(Non)religion and Charity
The photo above was taken by a Reddit user who tells us that when he passed this homeless man, the man proclaimed: “The atheists are winning!” Since being posted on Reddit the photo has made modest rounds across various social media platforms even landing in a handful of blog posts. Some atheists, like Taslima Nasreen of Freethought Blogs, have been quick to use the photo as exemplary evidence of the supposedly unbiased nature of non-religious generosity. While she acknowledges the studies that show rather emphatically how religious people self-report more charitable giving that the non-religious do she also has a theory about why:
They do not help to really help others, they help others to help themselves. Mostly they donate money to build churches, mosques, temples, gurudwaras, pagodas, synagogues. They do not give a damn to the eradication of poverty programs. When atheists help, they help out of sympathy and solidarity, love and compassion. They do it to make the world a better place. They do not do it to go to heaven.
Now while it is true that studies have also shown a higher association between giving and compassion among the non-religious the reasons for this are far from clear, and certainly do not always or even usually come down to different understandings of otherworldly compensation. And in fact as James McGrath asserts the photo isn’t a particularly good measure of anything at all. It is actually a “Data Collection Fail:”
Is the photo a set up or something a homeless man really did? Did atheists and agnostics give more because they normally would or because of a desire to “win” in this competition? Did money move between baskets? Did the proportions change at different points during the day? How many people in each category passed by there? We simply don’t know what we would need to know in order to interpret the significance of the picture.
McGrath is right to point out that the photo is not a good source of data for a variety of reasons, some of which his questions clearly elucidate. But does that mean that the photo is useless to scholars who are interested in the intersection between religion and charity? I would argue that it isn’t useless, and that it in fact points to a variety of unanswered questions.
By depicting hard currency in a context of actual giving the photo raises the question of how closely self-reported giving is reflected in actual practice. We know that (religious) Americans have a propensity to greatly exaggerate some activities that reflect outwardly upon how faithfully they are practicing religion, like going to church. Could religious Americans who are taught that charity is a virtue also be over-reporting their giving practices? Scholars were able to solve the church attendance puzzle by counting bodies and cars on Sunday morning, but actual giving is nearly impossible to measure. One would have to convince a blind sample of Americans to answer a battery of religion questions and then to release their tax-records. That doing so is unlikely is a understatement, but that doesn’t mean that keeping the question in mind is unproductive. While we should take the “data” provided by the photo with multiple grains of salt, we should also save some of those grains for times when we consume “data” that reflects self-reported measures of socially desirable behaviors, like giving to charity.
There are, of course, a variety of other questions that we could be asking ourselves in relation to religion and charitable giving. As I wrote last year, recent data from the Portraits of American Life Study (PALS) have shown that people who encounter personal financial hardships are increasingly likely to leave their religious communities. While personal stressors like a recent breakup or the death of a loved one actually bring people closer to those communities, financial hardships push individuals out. Why is that? Could this be partly because charitable giving is seen as a virtue; a virtue that those experiencing hardships can no longer even feign a connection to as such? What does this say about the culture of charity in some religious communities? Might there be a relationship between the Great Recession and the recent uptick in religious dissafiliation? These are the types of questions that remain unanswered and in my book this photo, despite being a shoddy piece of data, is a great reminder of how little we know and how much work is left to be done.