Let’s face it, you’re not going to lose any readers if you praise religion in The New York Times, as Nicholas Kristof has done this morning. If you criticize religion you lose both readers and popularity, but osculating faith? Well, believers and faitheists will love you, and most nonbelievers will just say “meh.” And believe me, everyone knows this, which is why a number of atheist scientists stay well away from criticizing religion.
Kristof, who describes himself as sort of religious, is kvetching about how progressive the founders of Christianity and Islam were—noting that Jesus focused “on the sick and the poor” and Muhammad “raised the status of women in his time”—but now religions are debased, with adherents ignoring the messages of the founders. Kristof quotes a rabbi, Rick Jacobs, on what the faithful should be doing:
“That’s where I see our path,” Jacobs said. “People have seen ritual as an obsession for the religious community, and they haven’t seen the courage and commitment to shaping a more just and compassionate world.”
If certain religious services were less about preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity and more about tackling human needs around us, this would be a better world — and surely Jesus would applaud as well.
But that’s secular humanism, isn’t it? But Kristof argues that religion inspires the “tackling of human needs,” at least where charity is concerned:
This may seem an unusual column for me to write, for I’m not a particularly religious Christian. But I do see religious faith as one of the most important forces, for good and ill, and I am inspired by the efforts of the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters. [JAC: Note that he mentions only the good bits. No beheadings, no attacks on abortion by Catholics.]
Perhaps unfairly, the pompous hypocrites get the headlines and often shape public attitudes about religion, but there’s more to the picture. Remember that on average religious Americans donate far more to charity and volunteer more than secular Americans do.
Well, the last sentence may not be true—at least in the sense Kristof means. At the end of 2013, Hemant Mehta looked at the data from a National Study of Religious Giving (summarized at Religion Dispatches), and said that the common idea of generous religionists and chintzy nonbelievers isn’t really true. I quote from the RD study:
Religion is where American give, and a reason why they give. Along with the 73% statistic, the study revealed that 55% of Americans say that their religious orientation (a weird locution, but one the study chose) motivates their giving.
That may not seem like a lot, but just crunch the numbers for a minute. The study found that 65% of religiously-affiliated people donate to congregations or charitable organizations. (More on that statistic later.) 80% of Americans are religiously affiliated. And 65% of 80% is just about… 55% of the total. In other words, the religious people who are giving say they’re giving because of religion. And they’re overwhelmingly giving to religion as well.
. . . Probably the most notable statistics, though, are those which compare religious and non-religious philanthropy. Religion is supposed to make us better people, which includes, I assume, being more generous. So, is it the case that religious people give more generously than the non-religious?
Well, yes and no. Remember that statistic, that 65% of religious people donate to charity? The non-religious figure is 56%. But according to the study, the entire 9% difference is attributed to religious giving to congregations and religious organizations. So, yes, religion causes people to give more—to religion itself.
What did Richard Dawkins say? The primary function of a meme is to replicate itself. Which is what religions do, brilliantly.
As between different religions, the numbers are fairly consistent—except for American Jews, who give more to secular causes than anyone else. Coming in the wake of the recent Pew Survey on American Jewish Life, these findings may shed new light on Jewish secularism, a trend which has greatly worried the Jewish establishment. Maybe the secular social-justice commitments of American Jews are a sign of Judaism’s success.
So, most religious people are equally generous; they only give more than non-religious people because they give to religious organizations; and they, like the rest of us, give to overwhelmingly religious organizations. For better or for worse.
Now the quoted study was in 2013, so perhaps the faithful have amped up their giving since then. But Kristof’s link to religious generosity gives data from 2008.) If you know of newer results, by all means mention them in the comments.
h/t: Jeff Tayler