Do atheists care less?

Those who attend religious services are more charitable and more eager to volunteer

Colin McConnell/Toronto Star

These are not the brightest days for organized religion. Pope Benedict XVI has come under sustained scrutiny for his role in the investigation of sex abuse scandals tarring the Catholic Church. The practices of fundamentalist Muslim women are being attacked by the Quebec government as uncivilized. And, more broadly, many traditional and long-standing congregations across the country must face the reality of their own worldly demise due to substantial declines in Sunday attendance.

Despite all this bad news, however, there remains much to celebrate about religion and its relationship with society at large. Not the least of which is that those who attend religious services are the most charitable in their donations and the most eager to volunteer. Without organized religion, the world would be a much poorer and less comfortable place for those less fortunate.

Last summer, Statistics Canada released a survey on Canadians and their charitable habits. While less than one in five attend church regularly, those who do are far more likely to give to charities, and are substantially more liberal in the size of their gifts to both religious and non-religious organizations. The average annual donation from a churchgoer is $1,038. For the rest of the population, $295.

With respect to volunteer effort, two-thirds of churchgoers give their time to non-profit causes while only 43 per cent of non-attendees do likewise. And churchgoers put in twice as many hours volunteering.

All this munificence is in stark contrast to complaints from anti-religion authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Philip Pullman, all of whom have found themselves getting substantially more ink in the wake of the Catholic Church’s sex scandals. “I’m an atheist,” Hitchens once said. “I’m not just neutral about religion, I’m hostile to it. I think it is a positively bad idea, not just a false one.” Pullman has claimed religion is “the most wonderful excuse for behaving extremely badly.” Their argument: the world would be a better place without churches.

But if religion is simply a licence for bad behaviour, how does one explain the mammoth gap between the charitable acts of those who believe and those who do not? Of more practical concern, if organized religion continues to fade from mainstream practice, how will society ever replace the massive contributions of time and money that believers currently provide?

While some famous donors have no religious inclinations—Warren Buffett lists himself as agnostic, as does Bill Gates—the evidence is overwhelming that adherence to a religious belief system contributes to charitable effort.

Spirituality and altruism share an obvious and welcome concern for humanity and its future. Do atheists?

Interestingly, this past January saw the launch of a new charity specifically designed to disprove the alleged parsimony of non-believers. The Foundation Beyond Belief aims to “encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists.” So far, its 447 members have raised $18,760. Or about as much as 18 churchgoers give in one year.

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