Are Religious People More Generous? (Round LXXVII)

An emailed press release on the American Bible Society’s 4th annual “State of the Bible” survey arrives with the subtle subject line: “Bible Engaged More Generous.” Exhibit A is a chart showing that, indeed, the “Bible Engaged” appear to give a far larger amount of money to nonprofits than do “Bible Skeptics,” with averages of $3,259 and $584 respectively.

In an effort to further emphasize the generosity of the Most Biblical among us, it also notes that they reported an average income that’s actually lower than Skeptics—though it also implies that on average they’re well shy of the 10% Christians are generally meant to tithe. But log in your eye, etc etc. No point in dwelling on perfection. 

Anyway, for those unfamilar with the terminology, the Bible Engaged are people who:

  • Believe the Bible is the actual or inspired Word of God with no factual errors, or believe the Bible is the inspired word of God with some factual errors; and

  • Read the Bible daily or at least four times per week

    (Oddly enough, the next category down, “Bible Friendly,” doesn’t even allow for the possibility of “some factual errors,” though these B-grade Christians do admit to not getting four Bible readings in per week. On the upside maybe they’re just the Charlies destined to inherit the Chocolate Factory due to their scrupulous honesty… but that’s beyond polling’s purview.)

    So it does look grim for the Godless, unless you take a closer look at the data. 

    The relevant question from the survey, “powered by Barna Group,” is this one: 

    Question: For the year that just ended 2013 what was the total amount of money that you donated to all charities and non-profit organizations, including churches and religious organizations, if any? 

    Of course we can’t know what percentage of the total money given by respondents was given to their own church, but if most agree that the 10% tithe is meant for your church it’s probably fair to assume that that’s where a good deal of it went. And therein lies the problem: giving to your church is, by all accounts, largely giving to yourself. Well, not exactly to yourself, but to support the clergy, building maintenance, child care, general administration, etc, with only a fairly small percentage (from <1% to 10%) going to charity and other external efforts. (And whether or not evangelizing can be described as charity or generosity is a debate for another time.) As Gary Moore, past board president of two churches put itwe spent more of our general budget on lawn care than true benevolences.”

    So you could argue that for Bible Skeptics this would be the equivalent of padding their giving dollars by including gym memberships, classes, some social gatherings, etc. Point is, if you label as “generosity” the money we give to maintain structures that in turn directly nourish us, we’re talking about a qualified notion of generosity. At least I hope we are.

    There may well be a correlation between engagement with the Bible and giving to charity but this study won’t get you there since it probably reveals more about the consolidation of services in the lives of fervent believers than anything else. 

  • Evan Derkacz, editor of Religion Dispatches, was previously an editor and writer at the award-winning web magazine AlterNet.org from 2003-2007. Before that, he worked for Tikkun magazine. His writing has appeared in McSweeney's, AlterNet, The Huffington Post and Start Making Sense (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004). He has been interviewed on Air America and Pacifica Radio.

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