Blessed are the merciful

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It’s tax season. Want some more bad news? Of course you do.

But let’s start with some good news first—good news, that is, for those looking for evidence that religion makes a positive difference in the world.

Since 1997, Statistics Canada has conducted wide-ranging surveys of Canadians’ volunteering, giving, and participating (with the helpful, if boring, name of “National/Canada Survey of Volunteering Giving and Participating”). The data show that there is a stark and positive difference between Very Committed religious people (= weekly churchgoers, or weekly attenders at other houses of worship) and everyone else when it comes to…well, lots of things: volunteering (both religious and non-religious), marital stability and reported happiness, prioritizing relationships over financial success, and more.

One of the chasms between the Very Committed religious people and their fellow Canadians lies in the realm of charitable giving. Serious religious people—not saints, just people who invest enough in their religion to get out of bed and attend worship weekly—give to charity ‘way more than does everyone else.

Yes, they give predominantly to religious charities, but they also exceed less committed religious people, so-called seekers, and the religious “nones” in giving to secular causes as well. How much more do observant believers give to both kinds of charity than do the rest of us? Four times more.

When one hears skeptics questioning the “social utility” of religious people and their communities (“What good are they, anyway?”), the evidence is extensive: quite a lot. The late Kurt Bowen, sociologist at Acadia University, put it bluntly in his massive study of Christians in a Secular World: The Canadian Experience:

“If all [Canadians] gave as the Very Committed do, the total value of direct donations to the charitable and non-profit sectors would almost triple…. Total charitable donations would fall to $2 billion [that is, by more than 50%] if all gave as the Non Religious do.”

That’s the good news. Before we Very Committed types break out the party hats and streamers in a celebration of our own wonderfulness, however, here’s the bad.

The average donation among the top givers is…a thousand bucks a year. And if one instead takes the median—so that you find the amount given by the person in the exact middle of the high givers, that number drops to less than half that amount.

This is bad news, yes. Humiliating, actually, in a country whose median annual income for a full-time worker is $50,699. Yep: a thousand bucks a year isn’t quite 2% of that income.

But lest I leave you with bad news, let me also note the corollary. It wouldn’t take much for the vast majority of us to double our charitable giving. Even in the top level of donors, we’re talking $2000 rather than $1000. And that would release several billion dollars to good causes from coast to coast to coast. Several billion.

And when it comes to doing good, with an extra billion here and an extra billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Let’s talk real money, and real mercy, in tax year 2018.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).