This Metro article reports:

Are atheists more generous than Christians? This homeless man’s experiment seems to suggest so.

Some religions may say change comes from within, but this homeless man has come up with an ingenious way of determining which faith produces the most generous devotees.

An image posted on Reddit shows the man with a sign bearing the message ‘which religion cares the most about the homeless?’ and nine begging bowls in front of him.

Each bowl is placed on top of a piece of paper bearing the words ‘Muslim’, ‘atheist’, ‘Jewish’, ‘Buddhist’, ‘spiritual’, ‘agnostic’, ‘pagan’, and ‘Christian.

Reddit user Ventachinkway, who uploaded the image, said: ‘When I passed him he proudly announced “The atheists are winning!”.’

Many commenters drew attention to the fact that the US, where the picture was taken, is predominantly Christian, while others pointed to the carabiner apparently donated by a Buddhist.

I have also came across these:

  • article from Patheos: Are Religious People Really More Generous Than Atheists? A New Study Puts That Myth to Rest.
  • article from Hotair: Confirmed: Atheists more motivated by compassion in charitable giving than believers are; Update: Numbers added

These are not reliable studies, but I wonder if there exist some good ones regarding the influence of religion on generosity.

Are there any studies which corroborate or disprove this "experiment"?

  • I've removed a lot of comments and a lot of *caveats" from the question. They are not going to help getting better answers. We can already fully expect any good study to try to be unbiased and remove confounding factors, we do not need to spell them out here. You can trust our community to upvote answers which correctly identify the best sources, and downvote the ones that do not discriminate. On the other hand, if we only have bad studies, it might be worth mentioning them, along with the fact they are poor quality.
    – Sklivvz
    Aug 5, 2014 at 20:36
  • Going to restate something that was implied by the deleted comments. The cited references are of such horrible quality that they can't be considered to constitute a notable claim. There is little point in providing an answer that demolishes them (trivial though that would be) if there is a better claim around. My recommendation is that the questioner (or anyone else) is given the opportunity to provide better claims, and if that doesn't happen then we'll either close the question or provide the trivial debunking. Aug 5, 2014 at 21:12
  • @DJClayworth Often the point is not to demolish the reference directly (frequently easy), but providing a serious study that answers the question. (my last comment on this question) Aug 5, 2014 at 21:16
  • 2
    @DJClayworth Metro constitutes a high circulation newspaper, why do you say it's a poor source for the claims? The claim itself might be easy to debunk, but so is moon-landing denialism, YEC or climate skepticism, all of which are allowed topics.
    – Sklivvz
    Aug 7, 2014 at 8:30

1 Answer 1


The answer is complex. There have been a number of apparently contradictory studies in the area. Researchers have been trying to dig down and find the true factors.

E.g. Is generosity to charities affected by the religion of the donor, the religiosity of the donor, the frequency of church attendance, or perhaps the number of opportunities the donor is offered (e.g. in church)? If you only consider secular charities, do the relations still hold? Are they universal or by country?

There is an entire section (page 6) dedicated to summarising the results in A Literature Review of Empirical Studies of Philanthropy: Eight Mechanisms That Drive Charitable Giving.

Spoiler: Religion is not one of the eight mechanisms, but it affects them.

This 2007 paper does not (yet?) appear to have been peer-reviewed. It has been sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, which has a history of sponsoring controversial pro-religious studies. Nonetheless, it is certainly well-referenced, and I have based this answer on it.

The basic finding is:

Positive relations between church membership and/or the frequency of church attendance with both secular and religious philanthropy appear in almost any article in which this relation was studied.

However, it isn't that simple, when you start digging.

If you look at secular giving, the relationship disappears or even inverts.

When you take people out of the religious context, the difference disappears:

The fact that no relationship between giving and religiosity was found in these studies may indicate that either the religious context is crucial, or that the higher likelihood of being asked is the reason for heightened generosity of the religious, or both.

They cite a study that suggests both are somewhat true.

They also look at the relative generosity between different religious (especially Protestants versus Catholics), looking at both totals and proportions of income. They account for the difference in the style of solicitation. These issues are out-of-scope.

The general conclusion that I drew from the study - and I emphasize, this remains simplistic; see the report for more - is that:

  • the religious donate more than the non-religious - this extra is largely to non-secular charities.
  • the more devout (as measured by church attendance) donate more than the less devout.
  • this difference can largely be accounted for by social pressure and the number of times they are solicited for money, rather than positing that church-goers are more inherently generous in personality.
  • This is interesting, but I wonder if there are other studies that don't focus on charitable giving. I'm not sure if donating money is be the best indicator of generosity.
    – Yisela
    Aug 6, 2014 at 5:05
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    @Yisela: Generosity is a vague concept; to answer the question we need to select a definition. The original claim was built on charitable-giving (personal rather than organised, to be fair) as a proxy for generosity, so this study seemed appropriate to me.
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 6, 2014 at 6:08
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    What is the meaning of "secular giving"? E.g. would donating to the Red Cross be considered secular or non-secular giving? Dec 3, 2015 at 10:55
  • @CraigMcQueen: It seems like it would depend on the studies that the review is based upon. For example, I choise one at random and it used "church-based institutions" in the abstract. The Red Cross seems uncontroversially secular (okay, with the exception of what the Turkish may have felt in 1876.)
    – Oddthinking
    Dec 3, 2015 at 12:14
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    "by social pressure and the number of times they are solicited for money, rather than positing that church-goers are more inherently generous in personality." Unusual argument. After all they may be solicited more for money because of their personality. It's important to note that these people put themselves in this situation.
    – NPSF3000
    Jan 26, 2017 at 18:38

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