Why give to charity? What Muslims and Catholics have in common.



Organized religions have traditionally played a major role in charitable works — Christian and Muslim organizations have long established schools, hospitals and social service organizations. Catholic Charities USA reported that it spent more than $4 billion to serve over 10 million people in 2013 alone.. Social services have similarly been a central focus of Islamist social and political mobilization for decades.

The willingness of religious individuals to contribute to these charitable activities poses a little recognized challenge to conventional social science explanations, however. One of the most influential political science approaches to such contributions highlights the need for monitoring and sanctioning mechanisms in groups in order to elicit the contributions and cooperation of individuals towards a public good.

But our recent article offers evidence that this is not in fact how religious individuals understand why they give. To find out how members of different religious communities think about their charitable giving, we conducted 218 semi-structured interviews in Catholic parishes and Muslim associations in four cities (Paris, Milan, Dublin and Istanbul). For Catholicism, we focused on a parish in each city. For Islam, we chose a cultural association affiliated with the Turkey-based Gülen movement in each city.

Contrary to the expectation that monitoring and sanctioning individuals would be central for compelling “generosity,” Catholic and Muslim interviewees overwhelmingly see their generosity as motivated by their beliefs and the positive emotions they feel­ towards their respective religious communities.

Monitoring and sanctioning by group members play no role for Catholics, and only a small role for Muslims. Among the Catholics we interviewed, there was no mention of social retribution or pressure if they did not give financially or volunteer. Muslims did report facing some peer pressure to donate, in that their annual pledges are publicly announced in the room that the fundraising event is organized. This gives Islam — or at least the Gülen movement — a peer pressure mechanism to elicit donations. However, there is no retribution if members don’t fulfill their promises.

Almost all Catholics and Muslims explained their helping behaviors in terms that indicate a positive orientation, or “positive affect,” for group interaction. Adherents of the two religions did not offer identical explanations, however. Catholics and Muslims articulate similar community-related, but different faith-based motivations in their giving and volunteering. Catholics emphasize the love of others, and Muslims emphasize duty to God.

Many of our Catholic interviewees expressed fondness for the parishes and associations they belong to, and they like working in the groups they are in or have volunteered with before. Similarly, many Muslim respondents mentioned that their engagement with the members of the community was an important factor in creating a giving-friendly environment.

Catholics think of their giving as an expression of God’s love, which leads to a love for one another. In contrast, Muslims often link their giving to the fulfillment of duty to God. Some literature suggests that this divergence might be explained by each religion’s conception of a watchful or a benevolent deity. Our research finds that the dichotomy is inappropriate; the perception, and its impact on behavior, may vary by religion.

Catholics do not perceive a retributive God overseeing the extent of their helpful behavior. They cite following Jesus’ example of loving one’s neighbor. Many interviewees see this love as a source of charity and voluntarism towards others, but they do not see this as the point or goal of such love. Helping others did not fulfill a duty to God — at most, it was an obligation to fellow humans. Some Catholics mentioned family upbringing or schooling as the main reason they are generous and engaged in helping behaviors. Few used the term “tithing,” speaking instead of feeling responsible to their community to help others and provide funds to the parish, not to God.

Muslims, in contrast, voice a strong perception that their generosity towards others was an outcome of their duty to God. To Muslims, the act of giving to please God is greater than its beneficial consequences for the recipient. The belief that it is “for the love of God” that one gives to others is a significant factor in our Muslim interviewees’ understanding of their generosity. For Muslims, God’s love needs to be earned through pleasing God, which requires fulfillment of duties, charitable giving being one of those.

In our study, most Muslim respondents think that when they give, they give from resources that belong to God. They see their money and belongings as God’s deposit on them and giving for the sake of God as one way of fulfilling the responsibility on that deposit. Many Muslim interviewees stated that if they do not give funds, God causes them lose money one way or another because they have not fulfilled their duty to God. To the respondents, God is warning them, with what they perceive to be gentle nudges, about their misbehaviors. Muslims did not mention zakat(alms-giving) in the context of generosity. Zakat is an obligation to God, generosity is that which surpasses it, even as Muslims noted that they were giving for the sake of God, not for the specific purpose of helping others.

Our work shows that individual-level beliefs and positive feelings stemming from community involvement have a strong role in eliciting charitable giving; monitoring and sanctioning structures may not always be necessary. This finding invites scholars and policy makers to pay more attention to religious beliefs and communities in generating resources for social welfare; that said, religious communities would struggle to replace state-funded social programs.

Ramazan Kılınç is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Carolyn M. Warner is a professor of political science at Arizona State University.

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