In contrast to the relationship between organized religion and charity (which is probably the only thing organized religion can say it has going for it), the relationship between atheism and charity is much more complicated.

A reader of the blog, David, brought a piece of information to my attention that is pretty interesting. A study done by The Barna Group found that nonreligious people (atheists, agnostics, and those who profess “no faith”) donate less to charity than religious people do. The relevant bit of the article is as follows:

One of the outcomes of this profile – and one of the least favorable points of comparison for atheist and agnostic adults – is the paltry amount of money they donate to charitable causes. The typical no-faith American donated just $200 in 2006, which is more than seven times less than the amount contributed by the prototypical active-faith adult ($1500). Even when church-based giving is subtracted from the equation, active-faith adults donated twice as many dollars last year as did atheists and agnostics. In fact, while just 7% of active-faith adults failed to contribute any personal funds in 2006, that compares with 22% among the no-faith adults.

It should first be noted that The Barna Group, according to Wikipedia, was “founded … for the purpose of providing ‘research and marketing expertise as a service to Christian ministry.'” I am not saying that their facts are wrong. (I am actually not surprised by the results.) I am just saying that with such apparent bias it might be prudent to take what they say with a grain of salt.

So, per David’s request, I’d like to go over why I think this is. Why do we give less?

Let’s go over some things mentioned (and not mentioned) by the study. There is a lot of interesting information that the study presents, even though it is not all applied in ways that I will.  (Perhaps due to their bias, perhaps because they are just stating facts and nothing more.)

First, the study notes that nonbelievers tend to be younger. (From the article: “The no-faith audience is younger, and more likely to be male and unmarried.”) Already I am seeing reasons why charitable donations are not as common. Some good reasons are that young people are just getting started in life, and are probably living paycheck-to-paycheck as they start their lives in the working world. Perhaps they are saving for houses. Perhaps they have children that are still in their care. Some less-good reasons are that young people probably spend more and party more.

In contrast, religious people — who must be older if atheists are younger — may be well-established in their careers. Their children may be out of the house already and no longer need to be cared for. Plus, religious people party less, and (according to the study) are less interested in new technology (“64% [are interested] among no-faith individuals versus 52% among active-faith adults”) so they might spend less, too.

Next, the article mentions “[nonreligious people] also earn more and are more likely to be college graduates.” Let me start with the college graduate bit. Again, nonreligious people are more likely to have college loans to pay off, so they have less money lying around to spend on charity. Now let’s touch on this bit about earning more. This strikes me as saying “they should be able to give more.” However, living in an area with a lot of younger, intelligent college graduates in the work force (coastal regions or larger cities in blue states), the living expenses are also higher as well. The article does not mention specifics about how much more nonbelievers earn, which is surprising because they give specifics for just about everything else.

So, the religious people might just have more money lying around.

Now, I’d like to provide a few reasons outside of the article that might explain why nonbelievers give less.

First ties into my post on atheism and politics. I think the “battle lines” are different for religious and nonreligious people. Religious people focus on giving to the poor at least in part because it gives them easy targets for proselytization.  Nonbelievers, on the other hand, are not worried so much about converts. They are worried about keeping God out of our government. So I feel as though perhaps we are spending money, or at least effort, but not on charities. Instead we are focusing on political issues.

Now, there are a couple bits about politics in the study. First, “[nonreligious people] are less likely than active-faith Americans to be registered to vote (78% versus 89%).” This might take some bite out of my previous point. However, with the average overall-voter-turnout being much lower than either of those figures, you wonder if perhaps a higher proportion of nonbelievers actually vote, while the religious people (already steeped in ritual) register to vote out of habit or due to a sense of “civic duty.” The figures for whether people actually vote are, like specifics on income, absent.

Second, “[nonbelievers] are also more likely to be registered to vote as an independent or with a non-mainstream political party.” This tells me that nonreligious people are more involved with politics than their religious neighbors. The mere fact that someone would not do the easy thing and vote for one of the major parties shows at least a higher level of sophistication with regards to politics.

The unfortunate thing about how the article presents the numbers on charitable giving is that it is unclear what “charity” means. I am comfortable, however, in assuming it leaves out political and activist spending, which is where I think nonreligious money would go anyway over charities.

And to focus a little bit more on the numbers the article gives, it is also unclear what “church-based giving” is. Is that just donating to pay the pastor and renovate the church, or is that to fund a soup kitchen in the basement? It is very unclear. I am unsure whether a fair comparison would include the church-based giving or not. Since they even bothered to mention it, I think it would be fair to leave it out.

And with that being said, I think it’s much more enlightening to say that the average nonreligious person gave $200 in 2006 while the average religious person gave $400. (Rather than to say that the average religious person gave double what a nonreligious person gave.) With the points I put forward already, I think a meager $200 gap can be easily explained.

However, explained or no, I will continue with what I think to be the central issue with regards to a lack of nonreligious charitable donations: it is simply easier for a religious person to give. I do not mean that atheists lack the necessary mental faculty to give. I mean that the tools, institutions, and networks for religious charitable giving are very robust and very visible.

If a religious person wanted to donate some money to charity or something, it would be very easy. Go online, find basically any charity, and give. Or, just give in church! Not only would it be incredibly easy to give in church, but the guilt factor further explains why church-based giving is so high. Plus, giving to the church is like putting money directly into God’s wallet! Who cares if the money is just going to go towards new Bibles that nobody will read? You’re giving to the church! High-five! (Psyche!)

On the other hand, if a nonreligious person wants to give to charity, they have their work cut out for them! In the past few years a lot of high-profile atheist organizations and YouTubers have been highlighting secular charities (like Doctors Without Borders), but if you don’t belong to any groups (or their mailing lists) and don’t watch YouTube, it is difficult to find a suitable charity. You need to make sure the money isn’t secretly going to anti-gay, anti-woman, or pro-superstition institutions. Basically if “God” is mentioned on the website, you’re fucked, and you’d be surprised how many times you can be fucked in a day if you’re looking for a secular charity! (Hint: Do NOT give to the Salvation Army.)

But don’t worry, my fellow heathens. All is not lost! If you feel bad about our (in my opinion, understandable and expected) inferiority when it comes to charitable giving, here’s a case to cheer you up!

Kiva is a microfinance website that attempts to alleviate poverty by providing loans to people. They take out a loan (from the money people donate), start their business, whatever that may be, and when they are able, pay back the loan. Your donation can actually be used multiple times as it gets paid back again and again! From their website: “Kiva empowers individuals to lend to an entrepreneur across the globe. By combining microfinance with the internet, Kiva is creating a global community of people connected through lending.”

Okay, sounds pretty good. But you’re probably wondering, aside from the fact that such a site exists, what’s to be happy about? Well check out this page. That’s right! Atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers collectively have given more money than any other group on the website, by far. They are very comfortable in their #1 spot. Perhaps nonreligious people do give after all, given the opportunity?

Now you may be thinking that being good is not about who gives the most money. You may be thinking it cheapens the whole experience and spirit of giving to make it a competition. And it certainly isn’t a “fight” we could win, so why bother trying to start it? I agree. However, I think it would be an amazing thing if groups of people competed to see who could give the most to charity. No matter who came out on top, the real winners would be those whose lives depend on the help of charitable organizations like Kiva and Doctors Without Borders.

All this talk of charity and helping others has got me smiling 🙂 I’m gonna create an account on Kiva right now! I encourage you all to donate something to some secular charity. Here is a list of some secular ones so that you may pick a charity that is tackling an issue you care about!

~peace, RR

The idea for this post was provided by a reader like you! If you have any issues, subjects, or topics, specific or broad, that you want me to weigh-in on, please leave a comment below or send me an email at radiantreason[at]gmail[dot]com :)