Religious People More Generous?

One item in the news today is a study in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where the main take-home message for a lot of people is that religious conservatives are generous to the needy, and liberal atheists are miserly Scrooges. In fact, teh BillDo has a picture of Scrooge next to his summary:

Liberals are the least likely to help the poor. That’s the inescapable conclusion of this new study: states where people participate in religion at a high rate are also the most generous; conversely, the least generous states are also the least religious. Importantly, nine of the ten least generous states voted for Obama in 2008.

Note that he says “help the poor”. The Chronicle of Philanthropy‘s writeup says something significantly different:

The study, based on the most recent available Internal Revenue Service records of Americans who itemized their deductions, examines taxpayers who earned $50,000 or more in 2008. They donated a median of 4.7 percent of their discretionary income to charitable causes.

There’s a difference between “the poor” and “organizations that the IRS considers charities”. For instance, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Megachurch is a charitable organization for tax purposes. So if you donated to them, and some of your money went to pay for Joel Osteen’s mansion, that counts as a charitable donation (or, as BillDo put it, “help[ing] the poor”) for purposes of this study.

In other words, some portion of the sensational headline “Less-religious states give less to charity” is “Less-religious states give less to churches”. Like, duh.

In fact, what the Chronicle of Philanthropy says on the subject is:

Religion has a big influence on giving patterns. Regions of the country that are deeply religious are more generous than those that are not. Two of the top nine states—Utah and Idaho—have high numbers of Mormon residents, who have a tradition of tithing at least 10 percent of their income to the church. The remaining states in the top nine are all in the Bible Belt.

When religious giving isn’t counted, the geography of giving is very different. Some states in the Northeast jump into the top 10 when secular gifts alone are counted. New York would vault from No. 18 to No. 2, and Pennsylvania would climb from No. 40 to No. 4.

(emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the study’s data set, to see how removing donations to churches changes things. And even then, there would be the problem of subdividing religious donations into what can genuinely be considered charitable (e.g., providing meals for the homeless) from administrative costs (like clergy salaries) or proselytizing (like sending Bibles to Haiti). Of course, churches encourage the idea that tithing = charity and don’t publish their books the way other non-profits do, so we can see how much overhead they have.

Having said that, it’s entirely possible that atheists and agnostics genuinely give less to charity than more religious people; but that’s not apparent from what was published (in other words, BillDo’s “inescapable conclusion” is entirely escapable). After all, churches are already set up to accept donations, so it’s easy for them to raise money for, say, tsunami victims in Indonesia. And of course if you give a sermon on the importance of charity, you’ll probably raise more money when you pass the plate than if you don’t.

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