Carolyn Warner on Religion & Generosity
Date: June 9th, 2013

What motivates religious individuals to give, either of their time or money?  And do such motivations vary across faith traditions?  We look at the issue of generosity among religious communities with Carolyn Warner, professor of political science at Arizona State University, who reviews the findings of several studies she is conducting with co-researchers Adam Cohen, Ramazon Kilinc, and Christopher Hale.  What makes this multi-faceted project so interesting is that, unlike previous studies that tend to focus only on Christian denominations in the U.S., Prof. Warner’s team compares Catholics and Muslims in four cities in Europe — Dublin (Ireland), Paris (France), Milan (Italy), and Istanbul (Turkey).  In each city they survey and conduct some interesting experiments on both Catholic parishes and Muslim organizations.  In other words, not only are the researchers examining Catholics in Ireland, but they make sure to study Muslims in that same city.  Likewise, they find a Catholic population in Istanbul to compare as well.

We start with a discussion on the difference between charity and generosity, a difference that Carolyn and her co-authors find to be very important.  Whereas the former term (charity) indicates a relationship that is vertical — between a “superior” handing down something to an “inferior” — the term generosity tends to be more horizontal in its meaning.  Carolyn then talks about the general sociological issues involved in studying generosity, noting that individual and community giving represent a collective action problem and the acts of generosity can be viewed as either public goods or club goods depending on the target population of the generous acts.  In general, club goods are directed towards members within the religious community (e.g., Catholics helping fellow Catholics in the parish), whereas the public good aspect of generosity refers to giving beyond the boundaries of one’s spiritual community (e.g., Muslims aiding non-Muslims).

We note that religion has always been attributed with generous giving and we review some of the general reasons why scholars believe religion has a positive effect.  Carolyn mentions various aspects that have been explored in the past, including the role that community plays, the institutional setting, ritualistic behavior, heightened sensitivity to the plight of others that religious ideas impart, and theological exhortations to give.  Given the inter-disciplinary composition of Carolyn’s research team, Tony asks how difficult it was for a social psychologist (Adam Cohen) and a political economist (Carolyn) to talk with one another and come to a mutual understanding of what might be at play in the act of generosity.  Following this Carolyn explains the rationale for choosing the various research sites and the groups studied, including why the Gülen movement was chosen as the specific Muslim group to examine.  This portion of the conversation encompasses the (supposedly) relevant differences in organizational structure and theology between Catholics and Muslims.

We then turn to the results of this study, focusing first on the findings from the semi-structured interviews.  Carolyn notes how Catholics tended to frame their generosity in terms of “love of Jesus” and “love of others,” often pulling from Matthew 25:40, whereas Muslims tended to emphasize duty to God, noting that Allah had given individuals gifts and it was thus important to use those gifts to help others.  We also discuss the differences in ritualistic giving behavior and how that motivates generosity within these two groups.  Despite these differences, the research team discovered that both groups emphasize the “sense of community” as a motivational prompt for helping others.  This sense of community is not only the desire to help others, but as with any other social organization, the desire to be with others.  She also addresses whether or not these charitable activities were oriented towards in-group giving (i.e., club goods) or out-group (i.e., public good).  This discussion is more nuanced than one might think with an interesting observation about Catholics in Istanbul and their socio-legal standing.

We finish with a discussion of the experiment that Carolyn’s team carried out.  She describes the methodology and findings of the experiment.  In addition to quirky problems that always arise when conducting social scientific research, the research team was surprised to find out that the Muslim participants did give their fee for participating in an experiment to a specific group, but not a group that they had initially anticipated.  And if you are listening closely during this part of the interview you can hear Rocky J. Barkington, the official canine mascot of Research on Religion, providing some insightful commentary in the background.  Carolyn then shares her broad-based conclusions regarding what the research team has found to date, including some thoughts on whether or not religious charity might substitute for government provision of social welfare.  Recorded: May 29,2013.


 Carolyn Warner’s bio at Arizona State University.

Description of Warner’s generosity project at The Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame.

The Best System Money Can Buy: Corruption in the European Union, by Carolyn Warner.

Confessions of an Interest Group: The Catholic Church and Political Parties in Europe, by Carolyn Warner.


Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church.

Dan Hungerman on Religious Charity and Crowding Out.

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