Although many modern tithers give to their church, I decided to go directly to the needy. I spent hours browsing the Web site CharityNavigator.org . It's sort of a Michelin guide to aid organizations. (Even this leads to coveting—they list the salaries of these charity CEOs, and some break half a million.)
I settled on several organizations focusing on children and widows, two groups the Bible says are always in need. One was called Feed the Children, another Save Darfur.
The giving was painful. I mean, 10 percent? That would have an impact on our lives. Vacations would need to be scaled back, new furniture would have to wait. It was a huge amount. When I pressed "send" on the donations, my palms got wet, my heart rate spiked.
But it was a pain mixed with pleasure. When the confirmation e-mails pinged in, I felt good. There's a haunting line from the movie Chariots of Fire. It's spoken by Ian Charleson, who plays a deeply religious sprinter in the 1924 Olympics. He says: "When I run, I feel His pleasure." And as I gave away money, I think I might have felt God's pleasure. Which is odd. Because I'm agnostic. I don't know if there's a God or not, but still I felt some higher sense of purpose. It was like a cozy ember that started at the back of my neck and slowly spread its warmth through my skull. I felt like I was doing something I should have done all my life.
That feeling of pleasure when giving—scientists actually call it the warm-glow effect —isn't strong enough to get most Americans to cough up 10 percent, though. According to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, the average American donates about 3 percent of his or her salary to charity. Low-income workers are the most openhanded set, donating an average of 4.5 percent. (Of course, there are many exceedingly generous high-income people. Angelina Jolie has said she gives away a third of her income. The pastor Rick Warren reverse tithes—he gives away 90 percent of his profits from his megaselling books.)