Are Secularists Less Generous?

Tom Flynn


A lot of people say atheists don’t donate to charity, and that’s of course a load of bollocks. We just don’t do it in the name of atheism or in the hope of adding another sheeple to the herd.

-A post on the U.K.-Skeptics blog

Pardon the length of this essay: I’ll be tackling one of the Big Topics this issue.

The day after the Haitian earthquake, I was driving to a speaking engagement and listening to the BBC World Service on satellite radio. Up came an item about Doctors Without Borders, whose existing network of hospitals in Haiti had been destroyed in the quake. The organization was scrambling to mobilize replacement resources.

The tumblers clicked home in my mind. High-profile, entirely secular organization. Knows the country. Long-established there. Needs immediate help. I pulled over and made a string of calls to the office. The next day, the Council for Secular Humanism was campaigning online to raise money for Doctors Without Borders. The Haiti campaign went on to be the most successful in the history of SHARE (Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort), the Council’s program to raise funds for organizations that aid victims of so-called acts of God. More than $103,000 was raised, SHARE’s largest total ever.*

Oh, the Irony

The Haiti earthquake struck the very month when SHARE was scheduled to be transferred from the Council for Secular Humanism to its supporting organization, the Center for Inquiry. (That process is now complete; the acronym SHARE now stands for Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort. You can visit online at The record-setting Haiti campaign was an unexpected swan song for a Council program we were already preparing to hand off. Moreover, I’ve made no secret of my deep personal reservations about SHARE (See “Secularism… Plus,” FI, February/March 2006). To my mind, the very idea of a distinctively secular humanist charity is inherently sectarian, hence anti-secular. I champion instead the Enlightenment principle of disintermediation, under which free individuals reach out directly to all levels of society with minimal reliance on unnecessary and parochial intermediary structures. (Nonetheless, I know that many of our readers and friends cherish SHARE, so it was my job as executive director to activate it in response to the disaster in Haiti.) In any case, my helping to launch SHARE’s most successful campaign was ironic on multiple levels.

For what it’s worth, I practiced the disintermediation I preach. I did not contribute to SHARE; instead I wrote a personal check and sent it straight to Doctors Without Borders. Armed with a postage stamp, I needed no intermediary to put my charity dollars to work.

This experience was one of two that catalyzed this essay. (I warned you it would be a long one.) The other catalyst was a series of telephone conversations I had with a subscriber who was deeply concerned that “secular people aren’t charitable enough.” He had read Arthur C. Brooks’s Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide (Basic Books, 2006), which claims to prove that secular Americans are significantly less charitable than their more religious counterparts-in part because seculars lack the institutional and social infrastructure that imposes high expectations of giving on churchgoers, in part because many seculars are politically liberal and think social problems should be addressed by government programs rather than private charities, and in part because secular people are just lousy human beings.

The concerned subscriber wanted to know what could be done to correct the impression that seculars are stingy. I suggested that it is unclear whether seculars are less charitable-and that even if true, it is not necessarily a bad thing.

Before I could comment further, it was time to read Brooks’s book. A modest best-seller during George W. Bush’s second term and beloved by some neoconservatives, Who Really Cares makes an extended argument tying charitable generosity to a raft of conventional social virtues, all of which Brooks says are strengthened by religious belief and church membership but degraded by religious disbelief and a secular orientation. To bolster his case, Brooks cites statistics from a wide selection of polls and surveys. Though the text gives off a faint aroma of right-wing ax-grinding, some of his contentions seem plausible.

Yes, many (though surely not all) seculars lean liberal, and liberals do tend to see public programs rather than private charity as the best response to many social ills. Ralph Nader once asserted that “A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity” (a sentiment I applaud and Brooks deplores at some length). It makes sense that people who don’t view private charity as the optimal solution, or who think their taxes are already funding something better, may be slower to give. I’ve witnessed a related phenomenon on past occasions when I attempted to raise funds for the International Humanist and Ethical Union. American humanists think it’s the most natural thing in the world to be asked for a gift and give accordingly, while humanists from Europe, accustomed to the state addressing most needs, find the idea of being solicited for a personal donation almost shocking. Sure enough, they tend to contribute less. (Brooks devotes a chapter to the gulf in giving patterns between Americans and Europeans generally, which is very real.) So I’m entirely prepared to accept that secular liberals might be tighter-fisted than more conservative, more religious Americans.

Still, it’s one thing to offer reasons seculars might be less charitable and another to prove that they are.

Giving by Seculars and Churchgoers-What Do We Know?

In my discussions with the concerned subscriber, I made the point that giving by American seculars is difficult to quantify because there are so many avenues that preserve no information regarding donors’ lifestances. Much giving by religious people is clearly labeled: everyone knows Catholic Charities raises most of its money among Catholics, Lutheran Social Services among Lutherans, and so on. Seculars, precisely insofar as they are secular, tend to direct their giving to causes that have no sectarian identity. Once a dollar drops into the coffers of Doctors Without Borders or Planned Parenthood, the Multiple Sclerosis Society or Negative Population Growth, there’s no telling what church its donor belongs to-or doesn’t. So, I argued, seculars might be giving just as ardently as churchgoers but in ways that make them less visible as secular givers. (The British blogger in my opening quotation makes a similar point.)

The concerned subscriber didn’t accept that argument-and neither, he noted, did Arthur Brooks. Indeed, in Who Really Cares Brooks cited numerous studies in which Americans self-reported on their beliefs, their membership in lifestance organizations such as churches, and their charitable behavior. People who reported that they were not religious or did not belong to a church consistently reported giving fewer dollars to charity than their believing/churchgoing counterparts.

Point for Arthur Brooks, it would seem: secular Americans really are less charitable. What else is to be said?

Perhaps this: if secular Americans report giving less to charity, that means churchgoers report giving more. And when churchgoers pat themselves on the back for doing what is socially expected, sociologists grow skeptical. They have good reason.

A Cautionary Tale

For decades it was taken as, well, gospel that 40 percent of Americans attended church each Sunday. In survey after survey, that fraction of respondents reliably self-reported having gone to church the previous Sunday. Sociologist Kirk Hadaway smelled a rat. No worker-bee for the atheist agenda, Hadaway was employed by the United Church of Christ. But he found that 40-percent figure incredible; for one thing, it suggested that more Americans might be attending church than the nation’s churches had the capacity to seat. So he planned one of the more audacious projects in the annals of social-science research. He recruited a small army of enumerators, and one fine Sunday in 1992 he unleashed them all upon a good-sized Ohio county. Statistical sampling be damned; Hadaway’s horde counted everybody. A researcher literally barged into every Protestant church in the county on the same day and counted noses. The resulting 1993 research report by Hadaway, Penny Long Marler, and Mark Chaves made headlines nationwide and revolutionized the way experts thought about church attendance. You see, the mass nose-count found just 20 percent of eligible church members in the pews-half the number self-reported to pollsters. You read that right: Hadaway and his colleagues had caught churchgoers overreporting a socially and religiously encouraged behavior by a factor of 2.

And they still do it. To this day, Americans tell pollsters they were in church the previous Sunday at the 40-percent level. The difference is, now social scientists know that half of them are lying. (I guess they do that to seem like better Christians.)

With this tale in mind, let’s look back at those religious Americans who report giving more to charity than secular folks. If there’s another behavior as powerfully socially and religiously encouraged as going to church, it’s giving to charity. And so I pose the question: When the same people who tell pollsters they go to church twice as often as they really do tell pollsters how much they’ve given to charity, should we take their figures at face value? Probably not, I would submit-at least, not without further research!

What’s needed is for some latter-day Kirk Hadaway to devise a method for objectively observing giving on a mass scale to determine whether religious Americans exaggerate their charitable activity and if so by how much. I can’t imagine what methodology would be required for this (then again, I’m not a social scientist). Still, with the knowledge currently on hand, I think we must be agnostic on the question of whether religious people give more than seculars. So long as self-reportage is the best data we have, we’re in no position to draw firm conclusions.

Who Cares Who Cares?

Given current data, then, secular people may or may not be less charitable than religious people. But suppose my concerned subscriber and Arthur C. Brooks are right, and secular folks do give less. Is that necessarily something to be ashamed of?

Remember, Christianity strongly encourages charity-sometimes past the point of good sense. Prosperity preachers urge the poor to send in their rent money and hope God will provide. Granted, many Christians look down their noses at prosperity preachers. But I have yet to meet a Christian who doesn’t think highly of Jesus, and he praised the widow for giving the temple her last money in the world (Mark 12:42–44; Luke 21:1–4). Beyond doubt, Christianity demands and praises charity. Close-knit congregations can be hotbeds of social pressure to contribute, the pressure coming from clergy and fellow congregants alike.

In light of that, suppose for the sake of argument that churchgoers do give more generously than seculars. Far from demonstrating that they are more virtuous or caring, it may instead show that, driven by expectation and community pressure, they give too much. Some may be giving more than is compatible with their families’ financial well-being. And if churchgoers are giving too much, it might be us seculars, free from slick-talking ministers and prodding, prying pewmates, who are making more rational giving decisions and contributing at sustainable levels.

Now, do I know any of this? No, and neither does anybody else. A vanload of doctoral candidates could build their careers on the research possibilities that await investigation here. (Is it possible to weigh social and economic costs and benefits to determine an objectively optimal balance between giving to charity and providing for one’s household? If so, do churchgoers regularly give above that optimum level? Are secular donors keeping their giving closer to it?) For now, I’m just reeling off hypotheticals to make a point. If it’s true that churchgoers outgive seculars, then there’s no reason to leap to the conclusion that churchgoers are giving the right amount and seculars are giving too little. (Extra credit question: What if someone does the requisite research and discovers that seculars actually give more than churchgoers?)

Summing Up

At the end of this rumination, what’s most impressive is how much we don’t know on the subject of charitable giving by seculars… and how little the question really matters. We live in an increasingly secular society in which, over the past century and a half, most social-service activity has passed out of the hands of religious organizations and into the hands of nonsectarian private organizations or the secular state. Call this secularization from the top down. Social and technological changes of the last few decades have multiplied the capacities that autonomous individuals enjoy to press for social change and direct their charity dollars without relying on intermediary organizations, especially parochial ones based on a shared ethnicity, occupation, or lifestance. Call this secularization from the bottom up. If we call ourselves secularists, these are developments we should applaud.

I realize that lots of sincere secular humanists see this differently, but I feel strongly that organizing charitable outreach along denominational lines is an outdated concept. Yes, denominational religious charities still operate, some on a vast scale, but most are legacy organizations. Organized secular humanists, atheists, freethinkers, and other seculars are relative newcomers to the world of lifestance organizing, and in my view there’s no good reason why we should be scrambling to erect new “denominational” charities. Sorry-“The churches have them, so we should have some too” is not a good reason. Neither is “The larger culture looks down on seculars because we don’t seem to give as much as churchgoers.” As I’ve tried to show in this somewhat outsized commentary, no one actually knows whether seculars give more, less, or the same as churchgoers. And no one actually knows what it would mean if any of those alternatives were known to be true.

At the end of the day, the desire for a sectarian charity to channel giving for general social welfare causes by seculars-a mechanism through which to “do it in the name of atheism,” or humanism, or whatever-just isn’t in keeping with the secularizing impulse that most of us wholeheartedly support in other contexts. Nor is “the hope of adding another sheeple to the herd” a worthy motive for giving to charity. If you want to recruit, recruit. If you want to help, just help. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

What do you think?

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

  A lot of people say atheists don’t donate to charity, and that’s of course a load of bollocks. We just don’t do it in the name of atheism or in the hope of adding another sheeple to the herd. -A post on the U.K.-Skeptics blog Pardon the length of this essay: I’ll be tackling …

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