There is an old saying, which fits the village atheist right down to the last shirt button: “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” When I see professional would-be point-makers throw out stats and numbers with few if any references, I always remind myself that statistics do not lie, but liars can use statistics. My suspicion rises. Let’s look at some recent claims.
Atheist Sam Harris makes much of the idea that living standards in primarily “atheistic” countries are much more positive than those in “unwaveringly religious” nations. As usual, he does not relay the whole truth. Digging just below the surface of his claims illustrates how biased statistical presentations can be. For example, he cites the United Nations Human Development Report (2005) in order to support his boast that nations in which atheism prevails are safer, healthier, and more prosperous than religious nations. Such a claim hides too many economic assumptions to spell out here at length, but one thing is certain: the nations he lists—Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom—all were built by Christian civilization and have rich Christian tradition infused at their root. Their prosperity today results from living off of the moral and social capital that the Christian faith graced them with long ago.
Actual comparative studies (not politically-self-motivated reports from would-be world governments) have shown just the opposite of what Harris (and the now herd of atheist voices following him) claims.
(This article is an excerpt from the author’s The Return of the Village Atheist, available in our store.)
One such study, done by Sweden’s own Institute of Trade, compared median household income in Sweden with that of the U.S., and found that the Swedes fell far below the American average, and even below the lowest socioeconomic group in America.1 This result even took into account “purchasing power,” that is, the amount of actual goods you can buy in different national markets with an equivalent amount of money. The obvious conclusion? Sam’s “atheism” hardly accounts for prosperity. Honest hard work, productivity, and thrift bring prosperity—and these are classically Christian virtues born out of the Protestant work ethic.
Now, Sam might immediately retort that atheists work hard and can be productive, too. I would not object. But when they do so they are carrying out the dominion mandate found in Genesis 1:28 and Matthew 28:18–20—a mandate that is essential to and inseparable from Christian faith, and which has no necessary or logical tie to atheism. In short, by being industrious and productive, atheists are acting like good Christians. Of course, in most of the nations mentioned—in which greater levels of atheism prevail—the level of atheism has grown side-by-side with increased socialism. The government welfare programs destroy incentives for greater productivity because everyone knows that their checks will be the same whether they out-produce the next guy or not. Then they go to the doctor on someone else’s dollar. Sloth and welfare-theft are taking over, and the borrowed capital will only last so long. At least one mighty Communist nation that once vaunted its image with hard work—hammer and sickle—learned that lesson the hard way.
“Charitable”? “Giving”? Really?
The most laughable part comes when Sam begins arguing about “charitable giving.” He knows he cannot honestly claim that atheists give more to charitable causes than religious folk, so he uses the word “charitable,” but narrows the definition of the word almost into nothingness. He says,
Countries with high levels of atheism are also the most charitable both in terms of the percentage of their wealth they devote to social welfare programs and the percentage they give in aid to the developing world.2
Such a fact might shock the average casual reader until he sniffed out Sam’s fishy “terms.” Then we, together, have a good full belly-laugh. If by “devote” and “give” Sam means “devote through government confiscation, and give by forced taxation,” then he can hardly call it charity. Is this the charity of atheism? “Giving” when you may not want to, an amount you may not want to, and to be spent somehow you may not care for? What a blessed assurance! My, how charitable our atheist is with other people’s money. No, charity is voluntarily given. If it’s tax-generated, it ain’t charitable. Besides, boasting that less religious countries take more in government welfare reveals about as much as pointing out that Christians put more in church offering plates than atheists do. What? Really? Get outta here!
If, however, Sam means “devote” and “give” in the true sense of “charity,” then his claim is so embarrassingly bogus that not even a third-world tax bureau would accept his tax returns. Unfortunately for Sam, he wrote this nonsense in his Letter to a Christian Nation just a few months before the actual science was done on charitable giving. November 2006 saw the release of the definitive in-depth study on the subject of charitable giving: Who Really Cares? by Syracuse professor Arthur Brooks. Results? Across the board, in every category, accounting for every variable, no matter how you slice the pie, the single biggest factor behind charitable giving is . . . religious faith.3 The amount of private charitable giving from American individuals alone (not including foundations, corporations, etc.) could easily finance the entire gross domestic product of Sam’s more “atheistic” nations, Sweden, Norway, or Denmark.4
The results must be alarming for all secularists. The working poor in America give more than the poor on welfare who have the same income. In fact, the working poor give a larger percentage of their income than the middle class. Two-thirds of American private donations go to other than religious activities (in other words, about 70% in places other than church offering plates). Yet, religious people are more likely to donate even to secular causes than non-religious people are. America gives as much to foreign aid as other nations do, the difference is that we do it mostly through private charity and not government aid. We give it freely—not through socialist government compulsion. No European nation comes close to us in freely-given charitable donations.
Dr. Brooks, who conducted the study, explains that “atheistic” Europe continues to criticize the government foreign aid from religious America because they have been socialists for so long, and they have lost all concept of private giving. He writes,
One reason is that giving at the private level is a foreign concept to them. . . . There is so little private charity in Europe that it is difficult to find information on the subject—so irrelevant is it that few researchers have even bothered to investigate it recently.5
Sam and other secularists might like to argue that high taxation for welfare actually works better than private giving, since most people would not think to give on their own without government intervention. This, of course, not only would ignore the facts of the study, but would just further illustrate my point: secularists, even your most loving atheists, are just not known for charitable giving on their own accord.
In the end, the “charitable giving” plea for atheism is a pitiful lie. The scientific evidence from every angle concludes the obvious:
Religious people are far more charitable than non-religious people. In years of research, I have never found a measurable way in which secularists are more charitable than religious people.6
So, far from Sam’s boast, atheism does not appear to lead to a land flowing with milk and honey. Rather, high-crime, higher taxation, lower than the lowest American living standard, and less charitable giving all seem to trail organized unbelief. This is not to mention the history of government murder, but we can talk about that another time.
(Get the rest of the author’s The Return of the Village Atheist here.)
- William Anderson, “Sweden: Poorer Than You Think,” May 9, 2002.(↩)
- Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 46.(↩)
- Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (America’s Charity DivideCWho Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why it Matters) (New York: Basic Books, 2006).(↩)
- Brooks, Who Really Cares, 3.(↩)
- Brooks, Who Really Cares, 120.(↩)
- Brooks, Who Really Cares, 34.(↩)