According to a Canadian study from 2008, religious people are “more helpful, honest and generous;” and an American study from last year found that “religious states give more to charity than non-religious states.” As I explained in a previous article, the stereotype that religious people are more likely to be Good Samaritans than nonreligious people is highly suspect. In fact, a new study has thrown the idea of religious people being more charitable into question too. This might just be the nail in the coffin for stereotypes about religiosity and altruism.
Two days after publishing my Good Samaritan article, I learnt of an interesting rebuttal against the “religious people are more generous” argument. As I mentioned in an update to that article, researcher and blogger Jerry Coyne notes that almost half of the charitable donations given by American households are to churches. Indeed, many people – like American comedian and talkshow host Bill Maher – believe that such charitable contributions should not even be considered donations.
Instead, such donations are considered as though they’re done to promote the donater’s religion, which is not particularly altruistic so much as self-serving. This is arguably not the point of charity. It’s the same concept as if some after-hours club member donated some of his money to that club. For example, a sports club, etc. Should we call that charity? Writer Roy Sablosky at Yashwata.info doesn’t think so:
Generosity is not the same thing as donating to a nonprofit organization. These are different concepts. The first means, voluntarily helping others at some cost to oneself. The second means, giving money to an organization that qualifies as “not for profit” under the U.S. tax code.
Donations to one’s own church are tax-deductible. But that does not make them charitable, in the older sense of the word. They are membership dues for a social club. They do not benefit the wider community, as would, for example, donations to the Red Cross.
But we’re here to look at the science, and this next research paper comes from Nottingham University Business School. Malaysians of various religions were asked to do a task that involved sharing imaginary money with someone.
The participants were given an imaginary amount of money and given the option to share with another participant. They were informed that they could keep whatever they didn’t share, or else they could share, and the money they shared would be tripled.
The task was simple enough, and the results were telling. All religious participants – Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists (sorry, no Jewish Malaysians I guess) – were more generous than nonreligious people only in one condition. When participants were told that the person receiving the money so happened to be of the same religion as them, they were more generous. However, when the person receiving the money was not religious or of another religion, there was no discernable difference in charitable behavior among religiosity of participants. Alternet adds this:
Religious institutions sometimes exploit and redirect empathic or generous impulses, converting them into a means of simply feeding the beast more dollars or adherents. My friend Kent recently received a mailer titled, “They’re Crying Out for Bibles. Please Help!” It told of one “dear elderly” woman in China who had been waiting for a Bible all her life. When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake, a different missionary organization used the disaster to raise funds and ship Haitians much needed solar-powered Bibles.
At the time of the Asian Tsunami, a Seattle mega-church sympathized on its website and then advised parishioners to pray for those affected, give to their church-building ministries (aka conversion activities) in India, and give to Mars Hill Church. A hip newspaper published by the same church, advises that God want you to give first and foremost to your home congregation. The formula has worked beautifully for them.
More than Just Money
In 1975, a study called “Faith Without Works” looked at the cheating behaviors and volunteering willingness among university students. The good thing about the study is that the cheating and volunteering measures were not determined by self-reports, which are not generally reliable for this type of research:
Students in a large introductory psychology class were given an opportunity to cheat on a class examination. Some time later, they were asked to volunteer to participate in a project designed to help mentally retarded children.
At some point, they asked participants to rate themselves based on their religiosity, and categorized students into four groups among the religious spectrum, from atheist to “Jesus people” (actual wording). As it turns out, not even the Jesus-est of participants were any more altruistic than atheists. Also, even the cheating behavior did not correlate with the volunteering. In fact the only discernable difference the researchers found was that women were more altruistic than men.
Sablosky also mentions an interesting paper on religiosity and emergency behavior:
In another experiment (Lawrence V. Annis, Psychological Reports, 1976) subjects completed a questionnaire designed to measure “degree of commitment to traditional tenets of Western religion,” “location of religious values in the individual’s hierarchy of values,” and “frequency of religious behaviors like church attendance and private prayer.”
Later, with no apparent connection to the questionnaire, each subject “happened” to see a woman carrying a ladder. The woman went into another room and closed the door; a few moments later there was an audible crash, designed to sound as if the woman had perhaps climbed the ladder and then fallen off. The subject then either opened the door or did not. None of Annis’s three measures of religious commitment bore any correlation with the likelihood of a subject’s opening the door.
And let’s not forget about the Good Samaritan study itself, in which religiosity had no effect on who helps a collapsed individual when they’re in a hurry. When it comes to helping your fellow man, religion seems to make no difference.
More Charitable Than the Religious?
In fact, Sablosky has a detailed criticism of the religion-altruism link which is worth the read if you want to know more. But SecularHumanism.org (SH) takes it a step further, arguing that atheists have actually been seen to be not just equally generous, but more generous, depending on the task at hand. Perhaps monetary donations are more likely to be done by the religious, but as they say: “There’s more to generosity than handing over cash to a charity, and there are plenty of other ways to help your fellow humans.”
How do the nonreligious perform when it comes to generosity in kind, rather than in cash? There have been a few studies looking into this, and they reveal a rather different picture. Take, for example, a 2007 study of doctors by Farr Curlin at the University of Chicago. Private general practice can be pretty lucrative, but some doctors choose instead to work among the poor—effectively taking a pay cut in order to help the most needy. Curlin found that 35 percent of nonreligious doctors, compared with 28 percent of Catholic and 26 percent of Protestant physicians, choose this calling—no sign here of mean-spiritedness among the nonreligious.
And that is considering the fact that three quarters of physicians in the US are religious (i.e., believe in god, and 90% attend religious services at least occasionally), according to a study from 2005, also conducted by Curlin. They are, in fact, more religious than the average US population; perhaps because there are so many foreign doctors working in the US. Family doctors and pediatricians are more religious those with specializations, and psychiatrists are the least religious doctors.
But while we’re on the topic of the hospital, let’s change gears. There are people giving blood, and we have data on the effects of religiosity on blood donations. A national survey from America said this:
Previous studies are lacking on a positive relation between religiousness and blood donation. We tested this hypothesis using a national survey of 7611 women and 4282 men aged 18-44 years. In women, positive associations of childhood religious affiliation, current affiliation and attendance with blood donation were seen on bivariate analysis but were no longer significant when socio-demographic variables were controlled for. Religiousness was not associated with history of blood donation in men, with the exception of higher donation rates in Catholic men aged 35-44.
Basically, religiosity had little or no effect at all. As Epiphenom says “By cutting and dicing the statistics, the authors (Frank Gillum at Howard University and Kevin Masters at Syracuse) were able to find occasional groups that seemed to be more generous donors (Catholic men aged 35-44, for example), but I think they have fallen foul of the problem of multiple comparisons. If you make enough groups (nearly 50 in this case) some are going to come out high just by random chance.”
The Bottom Line
The following excerpt from SH paints a picture of just how much religious people give to their own religions, which is less altruistic than, say, blood donations.
According to Daniel Chen, an economist at Duke University, some 90 percent of the money that Mormons give to charity goes to other Mormons, while 80 percent of evangelical Christian charity goes to other evangelical Christians. At the other end of the scale are Catholics (at 50 percent), but even Jews, who are the least discriminating in their charity, reserve 40 percent of it for their fellow Jews.
Chen found that this roughly mirrors the differing expectations of support that people expect from their co-religionists if they are ill. Giving money in these cases is less charity and more a kind of social insurance. By way of contrast, blood donations involve making a sacrifice for an anonymous stranger—an act that seems not to be stimulated by religion.
It seems clear, then, that the communities which religious people intend to benefit are often the religious communities to which they are affiliated. It’s with this information that we must consider the definition of altruism. As far as I’m concerned, altruism is doing something because you know it’s the right thing to do, not because you know who it is going to benefit.
There are three points to be concluded from the research above: 1) The argument that religious people are more generous than the non-religious is considerably weak – except perhaps for monetary donations to people of the same religion; 2) atheists, unlike religious people, do not discriminate when donating time, energy, or money; and 3) atheists tend to give just as much non-monetary resources away as religious people, though there are instances where atheists are more charitable, such as how they may not give as much money to charities but are more willing to pay higher taxes in the US, which benefit the whole country – as opposed to donations which benefit a specific (i.e., religious) group.
Annis, L. (1976). Emergency Helping and Religious Behavior Psychological Reports, 39 (1), 151-158 DOI: 10.2466/pr0.1918.104.22.168
Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A. (2007). God Is Watching You: Priming God Concepts Increases Prosocial Behavior in an Anonymous Economic Game Psychological Science, 18 (9), 803-809 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01983.x
Smith, R., Wheeler, G., & Diener, E. (1975). Faith Without Works: Jesus People, Resistance to Temptation, and Altruism Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 5 (4), 320-330 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.1975.tb00684.x