Foundation urges charitable giving among nonreligious

Associated Press Modified: March 3, 2010 at 4:09 pm •  Published: March 3, 2010

(RNS) A new foundation in Georgia is urging atheists and secularists to donate more to charity in order to show that their generosity equals that of churchgoers — even if their checkbooks haven't shown it thus far.

''The nonreligious are generous and compassionate, but our giving lags behind the religious," said Dale McGowan, executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief. "It's time for those of us who are otherwise engaged on Sunday mornings to have our own easy and regular means of giving."

The recently formed foundation seeks to "focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists" and also provide "a comprehensive education and support program" for nonbelieving parents, according to its Web site.

The foundation has good reason to be concerned — a 2000 survey by the charitable giving group Independent Sector showed that 87.5 percent of all charitable contributions come from religious donors.

That doesn't mean atheists aren't giving; it just means believers give more, most often to their religious congregations. In 2007, Americans gave a total of $129 billion, and nearly two-thirds of that went to some kind of religious organization, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey.

Chicago-based Cygnus Applied Research surveyed more than 17,000 U.S. charitable donors, and found that in 2008, religious donors gave an average of 16 percent more than other donors.

That's because religious institutions — almost more than any other — teach altruism as a central tenet, said Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb, a research firm in Champaign, Ill. that tracks church giving.

McGowan, a self-described secular humanist, said the nonreligious don't lack the desire to give, just the opportunity.

''Churchgoers are passed the plate and asked to donate 52 times a year while their neighbors watch," McGowan said. "But atheists don't really congregate, so we're not nudging each other in public to give to charity week after week. We don't have systematic opportunities for generosity."