Media release: Religionists give to their own, shows new volume in ‘Religiosity in Australia’ series

Si Gladman / 10 June 2023

Religious people engage in higher levels of volunteerism and charitable donations than the non-religious but say it is more for their personal benefit and that of their congregations rather than benefiting others, the latest report into religiosity in Australia reveals. 

The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) has today published the new volume in Neil Francis’ landmark Religiosity in Australia research series, with Part 4 – Religion and charity – examining the charitable behaviours of religious and non-religious Australians as individuals.

The report also reveals that religionists feel higher levels of coercion in making donations.

Francis utilises gold-standard Australian university datasets and peer-reviewed scientific literature, and applied his Australian Religious Identity 6-Segment model (ARI6) model, to explore widely held beliefs about religious people being more prosocial in giving to charity.

Among Francis’ key findings:

  • The surplus in volunteering by religionists largely occurs in respect of their own religious congregations rather than support to others in the community.
  • Similarly, the surplus in charitable giving by religionists also occurs largely in respect of their own religious congregations.

He also finds that donors to religion:

  • are less likely than donors to other charitable sectors to think their contribution is to a “good cause” – reporting the equal lowest rating of 20 per cent;
  • are very unlikely to believe their donation will help unknown others or make the world a better place (just 10 per cent);
  • report the second highest rating for personal benefit (50 per cent) from their donations, with this feeling of personal benefit rising with donation size;
  • feel a much higher level of coercion in making donations to their congregation (54 per cent, compared with only 3-12 per cent of donors to other charitable sectors).

In the report, Francis argues the evidence challenges the automatic assumption that ‘advancing religion’ (congregational, not service delivery to others) necessarily entails prosocial charitable purpose.

“The contention that religious Australians volunteer and donate to charity more than the non-religious is, in headline figures, true. However, the additional levels of volunteering and charitable giving — over and above the non-religious — is directed squarely at their own in-group: their religious congregation,” he wrote.

“Charities enjoy favourable taxation benefits on condition that they have only purposes that are for the public benefit. Thus, charities must avoid causing harm. On these grounds, congregational religion deserves significant scrutiny regarding the automatic privileges currently enjoyed only by Basic Religious Charities.”

According to the charities regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), in 2020/21 nearly a third (31 per cent) of all charities registered religion as a primary charitable purpose – the largest registered charitable purpose by far, ahead of education (19 per cent), social services, health and other purposes at less than 10 per cent each.

Of the $11.2 billion donated to charities in 2016, 29 per cent ($3.2 billion) went to religion (congregation faith). This was much more than any other charitable sector.

In the report, Francis shows that most of that money given to religion – 87 per cent – came from Devout religionists, who represented just 11 per cent of the population in 2019.

In a foreword to the report, author, journalist and columnist Peter FitzSimons AM commended Francis’ “fine academic work” and said it should help inform the public debate over charity issues.

RSA president Dr Meredith Doig said the latest volume in the Religiosity in Australia series is an invaluable and timely resource for decision-makers and policy-makers, who face mounting public calls for reform of the charities sector.

“Through his multi-volume series, Neil Francis has delivered the most comprehensive and insightful work to date on the nature of religious belief and role of institutional religion in the lives of Australians. Religiosity in Australia will, for a long time to come, stand as the go-to resource for people interested in understanding religion in this country,” she said.

Part 1 of the series – Personal faith according to the numbers – reveals the level of support for religion in Australia has for years been significantly misrepresented, and the views of senior religious clerics are out of touch with those they purport to lead.

Part 2 – Religious minds, religious collectives – provides unique insights into Australians’ journey with religious faith from childhood to adulthood. It explores the increase in the numbers of people identifying as ‘spiritual but not religious’ and the decline of trust in religious institutions and their leaders, factors that have driven people to leave institutionalised religion.

Part 3 – Religion and politics – provides a fresh picture of the relationship between religion and how Australians are likely to vote on a range of issues. It reveals that politicians and political parties overestimate the power of religion as a driver of voting behaviour.

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