It’s Social Ties—Not Religion—That Makes the Faithful Give to Charity

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

Over the last twenty years, one of the most stunning changes to the American social landscape has been the dramatic rise in the percentage of Americans who report having no religious affiliation—the group that has come to be known as the “nones.” Today, 20 percent of Americans disclaim a religious affiliation,and among millennials, it is over 30 percent. At the same time, there has been a growing debate over whether the secularization of society will lead to a decrease in charitable giving, with secularists—whether they consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or humanists—tending to argue that fewer religious Americans will simply mean fewer contributions to pay for churches and synagogues that fewer Americans are attending anyway.

Not exactly. A new report by Jumpstart and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy details the many ways that religion and the charitable sector are intertwined. Based on a major national survey, this report finds that three-quarters of all household charitable giving goes to organizations that have religious ties. These span the range from large organizations like the Salvation Army (which, many Americans do not realize, is actually a church) to small soup kitchens run out of church basements.

(READ: Empty Pews: Everyone is Misreading the New Numbers of Religiously ‘Unaffiliated’)

Not only do Americans give generously to charities with religious affiliations, but the most religious Americans are also the most charitable. In our book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and I show that there is a strong connection between being religious and being charitable. Not surprisingly, the most highly religious Americans contribute their time and treasure to religious causes. But they also give to secular causes—at a higher rate than do the most secular Americans.

Having found that religion and charity go hand-in-hand, Robert Putnam and I sought to understand why.  The answer might surprise you. We initially thought that religious beliefs must foster a sense of charity—whether inspiration from biblical stories like the Good Samaritan or, perhaps, a fear of God’s judgment for not acting charitably. However, we could find no evidence linking people’s theological beliefs and their rate of giving—which also helps to explain why the “religion effect” varies little across different religions. The rates for charitable giving according to the Jumpstart survey are: 61 percent of Black Protestants; 64 % of Evangelical Protestants; 67 % of Mainline Protestants, 68 % of Roman Catholics, and 76 % of Jews. By contrast, only 46 % of the not religiously affiliated made any charitable giving.

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.

(MORE: The Selfish Reasons Behind Why We Give)

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. At least some secularists have tried to do exactly this, by creating “atheist churches” that have the trappings of a religious congregation—weekly services, communal singing, and even a coffee hour—but minus the religious content.

The jury is still out on whether such religion-less congregations can keep people coming and, if so, whether the social networks formed within an avowedly secular group can have the same effect on charitable giving. In other words, can an “unchurch” replicate what churches do? Or does the boost to charity found within religious congregations require religion? Until recently, there was no way to tell. However, should unchurches prove to be more than a fleeting fad, we might soon have an answer.

David E. Campbell is the author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us with Robert D. Putnam. He is the director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy and a professor of political science at University of Notre Dame. The views expressed are solely his own. 

18 comments
arnizach
arnizach

One more reason why "spiritual, but not religious" is a bad idea. We need the social ties and contexts that church (temple, mosque, synagogue, etc.) gives us. We need them and the world needs them. 

firespirit3
firespirit3

This writer is an idiot who is trying to create a no religion world by spouting this nonsense

Deepelemblues12
Deepelemblues12

Why did the question of what contribution, if any, religious beliefs made towards fostering this social atmosphere among congregants, for some reason, not occur? 

These conditions did not arise out of a secular vacuum, although it appears they can still be maintained reasonably well in one.

It just seems amazing to me that you can neatly snip and disconnect "social ties" from the environment where they are created and maintained, and apparently not explore where these social ties come from. Humans are social animals, but you can find many cultures and subcultures incredibly less gregarious than the major organized religions, or simple "spiritual" convictions. 

Phoenicia
Phoenicia

In my previous comment which disappeared (I wonder why) I pointed out that our Judeo-Christian culture was created over 5000 years ago.  Democracy grew out of our religious concern for equality and compassion.  The notion that we are equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is given to us, according to Jefferson, by God.  Our value system which requires empathy and a desire for justice and mercy comes from a religious, cultural heritage.  Whether you believe in God or not, if you live in the West you have inherited a religious culture and the freedoms which Moses and Jesus worked for thousands of years ago.  Just because you don't believe that these religions matter doesn't change the fact that their battles and voices created the system of law and taxes and innovations and education which you now enjoy.  Who fought for the end of slavery, mostly religious people?  Who fought for the creation of social work and the New Deal, mostly religious people?  Who defeated Fascism and Communism, religious people.  Who expanded public education and the vote to women, blacks, Hispanics, mostly religious people.  Charitable giving cannot be measured just by how much money you give to a charity.  Some people give their whole lives to social work, or medicine, or public service in politics, or law.  There are all kinds of giving, especially if you are a teacher and you care whether or not the religious history and values of our country continue.  You can't measure that kind of giving in dollars and cents.  How do you calculate the death of soldiers who gave their lives so that we could have freedom and equality?  Religion is not just about charity, it is about building a compassionate, free world where every person has dignity and rights because we are all children of God whether or not we know that or believe it.

twoiron
twoiron

Un-church will produce un-gifts. Charity comes from the Latin word, "caritas" which means loving gift. Where there is no "agape" love (i.e., selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love), there is no giving, only re-distribution.     

That is why socialism doesn't work. There is no love in it. Only the lust for power and control over the lives of others.

CanusMaximus
CanusMaximus

If one considers that all social safety net spending paid directly to individuals, setting aside wages and retirements of the public service employees who administered these benevolence funds, then Americans as a whole are profoundly charitable in general (due to the compulsive charity imposed by our tax code), and the religiously motivated even more charitable. 

Too bad we're so absolutely hell-bent of driving out all religious expression from the public square, given we dare not admit that religious charities might actually do more good than harm.

stevek77536
stevek77536

Here is an example of "religion": 

"Many have questioned the finances of Joel Osteen who has an estimated net worth of $40 million dollars. ... Joel Osteen is senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, a facility where his mother, brother and sisters are also on the staff. The church is located in the former Compaq Center, which served as home to the Houston Rockets. The church originally leased the facility for $12 million dollars, which it paid in cash, before buying the facility on March 31, 2010, for $7.5 million.    the church ... has an annual budget of $70 million.  [Osteen's] book sales and related material brings in a reported $55 million. Joel has received as much as $13 million as advances on some of his books. ... Joel Osteen and his wife live in a 17,000 square foot mansion made of stone located on 1.86-acres in the Tall Timbers subdivision of River Oaks, Texas. The home is owned by Covenant Trust who will pay $260,000 in property taxes on the home valued at $10.5 million. The home contains six bedrooms each with its own bathroom. Also on the property are a one-bedroom guesthouse and a pool house.  Joel Osteen has said that a person should never feel guilty for being rich, as God views that as an insult. Instead, he should praise God for blessing him with the money."

http://www.howmuchmoneytheymake.com/public-figures/joel-osteen-net-worth-and-salary-lakewood-church.htm

Photo here:

http://www.toomanymornings.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Lakewood-Church-1024x768.jpg

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

"... this report finds that three-quarters of all household charitable giving goes to organizations that have religious ties."

Perhaps this statement would have more context if they had quantified how many charities have religious ties in the first place.  My guess would be at least three quarters, if not more.

Another datum missing is how much each gets on average.  If one were to give ten dollars each to three non-religious organizations and one dollar each to seven religious organizations, you'd pretty much maintain the same ratio of "giving", but the non-religious charities would have gotten much more.

Thirdly, there is no mention of tithes, which is considered tax deductible and a charitable contribution.  That's mandatory in many (if not most) religions in some way - at least if one wishes to continue to be a member.  How do those factor in to "giving to charities'?

Finally, there is no mention what so ever about how much of those charitable donations is spent on overhead and how much goes into actually helping those in need.  While this will vary, wildly at times, from organization to organization, one could quantify it by showing the average  expenditure of donations on overhead versus to the needy by breaking it down between religious and non-religious charities.  Again, my guess is that religions tend to have more overhead going to the church, but without studies to prove it, that's just a guess.

As for the notion of "Atheist churches" that's such an oxymoron, I won't dignify it with further comment.

Charity begins at home, not in church.  What this study suggests is that peer pressure (far more than social ties) and a "keeping up the the Jones'" attitude dictates charitable contribution.  People are shamed into giving, or they use it as a conspicuous tax write-off.  It seems that only in times of emergency do people give selflessly, anonymously and without peer pressure to help others.

So it appears for Americans, charity is either a status symbol, a form of begrudged extortion or a selfless act wanting no reward.  From a religious point of view, it seems to me that the latter of the three is more likely to enhance one's spiritual cache'.  One wonders how much charitable contributions would drop if they were not tax deductible.  THAT would be the real test of faith.  My guess is that they'd plummet to less than a third of what they get now, and most of the contributions would be to non-religious charities.  Again, just a guess, but without knowing how many people use tax deductions as an excuse to give at all it's hard to say.

Either way, it's their money.  And nothing in this article suggests that charities would all die off when religion does.  And IMHO the sooner religions die off, the better.

Infoczar
Infoczar

"Our findings thus suggest that if secular organizations could replicate the sort of tight, interlocking friendship networks found within religious organizations"

lol


JamesPeron
JamesPeron

The problem with such reports is their definition of "charitable." They include donations made directly to churches, even to those not engaging in anything most people would say is charitable. So, is it a surprise that religious people give more to religion than non-religious people? Nope.


AshetaliaStaatz
AshetaliaStaatz

@twoiron Eh? Nations which I would consider socialist--most Scandinavian and Western European nations, plus Australia and New Zealand--work just as well as any other place. In fact, they work better most.

"Agape," comes in many forms. People in Scandinavia are willing to pay higher taxes to provide for health care, benefits, basic social security for themselves and their fellow citizens. That is the kind of generosity many anti-socialist, conservative people are woefully lacking in the US.

Phoenicia
Phoenicia

@stevek77536 Shall we list the assets of various atheists or Catholic or Baptists or other religious groups or pastors? You can find wealthy people all over the place.  You can also find many poor people among religions as well as atheists especially among religious reformers.  Religious institutions are responsible for some of the worst crimes and corruption in history.  They are also responsible for some of the greatest contributions in history.  So what is your point.

Deepelemblues12
Deepelemblues12

@DeweySayenoff IMHO you try to sound reasonable but in the end you're just asserting things based off negative stereotypes of the religious and human beings in general. It's all sand. 

A much smaller proportion of the non-religious donate than the proportions of the religious. You have nothing to base your tax write-off fantasy on than a judgmental view of people that would not shame an Old Testament prophet.

You don't seem to realize that your statement that charities would not die off when religion does is no complement to secularism. If all that keeps donations coming in is the tax write-off, the religious or secular convictions of those donating are irrelevant. And if the proportion of the non-religious donating remains anywhere near current levels and the proportion of non-religious in society grows, then those who continue donating must donate more to maintain donation growth or even holding steady. The gap doesn't just magically close itself.

But you were trying so hard to sound reasonable you probably didn't realize that.

stevek77536
stevek77536

@DeweySayenoff Agreed.  I would be considered an atheist by most, although I accept that there may be a "creator" that we cannot know.  Still, I help my fellow man, and don't need any religious person to encourage me.  In fact I find many religions offensive, as I've stated in other comments here.  Morality, OTOH, is important and is not a religious issue.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

@JamesPeron 

And the very visible and public tithe collection ritual during religious services is kind of coercive.  

stevek77536
stevek77536

@Phoenicia @stevek77536 When organizations use "religion" to evade (not avoid) taxes on their acquisition of vast wealth, it is obscene.  And yes, I include " ... Catholic or Baptists or other religious groups or pastors ..."   As L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, stated so succinctly, "If you want to get rich, you start a religion."   AFAIK, the atheists don't attempt such brazen evasion (althought they might attempt more hidden evasions, just as criminal).  The article is about charitable donations inspired by religions, but I think Pastor Osteen's focus on "Prosperity Theology" is very different.  I'm with Ray Stevens on this one:

http://www.lyricsbox.com/ray-stevens-lyrics-would-jesus-wear-a-rolex-4t5fdlx.html

That is my point.