Are religious/conservative states more charitable?

…or as Hemant Mehta puts it, Are Atheists Being Stingy When It Comes to Charity?

Hemant describes data presented on the website of The Chronicle Of Philanthopy

Donors in Southern states, for instance, give roughly 5.2 percent of their discretionary income to charity—both to religious and to secular groups—compared with donors in the Northeast, who give 4.0 percent.

But the generosity ranking changes when religion is taken out of the picture. People in the Northeast give the most, providing 1.4 percent of their discretionary income to secular charities, compared with those in the South, who give 0.9 percent.

Unfortunately, none of the many other charts and analyses presented on The Chronicle Of Philanthropy website split the data by donations to religious vs secular oranisations. Is this an issue? Yes, because donations to churches are not really charitable contributions. Much of that money goes into church coffers rather than getting spent on good causes.

To be fair, churches can be excellent at charitable work, but this isn’t always the case. According to a report by the Council for Secular Humanism, a surprisingly small proportion of church funds is spent on charitable causes:

For instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormon Church), which regularly trumpets its charitable donations, gave about $1 billion to charitable causes between 1985 and 2008. That may seem like a lot until you divide it by the twenty-three-year time span and realize this church is donating only about 0.7 percent of its annual income. Other religions are more charitable. For instance, the United Methodist Church allocated about 29 percent of its revenues to charitable causes in 2010 (about $62 million of $214 million received). One calculation of the resources expended by 271 U.S. congregations found that, on average, “operating expenses” totaled 71 percent of all the expenditures of religions, much of that going to pay ministers’ salaries. Financial contributions addressing the physical needs of the poor fall within the remaining 29 percent of expenditures. While these numbers may be higher as a percentage of income than typical charitable giving by corporations, they are not hugely higher (depending on the religion) and are substantially lower in absolute terms. Wal-Mart, for instance, gives about $1.75 billion in food aid to charities each year, or twenty-eight times all of the money allotted for charity by the United Methodist Church and almost double what the LDS Church has given in the last twenty-five years.

Hemant also points out that the analysis of charitable donations by state, which makes “red” states look more charitable than “blue” states, is misleading with religious donations included. The chart looks like this:

I thought it would be interesting to see what this would look like without religious donations included. However, after much searching, I cannot find the detailed data necessary to do this. However, we do know that from the images above what proportion of donations are to religious organizations by region. For example, residents of Illinois give an average 4.2% of their discretionary income to charity. By looking at the maps, we can see that although residents of the midwest give an average 4.3%, they only give 0.9% to secular charities. The proportion of donations that go to secular charities in the midwest is therefore 0.21. We can do the same for all the map regions and multiply the percentages given in each state by the proportion given to secular charities for the region, giving us a rough estimate of donations to secular charities by state. Yes, this is hugely kludgey and assumes that religious/secular donation ratios are the same across states in a region, but it’s all I have to go on. The results look like this:

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