Sunday, October 11, 2009

Religion, atheism and charity

I received this message from a reader of the site:

"Can you do a post on charity? I've had this argument with my (religious) girlfriend many times but have yet to win it. She argues that most of the 'very bad' religious events in history really had more to do with non-religious things such as politics or discrimination. Fine and dandy, no problem with that. But then she goes on to argue that the major force of charity - what we would call nonprofit organizations today - is and has always been religious in nature. /That/ I don't really have an argument for."

OK, let me give it a shot. I want to address this from a number of different angles, so I'll break it up by point.

1. It's true that many charities are run by religious organisations. For that, we can be happy. It has been asked to me in the past, by religious people, why there aren't any "atheist charities". Well, the first reason is that atheists don't organise themselves on nearly the same level as religious people do. It has been said that trying to organise atheists is like trying to herd cats. They are independent thinkers by nature. And if you don't believe me, ask yourself why, if your particular country is X% atheist and Y% religious, you don't see X atheist buildings for every Y religious buildings in your town. There are some atheist clubs, sure, but not on nearly the same level, even per capita, as religious groups. I find even the concept of an atheist charity to be silly, because besides alienating a good deal of the population as potential donors, the only reason atheist groups exist is to respond to religious claims of the supernatural and to try to maintain a distance between politics and religion. Setting up a charity for the cause seems kinda pointless.

2. While many charities are religious, many are not, including some of the biggest charities on Earth. Some examples of secular charities (as far as I know) are the Red Cross (despite the logo), United Way, World Wildlife Fund and Doctors Without Borders. And don't try to argue that any charity started by a religious person is therefore inspired by religion, unless you're willing to admit that my charitable donations are inspired by atheism. And if you do take that route, I think you're a fool.

3. I want to question the motivations of religions for doing charity work, and to argue that most religious donors would probably give to charity even if they didn't have theistic beliefs. If you are religious and reading this, do you give to charity solely because of your religion? If the answer is, "No", then we're finished. But if the answer is, "Yes", then what kind of person does that make you? Doesn't that mean that you only act charitably in hopes that you'll get something in return (ie. in the afterlife), or that you only give because you feel obligated to in servitude to your imaginary master? If you think you only give to charity because of your religion, then that either makes you wrong, a liar, or a total jackass! Another point is that some religious organisations only provide their charitable services as a way to spread their religion to populations that don't currently embrace it. After the big tsunami a few years back, there were some Christian groups that provided aid to villages only on the condition that the villagers abandon their beliefs and convert to Christianity. Not exactly noble, is it?

4. I take exception to the argument about past 'very bad religious events' were not truly inspired by religion, but by politics or discrimination. Besides the fact that politics and discrimination often have a large religious component as their justification, any argument about how bad things couldn't have been caused by religion, but were merely using religion as a cover, is unfalsifiable, and therefore worthless. So when good things, like charity, happen and use religion as a cover, it's legitimate, but when bad things happen, it isn't really because of the religion? It's Ray Comfort's "no true Christian would become an atheist, so those people clearly weren't Christians", or "every sane person has a conscience given by a god, so anybody without the same conscience as me is insane". It seems like your girlfriend is trying to do major damage control, and brush the misdeeds of religion and religious people under the carpet. It's total bullshit.


Anonymous said... Sarah Silverman put it best, although she singled out the catholic church. All organized religions are equally hypocritical.

Charles said...

Hmm. Thanks. I think the major points are the ones you stated before; the unfalsifiable nature of the claim, combined with the huge problematic nature of sweeping one half under the carpet while trying to lay claim to the other.

Charles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave said...

I don't think there is much to be said about who operates a charity--the more vital issue is where any non-profit charitable organization gets its support.

That a Barna Group study circa 2006 found that active-faith people gave to NON-CHURCH charities at a rate of 2-to-1 over non-faith people is compelling. If we assume that these non-profits need support (and I know one can argue that in various ways), then the entire population should step up. It's not a question of "dissing" non-faith people; it's more a question of making connections and getting people involved. Human values can be recognized by all members of the community. Thanks for the interesting post.