Do Atheists Care Less?  Yes, says MacLean’s Magazine

May 7, 2010

MacLean's, one of Canada's most read magazines (Americans may be familiar with it as the publication that was hauled before the Human Rights Commissions after Mark Steyn wrote his piece "The Future Belongs to Islam"), recently published a piece entitled "Do Atheists Care Less?" in which the editors superficially copied two figures from a StatsCanada report to make the case that religious believers are more benevolent than atheists and hence should the Canadian trend towards apostasy continue, we are in danger of losing our core value of charity.  Comments may be added following the piece online.

In submitting a simple letter to the editor on behalf of CFI, I came to appreciate that had the editors given their initial piece as much deep consideration and research as they put into looking at the contents of my short statement, they would likely never have published their drivel in the first place.  After considerable back and forth, a version of our letter will be published, but as it will necessitate a length reduction of considerable magnitude, I thought here it would be appropriate to include the full response, as drafted by Greg Oliver, President of the Canadian Secular Alliance , and myself:

In the May 10th editorial "Do atheists care less?", the author makes a deeply misleading use of a Statistics Canada figure that states that the average annual charitable donation from weekly churchgoers is $1,038, compared to $295 for the rest of the population.  The simple conclusion is that atheists are less benevolent.  Appropriately enough, the devil is in the details.

Deeper research into the Statics Canada data from which the $1,038 figure is derived shows the majority of that amount in the form of donations to charities whose only stated purpose is "the advancement of religion".  These charities do not feed the poor, operate blood banks, provide literacy programs or lead other activities we generally consider beneficial.  When we filter out such donations, we find that weekly churchgoers, who represent 17% of the population, are said to be responsible for 20% of donations to "non-religious" charities.  That no longer seems so impressive.

Clouding the issue, Statistics Canada somehow managed to count missionaries, seminaries and religious publishers and broadcasters as "non-religious" charities for this particular survey.

The real issue here is the unfair government imposed wealth transfer from the non-religious to the religious in Canada by granting charitable status to organizations simply for propagating religious opinions and nothing else.  The tax expenditure from the public coffer for registered charities whose only stated purpose was to advance religion was $1.18 billion in 2007.

When these factors are properly accounted for, the proposition that weekly churchgoers are more generous than atheists is simply incorrect.  Charitable donations may be higher, but this is only because Canadian law still upholds the outdated principle that espousing religious opinions is in itself a legitimate charitable activity.

The study was also deficient in not being able to count contributions by atheists to benevolent non-charitable organizations, such as volunteers in medical, scientific, educational and ethical societies.  Ironic for those who arrogantly profess atheists should - and could - do more, is the fact that legally, ethical societies that do not contain an element of theist worship may qualify as a charity only with great difficulty and cost.  Go figure.  


#1 Kevin Saldanha on Friday May 07, 2010 at 4:13pm

Some points come to mind as I read this article:

Titheing and religious charities have largely been replaced by government funded social programs underwritten by taxes. The services provided by religious charities are selective and biased towards their dogma. If the charitable status of religious organizations were removed, the tax benefits realized would more than compensate for all the social services needed by disenfranchised segments of society.

Religious people will donate generously TO THEIR CHURCHES OR AFFILIATED CHARITIES but not to competing religions or secular charities. Religious folk will donate anonymously as their rewards in the after-life are doubled ‘if the right hand knows not what the left hand is doing’.

The difference in donation amounts between non-believers and believers reflect a belief that a supernatural being is watching and recording the generosity of the pious to ensure appropriate post mortem rewards.

Most volunteer efforts are aimed at impressing potential converts or are actually involved in proselytizing.

While the relatively young Foundation Beyond Belief may have only 447 members who have raised $18,760 specifically for secular causes, the KIVA Atheist team has led all other teams, including the second place KIVA Christians consistently by almost DOUBLE and is predicted to cross $2 million in loans around the world in the next few days.


#2 L. Long (Guest) on Friday May 07, 2010 at 8:55pm

What do you mean by ‘care less’?
Build you town on a river’s flood plain??  Don’t research the land your house is on??  Then cry & whine about the damage the flood did.  I could care less.
The history does not show any flooding or water damages have occurred.  Then some really odd heavy rain causes damage to his home….I’m willing to help-no problem.
So I guess we do not care as much as people who give away money to anyone for any reason.

#3 asanta on Friday May 07, 2010 at 9:48pm

Dear Canada, I’m sorry that I didn’t specifically identify myself as an atheist each and every time I made a donation to a charity.

#4 Pau (Guest) on Saturday May 08, 2010 at 3:49am

If most of the money given by churchgoers goes
to the missionary zeal of interfering with other people’s life’s, I refuse to call that “caring”.
I call it proselytizing.


#5 Snowberry (Guest) on Saturday May 08, 2010 at 9:07am

So, the donations I made to the Salvation Army kettle and World Vision, probably got lumped into the ‘religious donations’ category. I don’t recall being asked my religious affiliations any time I’ve sponsored a friend running for Cancer, or when I put money into the buckets in the mall for the Children’s hospital.  No one asks if I am an atheist when I give some change to the homeless guy outside the grocery store.

I am quite annoyed that this magazine that I subscribe to would insinuate that I care less!

#6 Michael Labeit (Guest) on Monday May 10, 2010 at 8:46pm

Why is charity moral to begin with? I’ve noticed its often the case that atheists and religionists compete to see which side can be more altruistic. This assumes however that altruism is moral conduct. How so?

#7 Kevin Saldanha on Tuesday May 11, 2010 at 8:56am

Michael, humans evolved to be altruistic within their tribe but not between tribes.  That is now part of the normal human psyche but is being challenged by the fact that we no longer live in tribes of 150-200 people but in huge communities.  Religion attempts to codify that virtue of charity as a moral precept to encourage it’s practice, which is a good thing in today’s world.

#8 and (Guest) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 at 9:17am

Michael, I agree with your view of the evolution of the brain. We started with a reptilian brain and
evolved to our present condition. The reptilian brain
is dominated by the territorial imperative, but
evolution of higher vertebrates involved a limbic brain which makes us care for others, starting with the off springs an on to the group. The care for others is not solely an innate moral precept; I don’t need religion to understand it. But I do need my cortex to teach me that for modern survival I must
limit my territorial imperative and extend my
empathy beyond our primitive hunting grounds.
Religion comes nowhere into the equation.

#9 Michael Labeit (Guest) on Tuesday May 11, 2010 at 2:41pm

I’m waiting for someone to offer an argument with concludes with the following proposition: “Ergo, altruistic acts are moral acts.” Indeed, I think the opposite is the case. Economics amply demonstrates that self-interested, egoistic action is mutually beneficial. Societies thrive when economic freedom and competition are allowed to exist.

#10 Pau (Guest) on Wednesday May 12, 2010 at 2:25am

Michael, economics is a discipline that deals with money, not human behaviour nor happiness. Self interested, egoistic acts, deprived of either moral or legal standards,also lead to the economic mess into which we are today immersed.
Altruism is the SACRIFICE of oneself for the sake of others. It has little if anything to do with morals, which are the commonly accepted norms of behaviour of a society and which eventually are reflected in law.
What is your concept of a society thriving? Is it like the Roman world in which the few Romans, enslaved the known world and beyond in order to their armies and entertain the citizenry? Or perhaps the British Empire?. They certainly thrived and flourished.

#11 Michael Labeit (Guest) on Thursday May 13, 2010 at 12:59am


Economics is the study of the logical implications of the fact that humans choose ends and attempt to fulfill those ends with means. It certainly does not merely deal with money. Money, detached from human behaviour?

Ethics is the study of which ends and means humans ought to choose. Altruism and egoism have everything to do with ethics. The three central questions of ethics are:

-What ends should one pursue?
-What means should one employ?
-Who should be the beneficiary of one’s action?

Altruism and egoism provide different answers to the last question.

#12 Pau (Guest) on Thursday May 13, 2010 at 1:25am

Michael, I apologize for my simple definition of economics. I agree fully with you that economics without human behaviour looses its meaning. Using the term “money”, was a simplistic way of referring
to anything of value for our ends and tradeable..

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