The Generosity Gap

Why should we give?

Ask a group of atheists, and you’ll most likely hear answers such as, “because it helps people in need,” or “because it makes society better,” or “because we might need people to help us someday.”

What you don’t hear very often is, “because God tells us to.”

Which is something that you might be likely to hear if you ask a group of Christians the same thing. And rightly so, because you can find gorgeous gems of generosity throughout the Christian scriptures, like “God loves a cheerful giver,” “Give, and it will be given to you,” and of course the classic, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” These are verses so profound that many people quote them blithely, not realizing their sacred provenance.

To say nothing of the magnificent story told by Jesus of the “Good Samaritan,” which comes to us uniquely from the Lukan Evangelist, quite possibly the most poignant example of a secular humanist parable within the canon. As the tale is told, a certain man was waylaid while traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Two religious men passed by and did nothing to help, presumably to avoid complicating their important errands of piety. Yet a third man, a Samaritan in fact (read: religiously unorthodox and socially despised, sound familiar atheists?), sets aside his travels to tend to the man’s wounds and make arrangements for his care. If ever the champions of humanism needed an icon to revere, it would surely be this Samaritan.

Though they may be scripturally fortified with compassion, we can yet be skeptical that Christians reflect this same kind of generosity to practical effect. But the Barna Group is eager to point out that within the general public, only one out of every three individuals gave at least $1000 to non-profit charities, whereas four out of every five Evangelical Christians met this minimal charitable level. And when compared to atheists, the differences are even more striking: Evangelicals gave an average of $4260 to non-profits, while atheists gave an average of only $467. That’s a order of magnitude difference. And that’s embarrassing.

One might be temped to hold these Barna data at arms’ length, especially given the fact that George Barna himself is an Evangelical Christian. And yet as it happens, I’ve conducted my own research here in Dallas-Fort Worth, and in an unpublished survey I helped run in 2011, when the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason was compared to a local Methodist church, there was a similar order of magnitude difference in giving between the two groups. But perhaps we just coincidentally sent the survey to one of the wealthiest congregations in town, right? Well, we also compared the annual household incomes between the two groups, which turned out to be virtually indistinguishable. That is to say (not accounting for secular student organizations), both our local atheists and their Christian counterparts had the same relative ability to donate money.

So, why then is there a generosity gap?

I frankly don’t know. It’s certainly likely that if you subjected one group of people to regular inspirational talks that appealed to the highest ethical standards of their worldview, and then asked them to donate in front of their peers, you would probably see more systematic generosity than a comparable group that was told to simply give individually whenever the mood happened to strike. And yet there are some atheist organizations that do the former, without generating the same level of generosity that we typically see from churches.

That’s not to say there aren’t atheist organizations that are trying. At the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, there are regular cocktail party benefits, they adopt roads and lakeshores, they conduct food, blood, clothing, and virtually all other kinds of drives for all kinds of needy people, they cook dinner for HIV patients, volunteer at food banks, and help out with LGBT charities. They also regularly partner with other organizations in the DFWCoR, and encourage their members to join the Foundation Beyond Belief.

But as wonderful as those activities are, they’re still miles behind the average church. Most atheist organizations can’t even afford a building, to say nothing of professional staff, or the ability to sponsor outreach projects such as sending volunteers on emergency relief trips, building houses for the needy, running a soup kitchen, or any other kind of medium-to-large-scale charitable activity that churchgoers take for granted.

What will it take for atheists to approach the same level of generosity that our religious friends and neighbors manage with regularity? Again, I’m at a loss on this point, but I suspect that too many of the former group are needlessly skittish about systematic giving behaviors that remind them of the religious influences and patterns from which they’ve attempted to distance themselves. And it’s true that atheists may be able to rally every once in a while to make a big generous splash, but the real impact is made by the constant drip over a long period of time.

Look, the question of whether or not gods exist is interesting, and within a culture where theists enjoy the majority (for now), perhaps it’s costly enough to criticize those ideas which one finds problematic. But at some point we need to look hard at ourselves and the world around us, and ask ourselves the question of why, in a world without gods to make things better, aren’t we taking on the burden ourselves to build Heaven here on Earth?

At that point, perhaps the generosity gap will go away. I’m looking forward to it.

  • Texas Skeptic

    In the survey you helped with in 2011, was there a distinction made, in the donations made by the Methodists, between donations to the church itself and donations to non-church charities? My initial suspicion would be that donations made to the church were lumped into the christians numbers. This begs the question then of the net donations going to outside charities after the church takes its cut.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=511794435 Zachary Moore

      Texas Skeptic, in fact that distinction was made. Respondents from both populations were asked to estimate their annual giving both “in-group” (to their church or atheist organization) and “out-group,” (to other non-profits, such as the American Red Cross). In both categories, the Methodists were an order of magnitude more generous than the DFWCoR population.

  • Ashley

    I find it hard to fathom that generosity is less a priority for skeptics than for believers, though the evidence of actionable generosity is difficult to argue. Strangely, I’m reminded of a study on Netflix queues (referenced in a TED talk that I’ll dig-up if you’re interested) – that discovered a significant percentage of Netflix users have a queue containing ‘cerebral’ or ‘human interest’ documentaries, along side the more purely-entertaining ‘guilty-pleasure-type’ shows. What’s interesting is that very few people actually watch these docs in their queue. The lesson – many of us have a sense of ‘ought’ as it relates to consuming this type of content, but lack the discipline or support-structure to make that happen.

    Perhaps giving for atheists/humanists/etc is similar. We all have it in our queue, but until more aggressive supports (film studies departments, movie-watching groups, etc) develop, it’ll likely just sit there.

    One of the things that the church does well is motivate it’s people to give. Both to the church (tithing) and to charities and spin-off ministries. Perhaps this suggests that the more tangible a community, the easier for its members to be charitable… or perform any type of activity that requires effort and sacrifice.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Travis-Wilson/8343654 John Travis Wilson

      Ashley, community is certainly a huge factor; but it’s the “why” of the community that makes the biggest difference, at least in my experience. I’ve sometimes sat unmoved by the thousandth video/postcard/letter/post until I’m reminded why I should care. We are taught that God cares and so should we. True: several Bible stories point to some horrific things about God’s interaction with humanity; but for every one of those there are two others demonstrating his generosity, love, and concern. I honestly don’t know what to make of the “bad” stories, but I don’t—and can’t—let those dictate how I should respond to the good stories.

      For the humanist’s part, I see too much struggling against not only those of faith, but also against each other. Believers fight over some seriously stupid stuff, but it’s that larger “why” that unites us. Perhaps coming together for a larger, more tangible why is a possible solution to the problem Zach pointed out. His work of getting churches and secular communities to come together is a great start. Perhaps it’s something other secular communities could develop as well.

  • Debbie

    Perhaps the difference you encountered in your study is the result of different perspectives. Atheists attribute career and financial success solely to their own hard work and determination to succeed. Believers in Christ see the hard work and determination to succeed and the career and financial success that results from them as coming from God, a direct outpouring of his love for them. All of that is over and above what is really key in the life of the believer, the heart and life changing experience of conversion. As an atheist, you might find yourself quite above such things, but understand that for the believer, to have been given so much so freely is a profound and humbling thing, and because of that, giving back takes on a whole different flavor. Regardless of the perspective of the giver and the amount being given, giving is a tremendous opportunity for us all to be in touch with the very best of who we are and to truly shine as human beings.