Being Good for God's Sake

In case the economic crisis wasn’t enough to dampen the holiday cheer, the anti-Christmas scrooges are out in full force again this year.  Perhaps most prominent is an atheist group whose current campaign is sure to elicit a chorus of “Bah-humbug” from most Americans.  The American Humanist Association recently bought ad space on Washington, D.C., buses with signs that read, “Why Believe in god?  Just be Good for Goodness’ Sake.”

Displayed inside and outside 200 D.C. buses, the signs are part of an ad campaign that’s set to run through the Christmas season with the purpose, according to Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the AHA, to remind D.C. area residents that,  “Morality doesn’t come from religion.  It’s a set of values embraced by individuals and society based on empathy, fairness and experience.”

Now, I don’t begrudge the AHA its right to spend the reportedly $40,000 it paid for ad space. (For one thing, that’s $40,000 the AHA can’t invest promoting leftwing political candidates.)  But I do take exception to the campaign’s premise — that God and goodness have nothing to do with one another.  In fact, when it comes to one of the key ways in which “being good” is manifested — charitable giving — goodness is often synonymous with Godliness.   

Not only have studies shown a positive correlation between religiosity (measured by frequency of prayer and church attendance) and charitable giving (measured by donations and volunteerism), researchers have discovered a “charity gap” between believers and non-believers that remains even after taking into account other powerful factors like income, political affiliation, marital status, education, age and gender, race and much more.

Arthur Brooks is a leading researcher of the giving habits of Americans.   In his 2006 book, Who Really Cares, Brooks discovered “dramatic” differences in the charitable giving of churchgoing Americans and their secular counterparts.  

In one study, Brooks found that “religious people” (those who attend a church service weekly or more) “are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money and 23 percentage points more likely to volunteer time.”  Average annual giving among the church-going is $2,210 and only $642 for secular Americans.  Brooks also found that religious people volunteer an average of 12 times a year, while secular Americans volunteer on average 5.8 times a year.  

While the empirical research shows a clear “charity gap” between religious and secular Americans, less clear are the reasons why people give.  This is where a recent study in the field of moral psychology purports to fill the gap.  

In an October article published in the journal Science, University of British Columbia psychology researchers Ara Norenzayan and Azim F. Shariff attempt to move beyond the numbers and establish what motivates those who give.  

As most similar studies have done, Norenzayan’s and Shariff’s research found that religious people are more helpful and generous.  But this study also found that the religious give only if they believe their acts will enhance their reputations among co-believers, what Norenzayan and Shariff call “the in-group,” and only if they believe that God is monitoring them.

In other words, sure religious people give more, but they do so only because they are concerned about and paying attention to what God and their co-religionists might think.  And, if you remove these conditions, Norenzayan told USA Today, “all of a sudden you don’t find any differences between the moral behavior of religious people and non-religious.”  

To present faith-based giving as merely a combination of soft reciprocity-based altruism and “super-natural polic[ing]” is rather cynical.  It is also based in part on the false notion that believers give only to their own churches or religious organizations, which is what Norenzayan and Shariff refer to as the “dark side” of religious giving.  In fact, religious Americans are more likely to give to every kind of cause and charity, including secular ones.  Brooks found that religious people are 10 percentage points more likely than the non-religious to give to secular charities.   

Instead of feeling compelled to give because of “super-natural” monitoring, most Christian’s charity is rooted in true love, of God and of neighbor.  In reality, the two notions are inseparable, as Scripture makes clear.  

Not that the giver gets nothing in return.  Studies have shown that those who give are happier and healthier for it.  To quote the Psalmist, “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.”  To put it another way, “’Tis better to give than to receive.”

More holiday controversy was stirred up recently when an anti-religion sign was placed alongside other religious holiday scenes in the Washington State capitol building.  Set up by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the sign reads, “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.  There is only our natural world.  Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

In a nation as diverse as ours, there needs to be room in the public square for all points of view.  But for the anti-Christmas scrooges to declare that God has nothing to do with goodness, or that all religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds, is a Christmas story I just can’t believe.