Friday, January 1, 2010

How do the unchurched give?

Much has been made of Arthur Brooks' careful study showing that the religious and conservatives give substantially more to charity than atheists and liberals.

Foundation Beyond BeliefNote: This particular posting is really about a New Year's launch of the Foundation Beyond Belief, but I've buried the lead so deeply in this posting, that I figured I should put this note up here near the top.

I haven't read Brook's research myself, and so I don't know how much of these findings could be explained away. For example, it may be the case that a major source of data is income tax filings and that conservatives are more likely to itemize charitable giving than liberals. (In my case, I know that I don't itemize.)

But even if some portion of the findings can be explained away the results appear to be too overwhelming and Arthur Brooks too credible and competent for there not to be something very real and (speaking as a liberal) disturbing going on here. And so this leaves us with two questions. What is the cause of this disparity? And how can we fix this?


There may very well be personality differences that lead to things. Jonathan Haidt has dedicated much of his career to studying people's moral choices and what underly them. Roughly speaking, Haidt identifies five foundations of moral judgement.

  1. Avoid harm to others
  2. Be fair
  3. Support your group/tribe/community
  4. Respect authority
  5. Remain pure

Haidt finds that liberals (and western moral philosophy) focuses on the first two of these. While conservatives and traditionalists tend to give more equal weight to all five. See his paper on the moral foundations of politics (PDF) to appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology for the background and evidence for this. What is relevant here is the communitarian foundation of supporting your in-group. The same thing that leads conservatives the world over to be more nationalistic may very well make them far more generous to their local communities.

If I am correct that liberals deemphasis of in-group support plays a role in charitable contributions, then we should predict that the charities that liberals give to are less local than the ones that conservatives contribute to. (As anecdotal support for this, my favorite charity is CamFed which focuses on educating girls in Africa.) This, as they say, is an empirical question.

Church as a charitable community

Atheists, for the most part, don't belong to church communities. And conservatives are far more likely to be active members of a church community than liberals. Church communities provide a conduit for giving (and not just to the church). Groups of church members will volunteer at a soup kitchen or organize a canned food drive or travel together to build homes for people. While individuals outside of such a community can do any of those things, it is far easier to do them when you are part of a group that regularly engages in those activities.

In short, I spend my Sunday mornings reading the New York Times over orange juice and bagels bemoaning the state of the world, while conservatives are interacting with their church communities and planning how they can do good. Giving becomes a social and community activity of church goers, while for people like me it is something that I do privately (and apparently less frequently) through a web-browser. For me, it is often to assuage guilt; for them, it is a positive social activity.

What do we do about this

Atheists and humanists need to make charity part of our culture. We may have certain personality and institutional handicaps to over come to be as charitable as our religious and conservative neighbors, but we (like to think) that we have reason and a sense of fairness on our side. So let's play to our strengths, but also try to address our limitations.

The Foundation Beyond Belief is an attempt to provide an institutional structure to help make up for our lack of church communities. And today, January 1, 2010 is its official public launch. Indeed, at least the fact that the website is responding exceedingly poorly at the moment suggests that the public launch is successful.

There is a great deal to say about the Foundation Beyond Belief and its founder. But I will be brief. Beneficiaries supported by FBB may be founded on any worldview so long as they don't proselytize. The details of how the ten charities per quarter are nominated and selected are detailed on the (currently unresponsive) website.

The founder of the FBB, Dale McGowan, is the author of the outstanding book, Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, and so the second part of the mission of the Foundation is to provide support and communities for families that wish to raise ethical and caring kids. The mission of the Foundation Beyond Belief is

To demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life; to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility; and to help and encourage humanist parents to raise confident children with open minds and compassionate hearts.

I will be writing more about the FBB in the weeks to come.

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