Does Evangelical Giving Do the World Good?

source: Huffington Post, April 21, 2009

Valerie Tarico


This week, Barack Obama is expected to sign into law the GIVE Act,
which aims to increase volunteering. It gives young people a way to pay
for education with public service. Some right wingers have been
squawking because the plan excludes religious activities like church
attendance and outreach from the social service hours that can be
applied for credit. Personally, I'm relieved. I want my taxes to pay
for programs with clear benefits, and I want the wall separating church
and state repaired. But before we secular types get all high and mighty
we should take a look at why some people think that faith-based
programs are necessary for the good of society.


Several studies (e.g. here and here)
show that religious people give more dollars and volunteer hours to
charity than do nonbelievers. Evangelical Christians have been
trumpeting these findings: No matter what you may think about our exclusive offer of salvation, our religion is a social good.

As a former Evangelical I tend toward skepticism, especially when it
comes to data that have been assembled and promoted by ideologues. And
yet I'm inclined to suspect that these results tap into something real.
Sociologists have found that tribal identity increases altruism toward
other members of the tribe (though at the expense of outsiders). In
many ways, a religion functions as a tribe. Besides ordinary in-group/out-group effects,
religions explicitly teach that we are made to serve something larger
than ourselves. They encourage members to give of themselves to gods,
co-religionists and others — in part by promising deferred compensation. But perhaps even more importantly, they provide a community and structure for doing so.

Let's assume that religious people are more generous or altruistic.
An interesting follow-up question is this: Where is this generosity
directed? Does it serve the cause of goodness? By a scientific definition of altruism, suicide bombing is an altruistic act supported by religious attendance.
It is the individual sacrificing his life (and reproductive potential)
in the service of another individual or the greater collective — in
this case Allah, Islam, the Muslim brotherhood. But is it as a social

Within conservative Christianity, a tremendous amount of donated
time and money is solicited for conversion activities: Go ye therefore,
and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of
the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Is religious recruiting a social good?
On this, most evangelists and I would have opposite opinions, at least
about Christian recruiting. (We might be more in agreement about the
proselytizing done by Hare Krishnas or Scientologists.) It is only fair
to give evangelical missionaries credit for their intentions. If you
truly believe the unsaved are going to be tortured eternally, then
there is no greater good than to spend your life saving their souls. By
comparison, nothing else matters. A missionary, operating on this
premise, may experience herself as highly generous, because she is.

She also might protest that independent of afterlife benefits,
accepting Jesus makes people happy in this life, here and now. This is
true. Sometimes. Jesus worship can fill people with deep joy. It can
get alcoholics to stop drinking and abusers to stop abusing. It can
save marriages. But sometimes the opposite happens. (See thousands of
testimonials at
Pentecostals point to happy African church-going children singing and
dancing. A former Pentecostal might point to the African children who
have been kicked out of their communities or killed because new converts to Pentecostalism saw them as witches and took their Bibles literally. The net here and now benefits of proselytizing are arguable.

A darker way to look at Christian "outreach" is as an example of how viral beliefs, sometimes called meme complexes,
can exploit the human tendency toward altruism. What I mean is that a
belief set can redirect altruistic do-gooder impulses away from
activities that actually serve human well-being and onto activities
that serve to replicate the belief set itself. When the Asian tsunami
hit, a highly successful Seattle mega church directed members to do
three things: pray for people who were affected, give to Mars Hill
Church, and give to the Mars Hill church-building work in India. Why
not reverse this — pray for Mars Hill church, pray for our missionary
work, and give money to the people who were affected? Churches that
make suggestions like these are, on average, shrinking. Churches that
follow the Mars Hill model are growing.

In the first three pages of his book, Breaking the Spell,
Daniel Dennett beautifully narrates how a similar redirection occurs in
nature. An ant climbs to the top of a stem of grass and lingers there.
Why? Not because it is adaptive for the ant. Rather, another organism
has taken charge of the ant's brain and to reproduce it needs the ant
to be eaten by a cow. When a person's altruistic impulses are directed
toward winning converts, it is valid to ask whether they are actually
serving human well-being or simply serving a mind virus.

If we don't count their recruiting activities, do Evangelical
Christians actually give more than non-religious? Do they give more to
things that we humans pretty much agree are social goods? Sorry, all
you fellow secularists, though the gap narrows the answer still appears
to be yes. Besides outreach, giving to churches funds what economists
call "club goods".
Churches often do a wonderful job of providing and organizing members
services: warm meals for kids with sick parents, adventures for
teenagers, housing for young adults, support during bereavement, even
free counseling or legal services. And with regard to outsiders, even
if food, medical care, or friendship is offered primarily as bait to
set a fish hook, the food and medical care are real.

But even beyond the money given to churches, religious people appear
to give more to ordinary charities than secular folks do. At least
based on self report data, religious participation and religious giving
are positively correlated with giving to nonreligious charities like
educational institutions, social services, even blood banks. This
appears to hold true for the 40ish percent of Americans who
self-describe as Evangelical or born again as well as their more
theologically open counterparts. If this makes those of us who are
freethinkers squirm a bit, perhaps it should.

You might protest that that charity should be only a way station on
the road to justice, and that your energies are better spent working
for structural change. Many secular folks and liberal people of faith
believe this is true. I know I do. As a non-theist, I once sat on the
nonprofit board of an organization called the Washington Association of
Churches because their mission was my mission: Do justice, love mercy,
walk humbly. Like me, they sought solutions that went beyond charity.

But even if justice is the destination, those way stations are still needed. Most of us agree that both generosity and justice are virtues.
We prefer to live in a world where both are in rich supply. Maybe, now
that freethinkers are coming out of the closet it is time for us to
begin thinking about how to create our own communities and structures
that empower personal generosity. Since we don't have a sales mandate
or a promise of treasure laid up in Heaven, we — unlike many
Christians — are free to give without expecting something back except
maybe a bit of good will. Recently Seattle Atheists organized a blood drive for members. Now, that's what I'm talking about.

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