It's a common trope that I run into on the Internet, particularly in forums, that atheists are less likely to give to charity, or to give as much to charity, as religious people. That these allegations are frequently made by people who cannot even seem to be accurate about what an atheist really is, while poignant, is technically an ad hominem, so we should wonder about the matter, especially those of us who do not believe in gods.
The usual line of B.S....
In these forum conversations, which are only rarely sophisticated, the typical conclusion that is drawn from this observation about atheists is that religious people make better neighbors and, therefore, religion is correct. Let us dispel that line of fallacious reasoning first before tackling the main issue.
This line, of course, is the usual non sequitur card played by religionists who want to substantiate their faiths on the behaviors of people, failing to recognize how Ockham's Razor shaves away the need for a deity in sociological matters. It is abundantly clear to anyone that thinks about it for even a moment that, at most, this claim could establish a useful societal function for an entirely human enterprise that we call religion, and it doesn't add a shred of evidence to any claims about the existence of God, upon which the validity of the faiths actually rest. People can be good, or coached or coerced into being good, without a God as readily as with one.
When you say "better," how do you mean that?
Can we actually conclude, though, that religion makes people better, based upon the apparent evidence that atheists are less giving than their religious neighbors? That's actually a difficult matter to tease apart, as we will see. The Council for Secular Humanism seems to think not, indicating that atheists are possibly equally generous as religious people, just that they don't contribute as readily to charities.
More importantly, recent research to be published in the July 2012 issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science indicates that even if the claim about charitable donations is accurate, highly religious people are not motivated by compassion to engage in their acts of charity, as compared against less fundamental believers and, especially, nonbelievers. Indeed, the research shows that highly religious people seem to be motivated particularly by "factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns." It almost goes without question that the reasons for altruistic behavior matter enormously in terms of the "goodness" of that behavior, and it is of significant irony that the religious are those identified as the group of people who are acting largely with regard to their reputations instead of from a genuine concern for their fellows.
This displacement of actual altruism reaches its peak, of course, with the Prosperity Gospel, which essentially preaches that those who donate will become prosperous by the magical properties of God, who is posited to reward the faithful in like kind and many times over. On the end of those who donate because of these ministries, then, we see less of a concern for the well-being of other people than for themselves, who donate in a belief and hope that their generosity will bring a lottery win or other similar windfall upon them. This is clearly reflected by the fact that the well-beings being supported by these sorts of donations are those of the crooked con artists preaching the Prosperity Gospel in the first place, taking advantage of the poor and desperate instead of reaching out to help them. The whole affair is simply obscene, and it gets to do its thing completely tax-free with very little oversight in the United States, where it fleeces hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars from the unfortunately and desperately deluded.
Maybe you're right... so what?
Now, what about the claim itself? As the first link above indicates, the water is very muddy there, so I'm not going to try to argue specifically against it. Instead, I'm going to concede it, for the sake of argument, and investigate the more important question of "why is it that atheists might be less generous (w.r.t. charitable contributions) than religious believers?" To be clear, I'm not sure it's true that atheists are less generous (in fact, I doubt it is), but for the sake of argument, I'm conceding it to explore why it might be true.
It's unfair to say that atheists are smarter than nonbelievers, whatever research on average intelligences shows and whichever way the causation goes on that correlation, if there is any. What is fair to say, however, is that people who practice being skeptical of claims are better at being skeptical of claims. When a company or organization tells me they want my money (for nothing in return to me other than the feeling of having donated), I want to know where and how that money is being used. That means I do my homework on the matter before I'm willing to donate to any organization. Since that takes time, I'm less quick, even less able, to donate as often because it takes me a fair amount of time to see through the shiny veneer that every such organization puts on its donations pages. That's one thing.
Not all charities are created equally
Another thing is that there are a lot of crappy charities out there. Charities that do more for their CEOs' incomes than for whatever I'm giving my money to are of no interest to me. They get no donations from me, and I do whatever I can to check that out before I donate.
Charities that engage in overtly religious behavior, which is a lot of them, also get no money from me, and if KONY 2012 and Invisible Children have taught us anything, it's that there's enough stealth-evangelism out there to make me feel pretty wary about donating to any organization I don't know a lot about. To be clear, I'm fine with giving my money to a religious organization that is doing good, charitable work, but I'm not giving a penny to an organization that is trying to "spread the word," a word I don't agree with even in the vaguest sense, as part of their efforts. If your tree-planting effort includes handing out bibles (made out of trees), then I'm not giving you any money. That alone precludes some of the donating that I would do.
Practice makes perfect
On the other side of the aisle, I expect there is another reason that can account for any real discrepancy between atheist and religious donations to charity, even if we remove the religious donations to their churches (whether those actually constitute a proper charity or not). That reason is not trivial, and it has everything to do with the churches themselves.
Consider what happens in every church, everywhere, every week. There's that time, everyone knows it's coming and when it arrives, when they're going to strike up the sappy music (this is calculated and demonstrably effective), when they're going to start making the guilt-laden pleas, when they're going to remind you of your obligation to give, when they're going to tell you that part of the Christian identity is to give (especially to Christ), when they're going to remind you of every sad story that they've been able to help with, and when they're going to ask you to give them money, usually with words like "love offering."
That means at church, you have a scenario where people are constantly reminded to be generous, and they're reminded in a way that has powerful emotional strings attached. They're told, in effect, that giving is part of the Christian identity, so if you're a real Christian (which is the most important thing in the universe to be), you're giving--indeed, as indicated in the article above, it is your obligation to give. This has to have a nontrivial effect on their willingness to give, as well as their sense of giving as being something connected to their community identity and reputation. What if someone finds out you're not giving... he'll know you're a bad Christian with a hardened heart!
This last effect may do more than account for the majority of the discrepancy, particularly when adjusted for the average additional time and effort required for responsible skeptics to find worthy charities to donate to, if any real discrepancy actually exists. It could also potentially explain some of the effect noted in the study above: that fundamentalist believers donate out of a sense of obligation that is disconnected from their sense of compassion or understanding that help is needed. Christopher Hitchens, at this point, would be completely right in saying, yet again, that religion poisons everything.
The silver lining
What can we, meaning the nonbelieving community, take from this? While I don't think that we should necessarily be using guilt and sappy music as a tool to increase charitable donations, I think we could learn the value of consistent reminders that touch emotional triggers. Even the term "obligation" isn't taboo here, since for those of us that are humanist in our essential moral philosophy, we do have an obligation to our fellows that we may ignore a bit too often for whatever variety of reasons. We could learn from the example of the churches, and, hopefully find great ways to implement the same ideas only without the insidious, poisonous side of the thing that seems to disconnect human beings from their compassionate centers.
Of course, we need not be limited by "charitable donations." Simple generosity works too, like the "pay it forward" concept, the usual kinds of kindness, and volunteering our time. Even working to build up societies through their governments works (by working to establish and maintain non-corrupt governments that take responsibility for their citizenry). This could simply include efforts like we see in billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who ask to be taxed more so they can contribute in that way to the society that supports them, and other similar rich, super-rich, and ultra-rich folks (including Sam Harris, Stephen King, and others). It can also include efforts by everyday folks who aren't super-rich to inform themselves on issues that allow us to support and elect the kind of government we need to succeed in that way, or to become the honest, informed politicians we need to make it happen.
While I don't expect it is likely to be accurate that atheists are less generous than their religious peers, if it is true, then there are good reasons for it. Moreover, there are clear ways for us to learn to change that situation in a healthy, moral way that needs not threaten anyone's identity or their sense of everlasting security. In brief, then, I expect that this line about charity and atheists is just another tired trope trotted out by the religious in yet another desperate attempt to cling to their belief systems as their foundations crumble out from under them.