It’s true: atheists don’t give as much as the superstitious…

…but not for the reasons you might think

The Giving USA Foundation published a report in 2010[1] that concluded about $227 billion was donated to charity by individual Americans in 2009. The donations went to religion, education, human services, health, the arts, etc.

In the recent few years, several pundits have made a big to-do about how it is that it’s the religious that give the most to charity, leaving the secular, including atheists, as the less-caring, less-likely to do good for their neighbors. The “Atheism Sucks” blog writes:

conservatives who practice religion, live in traditional nuclear families and reject the notion that the government should engage in income redistribution are the most generous Americans, by any measure.

Conversely, secular liberals who believe fervently in government entitlement programs give far less to charity. They want everyone’s tax dollars to support charitable causes and are reluctant to write checks to those causes, even when governments don’t provide them with enough money.[2]

And he’s citing Brooks from 2006[3] in case anyone was curious.

But, luckily, real science has been done on the matter and the nature of charitable giving was examined as it correlates to political ideology. Previous arguments by Brooks and the anti-atheist blogger above, which make partially researched claims that conservative politics drives people to be more giving are not supported in light of evidence gathered by more careful methodology.

The authors of a more recent study that used this more careful methodology examined three separate philanthropic outcomes: donation to congregations, donations to noncongregational religious organizations and donations to noncongregational secular organziations.

And it’s true: the non-religious give less than the religious, even to secular charities.

But not for the reasons they (the religious-conservatives) want us to believe!

What religious-conservatives want everyone to believe is that generosity is a result of their politics and their religious ideologies. But what this more complete research indicates very strongly is that habits and practice are what drive charitable giving. Not ideology. When the controls used are just net of income and demographics, conservatives clearly give more to religious causes. But when one, single, additional variable is added, this changes the results drastically. And that variable is religious attendance. The researchers found that it sufficiently explained the statistical significance between liberals and conservatives in previous studies that omitted the variable.

Along with religious attendence, the addition of attending political meetings and other political activities also affected the results, lowering the statistical significance with the addition of each additional variable.

What this means is that it isn’t ideology driving charitable giving. It’s practice. In other words, the person who attends religious and civic meetings is being presented with opportunities to give to charities. Even Brooks agrees that charitable giving is habitual and learned through practice[4]. Where the authors and Brooks differ is in what part conservative political ideology has in the process. Brooks sees religious people as being more likely to be politically conservative, but the authors show this isn’t a variable that is as necessary to explain charitable giving as civic participation in general.

So what’s this mean for atheists?

It means, as we get more and more organized, as we are, our rates of charitable giving will increase. The good news is, that it will likely be for secular (and, thus, more likely to be important) causes. One thing that I noticed from the study is that the religious are most likely to donate to themselves. While there are definitely religious charities that do good work, I’m not convinced, by a long shot, that they are either generally as effective or as efficient as their secular counterparts.

As humanity continues to break the spell of religious affliction, we’ll continue to participate in social activities that create habits of giving. Secular student organizations, atheist meet-ups, and other non-religious groups that are increasing in size each year show this to be the case. I’m scheduled to pick up trash in the Adopt-a-Highway program and participate in a blood drive in the next 30 days… both due to atheist/secular civic and social participation. And groups like ours inlcude charities in our communications, announcements, and oral presentations in much the same way Church attendees get.

But even if the religious continue to always give more than the non-religious to charities because they were religious (and it isn’t this way at all) it still wouldn’t demonstrate that the religious were right about their beliefs and superstitions.

For a list of good, secular causes to donate to, click this link: Secular Charities.


Brooks, Arthur C. (2003). Religious faith and charitable giving. Policy Review 121(October):39–50.

Brooks, Arthur C. (2006). Who really cares: The surprising truth about compassionate conservatism. New York : Basic Books.

Giving USA Foundation (2010). Giving USA 2010. Indianapolis, IN: Giving USA Foundation: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Vaidyanathan, Brandon, Jonathan P. Hill, and Christian Smith (2011). Religion and Charitable Financial Giving to Religious and Secular Causes: Does Political Ideology Matter? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50(3), pp. 450-469.

  1. Giving USA Foundation. 2010. Giving USA 2010. Indianapolis, IN: Giving USA Foundation: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. []
  2. []
  3. Brooks, Arthur C.. 2006. Who really cares: The surprising truth about compassionate conservatism. New York : Basic Books. []
  4. Brooks, Arthur C. 2003. Religious faith and charitable giving. Policy Review 121(October):39–50.
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