Dec 2, 2013

Can you give without God? Yes, but religion makes a difference

Religious people give. They give more, they give a lot, and they give frequently. They give because they're religious.

Kind of.

The give "because they're religious" if one understand that to mean something other than whether or not they hold to certain beliefs. If religiousness is measured as individuals assenting to propositional statements, then religiousness has little to nothing to do with charitable giving in America. Religious people give more because they're religious only if that is understood to mean that, in their lives, being "religious" means being connected to a community.

A new study, the National Study of American Religious Giving, reconfirms that there's a significant correlation between the importance of religion in your life and the likelihood you give money. About 40 percent of Americans said religion was very important to them. Of those, 74 percent gave to charity. About 25 percent said religion was somewhat important. Of those, 60 percent gave. There are also about 22 percent of Americans who say they're neither spiritual nor religious. Less than half of those -- 42 percent -- give to charity.

The study noted an even sharper break if they measured for frequent religious attendance, instead of self-ascribed religiousness. Among those who infrequently attend a religious service, 49 percent give. Among those who frequently attend religious services, on the other hand, 75 percent give. This includes 60 percent who give to organizations without religious affiliations.

The study suggests this tendency for the religious to give more is not due to beliefs, though. It's a combination of opportunity and social pressure.

This is more clear in a related study of one specific group and comparisons of those who give vs. those who don't. Looking at Jews, in particular, one finds that community is more important that confession of belief.

Released this month, the National Study of American Jewish Giving found:
The biggest factor influencing American Jews to make a charitable contribution is an individual's connection to and engagement with the Jewish community. Whether it is religious service attendance, in-marriage, having Jewish friends, or volunteering for a religious or charitable organizations -- any sort of connection to Jewish social networks or Jewish communities results in much greater likelihood of charitable giving.
Nor is it just charitable giving to Jewish causes. Fifty-three percent of moderate givers and fifty-six percent high givers (who are more connected) give to Jewish organizations. But they also give to non Jewish organizations. The average high giver, according to the study, gave about $5,000 to non-Jewish causes and about $2,000 to specifically Jewish causes. About 19 percent actually give to non-Jewish religious groups.

When Jews are active in their communities, connected to their communities, they give more. And they give more to everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike.

This is not dissimilar to the religious, generally. Among those who frequently attend a religious service, 60 percent give to organizations with no religious affiliation. If people are measured by the importance they say religion has in their lives, the results are the same. Of those who say religion is very important to them, 58 percent give to non-religious organizations.

Whether this is people responding to opportunity or social pressure, it's hard to say.

What does seem clear, though, is that religious giving is primarily a function of social connection. Beliefs, as such, don't strongly correlate to charitable giving. Being a part of a community, however, changes one's behavior.

David E. Campbell, co-author of American Grace, makes this argument. He says these studies confirm work he's done with Robert Putnam about why religious people give more.

Rather than religious beliefs, we found that the 'secret ingredient' for charitable giving among religious Americans is the social networks formed within religious congregations. The more friends someone has within a religious congregation, the more likely that person is to give time, money, or both, to charitable causes. In fact, even non-religious people who have friends within a religious congregation (typically, because their spouse is a believer) are highly charitable -- more so than strong believers who have few social ties within a congregation. 
Our findings thus suggest that if secular organizations could replicate the sort of tight, interlocking friendship networks found within religious organizations, they too would spur a comparable level of charitable giving.
Some non-theist organizations, including the so-called "atheist churches" that Campbell mentions, have sought to do just that.

Typically, claims that atheists are "really," deep down, truly religious is rhetorical nonsense. In this sense, though, when it comes to giving and what makes people give, those who don't believe may well be as "religious" in the way that counts. The religiousness that makes people charitable, it seems, isn't a matter of belief at all.