Reading Time: 3 minutes
The author, captured in a moment of his own chest-thumping hypocrisy

I have a guilty pleasure: It’s watching my chest-thumping rationalist friends commit the human errors they can’t forgive in others. I do the same thing myself at times (see image at left). Hoo-hoo-hoo-HAAA!

Since Foundation Beyond Belief went public last week, I’ve received a lot of encouragement and a lot of priceless constructive advice. But there’ve also been a few angry sneers — few, but loud — always from the nonreligious so far, always written in the Snark dialect, and at the moment favoring a single whopping logical error.

In the announcement, I said that religious people in the U.S. give away a greater percentage of their income than those self-identified as nonreligious. I said it because it is both true and well-documented by reliable research.1 I quickly followed by noting that this is NOT a question of character, but a natural result of one group passing a plate 52 times a year and the other not.

Still I knew, even as I wrote it, what snarky fate awaited me.

A few folks told me, with great irritation, that my claim is nonsense because most of the money donated by the religious goes to run religious institutions. Their facts are correct — churches absorb 74-78% of the offerings and donations of their members — but it’s irrelevant to the claim that religious individuals give more.

They go on to say that if the money kept by the churches were removed from the equation, the disparity vanishes. This, I’m afraid, is both irrelevant and false. The very same surveys show churchgoers beating non-churchgoers in levels of giving to secular charities.

But whether true or false, this argument’s irrelevance is what kills me. The original claim is about the personal act of giving, not how the money is used by those who receive it. So my chest-thumping friends have responded to one claim by refuting something entirely else — just the sort of thing they can’t abide in the religious.

In a related fallacy, several point out that this or that source is a conservative, or a Catholic, or an evangelical, and therefore not worth listening to. Since I don’t trust ANY secondary source out of hand, I looked at the primary sources. And in this case, Brooks and Barna, et al. were right.

It happens, you know.

I do think we have an opportunity to be better stewards of individual generosity than churches. We have no buildings, choir robes, or parking lots to pay for, no youth retreats, no missionaries. But while we’re acknowledging that church-based donations don’t go very far out the door, let’s restate and underline the original point: Religious folks give away a (much) greater percentage of their personal income than the nonreligious. We do several things better than they do. This is one of several things they do best. It’s not a question of character, but of the need for a systematic means of giving as an expression of worldview outside of those church doors.

Either way, it’s a problem worth tackling. Church attendance is declining rapidly in the U.S., and if churchgoers give a lot more to charity, this constitutes a genuine concern for philanthropy.

It’s time to acknowledge the facts, set our diversionary tactics aside, and learn from anyone who has something to teach us. That, among other things, is what Foundation Beyond Belief is about.

Join the Foundation Beyond Belief group on Facebook Causes, or click here to join our mailing list.
1Surveys by Independent Sector, the Giving Institute, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 2002 General Social Survey, American Community Survey of the U.S. Census, and more.

Avatar photo

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.