Atheist Giving More Compassion-Driven than Giving By the Religious

September 27, 2012

Don’t know how I missed this before, but a study appearing in the July 2012 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science finds that atheists are more motivated by compassion than givers with strong religious beliefs. This was not a study of whether atheists give more or less than churchgoers — that’s a whole other controversy — but rather a study of why religious and nonreligious givers give.

A May 1 MSNBC story reported the key point in these words:

Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” study co-author and University of California, Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer said in a statement. “The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.

That would seem to support a suggestion I made in my op-ed “Are Secularists Less Generous?” in the August / September 2010 FREE INQUIRY:

Remember, Christianity strongly encourages charity-sometimes past the point of good sense. Prosperity preachers urge the poor to send in their rent money and hope God will provide. Granted, many Christians look down their noses at prosperity preachers. But I have yet to meet a Christian who doesn’t think highly of Jesus, and he praised the widow for giving the temple her last money in the world (Mark 12:42–44; Luke 21:1–4). Beyond doubt, Christianity demands and praises charity. Close-knit congregations can be hotbeds of social pressure to contribute, the pressure coming from clergy and fellow congregants alike.

In light of that, suppose for the sake of argument that churchgoers do give more generously than seculars. Far from demonstrating that they are more virtuous or caring, it may instead show that, driven by expectation and community pressure, they give too much. Some may be giving more than is compatible with their families’ financial well-being. And if churchgoers are giving too much, it might be us seculars, free from slick-talking ministers and prodding, prying pewmates, who are making more rational giving decisions and contributing at sustainable levels.

This adds another dimension to the familiar debate over whether seculars are on average less generous than the religious. In my 2010 piece I reviewed some research and was willing to accept that seculars/atheists/humanists are at least somewhat less generous, in part for the reasons noted above.

In a later FREE INQUIRY op-ed, Tom Rees argued that atheists give less cash to charity but channel more of their generosity into “in-kind” giving (December 2010 / January 2011).

In August 2012, Hemant Mehta weighed in on his Friendly Atheist blog, arguing that religious people may give more, but a sizeable fraction of their charity goes to religious groups. If you take away giving to their churches and other religious organizations, Hemant argues, churchgoers are actually less generous than the nonreligious. That could be a powerful talking point, but I’m not wholly convinced. The problem is that available data only break out individuals’ giving by the type of charity that received the funds (religious, educational, scientific, etc.). Genuine religious charities — denominational groups that feed the poor or do disaster relief, for example — have the same IRS “religious exemption” as the churches themselves. If a clever researcher could find a way to separate churchgoers’ giving to their churches from their giving to religious charities that do good works in the outside world, that might give us a clearer portrait of who gives more than whom.

Still, if the study in Social Psychological and Personality Science holds up, we can probably say that no matter whether atheists or believers give more, atheists give what they do give, on average, out of purer motives.