Are Atheists Being Stingy When It Comes to Charity? August 22, 2012

Are Atheists Being Stingy When It Comes to Charity?

A new study released by The Chronicle of Philanthropy seems to suggest that the most religious states (especially in the South) are also the most charitable:

Donors in Southern states, for instance, give roughly 5.2 percent of their discretionary income to charity — both to religious and to secular groups — compared with donors in the Northeast, who give 4.0 percent.

But take a look at that wording: “Both to religious and to secular groups”… In other words, church counts as charity? Money you give to fatten your megachurch pastor’s wallet and proselytize to people counts as charity? Doesn’t that skew the results?

Well, let’s see what happens when you exclude donations given to churches and religious groups. When you do that, the least religious states (in the Northeast) take the lead:

Of course, the media isn’t mentioning that bottom image. The headlines everywhere seem to go along these lines:

Study: Less religious states give less to charity


Religious States Donate More To Charity Than Secular States

All of that is misleading. “Religious states give more money to churches” would be more accurate… but then no one would care.

So don’t get fooled by graphs like this:

Can we take anything away from this study?

Fred Clark says this:

Set aside those “charitable” donations to local churches, and the study shows that the churchier regions are generally stingier toward “secular” charities. You know, like those secular categories of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.

I would add something else: The study shows that when there’s an infrastructure in place to give money to charity — including church — people donate.

Atheists don’t really have that infrastructure. When we donate money to charity, we usually do it on our own. But I suspect we’d be more likely to do it if we could do it as a group, just as churches do now.

At least that’s one of the working hypotheses of the Foundation Beyond Belief, a group I’m involved with that has encouraged atheists to give to secular charities (which, in this case, refers to charities that serve everyone, not just atheists).

As I write this, we’ve raised over $338,400. And that doesn’t include crisis fundraisers like in the case of the Colorado wildfires.

It’s a small amount compared to how much churches can raise — but again, this is all about infrastructure. If there were “atheist churches” on every block that held weekly meetings, no doubt we’d be giving more money, too.

But we can still raise our game.

I remember being in college (and a few years after that) when I was either making no money or living paycheck to paycheck. I was in no position to give to charity at the time. Once I started working a steady teaching job, though, I made sure to set some money aside for non-profit groups that I supported. Yes, that includes a bunch of atheist groups, but it also includes groups like the ACLU of Illinois and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

There’s no God commanding us to give 10% of our salaries to a church. We give out of the goodness of our own hearts. And we’d be making the world a better place if we supported good organizations with our donations (if we have the ability to do so) or time. They don’t even have to be groups that promote atheism; just ones that do worthwhile work.

Don’t let anybody tell you religious people are more charitable than atheists. It’s just not true.

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  • Santiago

    Also, dont forget that given the infracstructure you were talking about, non religious people may donate time, food, etc to churches (food pantries, clothing, etc) because there is no local secular alternative.

  • One thing that always irritates me about these kinds of studies is that they are so focused on money. I don’t donate a penny to any cause. But I give around 20 hours a week of my time to several. Nothing is deductible. Nothing shows up in these charts. But what I give goes a lot farther than any money I might contribute… and has zero overhead, as well.

  • I think one of the reasons that the infrastructure of a church leads to more donations is that it involves giving a small amount on a regular schedule instead of giving a single lump sum, which is what most of my donations to date have been.  I’m glad that more and more of the charities that I support are adopting the subscription method of donating. 

  • I don’t think that “religous charity” necessarily equals “churches,” though. Like, I give to the American Friends Service Committee because they are a good peace group, and that’s a religious organization. I was about to be really depressed at what a high percentage of donations in this country goes to churches, but I don’t think it’s that simple.

  • William Dimaculangan

    We’re still the most generous block of givers in!

  • Rebecca

    Thank you so much for this article.

  • Joe Zamecki

    Perhaps not locally, but internationally there are ways to give to secular groups. Foundation Beyond Belief has a nice long list of good secular groups doing all kinds of work. Also Atheists Helping the Homeless puts “Atheists” right in the name of their group, as they help all kinds of folks in need. 

  • Anonymouse

    I donate anonymously how do they know what my ‘religious’ affiliation is?  

  • Jenlyn

    yeah,  it’s called tithing, which is required by a lot of religions (or if not actually required, severely frowned upon if not offered)….but it’s not really charity when it’s required, now is it?

  • In some cases, your travel expenses to and from volunteering might be deductible.

    The trick with deductions is that, for most of us wage-slaves, we either have to give an outrageous percentage of our income to charity – which will almost guarantee an audit – or we have to have some other major deductible expense (home mortgages are the most common), in order for charitable donations to count at all.

    That said – kudos to you for your work!

  • Perhaps the less rabidly religious states are better able to construct public policies that reduce the need for charitable giving.  Birth control, good schools, and fair lending laws prevent a lot of bankruptcies.

  • Well, I manage to maintain a deliberately minimal income, so deductions wouldn’t really help. I wasn’t complaining about a lack of deductions, only pointing out that my contributions are of a nature that don’t typically show up in analyses of charitable giving. I suspect that is often the case.

  • Santiago

    True, but when I want to act locally and benefiting members of my community by volunteering and donating food, clothing etc, I normally have to use religious charities. Lots of other oportunities outside my area, like the one you mention. Thanks for the link!

  • Rwlawoffice

    Maybe I missed it , but does the study say that “religious charity” only means churches? Alot of Christians will give to religious charities outside of their church. Also, giving to the church does not mean that you are not helping the poor, feeding the hungry or what maybe considered secular goals.  A lot of churches have ministries set up for this purpose and a portion of the donations go to support them.  For example, our church has a portion of our donations going to a family homeless shelter, an orphanage, a transition home for older orphans, and food banks.     

  • The church I once attended pushed hard for the 10% tithe.  The church was proud of the fact that it managed to use up to 10% of the money it took in for charitable purposes where the other 90% went to such things as pastoral salaries, staff salaries, utilities, building upkeep, insurance, and evangelism.   I think this probably was a fairly typical church and this means that if you tithe at 10%, you are really just giving 1% of your salary to charity.  The other 9% of your salary went to church overhead.

  • have to dig deeper

    It seems to me like there would also be many economical and sociological considerations to be taken into account as well. Maybe the more urban northeast donates time instead of precious money. Maybe the southeast has a higher proportion of wealthier families that are able to spare money for donations. I know that’s speculation, but it just renforces the more general point that such statistics are not so black and white. 

  • Pete084

    Religious charities give to the needy too! Like the wind up bibles that were flown out to the Haitians just after the earthquake; oh yes,  just what you need when you’re homeless and starving, a fucking talking bible!

    In churches they have the collection basket shaken under their noses to prompt them into giving, whilst we heathens have to choose a charity and go out of our way to give to those charities.

  • Coyotenose

     I don’t know that it’s possible to even get a decent estimate for how much of money donated to churches ends up as “real” charity. Obviously some does. I suppose that once you take out the pseudo-charity, the numbers are more in the middle – meaning about even for the religious versus the secular donors.

  • Coyotenose

     Excellent point. We all know (well, all of us except the usual trolls) that birth control dispensed by government agencies is literally worth more than its weight in gold to our economy.

  • Octoberfurst

     Thanks Hemant. I’ve wondered about that data for awhile now. I always figured they counted donating to the church as “charity.”  But is it really charity since much of the donation goes to making the church nicer—better carpeting, better furniture, etc. Yeah they’re donating but it is to make THEIR church a more comfortable, pleasant place for them to worship in. So I really don’t look at that as charity.  I had a religious friend who bragged that he gave 10% of his income to “charity” but then I realized that his church demanded a 10% tithe so I didn’t think he was really being that generous.  😉

  • The main problem I have with this article is the assumption that “religious group” means “church.” It’s simply not the case – there are plenty of religious groups that aren’t churches, and function similarly to secular charities. Habitat for Humanity, for example.

  • Verimius

    I give money to secular charities like Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International. You can’t tell it came from an atheist because it isn’t labeled that way.

  • Realist

    It’s not misleading. We’re not allowed to say: “We’re the most generous at giving to causes we care about!” That’s total self-aggrandizing BS. Lots of religious charities to work I’d be proud to support as a non-religious person, if only there weren’t the spiritual angle.

    And whether or not churches provide something _we think_ is worthwhile, they provide a lot of something that _people want_. It’s the height of arrogance for us to claim that we’re more generous as long as you don’t count generosity we don’t agree with.

  • Randomfactor

     There’s a local “charity” in my city which is religion-based.  Because of that, they are exempt from some of the reporting requirements imposed on other, secular charities.  That’s the OTHER reason I don’t donate to them.  I DO donate to the local homeless shelter, which is also run by a “rescue mission,” but they’re transparent about their income and outgo.

  • Bzalisko

    Great article. I couldn’t have put it any better.

  • Randomfactor

     The study was aggregated by region.

  • Tom Flynn

    Actually, the message I take away from this is that atheists *don’t* need to do anything more to “get their game up.” Despite a paucity of supportive infrastructure, atheists seem to give so generously as individuals that the relatively more-godless Northeast and West outgive the rest of the country when giving to churches is excluded. A further benefit: individual as opposed to communal giving is in important ways more secular, as it is free from the kind of peer pressure that groups such as church congregations commonly exert to warp giving profiles. Based on this data, we’re giving quite enough — and in the best possible way — right now!

    Tom Flynn
    Editor, FREE INQUIRY

  • Patrik W
  • I disagree with you on the semantics of removing religious organizations to more accurately depict a true giving comparison between Atheists and Christians.  But that’s probably because I’m not an Atheist.  Since I’m pretty sure my comments will automatically be categorized as having a religious bias, I’ll try to keep this as short as possible.  

    If you are going to remove religious organizations from the roster of charitable contributions, you better have a clear understanding of where those funds are truly going.  You might be surprised to find that most churches themselves have an operating cost that is less than 30% of their received tithes.  This might not be an acceptable answer to most atheists, however if you were to gather your friends together , rent a facility to host, print materials, and etc. you may find this figureto be a bit more respectable.  Many of the Christ -centered charities that I donate to (beyond what I tithe, and beyond what I give) see as much as 95% of those funds going to the cause.  Cross International ( is on of those as 97.3% of their donations reach those in need.
    I do, however agree with you about motivating more people to donate.  Regardless of our religious affiliation we need to look after each other.  Don’t donate because you are an Atheist or a Christian, donate because you know it is the right thing to do.

  • Guest

    And if this was the only study in the history of studies that said religious people give more, there might be a point in there.  As it is, you have the typical modern atheist notion that if 2+2=4 doesn’t help, just say 2+2=98234, and that will do it, while accusing anyone who points out the obvious that they must be one of them religious dumb types.  Notice it doesn’t say ‘gives to church.’  It says groups, religious and secular (and guess what, I’ve seen many churches help out ‘secular’ charities over the years’).  You know, charities that might actually be religious.  Of course this is the old Bill Maher (chuckle) notion that if it’s religious it can’t count as charity therefore religious people probably don’t give more (see changing the math above).  It’s a sad commentary on a movement founded on hatred, rage, ignorance, and self-congratulatory same think that at the same time thinks it’s just so damn smart.  I mean, really?  This is what our brilliant and enlightened age has brought us?  Just rearrange the data, state things that are ludicrously false, and count on similar thinking dunderheads to rally around and cheer?  Right.  How superior we are.  But I guess if my goal is to hate a group of people, I can switch things around all day until the data finally agrees.  Some of history’s best bigotry was accomplished that way.

    The funny thing is?  When I saw this story, I said I’ve got to go to the Friendly Atheist and see if they follow the Maher (chuckle) path, or if they buck up and admit that you can be an atheist in a world with good religious people.  But again, it never, ever disappoints. I suppose bigotry seldom does.

  • Reason_Being

    Thank you for writing this post.  I was going to write something similar on my blog.  I had noticed the whole “church” aspect of this study.  Which I heard about 3 times while driving on XM’s POTUS radio.  I had the question of donating to churches in my head.  This was an important piece to write. 

    Giving money to one’s local Church should be in a separate category when the study is looking at the religiosity of donors. It is a gross oversight by the people conducting the study. It is also a gross oversight when Romney talks about how much he gives (tithes) to the charity (the Mormon Church). It is bad and false PR like this that continues to hurt our movement.

    Thanks again for writing this post.

  • Sware

    My thoughts exactly.  To further this point I’d like to share a little something from back when I was a church going believer. 
    I was a single mother on very meager pay and living with family members to get by for a number of years while I worked to get on my own feet.  One Sunday morning the Lutheran church I attended put on the entire sermon around tithing.  I remember leaving that day feeling like a grown woman that had just been scolded for an hour and a half about giving a full 10% of my income to the church.  It was presented in such a way that I’m sure was meant to incite guilt from the congregation at how the poor church was struggling to get by.  I don’t doubt for many people that this worked on them.  For me personally though it infuriated me.  I had a child to feed and owed so much to the family members that were helping me out and if the stupid $5 I already gave the church each week wasn’t enough, then well, they were just going to have to pray harder for money.  They were essentially telling me to pray to solve all of my problems.  Turn about was fair play to me.  If you are guilt tripped into giving, can it really be called charity?  I’d personally call it caving in.
    I’ve since given on my own to some organizations I see fit to give to but they also have never asked me what my religious affiliation is…so how would they have an accurate picture of whether or not religion is a driving force in charitable contribution?

  • Isilzha

    How is giving to a church in any sense giving to charity??  It’s not bigotry to recognize that the money given to churches and other religious organization is mostly wasted in proselytizing and NOT helping anyone (except the church leaders who get to line their pockets).  Even the money spent doing “good” works often comes with heaps of strings attached to it (like listening to sermons or, worse, making those in need grovel and repent before receiving aid).

    So, the point is, when you remove the money given to churches and the many religious organizations it turns out that the religious aren’t really all that charitable.  Yes, they’re giving money away, but not with the intent of really helping other people.

  • Pseudonym

    Exactly. The real take-home message is “Religious people tend to give more to religious charities, atheists tend to give more to secular charities”. But it’s still true that religious people give more overall, and I’m inclined to agree that the social infrastructure is the main reason for it.

  • The church I attended when I was still a believer prided itself on giving a significant percentage of it’s tithe-dollars to mission work (it’s been a decade now, but I think the figure was somewhere around 60%). 

    Now, SOME mission work is focused on real-world problems (food, water, yanno, charity stuff) the main thrust was certainly spreading the gospel. So, yeah, while that figure you gave may be admirable, I don’t know that it’s necessarily representative of most churches, nor do I think that most churches would put tithes toward things that atheists/secular humanists would appreciate.

    If churches would straight-up give that money to charity without the religious baggage and proselytization, I’d be singin’ a different tune. But I think it’s purposefully disingenuous to suggest that Christian ministry-charities do their good while pretending there’s no other component to it.

  • Guest

     I don’t buy that the property owned by churches is only $500 Billion. There are 7 Mormon churches and a Temple within 10 miles of my house. You cannot convince me that the churches cost less than $2 million a piece and the temple anything south of $200 million and I don’t live in the city! If those facilities paid their share, my property taxes would be cut in half! They are taking money out of my pocket to promote a religion that I think is a lot of hooey.

  • Guest

    Hemant, I agree with you about how easy it is for churchgoers to donate. I know that I am less likely to donate to a cause as an individual because I am afraid that my one time donation will put me on a ‘sucker’ list. It would be better if we had a organization like the United Way except without the graft and corruption.

  • SJH

    You show the second image which takes out church and religious groups. What are these religious groups? For example, is the local catholic charities soup kitchen a “religious group”. By religious group do they mean that the group is affiliated with a religion?

    I would be interested in seeing the statistics for how much money is given to charities that may be associated with religions but are secular in nature. Also would be curious to see what percentage of dollars from churches are spent on nonreligious related activities.

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