Do atheists love as well as Christians?

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A self-avowed atheist correspondent challenged me on my last post for “Context,” the one that showed “Very Committed” Christians giving more to charity than does everyone else in Canada, even as the actual amounts of giving weren’t terribly impressive.

My correspondent understandably bristled at a possible problem in this comparison: “Is it fair to compare ‘very committed’ members of Cause X to the members in total of all other causes? Shouldn’t you compare the ‘very committed’ to the ‘very committed’?”

And, he continued, might it be the case that “joiners” just “join” things, “givers” just “give,” such that their behaviour is a function of personality type, not of the actual content of their ideologies, philosophies, or religions?

This question made immediate sense to me, and I’ve pursued it this past week. But I don’t know that my atheist friend is going to like what I’ve concluded.

The comparison of “very committed” Christians to everybody else does demonstrate what I wanted it to demonstrate, namely, that Christianity is not a parasite on the body politic. Serious Christians pull their weight (and more) in terms of social responsibility, as Christians don’t give only to their own causes, but to lots of secular ones as well. So far, so good.

My friend wondered, however, if I was also implying that Christians were more altruistic than atheists. Comparing the “cream of the crop” Christians with “run of the mill” people espousing “No Religion” seemed wrong. And he’s right.

For one thing, “No Religion” includes lots of people who are not atheists. People who have some belief in God, or gods, or divine principles, or some other form of spirituality belong to this group alongside atheists, since the grouping principle is simply refusal to identify with a particular religion. The number of atheists, that is, is much, much smaller than this large and growing sector of “No Religion.”

I spoke with Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University and Christian Smith at the University of Notre Dame, two of the preeminent sociologists of religion in the world. And they agreed that “the N is too small.” Translated from sociologese, that means that there aren’t enough atheists in Canada or the US yet to show up in sufficient numbers in the typical samples of even large-scale studies to be able to sort out “very committed” atheists from “committed,” “somewhat interested,” and “nominal” atheists.

A related problem is that it’s not clear what “very committed” even looks like for an atheist. My correspondent suggested “commitment to Rotary Club” as a parallel to “commitment to church,” but of course many Rotarians are Christians, so that wouldn’t work.

Even, however, if we had enough N and the definitional problem could be solved, we are left with the fact that the content of one’s ideology does make a difference in one’s behaviour in the charitable sphere.

I talked with Wilfrid Laurier University sociologist David Haskell about these matters and we agreed on the following relevant points.

First, recent polls conducted by Reginald Bibby and Angus Reid show that, as broad groups, Canadians who say they believe in God hold generosity and concern for others to be a much higher priority than those who don’t.

Second, this finding is exactly what you would expect to find, as Christianity (the dominant form of theism in Canada) teaches love for one’s neighbour, even love for one’s enemy, while sociobiological atheism (the Dawkins sort that dominates atheism in Canada) teaches that love only for one’s kin and perhaps larger social group makes sense.

Third, as a study focuses increasingly on the “very committed” to one or another ideology, the differences in behaviour should increase. Not-very-committed atheists in Canada, that is, would be inclined to go along with generic Christian values of generosity and concern for strangers because the cultural tide still drifts in that direction. Fiercely committed Nietzscheans or social Darwinists, however, would not.

In fact, Dawkins and company can deal with altruism only by, in effect, denying that exists. Check out The God Delusion and see how Dawkins can “explain” it only by transmuting it into, yes, self-interest—which is exactly what “selfish genes” would prompt.

(Likewise, one can point to differences among theists, too. Christianity alone mandates love for every other human being, and so Christians alone have set up hospitals, schools, relief agencies, and other very expensive forms of altruism all around the world to serve non-Christians. Sometimes this behaviour has been criticized as “incentivizing” conversion, but that only begs the question: Why would Christians comfortable in Canada or Korea care about converting people half a globe away?

No other religion has done so. And secular organizations that have engaged in similar work have emerged from…once-Christian societies. Not from China, not from Japan, not from India, not from anywhere else.)

Wuthnow, Smith, and I all sardonically agreed that in both our countries the N of “No Religion” was growing so rapidly that pretty soon it would, indeed, be big enough to sort out different degrees of commitment among the non-religious.

When the “very committed” of various sorts are finally compared, we should see some common ground because of our common humanity, yes. We will also see, however, where we are different. And altruism, or the lack of it, will be a very big difference between different sorts of the “very committed” indeed.

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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).