Tithing: all talk, fractional action?

Often, churchgoers who think of themselves as generous givers are — well, wrong.


At least, their self-image doesn’t match the actual dollars they give.

In a national study, sociologists at the University of Notre Dame found that about a quarter of respondents said they tithed — that is, they gave at least 10 percent of their income to charity.

In fact, when their actual donations were compared to their income, only 3 percent of those donors gave away more than 5 percent of their income. The rest somehow thought they had given much more than they actually did.


The Notre Dame sociologists, Christian Smith and Heather Price, are working on the Science of Generosity project, part of a $5 million initiative funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The study involved a survey of more than 2,000 adults in 2010.


Smith and Price presented their findings at a recent meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. According to a recap by the Association of Religion Data Archives, the survey showed that 10 percent of those who say they gave at least 10 percent of their income each year actually gave less than $200, according to their own financial records.


The findings also showed the respondents most likely to overreport were those who said faith was very important to them and who attend religious services more than weekly.


A 2010 paper by another pair of Notre Dame researchers, Brandon Vaidyanathan and Patricia Snell, found that “American Christians, by virtue of their relative wealth, are in a financial position to give quite generously. Christian traditions teach their members to give generously, and nearly all American Christians profess a desire to do so.”


However, the authors write, “American Christians still give less than 2 percent of their income to charity. … ” Their paper was published in 2011 in the journal Sociology of Religion.


That report cited earlier studies that showed about 20 percent of American Christians give no money to charity at all, while the top 5 percent of givers provide about 60 percent of all donations.

Vaidyanathan and Snell analyzed the results of the Northern Indiana Congregation Study, which collected data from 2007 to 2009. Among their findings regarding higher-level givers:

  • Many of those who gave had been taught by their parents to do so — both by the example their parents set and by what their parents said.

  • Some had theological reasons for giving — including the sense, as the authors put it, that “everything belongs to God — including one’s material possessions.”

  • Some felt a duty to uphold the tradition of tithing.

  • Some gave in response to the needs of the world.

  • And some gave from guilt — feeling they were supposed to give.


Interviews with those who gave at lower levels offered another set of reasons.

  • Some gave only as much as they felt they could afford to at a particular time. Vaidyanathan and Snell describe the idea of “wealth insecurity” — that even if one has assets, the money might somehow in the future be diminished. People tended to give what they felt “comfortable” giving — not what they felt they should.

  • Some had what the authors termed “giving illiteracy” — they did not understand how much others tended to give or what constituted generosity. Some seemed confused or vague about how much they actually gave.

  • Some expressed what Smith has described as “comfortable guilt.” They felt they should give more — but did nothing to change their behavior.