Dear Mr. Cohen: no, not really

Sweden, the most secular country in the world, gives the highest proportion of its gross domestic product in aid. Of the top 10 aid donors, only the United States is a strongly religious country.

Well, yeah, but no, but yeah but.

As to Sweden being the most secular country in the world:

At the end of 2008, 72.9%[2] of Swedes belonged to the Church of Sweden


The majority of Americans (76%) identify themselves as Christians, mostly within Protestant and Catholic denominations, accounting for 51% and 25% of the population respectively.[3] Non-Christian religions (including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism), collectively make up about 4% to 5% of the adult population.

The numbers aren\’t wildly different, are they? Especially if we remember that the Swedish number is only the registered members of one church alone.

But of course this is playing games with numbers and definitions: no one but the entirely insane would try to claim that Sweden was as religious, or even anywhere close to being as religious, as the United States.

But similarly, no one but the entirely insane would try to insist that Overseas Development Aid as a portion of gross domestic product is the definition of what a society gives.

For what it is is purely what the government gives, officially, in the name of that society. It does not include any private charitable giving at all (for example, all those chuggers for Action Aid, War on Want, Cafod, Oxfam, do not count against the UK ODA numbers).

If you add private US giving to American ODA you get a rather different number, just as one example. as I recall it (the essay is now lost in the mists of the internet) you can quite easily construct a figure showing US overseas aid to be over 1% of GDP. And Swedish to be almost nothing other than ODA.

Or we could look to other reports:

considerable international variation in charitable giving as a
proportion (%) of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with the amount
individuals give to charity varying from 0.14% of GDP in France to
1.7% in the US, followed by the UK at 0.73%*
? giving tends to represent a lower proportion of GDP in countries
with higher levels of personal taxation, particularly social
insurance; if social insurance payments were to rise in the future
because of the needs of an ageing population, this could represent
a threat to voluntary income

Not really a surprise….and we do see that in the Swedish figures. Using a slightly different measure (including volunteering etc) from the World Giving Index we find that the US is 5th (yes, this is adjusted for the size of a country) and Sweden 45th.

So what we\’re really seeing is that a high tax secular country has a political system which prioritises official overseas development aid and that same country having a rather low total charitable impulse.

We also have a less secular, a more religious, society with much greater chartiable giving and activity, even if less ODA proportionately.

So Nick Cohen\’s main point, that the irreligious are nicer more charitable people doesn\’t really seem to stand.

12 thoughts on “Dear Mr. Cohen: no, not really”

  1. If it could be quantified accurately, I’d guess that the 3% (or whatever it is) compulsory charitable taxation of muslims’ salaries would dwarf most countries’ figures.

  2. Sweden has a similar situation to Germany. You have to opt OUT, of membership of whatever religion you are registered with, often by default, at birth.

    Which involves buggering around with a court and having to pay. So most people dont bother to “leave” the church.

    Therefore the “official” numbers are skewed.

  3. From your link

    The reason for the large number of inactive members is partly that until 1996, children became members automatically at birth if at least one of their parents was a member

    a membership stat that includes most of the population by default isn’t one worth relying on. Roughly similar numbers in England say they’re Anglican if asked. roughly 50% of those say they don’t believe in God.

    I know that Anglicans have a reputation for that sort of thing, but rejecting a central tenet and not attending Church is indicative n’est ce pas?

    (I’m defending Nick Cohen. I’ll go shoot myself now)

  4. Not true: to leave the church (in Sweden), there is nothing to pay, and no need to go to court. :

    “Att gå ur Svenska Kyrkan är enkelt. Det räcker att skriva ett brev till din församling och begära utträde.”


    It is simple to resign from the Church of Sweden. It is enough to write a letter to your parish and announce resignation.

  5. How much of US private charitable giving goes to millionaire fundamentalist preachers? Or to a first-world developed country that I need not name?

  6. in both germany and sweden you pay extra income tax as a member of a church. so there’s considerable incentive to opt out. i don’t think i’d want to argue from that that the numbers represent very religious people, but it’s not just people who are inert and default into the statistics without a reason to change.

  7. Hmm yes, except the difference is that the governments will tend to give money with the explicit aim of reducing poverty (whether their projects work or not is another question) while private philanthropy will tend to see a lot of cash spent on, you know, art galleries, opera seats and all that. So adding the private and public giving is pretty meaningless.

  8. Nick, nope, they give money to give the impression that they’re being generous and to reward friends and electorates at home. Actual poverty reduction don’t, as the saying goes, enter into it.

  9. “So Nick Cohen’s main point, that the irreligious are nicer more charitable people doesn’t really seem to stand.”

    It does. From a statist viewpoint. Charity to them is not private individuals voluntarily giving what they can afford to causes they support but the redirecting of tax revenues through a sea of NGOs and fake charities.

    ‘Charitable people’ = The State.

  10. I dunno about the numbers belonging to the Church of Sweden or whatever, but here’s an interesting fact, especially since we are talkiing about state expenditure rather than private giving:

    In Sweden the Church of Sweden is the official church of the country and recieves taxpayer dosh from the Treasury. In America the constitution forbids the creation of a state religion or church and no money goes from the Treasury Department to churches.

    Does this not make Sweden a more religious state than the US?

  11. “The single biggest predictor of someone’s altruism, Willett says, is religion.”

    That’s in the USA, where conservatives, especially religious ones, give far more time and money to charity than do democrats. If you’ll excuse a link to my blog, see here

  12. Well I’m an atheist and about $1 in 20 that I earnt last year went to charitable causes (of my own choosing.)

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