Are religious people more charitable?

A Christian pastor asked a waitress, “I give God 10 percent.  Why do you get 18?”

Jesus of Nazareth might have answered, “Inasmuch as you have given unto the least of these, so you have given unto me.”

I frequently read that surveys show that conservative Christians are more generous than secular liberals in making tax deductible contributions.  I always wondered how religious liberals compared to atheistic right-wingers, such as Ayn Rand’s followers.  It turns out that religious liberals are somewhat more generous givers than religious conservatives, according to Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and co-author of American Grace.

wpid-xlarge-1What makes a difference, Putnam said, is not what religion you belong to, or how liberal or conservative you are, as how connected you are to a community.  If your closest friends are members of the same religious community as you are, you are likely to be strong contributor to that community.  If your ties are loose, then not so much.

But if you give only to members of your own group, how charitable are you?   Michael Lynn of Cornell University did a survey last year that indicates American Jews and people without religious affiliation are more generous tippers than the average American Christian.  Doesn’t that count as charity?

I myself contribute more to First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., than I do to all other tax-deductible charities combined.   I don’t regard this as charity, in the same way as I regard putting a $20 bill in a Salvation Army kettle at Christmas-time as charity.  I regard it as doing my fair share to support a religious community from which I benefit.

The great wisdom teachers have advocated charity that goes beyond your own community.  Rabbi Hillel, who lived at the time of Jesus, said the highest form of charity is when the giver does not know the name of the recipient, and the recipient does not know the name of the giver.  Jesus gave as an example of love of neighbor the Good Samaritan, who helped a stranger of a hostile ethnic group, while condemning outwardly religious people who were unwilling to help a stranger.

All this is true, but, on the other hand, if you don’t bother to help your family, friends and community, who are right in front of you, what does it mean to be concerned with people on the other side of the world whom you never saw?  It’s complicated.   There are many different ways of doing good.

My home city of Rochester, N.Y., is full of churches and other religious groups that collect food to give to the hungry, shelter the homeless, offer cheap used clothing and appliances in rummage sales and the like—all operated by religious people who, as Jesus recommended, quietly do good without calling attention to themselves.

Personally I agree with my friend David Malone that being a generous tipper to hard-working restaurant servers, taxi drivers or hotel cleaners is an excellent form of charity.  It does not compromise human dignity.  The recipient is not a beggar; the relationship is one of mutual benefit.  It is an efficient form of giving.  You know where your money is going, and you know it is all going to the person for whom it is intended.

Click on Busting the Myth That Christians Are More Generous Than Non-Believers for more.

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One Response to “Are religious people more charitable?”

  1. Holden Says:

    I would never consider leaving a good tip as a form of charity. Its simply exchanging value for value. They provide a service and you reciprocate.

    The real question in that case isn’t whether or not you are charitable, but whether or not you’re a cheap ass. 🙂


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