Monday, October 15, 2007

Why do Religious People give more to Charity?

An increasing body of research is showing that, on average, religious people are happier, healthier and more generous, at least in the United States.

This has been a bitter pill for some non-believers to swallow, but before we draw too much from these results, we have to ask a vital question: what is causing what? Readers will recall my praise of Jonathan Haidt’s article on which touched on these questions. Aside from Sam Harris’s rant, this drew some more measured criticism. A correspondent pointed out Mark D. Hauser’s response which suggests that religion need not be a cause of the way religious people behave. Granted that religious people give more to charity, as Haidt pointed out, how do we know that religion is the cause of this generosity? Perhaps the sort of people attracted to religion are simply more likely to give to charity any way. Perhaps religious people are happier not because of their beliefs but because they lack the atheist’s clear-eyed pessimism.

Of course, we have been here before. We used to imagine that children grew up like their parents because of the way their parents raised them. Science poured cold water on this idea and has shown than nurture is irrelevant – it’s the parents’ genes that count. We also know that a predisposition towards religious belief or the lack of it is heritable. So, if the genes that give someone proclivity to believe in God also give them a tendency towards looser purse strings, we could not say that religion itself makes people generous. This might sound like a long shot, but we cannot dismiss the possibility without subjecting it to rigorous testing. We need to find out if religious people whose parents were non-believers have pockets as deep as those who were born to religious parents. Likewise, atheists with godly ancestors should be tested against those from a line of sceptics. If religion itself is a cause of generosity, health or happiness, the atheists should score the same, regardless of who their parents were. Likewise, with religious people from different backgrounds. As we already know that upbringing makes no difference to these traits and genes were ruled out by the experiment, we could be confident that religion itself was the deciding factor. In that case, non-believers would have to accept that religion has real benefits.

Of course, none of this has much impact on the question of whether or not a religion is true. Neo-atheists, like the right-wing Thatcherites as they dismantled Britain’s uncompetitive industrial sector, may have to tell themselves, “We may not be very nice, but at least we are right.”

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.


Jim Slagle said...

It always amazes me that (some)atheists are willing to explain religious belief away as being based on anything but the actual existence of God, while not applying the same standard to their disbelief. Couldn't the same argument be used to say that their disbelief is brought about by nature or nurture or whatnot rather than the nonexistence of God? I mean, isn't that an obvious point? Yet they seem to miss it every time.

Mike D said...

The approach taken by Dawkins and other New Atheists (as far as I can see) is to claim that religion has no benefits - it may have done so in the past, it may have co-evolved with other desireable traits - whatever the case, it has no benefits now.

So it would be interesting to find whether studies like the ones to which you have referred would be countered by pointing out deconversion stories by atheists, statistics of 'religious' countries against 'secular' ones or by claiming that these aren't really benefits at all...

jack perry said...

Are we talking about absolute giving, or proportionality of giving? I'm thinking of the widow's mite here.

my random thoughts said...


I tend to agree with you on many things but I have to completely disagree with you on the issue of nature versus nurture. I think you are making the fallacy of the excluded middle.

I am a teacher and I will assure you parenting makes a tremendous difference. My kids with bad parents tend to be my worse students. Not always, but certainly most can be described that way. My best students tend to have very good students.

I think you view genetics as an on off switch. However it is far better understood as a frequency that goes from low to high. Let us say a child is born with a potential for high intelligence, but his parents never nurture that. Even though he has the potential to be highly intelligent, he will not as likely be that way. he certainly will not have reached the same intelligence he could have had with caring parents. Lets say we have a mildly retarded child with loving parents. I have seen such children do much more then anyone suspected they ever would.

Lets say we had two children with bad tempers. One group of parents teaches them self control, the other beats them every time they lose their temper. Which child will come out with the bad temper in the end?

I will use myself as an example. i was diagnosed with Aspergers. I cannot help this. According to the books on the subject I should not be out going and should be bad tempered. I am the complete opposite because I choose to deal with these issues and control these traits.

I do think nature is important but is not complete deterministic. Lets imagine complete free will as being able to choose from an infinite amount of cereals to eat. Let imagine determinism as you only have one choice ( hence no choice). I believe we have limited free will. While we cannot choose everything, we still can choose from say 10 brands of cereal.

Parenting and freewill still have much to do with the human experience.

James said...


I think I need to write a short post on exactly what I think and why. In the meantime, here's a quick rejoinder. Genes have only a 50% effect so they do not 'determine' anything. Also I agree we have a good degree of self-determination - freewill - which allows us to be who we want to be to a great extent.

However, when looking at children brought up by 'good' and 'bad' parents, we tend to imagine that the parenting made the difference. This is false. In fact, deliquent parents pass their deliquent genes on. The parenting itself makes no difference we can detect.

Intelligence is also not effected by nurture. But knowledge is. You can have bright kids who don't know anything and thick ones who have been drilled to regurgitate facts. The later will do better in exams but that does not mean they are cleverer.

Best wishes


my random thoughts said...


Again I have to disagree with you and again I will invoke myself as an example. I was by nature a very misbehaved child. However I behaved well in the classroom for the simple fact that I knew my parents would crucify me if I got in trouble. That didn't stop the trouble but boy did it reduce it.

I had two students who were natural trouble makers. One of them had parents who simply did not care what he did so I eventually had to let the administration deal with him. The other one had parents who did care and they nailed his little butt once I called home. After that he was well behaved.

Some children might have the tendency to be more well behaved then others. But the children with genes for bad behavior will not necessarily be bad unless such behavior is not checked. And the first force for checking such behavior is the parent.

So yes I do believe in parental responsibility . If I have a misbehaved child, and if the behavior does not end after consulting his or her parents then I do consider them to be responsible.

Genes do not determine our fate. They simply give us a predisposition towards certain behaviors. I have a lot of alcoholics in my family. Does this make me on? No I can handle my beer quite well. It simply means I have a predisposition toward it.

By saying 50 percent of out behavior is genetic I think you are giving far too much credit to genetics.

Steven Carr said...

If I understand
correctly, people are more generous just after having read sentences with the words 'spirit, divine, God, sacred , prophet' in them (not all words in each sentence)

People were assigned those sentences (or not) randomly with regard to their belief in deities?

Am I parsing the article correctly?

Unknown said...

I thoroughly enjoy reading your musings, but I have to say that your comments on nurture vs nature caught me so off guard that I reread the paragraph literally a dozen times trying to figure out if I missed a pair of quotes or some evidence of humor.

Though I tend to share Kristofer's point of view on the excluded middle, I am much more concerned with the broadness of your assertion in relation to the absence of any references to actual evidence.

"However, when looking at children brought up by 'good' and 'bad' parents, we tend to imagine that the parenting made the difference. This is false. In fact, deliquent parents pass their deliquent genes on. The parenting itself makes no difference we can detect."

What do you base this on?

Martinbg said...

It's been a few years since I was into this, but as far as I remember, interpreting heritability estimates can be tricky (apart from the fact that the methods employed, mostly twin studies and adoption studies, have som methodological difficulties).

They say that in the population they have studied, 50% of differences in intelligence can be explained by differences in genetics. Litterarly, that means that if you take the population and equal out the genetical differences (mathematicians can do that), people's intelligence would be 50% less different. From this you can say something about the probability that two relatives that have grown up in different environments, would be similar when it comes to intelligence. This is rather abstract, but so is the measure we're talking about.

There are also a lot of things that this statistic does NOT say. It does not say with certainty how a person with a certain genetical disposition will turn out. Nor does it allow us to say how much of a certain person's characterics can be ascribed to genetics, and how much can be ascribed to environment.

It does, however, mean that genetic differences have a rather large influence on the characteristic in question - even though that influence is nowhere near large enough to be deterministic.

Also, there are findings that say that what they call "shared enivronment" does not explain much variance on a lot of traits that have been examined. Shared environment is (as far as I understand, I'm a bit confused about this)the environmental factors that children growing up together have in common. Like, parents, home environment, to some extent parenting style. Nonshared environment, however, does explain some of the variance. That is, factors that are different for children growing up together, like, their friends, their class, whatever happens when they are apart.

Now, we can see that "nurture is irrelevant – it’s the parents’ genes that count," is a somewhat rash statement, although the parents' genes does have an important influence. But the more important point is, when it comes to explaining the finding you refer to, about the correlation between being religious and being nice - behavior genetics is irrelevant.

From what you say about the finding (I haven't read the actual report), it sounds like they've found a correlation between those traits. And correlational findings does not - ever - imply antything about causation. The causal direction between the variables can go either way, it could go both ways, or it could be caused by some other factor altogether.

The only way to conclude that religion causes being nice, would be to make sure that a random selection of people became religious, while another selection didn't, and then measure niceness. (I don't really think such an experiment would be ethcial - or indeed feasible)

James said...


You are quite right about causation and correlation. I overspoke. What I should have said is that the genetic hypothesis (which was the counter against Haidt) could be ruled out by further work. That would not close the subject, but would mean the "religion causes charity" hypothesis could continue to fly for the time being.


I need to summarise the evidence as you suggest. The most easily available work is Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate) and Judith Rich Harris (the Nurture Assumption). The work they cite on twin studies and adoption studies appears quite conclusive to me. On intelligence, there is some recent studies referenced by Steven Levitt in Freakonomics.

I blogged on the issue back in May and there are some links attached to the post:

Best wishes


Epiphenom said...

There's a difference between charitable giving and generosity. Religious give more to charity - but then so does anyone who thinks they are being watched. So this likely explains the effect. Atheists are less likely to give to charity since they are likely to be more concerned about the free-rider effect. So they are more likely to seek to redistribute wealth by enforceable means (e.g. taxation).

A good measure of how generous a society actually is is the distribution of wealth. Countries with fewer religious believers have less inequality. This suggests to me that atheists are more generous, despite being less charitable.

These are interesting topics and I'll blog on them soon.

Anonymous said...

Strange how we seem to have forgotten the practice of tithing that was part of biblical doctrine (existent in other faiths also), where a church member would give the first (and best) 10th of their earnings for the ongoing work of the church. Voluntarily. This practice has now widened to include giving to charitable causes not necessarily associated with the church.

The only advance I see in so-called 'enlightened' attitudes is a sadly selfish one.

Anonymous said...

"There's a difference between charitable giving and generosity."
Debatably in the realm of semantics.

"Religious give more to charity - but then so does anyone who thinks they are being watched. So this likely explains the effect."
Obviously the biased assumption or perceived stereotype of an atheist. I cannot speak for others, but I give out of love and because I've seen how much happier a person I am when I think of others. Someone who thinks they are being watched may give, but will not be as generous as someone who cares.

"Atheists are less likely to give to charity since they are likely to be more concerned about the free-rider effect. So they are more likely to seek to redistribute wealth by enforceable means (e.g. taxation).This suggests to me that atheists are more generous, despite being less charitable."
Another poor assumption, surely there are atheists too, who care about their fellow man. A comment must follow here that egocentricity or self-centeredness of this liberal nature is sad. I do not understand the connoted differences between generosity and charitability.

"So they are more likely to seek to redistribute wealth by enforceable means (e.g. taxation)."
One more reason why most forms of socialism are against religion.

"A good measure of how generous a society actually is is the distribution of wealth."
That may not even be a good measure of how socialistic or communistic a country is, much less generous.

"Countries with fewer religious believers have less inequality."
Very true. Because "selfish" people (not necessarily atheists) are less likely to help one another and many seek a "free ride" EVERYONE IS POORER because of it. The best and simplest examples are the countries whose forms of government discourage or ban religion. Communism has led many countries to poverty in a generation or less. The USA, which everyone well knows, is by just about any measure one of the most wealthy and religious countries on this earth. Sure, there are poor, but they do not compare to the majority of the poor on the earth! As a missionary, I have lived overseas and saw much suffering; in most respects, our poor are not as “poor” as many would have us believe.

Anonymous said...

"A good measure of how generous a society actually is is the distribution of wealth. Countries with fewer religious believers have less inequality."

As a man of African heritage in Paris (one of the most non-religious cities in Europe), I can safely say that the above statement is laughably false. The wealth is not evenly distributed and heaven help you if you protest (a factor which becomes even worse if you are religious, especially Muslim).