Ben Johnson, a masters student at the University of North Carolina, USA, used data from a nationally representative sample of 5,000 families. He crunched these through some fairly hefty statistics to see which religions were associated with higher reported giving - after controlling for education, children, stock ownership, income, volunteering behaviour and other factors (full report here).
He found that the religious were indeed more likely to report donating and, on average, donated more:
On average, Catholics give $523.00 more than people with no religious preference, Jews give $2679.67 more, Protestants give $199.69 more, and non-Christians give $1425.97 more.
So far, it looks like a gold star for religion.
Then he looked at where people were sending their charity. The survey data breaks down the recipients of charitable giving into several categories: religious, combination (like the United Way), those that help the needy, health, education, youth or family services, arts and culture, neighbourhood improvement, environment, international aid and world peace, and other.
As you can see in the table, what he found was that Catholics and Protestants only gave more to religious charities, and not to secular charities. In fact, Protestants were actually less likely than the non-religious to give to cultural and environmental charities.
Jews were more generous than more on educational and cultural donations, while the non-Christians donated more to the environment - probably those damned New Age hippies!
Back in 2010, there was a similar analysis of the same survey data (although including earlier years) by Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, at Indiana University. He found that Christians and the non-affiliated were equally likely to give to 'basic necessity' organisations (i.e. ones that help people in need of food, shelter, or other basic necessities). Jews were again more generous.
To me these results support the idea that religious generosity is really about supporting fellow members of your tribe, rather than humanity in general. A recent cross-cultural analysis found that both Catholics and Muslims report that their charitable behaviour is primarily stoked out of a sense of duty or love for their god.
In contrast, research published earlier this year suggests that when the non-religious are motivated to give, they primarily do so out of a sense of compassion.
Ottoni-Wilhelm, Mark. (2010-09-01) Giving to Organizations that Help People in Need: Differences Across Denominational Identities. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 73(1), 11-412. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01518.x
This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.