The Question of Atheist Charity: Less Diffusion of Responsibility?

Checking out the Friendly Atheist’s blog, I’ve come across an absolutely fascinating story. To summarize, an atheist organization wanted to give a charitable donation of $100 to a non-profit with religious ties that helps children. The non-profit refused the money because of the source, so the atheist organization started raising more money to force the non-profit to accept a donation. Ultimately the non-profit refused to accept well over $20,000, strictly because they don’t want to be associated with non-believers. This compelled a Christian man to start his own fundraising campaign to get non-atheist-tainted money to the non-profit. When atheists started donating to that one, the gofundme campaign was cancelled. Holy crap! What a crazy story!

In the end all is well. The money will be donated to a secular organization, and the Christian-linked charity will get a sizable donation anonymously. (The fundraiser is still ongoing. If you’d like to donate click here).

But it got me thinking, and it also reminded me of another story from the Friendly Atheist from five years ago. Basically there was a question about whether or not a secular organization was being discriminated against by the American Cancer Society. I went back to that article, and then something hit me.

Per the article, on the micro lending website Kiva, as of 2011 the group called Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious have donated far more money than any other group, including Kiva Christians. In fact, I just checked and this is still the case. The atheist group has raised almost $28 million, $2.5 million more than Kiva Christians.

The Question

Why is it we hear time and time again that atheists and other secular organizations are really, really good at charity, often outperforming religious institutions? To really exemplify this question, when the Catholic Church turned its back on freezing nuns, refusing to raise the money needed to provide the nuns with heat in the middle of the winter, a group of atheists came to the rescue to replace the nun’s boiler.

In this piece I offer no answer, but rather I seek to offer a hypothesis. That is, during times of charitable need, atheists cannot rely on the diffusion of responsibility through their social structures.

Non-believers, no longer belonging to the religious communities of their childhoods, feel a part of the non-religious community. And because that community is so small, the burden of responsibility is greater on each member, compelling them to do something they might not otherwise do for the greater good. The pressure to give is smaller if we know that millions of others are going to give. The pressure to give is greater if we know there is only a small handful of people capable of giving.

So my hypothesis is:

Atheists and non-believers often outperform religious charity due to a greater feeling of responsibility as part of a smaller social group.

At least, this is my hypothesis, and if I phrase the question differently it’s certainly a scientific question.

But there might be competing hypotheses. Non-believers might feel a need to prove themselves in a world usually hostile to non-belief. That is, some teachings insist that atheists have no moral barometer (to steal a phrase from Steve Harvey), and the non-believer feels compelled to prove those teachings wrong.

Another hypothesis might be that as personal income increases, religiosity decreases. And as personal income increases, charitable giving increases. In this case a single independent variable affects two dependent variables, but religiosity has no effect on charitable giving. Atheists outperform religious people strictly because they have more disposable resources.

Whatever the answer may be, the observation does not change. Although not always, secular charitable giving often outperforms sacred charitable giving (feel free to inundate the comments with instances that contradict this point).

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Question of Atheist Charity: Less Diffusion of Responsibility?

  1. Interesting piece. I’m not entirely sold on the premise, but I will suggest one more consideration. Religious people may have more charitable commitments, thus diffusing their gifts a bit more. Those of us ho aren’t already giving to a church, and a couple church-related charities can fork over more money if we find the subject worthy. Someone already supporting these would be a little more tight-fisted. If that were it, we’d expect to see secular giving appear more concentrated whereas believers would be putting out a fairly constant flow of charity.

    Either way, a more thorough comparison of charitable giving would be an interesting read.

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