Monday, January 12, 2009

"Would I Be a Better Person if I Went to Church?"--Charitable Giving

Over Christmas break, I read an interesting New York Times article on charitable giving. Nicholas D. Kristoff references Arthur Brooks' book, Who Really Cares, which explores who gives money to charity and why.

Buried in the middle of the Kristoff piece is the observation Brooks makes that church goers on any part of the ideological spectrum give more than their secular counterparts.

I asked my dad if he was surprised by these findings, and he said no. He said that non-church-goers believe that they can only rely on themselves, and therefore it's harder to part with their money.

Most people think that they give more to charity than they really do. It would be interesting to compare tax returns to get some objective data--we could leave aside the clothes and food given to various drives, and just focus on some objective data to answer the question: how much of your take-home pay goes to charity?

Most religious faiths stress the need to take care of the poor and less fortunate. Many traditions stress this point on a regular basis. Hearing this point preached again and again provides serious motivation to give. Some religious organizations require tithing, giving 10% of one's income.

And churches provide an outlet. If I want to give, my church runs a food pantry and brings meals to the less fortunate and collects clothes and has a fund for people facing temporary emergencies and works with county-wide organizations--for the sake of brevity, I'll stop with this short list. My larger church funds various relief organizations. When the move to give strikes me, I don't have to make much effort. I don't have to research worthy organizations--it's all been done for me.

Not everyone is so fortunate. I know that there are countless examples of charitable giving that's been used to fund buildings (of course, those buildings are often used to provide services to the less fortunate: church by day, homeless shelter by night!). I know that there are unscrupulous pastors who skim the charitable funds to keep a chunk for themselves.

I've spent part of my life going to church, part of my adult life not going to church. And I gave more to the poor when I was going to church than when I wasn't.

And it's a gift that gives back to me. When I've been most successful at tithing, strangely enough, is when I've been least anxious about money. Is that because the tithing process forces me to budget or because God provides more when I'm fulfilling that command? Is it some other reason that's unrelated?

I don't know. All I have to offer right now is anecdotal evidence, based on my life and those of people I know. But I plan to read Brooks' book to get a wider view.

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