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When We Need It Most, ‘Losing Our Religion’ Means Less Giving

Americans who attend church are more likely to donate to charity than anyone else--but fewer people are regularly going.

In 2019, Americans are giving less to charity both in time and money, participating less in civic life, and unhappier than ever before. These social phenomena are correlated with a quickening drift from faith and its associated life-giving practices.

The trendiest religion in America today isn’t faith-based, but faith-less. Converse with nomads of our nation’s most populous metro areas for any length of time and someone will offer it: “Spiritual but not religious” is in vogue. Ninety-three percent of those who use this self-description have not attended a religious service in at least six months, and the majority do not identify with a faith tradition of any kind.

While not a full picture of those who have scrapped churchgoing—as I will refer to attendance at religious services of all faiths throughout the piece—this group does make up 11% of the population, according to a 2017 Barna study. 

The rescindence from faith-based practice contributes to a concerning trendline hidden among reams of research on how religious practice affects societal norms, civic participation, philanthropic dollars, volunteer hours, personal happiness, empathy, and altruism for one’s fellow man. 

American Giving on a Downturn

As more people turn from traditional religious practices, pews empty, prayers cease, and pocketbooks close. Subconsciously, one’s eyes adjust inwardly, rather than keep focus on the needs of those around them—something a vibrant religious social circle previously helped to keep in check. The result is an unintentional change in direction for our country’s philanthropic and civic future.

“Giving and attendance at religious services have a high correlation,” said Rick Dunham, chair of Giving USA Foundation.“So with the nonaffiliation numbers going up and attendance going down, there’s a probable cause that the actual practice of giving is going down.”

A look at the numbers confirms Dunham’s hypothesis. Churches close across the country at a rate of 100-200 per week due to lack of attendance and a recent Gallup poll finds that the percentage of Americans reporting they belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque is at an all time low at 50 percent in 2018. 

At the same time, Americans are giving less of their money to philanthropic causes and placing less importance on civic engagement—a near direct correlation to a mass exodus from religious practice. The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University reported that 20 million fewer households gave in 2018 than in 2000 and Giving USA reported 2% less giving in 2018, adjusted for inflation. 

The Faithful Give More

In their book, “American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us,” Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell published extensive research on how giving practices from volunteering to monetary donations are affected by a person’s faith. In a 2006 survey, they reported that average annual donations by religious Americans (defined as regular attendees) to charitable causes are “vastly larger” than average donations by those who are not. They found that the most faithful are, on average, four times as generous as their least faithful counterparts. 

More recent research confirms this is still true 15 years later. A 2017 study from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that 62 percent of religiously faithful families donate to charity, while only 46 percent of secular families do so. And while the religious do often give to faith-based causes, their generosity extends far beyond those entities. 

Putnam and Campbell confirmed with two unrelated surveys in 2001 and 2006 that of those who give to religious causes, 88 percent also give to secular causes like the American Cancer Society, humanitarian aid missions, or even things like the arts or local education initiatives. Someone who attends church weekly is 81 percent likely to donate to secular causes, while someone who doesn’t is only 60 percent likely to donate to any cause at all. 

Imagine how donations to both secular and faith-based causes will continue to decline as people leave faith communities en masse. 

The volunteer and good neighborly landscape follows the same trendline. A 2008 Gallup survey found that faithful Americans are far more likely to have volunteered their time and helped a stranger in the past month than the non-religious. A 2011 Pew study on the civic and community engagement of religious Americans reported higher rates of volunteerism, giving, and civic participation among the faithful. 

Christianity, which covers 70 percent of America’s religious landscape, offers grace sans works as the path toward heaven—so the high volume of “works” may be surprising for this group.That said, be it followers of Jesus, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or another faith, these individuals collectively and across the board take significantly more individual actions toward maintaining a well-oiled and extraordinarily generous civilization. 

Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it’s difficult to deny the connection between overall generosity and civility—and faith. Much of it is also closely tied to a religiously robust social circle, which is found most easily in a church setting. 

A Look at Civic Engagement

As for civic engagement, while 90% of older Americans say “voting is essential to citizenship,” only 56 percent of those in their 20s agree, according to 2018 Pew Research. Younger generations are far less faithful than their elders and thus, less likely to vote, run for local office, or educate themselves on the issues. And because running for office takes money, even those who want to make a difference could be barred from doing so as fewer people open their wallets to help with campaigns and publicity. 

When it comes to younger Americans, a growing number affiliate religion with “Republican” and react by turning away, but this assumption is wrong for a variety of reasons. In reality, Pew has calculated that most religions in the U.S. are made up of a strong mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents—just like the general population. 

Some categories, like Black Protestantism and Hinduism, have Democratic majorities, in fact. However, Evangelical Protestantism is one of the largest and most visible representations of “religion” in the headlines and is majority Republican, which explains the misperception. Additionally, Democratic Party leadership is now seen as more secular and is at times considered hostile to religion.

Faith and politics have become a toxic partnership for some, but perhaps a revelation that one must not associate faith with a particular party can loosen the negative association. Former Democratic candidate for president Pete Buttigieg illuminated this with his recent campaign, hiring a faith outreach director and speaking directly about his personal faith on both the campaign and debate stage. 

Underreported Generosity Data

Another interesting piece of data as it relates to this religious misperception is under-reported. In “American Grace,” Putnam and Campbell found that religious progressives—those who generally align more with the Democratic Party—are ultimately the most generous group of churchgoers. This means they are the most generous people in the country overall since collective research shows churchgoers of all stripes give more than their non-churchgoing counterparts (again, this means people who attend a faith service on a weekly basis). 

Religious progressives give the most and religious secularists give the least. It’s a stunning and fascinating divide, one that combats a common conservative talking point that conservatives give more to charity. In the United States, more conservatives are religious than are liberals. Thus, it appears that conservatives are more generous—but it’s not the political ideology that makes the difference: it’s the faith practice. 

Understanding that faith doesn’t mean party and ultimately translates into being a more generous person may help secular progressive Americans view religion in a new light. Generosity is not the only thing affected by saying goodbye to church. 

Attending church with someone means you may not share their political belief system. Given the partisan divide, one is likely to worship next to their political foe—and this is precisely the point. Faith-based community offers individuals the opportunity to know and understand someone else’s point of view, rather than judging them based on Facebook posts or lazy stereotyping. A lapse in church attendance will result in less bipartisan communing, decreasing the chance to practice civility and increase empathy. 

This all results in a civic and civility downfall, with negative consequences affecting our society as a whole, trickling down into marginalized portions of our cities and our nation. Because both Republicans and Democrats are leaving the church at substantial rates, causes across the board will receive less funding and support. 

What the Divide Means

As it stands, we are losing precious relational ground nationwide. After all, it is traditional religious engagement and liturgy that has fostered much of our nation’s social capital and community framework for decades. The church has historically offered a meeting place for cross-generational, cross-class friendships and bi-partisan relationship building. It’s also been a central hub for awareness of personal and community needs, both philanthropic and civic. Without a regular place of communion, people can easily shift into polarized lifestyles that exclude those unlike themselves and banish the opportunity to be aware of these needs.

The church of Self isn’t an adequate substitution for the real thing when it comes to caring for the marginalized and maintaining a civil society. It doesn’t appear to be intentional on the part of the irreligious, but exiting from religiously robust social circles produces a negative return on investment in others—and in society. 

One is far more likely to give time or money if their friends are doing so. Additionally, faith bodies are generally committed members of their local communities and constantly inform congregants of fundraisers, volunteer opportunities, and monetary needs. Whether through peer pressure or simply awareness, faith settings motivate and effectively supercharge generosity across the board.

Some argue a drift toward secularism is inevitable, and that focusing on faith is a lost cause—even harmful. Author Chrissy Stroop wrote a book encouraging folks to leave church. In Empty the Pews, she argues that “narrow-minded religious ideologies” are what resulted in President Trump’s election and current “bigotry” and “abuse present in so many churches.” What she fails to recognize is that those most likely to support President Trump were, according to research in Tim Carney’s “Alienated America,” the least likely to attend church on a regular basis. 

Stroop is right to point to harmful churches who have perpetuated abuse as the wrong places to find communion. But most churches do not fit that label and where they do, there are plenty of other options. 

Encouraging people to give up churchgoing altogether is unfathomable given the large bodies of data showing how important faith is for the good of society. It may be possible to reinvigorate and replicate generosity through secular means, but thus far, no evidence supports this in equal measure.

The Root of the Religion Problem

Like Stroop’s problem with church, others take issue with “organized religion,” given past negative experiences. These shouldn’t be discounted. The dictionary defines faith as “complete trust or confidence in something,” so it’s no wonder that irreligious populations mistrust faith after a glance at the headlines. As prominent faith leaders like Bill Hybels fall from grace, Catholic Church molestation scandals play out in horror, and revered religious figures laud morally fraught political leaders, it’s not hard to see how some have lost their faith in the church as a symbol of faith. The charitable acts of the faithful provide the backbone of America’s philanthropic body, and the body doesn’t work well when the spine is jeopardized. 

Scandals obscure the view of faith’s true centerpiece, which is God. It’s a tough conundrum, but one important enough to face head on. The health of our nation, neighbors, and communities is at stake. A religious revival would help restore our sense of national generosity and local neighborliness. 

There are remedies to negative church perceptions and experiences. Not returning to the church, denomination, or even religion of one’s youth may be one answer. By opening up to the possibility that not every faith experience will mimic the last, people can experience religion in a more positive light. 

New church plants and startup churches across the country are drawing in folks who haven’t attended church in years, their membership reaching 42 percent or more of these worshippers. Capturing and keeping more of these individuals can help shift the generosity, civic, and civility divide in a better direction—not to mention provide hope, community, and life-giving faith to people who may have lost it along the way.

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9, and host the “Worth Your Time” podcast.

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