56. Thinking about Christmas: 3. Religion, Charitable Giving, and Volunteering

It’s coming on Christmas and tis the season to give.  I think maybe you should be with your family and not reading this blog post. Shame on you.

Unless you are relaxing because you are exhausted.  In that case, good for you – you deserve a break. You have been working too hard.

See, I can work both sides of the aisle.

Anyhow, in my last post [55] I was poking fun at atheism through Santa Claus. Small things amuse me.

I defined atheism (very narrowly) as those who reject all divinity and believe that religion promotes ignorance and is harmful. Although many of us may struggle with the idea of an active and interventionist God, we may also see the suggestion that religion is a fount of ignorance and harm as a little harsh.

The somewhat extreme stance of viewing religion as a social evil, leaves those who espouse atheism open to counter-evidence that religion may serve a positive social benefit.  To that end, the most common example offered is in the area of charitable giving.  A fairly consistent research finding has been that those who claim regular church attendance also report higher levels of charitable donation as compared to those who do not attend church.

Pro-religion writers present this fact as an argument against the indictment that religion is fundamentally harmful.  In their comment on the moral underpinning of charitable giving, the Christian Post quotes Alex McFarland (a Christian Apologetic):

For [McFarland], the debate is not over the fact that atheists can’t be good, but rather that there is no objective basis for their being good. “No matter how much non-theists and anti-theists engage in grammatical gymnastics – without God there is no objective, absolute, ultimate foundation for what is good or why to pursue it,” he said in an email.

For Christians, McFarland said, the “basic premise is that since people are made in God’s image, all humans have inherent worth, value, and dignity. When you see humans as a mere product of evolution (as non-theists do), there is less incentive to invest in benevolent causes because human life is cheapened.”

The Christian Post and McFarland suggest that religion, because it promotes the universal worth of all people through shared divine creation, leads to greater willingness to sacrifice or share resources with those less fortunate.  They also sucker-punch atheists (who promote evolution) as utilitarian and, as a consequence, are not prone to charitable giving.

(This argument — that belief in evolution leads to an absence of moral direction — is not new and one can find similar sentiments in the popular press following the publication of Darwin’s work in the late 1800s.)

56. Edinburgh Quartley July 1871 p195-196

Hemant Mehta, in his Friendly Atheist website, comes out swinging and argues that while it is true that those who identify themselves as religious give more, their charity is predominately skewed toward their own religious affiliations.  Mehta suggests that this form of giving is more self-serving than charitable, and merely reflects the efficiency of religion in promoting donations among its parishioners.

As much fun as it is to watch Christians and atheists argue over the motivation and intent behind charitable giving, some facts might be helpful.  For those, I turn to the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating that collected information about charitable donation and volunteer activity from over 37,000 Canadian adults in 2007 and 2010.

According to this survey, donating appears to be an important and frequent part of Canadian life.  On an annual basis, 84 percent of Canadian adults offered charities a financial donation.  When all forms of charitable donations were considered (including money, food, clothes, household items, or toys), the participation rate of charitable giving increased to 94 percent.  Essentially, almost all Canadian adults will donate something to a benevolent cause every year.  To put that in context, in 2010, the labor force participation rate in Canada was 67 percent and the voter participation rate in the 2011 federal Canadian election was less than 62 percent.

Therefore, Canadians are more likely to donate to charity than to be employed or vote.

Seniors and those who were employed, with a higher annual income, and possessed a university degree, were more likely to donate and to donate a greater amount.  As well, and consistent with the Christian Post, those who were religiously active (defined as attending religious services at least once a week) tended to give significantly more than those who were not religiously active.

In general, donation activity tended to increase with age, with older adults giving more than younger adults.  However, this relationship was less strong among those who were religiously active.  Among that group, younger people were just as likely to donate as were older people.

The argument posed by the Friendly Atheist, that those who participate in religion are potentially self-serving in their donations, did not hold in this survey. Instead, Canadian adults who were religiously active tended to donate more across both religious and secular institutions as compared to those who do not attend church.

56. 2010 CSGVP 1

Charitable donations of money or goods is a function of disposable income.  Offering one’s time through volunteering, however, is less dependent on wealth and may represent a more fair measure of charitable commitment. In 2010, almost one out of every two Canadian adults volunteered their time to charitable or non-profit organizations.  Those who volunteered were more likely to be young, single, and to have a university education.

Among those who were religiously active, 65 percent participated in volunteer work as compared to 44 percent who were not religiously active.  Religiously active people not only participate more often, as a group, but they also give more hours individually than other volunteers.  On average, in 2010, religiously active people offered 202 volunteer hours as compared to the 141 hours offered by people who were less or not religiously active. The majority of the hours volunteered by the religiously active went to non-religious organizations.

56. 2010 CGSVP 2

So, cycling back to my original point, does religion serve a social benefit?  Apparently so.  Those who are strongly active in the practice of their religion tend to donate and volunteer more than those who are not religious.  And who benefits from this human kindness are primarily secular causes and organizations.

Now, I ain’t religious.  If I am in a church, it is because I am celebrating someone’s marriage or grieving someone’s loss.  Or I might be witnessing the ritual inculcation of a small person through baptism or confirmation.

But I do like science and I do like facts.  And science tells me that, when it comes to charity and community involvement in Canada, religion is good.

So I hope you enjoy your Christmas and all that you have been given.

26. Christmas Mandelbrot