, as the average religious household’s donations to nonreligious charities is 14 percent more than that of the average secular household.
The question therefore remains what particular factors motivate individuals to donate to charity. Is it a question of religious belief, practice or political ideology, or are there other factors that may be of primary importance in encouraging higher levels of charitable donations? Of particular interests to readers of WEIT is the question of whether religion is a cause of charitable giving or is simply facilitates it as a side effect of particular practices that could also exist in a non-religious context. In other words, is it belief in God that makes people charitable, or the sociality that goes along with belonging to a church or a religion?
Several earlier studies have tried to separate the factors discussed here, examining how differing aspects of religiosity and politics contribute towards the levels of charitable donations of individuals. Here we summarize the findings of three papers published in the past year (here, here, and here), written by sociologist Brandon Vaidyanathan and colleagues from the University of Notre Dame and Calvin College. The studies examine whether earlier conclusions about religion, politics and charity can be clarified by a finer analysis of recently collected sociological data.
To address these issues, the authors examined several sets of sociological survey data involving the nexus of religion, politics and charitable giving.
In ‘Religion and Charitable Financial Giving to Religious and Secular Causes: Does Political Ideology Matter?’, published in the ‘Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion’ the authors examined which factors best explain the finding that individuals who describe themselves as evangelical Christians donate higher amounts to charity compared to religious liberals. Conservative academics, such as Brooks, have suggested that political ideology is the key issue here: in other words, political conservatism, to which evangelical Christianity is closely associated, encourages a higher level of personal charitable donations than does political liberalism, which promotes the notion of higher taxes being used to help the needy.
Using data produced by the Panel Study on American Ethnicity and Religion, Vaidyanathan and colleagues concluded that:
“For both religious and nonreligious giving, the effect of political ideology is completely mediated by participation in religious and civic practices. These findings support recent arguments on “practice theory” in cultural sociology and suggest that it is less the effect of ideology than of active participation in religious, political, and community organizations that explains Americans’ financial giving to religious and nonreligious organizations.”
In other words it is the community aspect of religion rather than political viewpoint that seems to be the most important factor in donation to charity. Those individuals who were less regular churchgoers – such as the average mainstream Protestant—donated on average considerably less than did evangelicals. On the other hand, evangelicals who were less regular churchgoers donated less, while non-evangelical liberal Christians who were more frequent churchgoers tended to donate more.
In the remaining two studies, ‘Substitution or Symbiosis? Assessing the Relationship between Religious and Secular Giving’, published in the journal ‘Social Forces,’ and ‘Motivations for and Obstacles to Religious Financial Giving’, published in the journal ‘Sociology of Religion’ the authors tackled the question of whether charitable giving to religious causes impinges (either positively or negatively) on giving to secular causes, and examined, in an interview setting, the reasoning of the faithful themselves about their charitable donations.
In the former paper the authors confirmed earlier studies showing that higher religious donation is associated with increased donations to secular charities.
Examining three waves of national panel data, we find that the relationship between religious and secular giving is generally not of a zero-sum nature; families that increase their religious giving also increase their secular giving.
They concluded that” this finding is best accounted for by a practice theory of social action which emphasizes how religious congregations foster skills and practices related to charitable giving.”
In other words, certain practices encourage traditions of giving that result in individuals becoming more likely to donate to charities as a whole, both religious and secular. This conclusion resembled that of Brooks 2003 study in that practical advantage of religious practice appeared to create an environment for teaching practices to the younger generation—in this case the positive practice of donation to charity.
The final study involved the question of explaining of the self-described motivations for charitable and religious contributions, taken from personal interviews and church financial information from the Northern Indiana Congregational (NIC) study. This paper confirmed some of the findings of the previous two papers.
One feature worth noting from personal interviews was that much of the pattern of charitable donations seemed highly socialized—in other words, it was something an individual’s parents had done and the offspring were simply carrying on a family tradition. In other cases it seemed normative—individuals were doing what they thought everyone else was expected to do in the congregation. One interesting finding was described as “giving illiteracy”: data showed that a large fraction of religious people claimed to have donated far more than the church financial records reveal they actually gave.
While these studies may provide some small comfort for faitheists who claim that religion has certain valuable aspects with positive effects on society, the effects themselves are clearly not exclusive to religion, but are, rather, a side effect of the congregational nature of religious practice. Membership in an active community, religious or secular, promotes the communication of information about specific social problems that can be addressed through charitable donations or through volunteering time and effort.
What remains an open question is whether secular-based alternatives can replace the current church led dominance of the US charity scene. Nevertheless, the fact that 60% of religious charitable donations are provided by just 5% of congregants suggests that religion is itself an inefficient device towards this end.
Finally, I should note that the studies discussed here are confined to the United States. The picture of charitable donation in societies with lower levels of religiosity suggests that church attendance is hardly a prerequisite for altruistic behavior, for some of the least religious countries are among those donating the highest amounts to charity.