Are religious people more charitable than nonreligious? It depends.

File:Daniel Gran - St Elizabeth Distributing Alms - WGA10354.jpg

How we see ourselves when we give to charity. “St. Elizabeth Distributing Alms.” Daniel Gran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A study released last week by the Chronicle of Philathropy “found that residents in states where religious participation is higher than the rest of the nation, particularly in the South, gave the greatest percentage of their discretionary income to charity.” (From Associated Press report via NPR).

I haven’t read the report in enough detail to have an opinion about how good the research is. I suppose I could invoke the usual disclaimer about correlation not proving causality, but there’s something else that interests me, an angle that I haven’t seen in the news reports. According to an article on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s website, “the study is based on exact dollar amounts released by the Internal Revenue Service showing the value of charitable deductions claimed by American taxpayers.”

So the study is about any form of tax-deductable giving, and makes no distinction between that which funds religious or political activities—such as preaching, proselytizing, or opposing evolution and gay marriage—and that which actually helps people with things like food, housing, or medical care. Religious believers fund both, but in what proportion?

This doesn’t lessen the generosity of the people giving the money, and there’s nothing wrong with funding institutions that exist mainly to promote your beliefs (as long as those beliefs aren’t harmful), but let’s not confuse that with our usual understanding of “charity.”