Believers vs unbelievers – who are more generous?


Atheists and christians alike often feel that not only is their belief true, but it is “nicer”. One argument, which has been made to me several times by atheists recently, is over who is more generous in giving to charity.

It has little to do with the truth of belief, but are there any facts to resolve this question?

A criterion for generosity?

This isn’t easy, for some of the obvious measures don’t work.

  • Measuring the amount of money given biases the result towards the wealthiest. Even the most generous “ordinary person” could give their entire income, and still come nowhere near a billionaire who gives just 1%.
  • Measuring percentage is scarcely any better. A billionaire who gives 50% still has at least $500M left, whereas you and I may be unable to live off 50% of our savings or income.
  • Measuring the amount left after giving is probably a little over harsh on the billionaires.

I conclude that we cannot measure generosity, the measurable numbers are too dependent on life circumstances. However for people in roughly equal circumstances, the percentage given may be a reasonable indicator.

The biggest givers

The Chronicle of Philanthropy list the largest givers in the US for 2012, although this may not be a fair picture as Bill Gates isn’t mentioned. So I have taken the top 10 givers, not including bequests, plus Gates.

It isn’t always easy to find the religious views of these 11, but the following is based on Wikipedia and other web biographies:

  • One (Zuckerberg) identifies as an atheist.
  • Two are agnostic (Buffett, Gates).
  • Four are culturally Jewish (Brin, Zuckerman, Icahn and Adelson), though I cannot say whether they are theistic Jews.
  • One (Koch) sees religion as a private matter, but may be Catholic.
  • Three (Arnold, Allen and Knight) have no stated belief.

As a comparison, I checked out the 11 richest people in the US according to Forbes, and found that only three of the biggest givers were in the top 11 richest (Gates, Buffett & Koch) while 5 more were in the top 30. Overall, the richest people had a similar religious make-up as the top philanthropists, except there were less Jews but several more religious.

Thus it seems that wealthy people of Jewish descent tend to be the most generous. The new technology billionaires are more generous than the older billionaires, and are probably less likely to be religious believers. There is only one atheist and one possible christian on the most generous list. (I am aware that some atheists define atheism in a way that includes agnostics, but I have allowed people to self-identify.)


Among the wealthy, neither atheists nor christians seems to be very prominent as philanthropists, and the most generous seem to be Jews and people of no stated belief.

Ordinary people

The information on the generosity of ordinary people is much clearer, being based on properly conducted surveys. here are the ones I could find:

Who Really Cares

Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University found that conservatives gave more to charity than liberals (even though they earn slightly less), and that religion was one of the two main influences on charitable behaviour. In this report on the same study, Brooks says:

“The religious Americans are more likely to give to every kind of cause and charity, including explicitly non-religious charities.”

The scientific study of religion

The Science on Religion blog reports a more recent university study, which found:

“People who regularly attend religious services give more to religious and secular charities ….. religious people give as much to secular charities as practically conscious secular people plus they give to religious charities. In terms of amount, religious people wind up giving more.”

To explain this a little, religious people give as much to secular charities as do secular people who are involved in secular, community or political organisations, and both give more than non-involved secular people. So the religious overall give more to secular charities than do the irreligious, plus they give to religious organisations as well.

This study by University sociologists found much the same.

Barna Group

Surveys by the Barna Group found religious people gave 7.5 times more than those who self-identified as atheist or agnostic, and twice as much when church based giving was removed.

Other studies

This report on a study by The Chronicle of Philanthropy shows that religious states give more to charity than less religious states, but take away church giving and the non-religious states give more.

A book by Robert Putnam of Harvard University said that religious people give more, volunteer more and are better citizens than non-religious.

These were all US studies, but this UK study shows the same – religious people donated more than double what non-religious donated, and only 30% of religious people donated to religious causes.


These studies are all consistent – all show greater giving by religious people, and all but one show this is true even for secular charities only.

The bottom line

  1. Ordinary religious people clearly give more to charity than non-believers do.
  2. Among the very wealthy, Jews or those of no stated belief tend to be the most philanthropic. There are too few self-identified atheist and christian billionaires to draw any reasonable conclusion about them.

Photo: MorgueFile


  1. I’m not sure what a good metric would be either – chances are at least some of these avoid or evade taxes, so how should that go for philanthropy? Still it’s interesting and disheartening that the only Christian on the list (in a country where they’re the majority) is Koch, who’s hardly an exemplar.

  2. One problem is that we shouldn’t compare the number of billionaire christians who give with the general population, but with the population of billionaires. And from what I could find, there were few christian billionaires as well as few generous christian billionaires. I don’t think we can say very much from that small sample – perhaps I should take the time to analyse the top 50 or so?

  3. Thanks, that’s very interesting. I didn’t know that before. It sounds like his belief is not very specific, but nonetheless genuine.

  4. People need to understand that generosity is about much more than giving x% to charity. I realize not everyone is a believer, but the Bible presents a much broader perspective on charity – basically give as much as you possibly can to anyone who expresses need, and don’t show any partiality in doing so. A Christian should want to live at a minimal comfortableness and freely disperse the rest. You shouldn’t obsess over debts people owe you either – a true Christian realizes God will provide what you need.

    This pretty much goes against what we teach our children in America, and that includes plenty of Christian parents.

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