Does Tithing Predict Less Giving to Non-Religious Charities?

One hallmark of the Christmas shopping season is the red kettle and ringing bell of a Salvation Army volunteer at the entryway of a department store. After the crush of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday on December 3rd was another attempt to focus Americans toward giving rather than purchasing and early numbers suggest it was quite successful.

Despite Americans’ propensity to consume during this time of year, many also see the holidays as a time to give to those less fortunate. In 2012, Americans gave more than $316 billion to charity. Seventy-two percent of that number, around $223 billion, came directly from individuals. And among American individuals who also claim a religious affiliation,65% give to charity.

But are religious individuals giving only to religious causes? One commenter seems to think so: “Most religious people are equally generous; they only give more than non-religious people because they give to religious organizations.”

This raises a number of interesting questions. Do the people in the pews give much more to religious charities compared to non-religious charities? Does their level of giving to their own congregation influence how much they give to both religious and non-religious charities?

Data from the 2008/2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey provides a picture of the giving habits of worshipers.

First, we see that over 90% of worshipers do tend to contribute at least something to their place of worship every year. Around 44% of worshipers report giving at least 5% or more of their yearly income to their congregation.

Chart1
When asked about their giving to both religious and non-religious charities, we find in the figure below that many respondents report giving each year.

Chart2

Around 85% of worshipers report giving at least something to religious charities in the last year while around 87% of worshipers report giving at least something to non-religious charities. Most of the time, similar numbers of worshipers give comparable amounts to both religious and non-religious charities.

But how does giving to one’s congregation influence giving to charity? Do religious individuals who give more to their congregation give less to charity? Is it a zero sum game?

In the figure below we see the relationship between how much people report giving to their congregation, and how much they report giving to religious charities.

Chart3

Here we find that worshipers who do not contribute financially to their congregation, tend to not give to religious charities either. In fact, almost 45% of worshipers who do not give to their place of worship also do not give to religious charities. This figure highlights how worshipers who are giving to their congregations tend to give to religious charities outside their congregation as well.

It could be, however, that worshipers who give to their congregation give less to non-religious charities compared to religious charities. The data, however, does not bear this out.

Chart4

Worshipers who give to their congregation also give to non-religious charities. For those who give 10% or more to their congregation, 89% give at least something to non-religious charities throughout the year. Over 90% of those who give between 5% to 9% to their congregation give to non-religious charities. Yet again, it is those who do not contribute to their congregation financially that are least likely to give to non-religious charities in the past year.

Further analysis using techniques that control for other determinants of giving like age, education, income, gender, marital status, religious service attendance, theological views, and private religious habits provide an even better picture of how tithing to one’s church influences giving to both religious and non-religious charities.

It appears that older worshipers, married worshipers, and worshipers who report higher levels of yearly income give more to both religious and non-religious charities, even when controlling for how much they tithe to their congregation.

However, worshipers who give more to their congregation, actually give less to religious charities. It could be that worshipers who tithe more give less to religious charities because they feel their tithing in some way satisfies a requirement to give to religious causes.

Does the same hold true for non-religious charities? No, it does not! The level to which worshipers give to their congregation has no bearing on their level of giving to non-religious charities.

Thankfully, as far as non-religious charities are concerned, the negative relationship between tithing and giving to religious charities does not hold true. Worshipers who give to their congregation do not then give less to non-religious charities.

So, while a majority of giving in the United States does go to religious organizations, worshipers that tithe are no less likely to give to non-religious charities. In fact, worshipers’ generosity to charity does not appear to be bound by the charity’s religious, or nonreligious, identification.