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:


Missouri’s ‘freedom of religion’ fail

Jerry Coyne has the story on his website:

On Tuesday, by a 5-1 margin, voters approved a “right to pray” amendment to the state Constitution that guarantees what the residents already have, but adds a couple of nefarious provisions

The amendment contains these words:

That all men and women have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; that no human authority can control or interfere with the rights of conscience; that no person shall, on account of his or her religious persuasion or belief, be rendered ineligible to any public office or trust or profit in this state, be disqualified from testifying or serving as a juror, or be molested in his or her person or estate; that to secure a citizen’s right to acknowledge Almighty God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, neither the state nor any of its political subdivisions shall establish any official religion, nor shall a citizen’s right to pray or express his or her religious beliefs be infringed

So far this all sounds fine. This is classic freedom of religion. Except that the amendment is completely unnecessary as people already have all these rights.

Here’s where is starts getting problematic

that the state shall not coerce any person to participate in any prayer or other religious activity, but shall ensure that any person shall have the right to pray individually or corporately in a private or public setting so long as such prayer does not result in disturbance of the peace or disruption of a public meeting or assembly; that citizens as well as elected officials and employees of the state of Missouri and its political subdivisions shall have the right to pray on government premises and public property so long as such prayers abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances; that the General Assembly and the governing bodies of political subdivisions may extend to ministers, clergypersons, and other individuals the privilege to offer invocations or other prayers at meetings or sessions of the General Assembly or governing bodies;

The above section has the potential to restrict, rather than enhance, freedom of religion as it provides a way for specific religious sects to use government property as a venue for promoting their views.

But here’s the worst part:

that students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work; that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs

The most obvious interpretation of this is that students can be encouraged by family members or religious groups to opt out of any education in evolution. It could also affect sex education, any classes in which any progressive values are discussed (e.g, gay rights, civil rights, and feminism). In other words, the religious right are using “freedom of religion” as a cover for trying to fiddle with the secular world. It is not making a huge leap to predict years of lawsuits resulting from this amendent.

Also, as Jerry Coyne notes in closing:

If this isn’t challenged in the courts, expect a spate of similar legislation in benighted states, and a new crop of kids who will emerge from school ignorant of their origins and those of every other species. Equating refusal to learn important scientific truths with religious freedom is a devilishly clever strategy, but won’t fly—unless it goes to the hyperconservative U.S. Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on issues like this.

On dislike and distrust of atheists

As many people reported back in 2006, atheists are perceived in rather a bad light by many Americans. According to a survey conducted by Penny Edgell and colleagues at the University of Minnesota

Atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic in both public and private life, and the gap between acceptance of atheists and acceptance of other racial and religious minorities is large and persistent. It is striking that the rejection of atheists is so much more common than rejection of other stigmatized groups. For example, while rejection of Muslims may have spiked in post-9/11 America, rejection of atheists was higher. The possibility of same-sex marriage has widely been seen as a threat to a biblical definition of marriage, as Massachusetts, Hawaii, and California have tested the idea, and the debate over the ordination of openly gay clergy has become a central point of controversy within many churches. In our survey, however, concerns about atheists were stronger than concerns about homosexuals.

Edgell and colleagues conducted a telephone survey of 2081 American households over the summer of 2003. First, participants were given a list of racial, ethnic, and religious groups, and asked whether “people in this group agree with YOUR vision of American society—almost completely, mostly, somewhat, or not at all?” Second, respondents were asked “Suppose your son or daughter wanted to marry [a person in given category]. Would you approve of this choice, disapprove of it, or wouldn’t it make any difference at all one way or the other?” For the first question, respondents were asked about recent immigrants and homosexuals, in addition to groups such as Conservative Christians, White Americans, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists.

Only 2.2% of respondents answered “not at all” when asked whether White Americans agreed with their vision of America; White Americans can thus be seen as the least “problematic” group. At the other end of the scale are Homosexuals (22.6%), Muslims (26.3%), and Atheists (39.6%). Turning to the second question, respondents said they would most disapprove of the children marrying African Americans (27.2%), Muslims (33.5%), and Atheists (47.6%).

From these results, it would certainly seem that a lot of people don’t care too much for atheists. Two immediate questions arise. First, what is the basis of this dislike? Is it fear? Distrust? Moral outrage? Second, is this rejection of atheism still the case? The data discussed above were collected in 2003. Not really a long time ago, but before the current conception of ‘New Atheism’ became an object of discussion in the mass media. Before Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Before Harris’ The End of Faith. Before Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and Dennett’s Breaking The Spell

Both questions are addressed in a more recent paper from Will Gervais, Azim Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan. Their conclusion is that:

Atheists are among the least liked groups of people in many parts of the world, and the present studies help to explain why. The present six studies converged on the conclusion that distrust is at the core of this particularly powerful, peculiar, and prevalent form of prejudice.

In the first of their six studies, Gervais et al set out to replicate Edgell et al.’s finding that atheists are liked less than homosexuals. Three hundred and fifty-one participants were asked to rank atheists, gay men, and people in general on three scales of 0 to 100: general feeling toward each group, trustworthiness of each group, and disgust towards each group. The results show that atheists were viewed less favorably than the other groups, that atheists were viewed with more distrust than gay men, but that gay men were viewed with more disgust than atheists. These findings indicate that anti-gay prejudice results from disgust, whereas anti-atheist prejudice is rooted in distrust.

The authors then conducted several further studies aimed at examining distrust further. To this end, they modified a classic psychological task, first made famous by Tversky and Kahnemann (1983). In the original version of the task, participants were presented with the following problem:

Linda is 31, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy in college. As a student, she was deeply concerned with discrimination and other social issues, and participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which statement is more likely?

a. Linda is a bank teller.

b. Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.

Tversky and Kahneman found that 85% of participants answered ‘b’. This response is a conjunction fallacy; it is fallacious because the likelihood of both A and B occurring is always less than the likelihood of either A or B alone. If “A and B” is true, then both A and B have to be true, which is less likely than only A being true or only B being true. To illustrate why this is the case, consider another example:

Which statement is more likely?
a. You will be hit by lighning
b. You will be hit by lightning and you will win the lottery

Clearly both being hit by lightning and winning the lottery are unlikely, but it should also be clear that any one of these two events is more likely than both. So why do people answer that Linda is more likely to be both a bank teller and a femininst? According to Tversky and Kahneman, it is because people tend not to reason using pure logic. Instead we rely on heuristics to guide our decisions. In this case, participants used the representativeness heuristic to guide their judgments. The description of Linda is more representative of a feminist than it was of a bank teller, so people pick the answer that includes the word feminist, ignoring the fact that the conjunction of feminist and bank teller is less likely than either one of these attributes alone.

Gervais et al. modified this task so as to compare the extent to which participants made the conjunction fallacy with different target groups, including atheists. Participants were given the following description:

Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.

Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can.

Participants were then asked if it is more likely that Richard is
a. A teacher
b. A teacher and a [Christian/Muslim/rapist/atheist]

Participants were placed in four groups. Each group saw of one of the four alternatives presented in answer ‘b’. The point of this task is that Richard is presented as someone who is untrustworthy. As a result, participants should make the conjunction fallacy if they consider the target group presented in answer ‘b’ to be untrustworthy. Given that the prejudice against atheists seems to be driven by distrust, people should be more likely to make the conjunction fallacy when answer ‘b’ is “teacher and atheist” than for, say, “teacher and Christian”. Gervais et al found that participants were significantly more likely to make the conjunction fallacy for ‘atheist’ than ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’. Also – and very alarmingly – there was no significant difference in the frequency of conjunction errors between ‘atheist’ and ‘rapist’!

I am going to skip over studies 3-5. Suffice it to say, they all paint a picture of the perception of atheists as untrustworthy. Furthermore, Gervais et al. found that belief in God was associated with higher levels of atheist distrust. In study 6, participants were given the task of choosing between two (fictional) job candidates for two different jobs: waitress and daycare worker. You can probably guess that one of the candidates was presented as religious and one as an atheist. You may also guess that participants preferred the religious candidate for the daycare position, as this job requires someone who is trustworthy. The authors also found that participants with a strong belief in God were less likely to hire the atheist candidate for the high-trust position than participants who did not have a strong belief in God.

Edgell, P., Gerteis. J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists As “other”: Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society American Sociological Review, 71 (2), 211-234 DOI: 10.1177/000312240607100203

Gervais, W. M., Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101 (6), 1189-206 PMID: 22059841

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1983). Extension versus intuitive reasoning:
The conjunction fallacy in probability judgment. Psychological Review (90), 293-315 : 10.1037/0033-295X.90.4.293

Creationist schools to open in the UK (?)

According to an article in the Guardian, three free schools run by groups endorsing creationism are due to open in the UK in the next year. For those outside the UK, free schools are similar to charter schools:

“Free schools are non-profit making, independent, state-funded schools. There is not a ’one-size-fits-all’ approach. They are not defined by size or location: there is not a single type of Free School or a single reason for setting them up. Free Schools could be primary or secondary schools. They could be located in traditional school buildings or appropriate community spaces such as office buildings or church halls. They could be set up by a wide range of proposers – including charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, visionary teachers or committed parents – who want to make a difference to the educational landscape. They might be needed because there simply are not enough school places in a local area and children have to travel too far to the nearest school.”

Note that although free schools are funded by the state, they are not required to follow the national curriculum. This has been taken by some religious groups as an opportunity to sneak anti-science views into children’s education. Another issue is that teachers working in free schools do not need to have qualifications in teaching.

Thirty-three of the 102 free schools that will open next year describe themselves as faith-based. The Guardian piece discusses three of these schools:

“Grindon Hall Christian school in Sunderland, a private school due to reopen in September with state funding, says on its website that it will present creationism as science and affirm the position that Christians believe God’s creation of the world is “not just a theory but a fact”.”

Teaching creationism in science classes is illegal in the UK, and other free schools have been turned down on these grounds, so how did Grindon Hall get away with it? Later in the article we are told:

Grindon Hall says it teaches evolution as “an established scientific principle, as far as it goes”. However, the school’s policy document adds: “We believe no scientific theory provides – or ever will provide – a satisfactory explanation of origins, ie why the world appeared, and how nothing became something in the first place.”

The school’s principal says this document is obsolete and the school would not teach creationism in science. “…That document is from a time when we were not as clear as we are now about the proper distinction as to what is taught in a science lesson and what might be taught in assembly – two different spheres.

“If children question for themselves their origins, that’s what we want them to do – to ask sensible, responsible questions. Am I here by accident, or – dare I use the word – design?”

So they are not planning to teach “creation science”, but it seems reasonable to assume that children will be taught creationist doctrine elsewhere, and not just in RE classes. The original policy document has been removed from the Grindon Hall website, but has been archived by the British Humanist Association

What about the other two schools?

The Sevenoaks Christian school, due to open next year, says on its website: “The government has said that free schools cannot teach ‘creationism’ or ‘intelligent design’ in science lessons as an alternative to the theory of evolution and we are content to accept this.”

A third free school approved by the government to open next year, the Exemplar-Newark Business academy, is a fresh proposal from a group whose previous application was turned down because of concerns over its teaching of creationism. Backers of the school in Nottinghamshire say creationism will be taught only in religious studies.

So it would appear that the Guardian’s claims are somewhat overblown. None of the schools now claim that they will present creationism as science – they know that they will not be permitted to so so. However, it is fairly clear that, given the choice, they would teach creationism in the science classroom. There is some debate over whether any of these schools really endorse creationism proper, or whether they subscribe to the more general Christian belief that god created the world, but not in the manner described in the Book of Genesis. Regardless, there are many serious problems with faith schools:

Many faith schools are their own admissions authorities, which means they can give preference to children from families which share the religion of the school. Not only does this discriminate against pupils of the ‘wrong’ or no religion and infringe their rights by assuming their beliefs are identical to their parents’, it also leads to segregation along religious and socio-economic lines – faith school populations are often far from representative of their local communities.

Most secondary faith schools are also allowed to discriminate in their recruitment and employment policies. Applicants can be rejected and staff barred from promotion if they are not of the ‘right’ religion, or of no religion. In some schools staff can even be dismissed if their behavior outside school is deemed ‘incompatible’ with the school’s religion.

Most secondary faith schools are permitted to teach their own syllabus of Religious Education (RE), unlike community schools which must follow a locally agreed syllabus. The teaching of RE in these schools is not subject to Ofsted inspection and is often confessional in nature, with the aim of instructing children in the doctrine and practices of a particular religion.

RE in such schools rarely covers other religions in any detail and almost certainly will not include non-religious views. Ethical issues such as abortion or assisted dying are often approached from an explicitly religious perspective, with all the potential for misinformation that this entails.

Because personal social health and economic education (PSHE) is not a statutory subject, faith schools are free to teach it from a religious perspective. The BHA is particularly concerned that the sex and relationships components – if they are covered at all – may be taught in ways that are homophobic, gender discriminatory or that otherwise violate principles of human rights.

Hat tip to Ed Stupple for suggesting I write about this story.

The Giant’s Causeway and the Nature of Scientific Thinking

The Giant’s Causeway is a spectacular natural formation of some 40,000 basalt columns on the north coast of Ireland. The site managed by the National trust who have been receiving a lot of criticism for the inclusion of a young earth creationist interpretation of the formation at the new visitor centre.

The interactive exhibition in question includes an audio package re-enacting debates between historic figures, who argued over the origins of the Causeway, as well as their contrasting biblical and scientific beliefs on the origins of the planet.

The exchanges end with a further clip stating: “This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.

“Young earth creationists believe that the earth was created some 6,000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

“Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

“Young earth creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant’s Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it.”

Northern Ireland evangelical umbrella group, the Caleb Foundation, welcomed the inclusion.

In a statement, the Foundation’s chairman, Wallace Thompson, said: “As an umbrella organisation which represents the interests of mainstream evangelical christians in Northern Ireland, we have worked closely with the National Trust over many months with a view to ensuring that the new Causeway visitor centre includes an acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this.

Young Earth Creationism is rooted in the idea that the world was created in 4004 BC, a figure derived in the 17th century by James Ussher. In reality, the Giant’s Causeway was formed around 50-60 million years ago.

There is a link to a phone interview with Richard Dawkins on Jerry Coyne’s website. A shorter version can be found on Eric MacDonald’s blog. In this clip, a caller gives a list of “creationist scientists” in response to Dawkins’ claim that no reputable scientists believe in a young earth. Eric MacDonald gives some details on these scientists. Eric notes:

The whole thing is quite bizarre. Here are highly trained and accredited scientists who are actually betraying science in order to uphold the biblical story of creation. And they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes: young earth creationists, young fossil creationists, old earth creationists, Floodists, etc., bringing their expertise to bear on something completely unscientific, so that people like Mrs. White, who thinks of herself as an intelligent, thoughtful person, can claim to be using the latest scientific knowledge to underwrite her biblical beliefs.

The adducing of a list of scientists who endorse a claim to support that claim, rather than using appropriate evidence, is a classic creationist tactic. If was this approach that led to NCSE‘s satirical Project Steve (of which I am a proud signatory!)

Although there is some legitimacy to the claim that the people listed by the caller are scientists, it is not the case that they are using scientific methods and knowledge when considering issues that are in conflict with biblical literalism. Scientific thinking is a process, not an inherent characteristic of an individual who has received a doctorate. In a forthcoming chapter, Corinne Zimmerman and I describe scientific thinking as

“an umbrella term that encompasses the reasoning and problem-solving skills involved in generating, testing and revising hypotheses or theories, and in the case of fully developed skills, reflecting on the process of knowledge acquisition and change”.

Anybody can think scientifically about an issue, regardless of profession or educational achievement; conversely, just because someone has a PhD, it does not necessarily follow that they will apply scientific principles and knowledge in every aspect of their life. In fact such people are likely to be extremely rare. In part because we do not all have the requisite knowledge in every domain and in part because thinking scientifically can be effortful, which leads to a trade-off: in many everyday situations we do not need to expand the cognitive effort necessary to reach a conclusion using scientific methods.

However, I would argue that the “scientists” who expound creationism (along with its offspring, Intelligent Design) are going further than simply failing to apply scientific knowledge and methods to bear. They are deliberately ignoring all the evidence from multiple disciplines which points to the true age of the earth. PZ Myers offers a cute analogy:

A carpenter is a person who practices a highly skilled trade, carpentry, to create new and useful and lovely things out of wood. It is a non-trivial occupation, there’s both art and technology involved, and it’s a productive talent that contributes to people’s well-being. It makes the world a better place. And it involves wood.

A pyromaniac is a person with a destructive mental illness, in which they obsess over setting things on fire. Most pyromaniacs have no skill with carpentry, but some do; many of them have their own sets of skills outside of the focus of their illness. Pyromania is destructive and dangerous, contributes nothing to people’s well-being, and makes the world a worse place. And yes, it involves wood, which is a wonderful substance for burning.

Calling a creationist a scientist is as offensive as praising a pyromaniac for their skill at carpentry, when all they’ve shown is a talent for destroying things, and typically have a complete absence of any knowledge of wood-working. Producing charcoal and ash is not comparable to building a house or crafting furniture or, for that matter, creating anything.

You can’t call any creationist a scientist, because what they’re actively promoting is a destructive act of tearing down every beautiful scrap of knowledge the real scientists have acquired.