What is the role of religion in philanthropic giving?

Source: churchandstate.org.uk
Source: churchandstate.org.uk

A report I read recently claimed that British Muslims are more generous than all other faith communities in the U.K. The report said: “Followers of Islam gave an average of $567 compared to Jewish givers who donated around $412, according to the survey of just over 4,000 people in the U.K. Christians gave considerably less. Protestants donated an average of $308, while Roman Catholics gave around $272, the poll found. Atheists averaged just $177.” It is available here and makes some interesting observations and points to data that is compelling. While the findings are interesting and definitely worth debating, I think the question is somewhat misplaced, and a better framework to use to analyze this is through looking at the role of religious discernment in giving and what motivations people have, to give. It may be worthwhile to focus on whether there is a greater religious consciousness among Muslims about giving and whether they are they better informed, or is this because Zakat is mandated in the religion and people are “Returning to religion,” as Jonathan Benthall famously argued.

Paul Schervish, in his essay Religious Discernment of Philanthropic Decisions[i] has pointed out, the following two questions have become important for our generation, to consider:

  1. How can wealth become  a tool to achieve the deeper purposes of life, including charitable giving, when acquiring more wealth or augmenting one’s standard of living have ceased to be of high importance?
  2. How can religious discernment help individuals choose and carry out those deeper purposes for the use of their resources?

While I am not contesting the results of this finding, and actually feel good about these results, my thesis is that the questions being asked and those being investigated do not capture the complexity of the phenomenon of giving and while useful as a Public Relations exercise, do not illuminate the complexity of giving within the Muslim community, nor the religious motivations that go into making those charitable donations.

The bigger question for me, as a researcher is also methodological, to the extent that whether this captures the trends in society, overall and to what extent is this representative of the population, as a whole. As any statistician will tell you, statistics hide more than what they reveal. Here are some problems that I have with purely data-driven, survey based studies.

  1. While the report points out that: “ In total 4,036 people answered the question: “How much, if at all, would you say you generally donated to charities last year?” it does not point to more nuanced ways of looking at what they donated to, why and with what intention in mind? These are all very important questions, as they are at the core of trying to understanding philanthropic motivations and the intended results that philanthropy is expected to have. The “moral biography,” of giving, as Schervish points out is as critical to understanding giving behavior as is the dollar amount. I would argue that this is more significant, in terms of understanding how the wealthy conceptualize their role in their societies.

As he further points out: “Thus far I have used the term moral biography to refer to how individuals implement their unique combination of capacities and purposes. My use follows that of Emilie Durkheim, for whom it means a normative orientation or direction by a full range of formal and informal mores – the horizon of laws, customs and conscience that direct daily practice. What Durkheim does not recognize is the reality of genuine spiritual or religious life in the way today’s believers would understand that reality.” (pp.129)

  1. Who is a Muslim? – This seems like a simple question, but is not. While in many Arab and Asian societies, the question of who is a Muslim is determined by the state or the community, in the West, anyone who is self-declared to be a Muslim is one. This includes even those sects such as Nation of Islam or others, who are not considered ‘mainstream’ by other Muslims, and do not generally have many associations or interactions with the greater Muslim population.
  1. What about anonymous giving? – This is the third problem with data driven giving, and one that does not look at the motivations or other aspects of giving. Looking at the largest data of Million dollar gifts given, on the Million Dollar List, you can see several ‘anonymous donors.’ This, in my opinion is a common occurrence, not only in high networth giving but also giving among common people.
  2. How do we capture Muslims giving to secular causes? – This is an aspect of the issue that is not discussed often. One can argue that Muslims give a good amount of money to secular causes and there are many non-Muslims who give to Muslim causes. Surveys such as these do not do a very thorough job of capturing this data, which is key to telling the story of Muslim Philanthropy.

Paul Schervish, points out that religious discernment and the positive cultural context are important, as people may become more charitable, in the future. In the case of Muslims, around the world, one can argue that perhaps they are becoming more charitable, given that there are more avenues to give – with online platforms, newer NGOs’ starting operations, greater awareness of both national and international crises and situations where humanitarian relief is required. Schervish argues that this discernment is occurring among the newly wealthy, either through conversations with their pastors, spouses or financial consultants. He further pushes the boundaries of what is “religious,” by including any activity that is well thought out and conducted with reflection. This, he occurs when people are attuned to a philosophy of giving and care.

In conclusion, while I do not disagree that Muslims are the among the most generous faith based group in the U.K. and also, arguably in other western societies; the data that is gathered needs to be examined in context of the discussion above.


[i] Schervish Paul. Religious Discernment of Philanthropic Decisions. Indiana Uni Press. 2010

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