The story has gone viral: A group got together at Applebees. When the tab came a minister wrote on the ticket, “I give God 10 percent, why do you get 18?” She scratched through the automatic large-group tip and substituted a fat zero and signed it with the word “Pastor” in front of her name. A waitress posted an image on Reddit. The pastor called to complain. The waitress got fired. The internet went wild. Last I saw, one story had 80,000 comments and counting.
In reality, the pastor simply exposed something that is all too common to Christian thinking: the sense that giving to the church and to religious charities is the be-all and end all of generosity. As indignant reactions to the Applebee’s incident show, service workers sometimes pay the price:
- “I worked at the Outback Steakhouse for 3 years and we ALL dreaded Sundays.”
- “The Sunday after church crowd were allways the worst tippers. I found another line of work.”
- “As a former waitress who frequently served large parties of CHURCH members and pastors, I can attest to the fact that the majority of them were very demanding, condescending, dismissive and cheap. When 1 or 2 from the party of 12 -15 did tip they would leave pennies and loose change.”
- “I have waited tables in the past and I am sorry to say this behavior is not unusual. Often Ministers come into restaurants with their parishioners and treat the staff their to wait on them beyond poorly. They usually come in rather large parties and often leave very little tip for the poor server, who goes out of their way to care for the group.”
- “I also provide a service to the public. It is ALWAYS the churches that want something for free or don’t tip.”
- “I waited tables for over 30 years and I have been stiffed many times by people like her.”
As an Arizona child, I grew up in a community in which tithing was expected. My parents gave regularly to the church and provided sustaining support to missionary organizations ranging from Wycliffe Bible Translators, which targets isolated tribes for conversion, to Child Evangelism Fellowship which views America’s public schools as a mission field. Our church showcased individual missionary families as well as far-reaching organizations like Focus on the Family. In my memory, it never encouraged generosity toward groups whose primary mission was justice or aid or stewardship. Similarly, church members were encouraged to take care of the elderly and ill—but only those within the church community or those being targeted for conversion. Whether and how to tip a hard-scrabbling waitress simply wasn’t a part of the conversation.
The practice of tipping taps into two very basic moral impulses – perhaps humanity’s two most fundamental moral instincts: reciprocity and empathy. The reciprocity aspect is obvious: you give good service, I give you a good tip. (Tipping is the reason service is better here than in France.) But as comment threads about the Applebee’s waitress indicate, many of us give generously to wait-staff because we know what it’s like to be in their shoes. “Servers work hard for little money. A lot are just trying to pay their way through college or even just trying to make a little cash in high school, or even supporting a family.” “My friend works in a restaurant and I asked him how much he get paid. He said $2.00/ hr. and only depend on tips. I said, that’s against the minimum wage law? I need work just to survive to eat. Thinking about him, I always give at least 18% or 20 for the services they do.” Generosity is rooted in empathy.
Researchers are starting to apply the tools of the social sciences to study religion, and one of the big questions they are asking is whether religion makes people more generous. The answers coming back are complicated and much debated. Religious people make more tax deductible donations, but without controlled research it has been hard to sort out how much of their giving is simply to promote their own religion or to pay for what economists call “club benefits.” Another issue complicating the research is social desirability bias–the tendency of people to say they do good things more than they actually do. We know, for example, that self-reports of church attendance greatly exceed actual church attendance.
On the other side of the equation are some interesting studies of what are called “priming effects.” When people, even atheists, are prompted to think about religion and god-related concepts they tend to behave better. The subconscious sense of someone looking over our shoulders may be a powerful nudge for us to watch ourselves a little more carefully.
A recent study by the Nottingham University Business School suggests that religion has little effect on generosity per se, except toward insiders. In one task, Malasians of different religions faced a situation in which they had an imaginary sum of money that they could share or not share with another person. The other person could give part back, in which case that part would be tripled. Religious participants, including Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists became more generous than nonreligious only when they were told that the other participant was a member of their own faith.
One factor this particular study doesn’t address is that religion provides social expectations and mechanisms for giving, and even sometimes establishes a duty to give a certain amount, as in the case of tithing. Stanford Professor Robert Putnam co-authored the book American Grace in which he lined up evidence that religious Americans give more than secular Americans, including to secular charities. Contrary to much of the resultant crowing about compassionate conservatives, he actually found that religious liberals were more generous than religious conservatives. The key to giving appeared to be not piety but community, the question of how many friends a person had that were a part of their church: “Faith is less important than communities of faith,” Putnam said.
Religious institutions sometimes exploit and redirect empathic or generous impulses, converting them into a means of simply feeding the beast more dollars or adherents. My friend Kent recently received a mailer titled, “They’re Crying Out for Bibles. Please Help!” It told of one “dear elderly” woman in China who had been waiting for a Bible all her life. When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake, a different missionary organization used the disaster to raise funds and ship Haitians much needed solar-powered Bibles. At the time of the Asian Tsunami, a Seattle mega-church sympathized on its website and then advised parishioners to pray for those affected, give to their church-building ministries (aka conversion activities) in India, and give to Mars Hill Church. A hip newspaper published by the same church, advises that God want you to give first and foremost to your home congregation. The formula has worked beautifully for them.
But the very same mechanisms that can direct the generous impulse to fill church coffers and pews can also elicit or shape generosity for other purposes. In his book and TED talk, Atheism 2.0, Alain de Botton argued that people who have moved beyond supernaturalism should adapt and keep the best of religion. One aspect of that is a structural, institutional emphasis on service and giving.
Nonbelief in America is growing rapidly, and as it does, nascent secular groups are asking what it might mean for them to be giving communities. A Kiva lending team that calls itself “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists, and the Non-Religious” is Kiva’s the top ranked team in terms of total microcredit lending. The Foundation Beyond Belief recently created added tools to build on-the-ground volunteer groups centered on “compassionate humanism.” Religious communities increase giving by making it easy and fun to give and sometimes by making it uncomfortable not to. Many churches offer automatic monthly withdrawals. Mormon bishops have been known to have face to face discussions in which they actually review a family’s finances and level of giving. While few of us want the secular equivalent of bishops rooting around in our bank statements, doing a blood drive together, swapping notes about favorite charities, or teaming up on an aid project can be immensely rewarding.
So can cultivating a sense of empathy and a habit of generosity toward folks who work hard for a living.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.