Centre Article: Does Religious Belief Play a Role in Charitable Giving?

December 20, 2008

Does religious belief have any impact upon charitable giving or volunteerism? The evidence shows that it does. Some passages from an affidavit prepared recently by Professor David Lyon of Queen's University for the Christian Horizons appeal (currently being argued in the Ontario courts) might be of interest to people at this time of year when our thoughts turn to the idea of gifts and giving. With the immortal tale of Charles Dickens in our memories and Ebenezer Scrooge's rhetorical question: "Are there no work houses?" being part of his pre-conversion attitude, our thoughts should be on such things this time of year.

With that in mind, the following material may be of interest well beyond the arguments currently going on in court. Here is what Professor Lyon's affidavit sets out in some of its paragraphs.

The influence of religious commitments on volunteer activities in the community and on charitable giving is also seen from statistical analyses compiled for a report prepared by Dr. Kurt Bowen on Religion, Participation and Charitable Giving. He observes that though representing only 14% of the Canadian population over the age of 15, religiously active volunteers make up 43% of volunteers in Canada and account for a striking 50% of all hours volunteered. The 32% of Canadians who are religiously active contribute 65% of direct charitable donations. This group is responsible for 86% of donations to religious bodies; yet even in the non-religious sector, the religiously active provide 42% of the $2.1 billion raised by direct giving.'1

The report continues by showing that the 20% of respondents who attend weekly services, together with the 12% who attend at least monthly services number a solid 7,334,377 Canadians over the age of 15. These religiously active individuals are already organized into a huge network of local, regional, and national organizations that are able to mobilize their constituencies quickly and effectively. To show how large this network actually is, the Roman Catholic, United, and Baptist denominations have 5,706, 3,909, and 2,435 congregations respectively, while the Pentecostals have 1,441 congregations and Jews have 220.'

Just in case anyone imagines that these statistics show merely that religious believers participate only in their own communities, Dr. Bowen further shows that 79% of religiously active respondents indicate that they generally volunteer outside of their religious domain. Even among weekly attendees at religious services who volunteer (73%), more do so in non-religious agencies than in religious ones (55%). While it is the case that religiously inactive volunteers give on average more hours (132) to non-religious associations than weekly attendees (113), the higher volunteering rate of the religiously active ensures that they are responsible for a higher percentage (40%) of all the hours devoted to non-religious agencies than the larger body of religious inactives (38%)

In times of decreased spending on social services, a process that has been in train since the shift towards neo-liberal economic policies in the 1970s and 1980s, one would expect more attempts by religious people to step into the breach and offer a 'safety net' for those in greatest need.2 The founding of food services and clothing exchanges is often traceable to churches. While some may eventually be taken over by, or operate in conjunction with, broader non-religious bodies, this does not cancel the relevance of the religious impulse that initiated them.

In a multicultural and religiously plural society such as Canada, restricting religious communities to servicing only their own adherents makes no sense, economically, politically, or culturally. The most commonly accepted ideas of multiculturalism assert that religious groups should be encouraged to make their own contribution to society at large. The example of Italian Catholics, who have been in evidence in Canada for 150 years, is telling. They have made numerous contributions to public life, first through serving new Canadian immigrants from Italy, particularly in Montreal and Toronto, and then by widening the scope of their work.3

Canadian citizens often encourage the social good done by charities even if they do not agree with all that they do. For example, Catholic hospitals do not perform abortions but citizens of cities with such hospitals still want and recognize the importance of Catholic hospitals. Equally, citizens are pleased with the efforts of Christian groups to battle poverty through demonstrations or practical alleviation, and often join those movements (such as the vigil protest led by Catholic sisters in Kingston for more than a decade) for the sake of solidarity with them in their work, and not necessarily because they share their religious beliefs.

Religious groups and communities are easily stereotyped in negative ways and treated on the basis of those stereotypes. There is much public anxiety about the 'other' including those identified as 'religious fanatics' (which has since 9/11 often been associated with 'terrorism' and helps to create 'cultures of fear'4). Indeed, as Professor Lori Beaman shows, religious freedom is itself jeopardized in contexts of 'risk and fear'5 and this experience has been increasing in Canada. To quote Dr. Beaman: 'In a cultural climate in which security concerns have pushed a panic button, risk of harm has become an important tool in the abrogation of rights, particularly as religion plays a role in the identification of "risky" groups.'6 That is, religion is seen by some as a factor in the designation of social groups or individuals as 'risky.'

Commenting upon the Christian Horizons decision itself, Professor Lyon states:

A move to reduce religious missions and function to their own adherents such as I understand is at issue in [the Christian Horizons decision]... goes to the core of many religions, particularly Christian understandings of service to the common good or the public or the world. Such a move is in line with what might be called 'intolerant secularism,' a feature of today's cultural environment in Canada that has appeared alongside a 'post-secular turn' in which religious contributions are more, not less, publicly acknowledged. What this indicates is the complexity of such debates, which cannot be reduced to sound bites or binary alternatives.

At a season of "peace and goodwill" or what we hope will be peace and goodwill, it is useful to remind ourselves that the evidence shows that belief does influence action and that, in some of these key measures, those who followed the star or the angel's directions to a manger, continue to find in that story and its imitation, a source of inspiration and a guide to action.


1 Available at



2 See Marguerite Van Die, 'Introduction' to her edited collection, Religion and Public Life in Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

3 See the encyclopedia article at



4 David Lyon, Surveillance after September 11, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003.

5 Lori Beaman, Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008.

6 Ibid page 20.