Nearly 75% of American donations go to places of worship and faithbased charities and this is a phenomenal waste of good intentions. There are four main reasons why this is a problem.
1) Churches are inefficient
Even if you are religious, churches are not a good charity. Many people complain if CEOs of charities are paid more than $100,000, and would riot if they were paid over 1 million. The pope on the other hand is estimated to have an income of 200 million(1).
They also spend way too much on lavish buildings. Can you imagine a charity spending funds on stain glass windows or on the large beautiful buildings many churches have? Most charities would lose their status for spending so recklessly.
2) Churches do not have strong evidence that they do any good
The way churches spend their money is not the only problem. They also have no strong evidence that they make people better off. This is a big deal. For example, would you donate to Homeopaths Without Borders? No, because they don’t have any rigorous evidence that they cure diseases any better than placebo. Similarly, churches have no science showing that building another room affects people’s happiness long term. A good critical thinker requires evidence that a charity actually makes the world a better place, and churches fail in this category.
3) Churches get more than enough money already
Some causes are not very popular. They get forgotten about and ignored even when great work could be done. For example “schistosomiasis”, a painful intestinal disease in the developing world, gets neglected because people have never heard of it and it’s difficult to pronounce. Religion is not one of these causes.
Religion gets more donations than everything given to international affairs, health and education combined (2) By some accounts the Catholic church makes more money a year than Apple! (3) This is not an area in need of more funding.
Why do churches get so much money?
Many people feel the urge to help others but forget to do so or put it off. Churches get around this by having a great peer pressure system that can remind people to donate every Sunday. On top of this churches are also a place they see often and feel personally connected to. (Universities and museums also tend to get lots of donations for these same reasons.) Most people do not think critically about where they give, they just give to the first place that comes to mind, and often this is a church or other place of worship.
4) Is donating to a church more important than saving lives?
Finally, even if a church was run cost effectively and did not already get all the funding it ever could need, the question still remains out of all the charities in the world, is donating to a local church going to do more good than saving a life? When a child can be cured of intestinal worms for 50 cents is it justifiable to fund a large building in the First World that only caters to people of a certain belief system?
The broader issue here that is most people make their donations based on tradition and peer pressure. I would advocate that we need to do better. We should apply critical thinking to charity and bust the myths and pseudoscience. We need to look at real evidence, scientific evidence, to find what really helps people. If you are interested in putting these ideas into practice, I encourage you to check out Charity Science, a nonprofit I started which finds charities that are proven and costeffective.