Have you attended a religious service in the past 12 months? You’ll find some form of this question in every donor base survey I’ve conducted for our clients, and I have consistently found that religious people are more generous than non-religious people. As a group, they give more and support more organizations.
So should we be alarmed by the Pew Foundation’s Research Center report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape? They discovered a decline in American religiosity through a more wholesome method than my question, asking people whether or not they are affiliated with any religion, what religion they are affiliated with, and whether or not that is a change from the past. The survey went on to ask the unaffiliated whether they regard themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.”
Looking closer at the findings, it seems that religious non-affiliation rose across all generation cohorts from 2007 to 2014, but in inverse correlation to age, with 35% of Millennials (1981—1996) declaring themselves unaffiliated in 2014 contrasting with 8% of the Greatest Generation (pre-1928).
Seems pretty alarming to me when you consider the ample evidence that declining religiosity is a key indicator of what the future of American giving has in store for the nonprofit sector. But the foundation’s findings beg further research specific to fundraising. We can’t just wring our hands.
First, are we seeing correlation or causation here? While I feel confident there is a causal relationship between religious experience – a term chosen carefully – and altruism, it hasn’t been proved.
Second, we should listen to Peter Manseau who cautioned in the New York Times, “…we are not necessarily seeing a period of religious decline. Rather this may be the latest in a series of moments when more Americans are intent on custom-tailoring their religious identities.” In other words, the causal relationship between religiosity and giving is alive and well and maybe even stronger; we just lack the language to define it.
Third, there is the perennial question of whether generations change with age or ages change with generations. We think the question has been answered in favor of generations, but it’s worth keeping on the table in this context. The Pew researchers seem to think so.
 Author of One Nation, Under God: A New American History