Susan Jacoby, who counts herself a secularist, has written an incisive essay on charitable giving at Big Questions Online.
There is no doubt — although the gap has been exaggerated by some on the religious right to support its view of secularists as morally inferior — that the nonreligious give less than religious Americans.
The term “charitable giving” is something of a misnomer in America, because it includes every dollar donated to every nonprofit institution. I don’t think it really counts as charity to give to institutions — whether your own church or a foundation enriching your child’s secular private school — that provide services to you in return for the “gift.” That’s nothing more than self-interested support of organizations that meet the giver’s needs (not a bad thing, but not charity).
But even allowing for the fact that most Americans spend most of their charitable dollars close to home, the religious give a higher percentage of their income, and are about 25 percent more likely to give, than do secularists. Indeed, believers are 10 percent more likely than secularists to give to secular causes (although they do not support these programs as generously as they support religion).
The question is why.
The real giving difference between secularists and regular churchgoers comes from the fact that going to church establishes the habit of giving — not only because of moral exhortations from the pulpit, but also because of social reinforcement from peers .
Secularism is not a religion, and it does not offer the community that churches offer members. This absence of community fosters a disconnect between proclaiming that one can be “good without God” and giving generously to help others.
Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.