Proponents of religion, and especially of Christianity, insist that religion is essentially a good thing. It makes the world a better place, because it’s all about being good to people. For example, Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion begins:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

That’s a pretty paragraph – but the word ‘religious’ does not belong at the front of it. No religion has ever offered, or tried to offer, “justice, equity and respect” to “every single human being.” That is pure fantasy. To mention just one example out of millions, the Christian and Islamic scriptures require that women be given less respect than men. It’s right there in black and white. Apologists like Armstrong have been telling us since Day One that religion is a force for good – that it is the epitome of good – but this is simply and obviously and utterly false.

Armstrong’s proposal has a sinister side, because if you accept her version of “compassion” then you cannot accept secularism. If it were true that religion makes us better people, then to support secularism would be to push for a harsher, less compassionate world. But of course religion does not make us better people. This is a lie; yet it has been shouted so loudly, and repeated so faithfully, for so many centuries, that almost everyone believes it. Even many atheists do.

In a piece called 10 Things That Christians Are Better At Than Atheists, “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta writes:

Christians give back to the community they love. It’s a part of their budget. Many atheists might pay their organizations’ membership dues, but they do very little else to support them.

Parenting Beyond Belief author Dale McGowan agrees:

When it comes to actual giving of actual money, there’s no contest: churchgoers have us licked. Even outside of church-based giving, the average churchgoer in the U.S. gives twice as much as the average non-churchgoing American. Obviously there will be notable exceptions … but the overall picture of giving by secular individuals needs improvement.

Keith Logan of Young Australian Skeptics asks, “Why do religious groups have a monopoly over charity?

And a recent post on the Atheist Revolution blog makes the same mistake:

Foundation Beyond Belief is an organization designed to make it easier for people to support charities that do not proselytize. … Think of it sort of like a secular version of tithing. … Foundation Beyond Belief … helps to combat the stereotype that atheists do not support charities. Sure, one could contribute directly to any of the selected charitable organizations as an individual, but there is something to be said for larger donations coming from a secular group.

So even folks who are pretty comfortable with atheism are saying: “Look at all the religious groups doing ‘good works’. Why don’t secularists give back to the community they love (as Hemant Mehta puts it), the way religious folks do?”

But this is all upside-down. Religion doesn’t make you a better person, and religious people and institutions do not make the world a better place. In this post I will show that the statistical studies that supposedly demonstrate that religion has a positive influence in charitable giving do not hold up when examined carefully and without prejudice. Next time, I will show that secular people and institutions contribute enormously to the general welfare – probably much more than religious ones do.

Why the studies are misleading

Aren’t there scientific studies that show more charitable giving by Christians than by atheists? Only if the misleading interpretation of data from ideologically biased opinion polls qualifies as scientific study.

Mehta and McGowan cite studies by the Barna Group (see for example Trends in Tithing and Donating). The first thing to note about Barna is that they are evangelists. This does not immediately invalidate everything they say, but it should make us suspicious of their methodology, their results, and their reporting. Too strong, you say? Remember that an evangelist is basically a liar. If you haven’t read me before, that may sound pretty extreme, but it’s a simple fact. Evangelism is lying for a living. Helping churches prosper is central to Barna’s stated mission – and you can’t do that without lying.

In 2008, Barna’s president David Kinnaman described some of their study results this way: “Many of the most ardent critics of Christianity claim that compassion and generosity do not hinge on faith; yet those who divorce themselves from spiritual commitment are significantly less likely to help others.” In Kinnaman’s description, atheists are bad people by definition – no wonder they give so little to charity!

A set of Gallup polls, “Giving and Volunteering 1989–95”, is cited in Religion as social capital: producing the common good, edited by Corwin E. Smidt. I am going to quote from this book’s discussion of the Gallup data, and show how the authors are misinterpreting it. The passages are from Chapter 6, “Religion and Volunteering in America” by David E. Campbell and Steven J. Yonish, and Chapter 7, “The Religious Basis of Charitable Giving in America” by Roger J. Nemeth and Donald A. Luidens.

Campbell and Yonish say that according to the survey:

Americans volunteer more for religious organizations than any other type of group. This mirrors the finding of Nemeth and Luidens in the next chapter that Americans give more money to religious causes than any other type of charity. (p. 90)

First question: Why is a “religious cause” automatically considered a charity? Isn’t it misleading to give money to your church and call that “giving to charity”? I mean, think about where the money goes. You’re paying for your preacher’s salary, and the beautification of his workplace – what kind of charity is that?

The authors seem to be conflating the idea of a not-for-profit organization, contributions to which are tax-deductible, with the idea of a charity, contributions to which will actually help people who actually need it. Churches are statutorily not for profit, but that doesn’t mean that they do anybody any good. To me the word ‘charity’ means we’re talking about the more fortunate helping the less fortunate. But little, if any, of the money you give to your church goes toward helping people in need. It mostly goes toward the church: the land, the buildings, the stained glass, the silver chalices, the silk chasubles, the pastors’ salaries and offices and residences. None of this actually benefits anyone except the pastors – the professionals – the guys who set up this whole operation and registered it as a tax-exempt charity.

So look at the language again. “Americans volunteer more for religious organizations than any other type of group [and] give more money to religious causes than any other type of charity.” Campbell and Yonish take all the time and money that church-goers devote to their church and call it charity. I don’t think that’s the right word for it.

Church involvement provides a powerful impetus for individuals to engage in voluntary activity. But, if we look at volunteering from a slightly different angle, it also serves to channel volunteers into internal church-maintenance activity at the expense of more general-purpose volunteering. Among people who volunteer … more frequent church attendance leads to a lower probability of engaging in secular, informal, or advocacy volunteer activities. (p. 100–101)

People who go to church a lot volunteer a lot – but only for the church. They’re too busy to do “general-purpose” volunteering. Church participation makes them less generous with their time, not more. And what kind of work is it that they are volunteering for?

In 1995, 82 percent of religious volunteers indicated that the work they did for their religious organization was … internal church maintenance activities. Such a high percentage suggests that there is a distinction to be made between nonreligious and religious volunteering. (p. 102)

Indeed there is. Internal church maintenance! – this is not feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless. It’s not humanitarianism. It’s not generous, it’s inward-facing. It benefits, not people in need, but the church itself. The organization. The priests.

These results suggest that the form social capital takes within a church community does not have appreciably different effects from that found within secular voluntary associations, at least in regards to voluntarism. This is similar to Nemeth and Luiden’s conclusion in Chapter 7 that people who participate at least weekly in either religious or nonreligious organizations contribute equally to charity. (p. 105)

So, according to Campbell and Yonish, participation in religious organizations builds “social capital” in the form of relationships, norms, and habits; and participation in other kinds of organizations – the League of Women Voters, or a bowling league – has the same effect. Religious organizations are not actually better at this than other kinds of organizations.

We now move on to Nemeth and Luidens in chapter 7.

Although a forceful and cogent argument can be made that religion creates social capital in the form of charitable giving, it is a bit more difficult to generate an empirical verification of such a causal relationship. (p. 110)

This is hand-waving. They believe that religion is a positive influence, but they can’t demonstrate it. “Forceful and cogent” arguments can also be made that religion poisons everything it touches.

What the Gallup data show is that participation in social organizations of any kind has a positive influence. If these data mean that religion creates social capital, they also mean that bowling creates social capital. Nemeth and Luidens do not highlight this.

More people participate in religion than in bowling, but that doesn’t make religion more effective, only more popular. (Furthermore, religious participation is inflated by coercion. Millions of people go to religious services partly or only because if they don’t go someone will kill them. This is not true of bowling.) But Nemeth and Luidens really want to find something special about religion.

By varying the presence or levels of other variables (e.g. income), we hope to find whether religious membership influences giving in any discernable way, and if it does, whether the patterns can be explained in terms of relationships that are likely to be found exclusively among religious members. (p. 110)

Why would we expect that? What kind of relationship happens “exclusively among religious members”? (The obvious answer is pederasty – but that happens in the secular world too.) The passage reveals a huge assumption that underlies the whole book – and countless others. The authors want to verify, somehow, that religion is a qualitatively different type of enterprise. But there is no evidence to support this. It is simply assumed. And of course this makes the argument almost circular. Define churches as charitable organizations and you are halfway there.

In 1995, about one-half of all respondents reported making a contribution to religious organizations. This was nearly double the figure for health-related charities, which ranked second in terms of the number of contributions made. Moreover, the average amount contributed to religious organizations far exceeded the average given to any other charity. … In fact, the average amount contributed to religion is nearly double the level of giving to all other charities combined ($417 compared to $279)! (p. 111)

Remarkable – until you remember what religious organizations do with all that money. Nemeth and Luidens assume that religion is a good thing – that by contributing to a religious organization you enable it to do good things. But churches don’t do only good things. Many of the things they do are neutral, or bad.

Spending $417 a year on your church does not make you generous. And it certainly does not mean that you have a habit of taking effective humanitarian action. It only means that belonging to a church is more expensive than belonging to a bowling league.

Religious members are (by a margin of 20–25 percent) more likely to contribute to charities than are non-members … . … But what about charities that are specifically nonreligious in nature? … Religious members are not only more likely than non-members to contribute to nonreligious organizations, but they are more likely to contribute in greater amounts. (p. 111–112)

This is almost interesting. But remember three things.

a. Very few organizations are “specifically nonreligious”. They’re not opposed to religion, they just don’t emphasize it. When Nemeth and Luidens write “nonreligious” charities they just mean all charities, including the specifically religious ones. Note that in general, people who want to, say, feed the hungry don’t found a church. Instead they’ll start an organization dedicated to feeding the hungry. So in general, contributing to a church is going to be a less effective way of helping people. There are organizations set up specifically to help people; churches exist for other reasons.

b. On the other hand, since religion has a (false) reputation for doing good things, it tends to attract people who want to do good things. Someone might form (or join) a church because they have been told that this is the best way to feed the hungry. But such people are not generous because they’re in church, they’re in church because they’re generous (and because they have been misled). When church members do good works, it’s because they are generous, not because they are religious. They joined the church because the church said, “we are a great place for generous people.” But there are much better places for generous people than a church.

c. It’s well established that people don’t go to church nearly as often as they say they do. About half of these “at least weekly” churchgoers are liars. Might they also be exaggerating their levels of charitable contribution? This would severely compromise the Gallup data!

If religion’s influence on charitable giving results from relationships embedded in religious organizations (as the social capital model would suggest), then one would expect that those members who participate more in the life of their church or synagogue will be more strongly influenced by these relationships. In other words, we would expect greater religious participation to be associated with greater support of charities. … Roughly two-thirds of those who attend church on a weekly basis make contributions to nonreligious charities; in contrast, only 57 percent of those attending church less than one or two times a month do so. But this is exactly what one might expect with regard to social capital – the norms and expectations of a group are likely to be strongest among those who interact frequently and on a regular basis. (p. 113)

Now this is a strange one. As we saw earlier, the Gallup data provide no evidence that religious organizations promote benevolence to a greater degree than other kinds of organizations. Nemeth and Luidens could have written this:

If religion’s influence on charitable giving results from relationships embedded in any kind of organization … , then one would expect that those members who participate more in the life of their organization of whatever kind (especially if it describes itself as benevolent) will be more strongly influenced by these relationships. In other words, we would expect greater participation in almost any organization to be associated with greater support of charities.

But Nemeth and Luidens miss this. They are blinded by their assumption that there is something magical about specifically religious institutions.

Weekly participation in either religious or nonreligious organizations substantially increased the likelihood of giving to charities. Indeed, weekly participants in either religious or nonreligious organizations contribute to charities in nearly the same proportions. … However, weekly participants in religion gave nearly twice as much of their income to charities as did weekly participants in nonreligious organizations. (p. 118)

This is the bottom line, and the description is misleading. To see why, you have to look at the chart (Table 7.5, page 117).

This table compares the charitable contributions of four types of people. The type 2 person participates at least weekly in some non-religious organization. Type 3ers participate at least weekly in a religious organization. Type 4 folks do both; Type 1, neither.

The middle four lines deal with contributions to “all charities.” Frequent participants in religious organizations (orange oval) contributed more of their household income than did those in nonreligious organizations (green) – 2.3% compared to 1.3%. But “all charities” includes religious institutions, which usually means that your contributions support the church rather than people who need help.

The last four lines are about contributions to “nonreligious” charities – that is, the ones that actually are charities. Frequent participants in nonreligious organizations (blue) contributed more of their household income to nonreligious charities than those in religious organizations (red) – 0.9% compared to 0.5%. People who did both (purple) spent the same amount; that is, church attendance didn’t increase it.

Contrary to the authors’ description, the Gallup data do not show a positive correlation between participation in a religious organization and charitable contributions to the general welfare. Even if they did, this could be explained by the phenomenon mentioned earlier: the practically universal belief that a church is a good place to do humanitarian things seems likely to lead to generous people joining churches! But the Gallup data do not support this, either.

Bottom line: it has not been convincingly shown that religious people are statistically much more likely to support those less fortunate than themselves with charitable contributions of time or money.

In Part 2 of this piece I will show that secular institutions do in fact accomplish this. They don’t just talk about it. They actually help people who need help. A lot of people. Every day.