Obama’s been spiking the football all day. Now it’s my turn. Picture me pointing at the computer screen, performing an impromptu Ickey Shuffle, and then slamming that pigskin to the ground so hard that it knocks the money out of my wallet and straight into your favorite charity’s donation box. Touchdown.
That doesn’t mean highly religious people don’t give, according to the research to be published in the July 2012 issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. But compassion seems to drive religious people’s charitable feelings less than it other groups.
“Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” study co-author and University of California, Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer said in a statement. “The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”…
In the first study, Saslow and her colleagues analyzed data from a national survey of more than 1,300 American adults taken in 2004. They found that compassionate attitudes were linked with how many generous behaviors a person was likely to report. But this link was strongest in people who were atheists or only slightly religious, compared with people who were more strongly religious.
In a second experiment, 101 adults were shown either a neutral video or an emotional video about children in poverty. They were then given 10 fake dollars and told they could give as much as they liked to a stranger. Those who were less religious gave more when they saw the emotional video first.
As usual with these studies about religion, the headline is irresistibly sexy — you’d be excused for thinking at a glance that it was claiming atheists are more compassionate — and then when you read the fine print the reality is more mundane. The study’s not saying that atheists are more compassionate, it’s saying that atheist charitable giving depends more heavily on actually feeling compassion for the victim than believers’ giving does. The believer may tithe or may decide that, as a matter of religious duty, he/she should set aside a certain amount of income to be donated among various charities. In that case, the motive is more an aspiration to behave virtuously than to satisfy some swelling of sympathy. For most (but not all) nonbelievers, I suspect, it’s sympathy that’s the key trigger. That’s how it is for me: I give generously when I feel moved to do so but I don’t set out to spend a specific aggregate amount annually. I do need to feel moved, though. Assuming most other atheists are like me, that means our pattern of giving is more volatile than a believer’s is likely to be, and that in turn probably means that believers are more likely on average to give. (Studies seem to bear this out.) I’d be curious to know, though, whether the amount of the average atheist donation is greater than the amount of the average believer’s donation. If it’s true that sympathy is more important to us, I’d expect that flush of emotion might drive us to give more when we do choose to donate. But since we’re probably donating less frequently than believers do, it may well be that we end up giving less annually in total than believers anyway. Anyone know of any numbers to confirm or challenge those assumptions? I can’t find any with quickie googling.
Update: John McCormack of the Standard e-mails with a link to this Arthur Brooks piece from 2003. The numbers are … not good:
The differences in charity between secular and religious people are dramatic. Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). And, consistent with the findings of other writers, these data show that practicing a religion is more important than the actual religion itself in predicting charitable behavior. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92 percent of Protestants give charitably, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent from other religions…
Charity differences between religious and secular people persist if we look at the actual amounts of donations and volunteering. Indeed, measures of the dollars given and occasions volunteered per year produce a yawning gap between the groups. The average annual giving among the religious is $2,210, whereas it is $642 among the secular. Similarly, religious people volunteer an average of 12 times per year, while secular people volunteer an average of 5.8 times. To put this into perspective, religious people are 33 percent of the population but make 52 percent of donations and 45 percent of times volunteered. Secular people are 26 percent of the population but contribute 13 percent of the dollars and 17 percent of the times volunteered.
These differences hardly change when we consider them in isolation from the other demographics, using a statistical technique called tobit regression. Religious practice by itself is associated with $1,388 more given per year than we would expect to see from a secular person (with the same political views, income, education, age, race, and other characteristics), as well as with 6.5 more occasions of volunteering.