While I don’t play the “holier than thou” game, there are a lot of theists these days who engage in it regularly. The most recent example I’ve run across, although it’s by no means new, is the “religious people are more charitable than atheists” claim.
It is a fact, borne out by studies that religious people are more likely to give money than non-religious people, although it’s not by a wide margin. Liberal theists give more money than evangelical theists and liberal theists are more likely to give money to non-religious charities than evangelical theists. Both groups are more likely to give money than atheists. This much is true.
The problem is, they don’t explain that this “charitable giving” includes money tithed to churches, specifically set aside to run the church and pay the lay people. That’s not charity. It’s a check given to their church and thrown into an offering plate. It is not given directly to a charitable organization specifically to help people. Further, it doesn’t explain that many, if not most of these theists are giving money, sometimes up to 10% of their income, because there is a threat coming from the religion that if they don’t give, they’ll roast for eternity in hell. Contributions made under duress simply are not valid. While the same amount of money may be collected, the reasons behind it are just as important as the charitable giving. After all, would we be impressed with a man who stopped a mugging just because he knew he’d be getting a sizable reward, over one that did it just because it was the right thing to do?
So how do we tell who is the largest charitable group, especially given that we cannot easily factor out tithing? Probably we can’t and really it doesn’t matter. However, we can look at a couple of factors and make some educated guesses.
The biggest single charitable contributors on the planet, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, are all atheists. In 2010, Bill Gates gave $10 billion dollars to the development and distribution of vaccines worldwide, that is the single largest charitable donation in history. Every year, Forbes does a list of the top five charitable people in the U.S. and almost without exception, the majority on the list are not openly religious. In fact, on the 2011 list, from what I could determine, all five of the largest donators were non-religious, or at the very least, 2 out of 5 had no openly religious beliefs and made no statements of a religious nature about their donations. The rest are openly atheist or openly secular. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean anything, it’s an interesting data point but not statistically significant. However, if we go look at a list of the most wealthy people in America, we find that Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison are all outspoken atheists, Charles and David Koch, while I cannot find them say they reject religion entirely, have gone on record having rejected and wanting nothing to do with Catholicism, and the Walton family, recipients of the Walmart fortune, which takes up 4 of the top ten spots, being openly religious. Michael Bloomberg is cagey about his religion, he’s well known for not catering to religion or religious interests, in fact purposely overlooking religious organizations in his 9/11 memorial, I think that if he is truly religious, he is quite liberal in his beliefs. So outside of a single family who inherited their money and has never been terribly philanthropic-leaning, the majority of the super-rich range from atheist to marginally-religiouos and the most non-religious among them are the ones giving away the majority of their money to charity!
So let’s go look at the ten largest charities, according to Charity Navigator. The top 9 charities are secular charities and the only religious one, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, has been widely criticized for how much money administrative costs eat up, often up to 80% of your donation goes to keeping the charity going. That’s quite a chance from the largest charity, the American Red Cross, which keeps costs below 5% and routinely gives more than 92% of money taken in to programs that directly benefit the community. That doesn’t strike me that religious charities are more successful, more efficient, larger or give more to the needy. In fact, it suggests the opposite.
In the end, when you really look at the details, I don’t know that it suggests that the religious are more likely to engage in actual charitable giving than the non-religious. If we could filter out church tithing and thread-based giving, I think we’d find that the religious are actually significantly less likely to give to help others, simply for the sake of helping others. Don’t expect the religious to admit to this though, they’re often too busy playing holier-than-thou.