Let me go back to the very basic question that everyone skips. We hear that people been trying to find out whether being religious is likely to make you more generous. Why have they been trying to find that out? Why do they imagine that being religious might make people more generous? Where did that idea even come from?

No one studies the question of whether playing blackjack is likely to make you more generous. No one wonders whether surfing, or hunting, or delivering the mail, or DJing is likely to make you more generous. No one studies whether being a scientist, an actor, a chef, a police officer, or a cheerleader is likely to make you more generous. No one has ever suggested that any of those activities might have that marvelous effect. Where does the idea come from that religion might do it?

The claim comes from religion itself. One of the central tenets of almost every religion is that you can’t be a really good person unless you become a member. For about five thousand years, people who want us to be religious – and this mostly means people who make their living from religion – those people have been telling us that religion makes people good. And why do they make this claim? Is it because there they have seen overwhelming evidence for it? That cannot be the reason. We know it cannot be the reason because religions claim such moral benefits as soon as they are created, long before the claim could have been tested.

The reason they say that religion makes people more generous is that they are selling a product, and they want us to believe that the product does great things. We want to be happy, so they say religion makes you happy. We’re afraid of death, so they say religion can prevent it. And we want to be good, so they say religion makes you good. That’s how they sell the product: by telling us that it will assuage our needs – no matter what those needs are. There has never been a reason to take such claims seriously.