Nick Kristof osculates religion again, but do the faithful really give more to charity?

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


  1. Posted September 4, 2016 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    “Perhaps unfairly, the pompous hypocrites get the headlines and often shape public attitudes about religion, but there’s more to the picture.”

    “Pompous hypocrites” represent the inevitability of adherence to scriptural methodology. “More to the picture” is the associated behaviors of the less devout.

  2. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    What I’d like to know are the data concerning charitable donations by self-identified atheists, and particularly atheists who, like religious people, belong to some kind of overarching organisation. This could be the National Secular Alliance, it could be Humanists… What are the figures for charitable giving like when we compare the religious with, say, Humanists?

    After all, it seems that at least some of the explanation for the claimed disparity in giving is down to the fact that believers belong to a group(a religious sect in this case) which encorages them to give to itself. The Catholic church encourages donations to the Catholic church, the Anglican church encourages donations to the Anglican church, etc. Therefore, I’d be interested to see what charitable giving rates are like amongst members of secular organisations.

    Of course, it could be that we’re all just stingy bastards, and meanness is the inevitable consequence of not believing in a super magic man who drowned everything on earth because he was irritable, but I’d like to see Further Research.

    • Sastra
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      I would also guess that some of the disparity comes down to what I call the Sign-Up Sheet Effect. If you belong to an organization which routinely sends around or hangs up a blank list for volunteers or donations for a Good Cause, you are more likely to give time and money. Partly opportunity, partly group pressure, partly the desire to help out friends.

      A secular organization which is at least in part a charity organization would probably give as much if not more than a church. Think Foundation Beyond Belief.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      There are also all those religions that require their members to tithe. If, for example, you’re a Mormon who gives 10% of your income to the Mormon church, I’m not sure that has anything to do with generosity.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted September 5, 2016 at 7:38 am | Permalink

        Yes. I’ve been in church when the tip tray’s handed around and I didn’t feel an overwhelming sense of shared human empathy in the room – more a terror of being seen not to give enough by your fellow believers. I gave them a chocolate coin at Christmas and resented even that.

    • Posted September 5, 2016 at 5:56 am | Permalink

      I find this relevant in this respect.

      “Matt Wilbourn thought he was doing a nice thing when he donated $100 to the Murrow Indian Children’s Home in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

      But when he wrote on the home’s paperwork that he wanted the donation to be made in the name of the Muskogee Atheist Community (which he co-founded with his wife), he set off a firestorm in the heart of the Bible Belt.

      Wilbourn told Tulsa news station KJRH that an employee of the home called him and said it would not be accepting his donation because “it would go against everything they believe in.””

  3. jeffery
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Kristoff actually DOES say, ” But I do see religious faith as one of the most important forces, for good AND ill…(emphasis mine)” although he doesn’t go into specifics as to the “ill”..

    I often run across comments like this: “I’d like to know where all of the atheist-run soup kitchens are..”- the commenter, of course, has no facts whatsoever to back up their implication that religious people are the sole source of charity and that the instant one becomes an atheist, one loses any interest in the welfare of one’s fellow man.
    I wonder, though, what about the Clinton foundation (that “criminal enterprise”- Ha!); the March of Dimes, Disabled American Veterans, Goodwill, etc.? There’s little way of ascertaining the level of “religiosity” of people who donate to these organizations, (although I’m certain that many who donate goods to the Salvation Army don’t attend their church services; they just want someplace to get rid of unwanted “junk”).
    While I don’t necessarily identify as an “atheist” (although I fit Daniel Dennet’s definition of one), I’m an avid “dumpster-diver” and donate my finds to the local womens’ shelter, numerous charities, and individuals (I find a LOT- I probably “reclaim” a semi full of good clothing and household items each year).
    My motto is, “Anyone who hasn’t done anything for the benefit of mankind should be ASHAMED to die.”
    Stories are rife, though, of “charities” that spend the vast majority of their donations on their own infrastructure, executive pay, etc., with only a small percentage getting to where it’s supposed to go. There’s a fundamentalist “mega-church” in my town that decided to open a thrift store: over the years, they have expanded the size and number of these stores to where I’m certain that the majority of the money they take in doesn’t go to anything other than keeping the stores in operation. Interestingly enough, I get most of my items from what they discard- they toss winter clothing all summer, and summer clothing all winter (no storage space), yet never tell those who donate that their stuff is going directly into their dumpster because they’re afraid that if they did it would cut donations.

    • Posted September 4, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      Although I doubt your are looking for it, kudos Jeffery.

  4. Posted September 4, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Most religions, including Christianity don’t want a more just and compassionate world. They advocate for making anyone but themselves a second class citizen at best and murdering such people at worst. JC did say that one should care for the poor, but if you want to claim that the bible is any kind of truth, he also said to kill anyone that didn’t accept him as their king, and then of course we have the sadistic fantasy of Revelation that so many Christians would try to ignore.

    If contributing to your own religion for your own benefit is “charity” then, of course the religious contribute more than anyone else. However, I don’t think that is charity at all. Recycling money in a circle to convince yourself you are right is just desperately seeking external validation.

    • Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Agreed that tithing to your church is hardly charity. I once did a small analysis of church budgets to see exactly how much was spent on missions beyond the congregation. Approximately 85% of the money is spent in-house – pastors, facilities, internal programs, etc. Thus a small fraction of the budget is actually spent on ‘the other’.

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted September 4, 2016 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        For what it’s worth, if you look at the published accounts of the CofE, you find that 100% of their income – including investments, plate collections, legacies and all the rest – goes on pay, pensions and the upkeep of the estate. The costs of the many schools that they claim to own and run are met by the British taxpayer. The charities that they support are funded by individual donations and by the state. And they get tax breaks into the bargain. This degree of privilege goes almost unexamined.

        Oh, and they *still* have 26 bishops in the House of Lords.

  5. Aroup Chatterjee
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    It IS true religious americans give more than other americans, But that is not th ecase in other nations

    From: Why Evolution Is True To: Sent: Sunday, 4 September 2016, 14:30 Subject: [New post] Nick Kristof osculates religion again, but do the faithful really give more to charity? #yiv6457703589 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv6457703589 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv6457703589 a.yiv6457703589primaryactionlink:link, #yiv6457703589 a.yiv6457703589primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv6457703589 a.yiv6457703589primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv6457703589 a.yiv6457703589primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv6457703589 | whyevolutionistrue posted: “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 faitheis” | |

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Aroup Chatterjee – Wow! I am so very glad that you’ve made an apparition in the news. Why, it seems like a miracle! Well over a year ago, I read your monumental and meticulously detailed book on that creature (very difficult to locate), and tried to find a way to contact you to tell you how important and what a valiant effort it was. It validated in spades everything I’d learned on my own about her (things that even Christopher Hitchens apparently wasn’t aware of), and then some. I thought I knew a lot about her, but I was literally agape and horrified, gasping and groaning aloud almost every time I turned a page of your book, and that is not hyperbole. The things you detailed were so shocking and upsetting that sometimes I’d have to put the book down and take a walk to compose myself. Ever since I read it, I’ve been trying to spread the word.

      But the trail to locate you went cold quickly. The publisher’s website was worse than useless, and I could find no “live links” to you, just a brief Wikipedia entry, which I hope will soon be elaborated on and updated. I wondered if you’d died, or perhaps the Church had kidnapped you, spirited you away and immured you in a dungeon like the Nun of Monza. I am so very glad that you’ve surfaced, and that at least some of the media is paying attention to your work, if ex post facto sainto. Frankly, I was surprised that they did. But better late than never. I sincerely hope that your book will be republished by an American publisher and made available at reasonable cost to one and all.

      By the way, while she was still alive, I heard on the BBC that some Hindu temples in Calcutta displayed her picture on their walls along with the gods and goddesses. I’ve tried to verify that info, but so far have been unsuccessful, though I don’t doubt it for a moment.

      I sincerely hope that your book will be republished, and Bravo! to you for writing it.

      • Zetopan
        Posted September 8, 2016 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

        If you are having trouble finding a publisher to reprint your book you should contact Prometheus Books. I am quite sure that they would be interested.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      Yes – I second the hope that your book will be reprinted!

  6. jrhs
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Well, Mormons are supposed to tithe. My children attended Catholic school, and we were told to donate to the affiliated parish monthly.

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    It would be difficult to get specific information on the religious institutions as they are not required to report income or spending. However, the Economist has attempted to provide some info on the U.S. Catholic church operating budget as follows:

    Health Care $98.6 billion
    Education $48.8 billion
    Parish Dist. $11 billion
    Charities $ 4.7 billion
    other $ 8.5 billion

    Obviously running hospitals and schools is where the bulk of the money seems to go. Between 2004-12 $2.6 billion has gone to civil court cases on the abused.

  8. E.A. Blair
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Studies going back to the 1950s have shown time and again that religious people are not more altruistic than nonreligious people either in helping others directly or by charitable donations. One study from the 1970s had people fill out a questionnaire which, among other things, asked for the subject’s religious identification. They were then given a test on which is was possible to cheat. Those who self-identified as born-again Christians showed the highest tendency to cheat, while the groups with the lowest incidence of cheating were those who identified as atheist.

  9. Stonyground
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Just giving to charity without researching what that charity actually does isn’t a virtue. A good example is the Christmas shoe box appeal which puts money into the pocket of the odious Franklin Graham. In the UK we have numerous fake charities. These are organisations funded by the government. Often they do no actual charity work at all, only political lobbying. The government pays them to pressure the government to do what the government wants to do anyway. These organisations are registered as charities and solicit donations from the public. Charities that get government funding have a vested interest in not solving the problems that they claim to be trying to solve.

    • Stonyground
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      I have just watched the video of Christopher Hitchens’ take down of Mother Theresa which pretty much makes my case. How much harm was done by people who mindlessly donated money to this vile sadistic hypocrite?

  10. Jonathan Livengood
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Michaelson’s summary of the Connected to Give study seems to me to be pretty misleading. Maybe I’m missing something?

    Looking at Key Finding 4 in the Connected to Give study (, it looks like “affiliated” people give at a higher rate across the board: 51% (versus 17%) give to a congregation; 47% (versus 34%) give to a religiously identified organization (RIO); and 53% (versus 50%) give to a non-religiously identified organization (NRIO).

    Reacting to Key Finding 7 — that 55% of all people who give say that their religious affiliation is extremely important to their charitable giving — Michaelson says, “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.” I’m not sure about the first claim (religious people said that *lots* of things were extremely important to their giving, like feeling that those who have more should help those who have less), but I don’t see how his second claim is supported by the study. Is he adding up the percentages and concluding that roughly 2/3 of the giving of affiliated religious people is to congregations or religious charities? That would be silly, right? What am I missing?

    In any event, the numbers for “affiliated” versus “unaffiliated” are not so helpful if what you want to know about is differences in giving between “religious” and “non-religious” people, since there will be affiliated, non-religious people and non-affiliated, religious people. The breakdown on the next page of the Connected to Give study is more helpful. They divided people into self-identified “religious,” “spiritual,” and “neither.” Then they looked at rates of giving to congregations, RIOs, and NRIOs in each group. They report: 58/33/15% of religious/spiritual/neither give to congregations; 51/42/28% give to RIOs; and 56/51/42% give to NRIOs. Here, the self-identified “religious” people give at a higher rate to both religious and non-religious charities.

    And all of that is still pretty unhelpful, since the Connected to Give study only ever looks at giving rates as a proportion of a population. They don’t look, for example, at the *amounts* that different groups give, or at the amounts that they give per capita, or at the proportion of each group’s income or wealth that is given. Consequently, the giving rate numbers could be telling us something important or something really uninteresting. And we just don’t know which it is. For example, it could be that each group gives the exact same percentage of its disposable income to charity, and the only differences are in how the giving is divided up among kinds of “charities.” If so, then much more non-religious charitable giving is actually getting to people in need, since a lot of what counts as “charitable” giving to congregations goes to things like buildings and staff salaries. But it could also be that each charitable *gift* is the same size. This would yield Michaelson’s conclusion that religious people overwhelmingly give to religiously identified institutions. But it would also yield the conclusion that religious people give a lot more on the whole and *also* slightly more to non-religious charities than do non-religious people, which would support Kristof’s claim that religious people are more charitable. I suspect that the size of the average donation to NRIOs by religious people is actually a bit smaller than the size of the average donation to NRIOs by non-religious people but that overall charitable giving by religious people is slightly larger (even if we compare apples to apples). But the study doesn’t address this at all as far as I can tell.

  11. Sastra
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    It would be interesting to do a survey and ask the following question:

    1.) If the only two options were giving to a charity whose sole purpose is to spread the gospel — or giving to a charity whose sole purpose is to alleviate suffering here on earth — to which one would you choose to donate?

    2.) From the above, if there could only be one kind of charity organization, which one do you think it should be?

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Waitresses I knew in Ohio told me that consistently born-again Christians were the worse tippers. Their restaurants were near multiple churches where the worshipers came in after church, so they were in a position to know the affiliations of their customers.

  13. Filippo
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Muhammad “raised the status of women in his time.”

    Yeah? Just what specifically did Mohammed do in that regard? Just one brief mention of Mohammed. (Perhaps Kristof secretly thinks that Mohammed doesn’t bear close scrutiny.)

    Kristof doesn’t mention Paul (re: women and slaves submit to your husbands and masters).

    As much as Kristof rails against the sex trade and sexual abuse of minors, I’m all ears to hear him expound on Mohammad’s child bride (if I correctly recall Hitch’s comments).

    • Posted September 5, 2016 at 5:01 am | Permalink

      Muslims have told me that Muhammad ended the practice of female infanticide.

      Even if this is true, however, I think he diminished the status of adult women. There was reportedly a female opponent of him, Asma bint Marwan, who was a poetess and wrote poems against him. She was murdered by a supporter of Muhammad, with his approval. This episode recorded by early Muslims shows that in pre-Islamic Arabia, women could write poetry and take stance in civil matters. And they could do it without renouncing their traditional female roles: Asma was married, and actually was killed while nursing her youngest child. I do not know a similar Arab woman until very recent times.

  14. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 4, 2016 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    If being religious makes you a better person, it should follow that religious states are better states because states are made up of people. Moreover, if secular people are cheap with the giving, then secular states should not provide care to those in need or to anyone.

    Yet we gave Scandinavia, Europe, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and yes, even though it has its struggles, the US. All successful, secular states with social, safety nets, most with universal health care, some with free post secondary education and all with free education until university.

    Then we have Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Yemen. All thecracies or at least following theocratic laws.

    Where would you prefer to live? Which is the just society?

    Kristofer needs to rethink his assertion.

    • Ddmacpherson@gmail.c
      Posted September 4, 2016 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

      Kristof. Autocorrect fail.

  15. J.Baldwin
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    All this stuff about “true” Christianity being about helping the sick and the poor is rubbish. Their sickness and poverty were known to be sin and estrangement from God (Jesus says he didn’t come to call the healthy–i.e., the Jews–but to heal the sick; i.e. the Gentiles). The “sick and the poor” are a metaphor in Christian theology for the sinful and debased. Jesus’ healing “miracles” were not done out of the goodness of his heart but as external signs of the forgiveness of sin following repentance. Without repenting, the sick and the poor got nothin’ comin’ according to Jesus.

    Progressive Christianity is an oxymoron. Drop the pretense to religion and, yes, what remains would best be understood as secular humanism.

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