Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Thought on Charity

On the Reasonable Doubts podcast they have an episode called 'Profiles of the Godless' and it's pretty good, uses statistics an such. It was some sort of survey down by one of three guys, Dr. Prof. Luke Galen and then an extended survey done with CFI groups across the world, to a degree. CFI = center for inquiry, a decently atheist hang-out party group ;) Point is: one of the stats is that charity and service work is mainly done through churches an such, and religious people are more likely to do such work and sacrifice, but the non-religious groups do not statistically significantly do less. This means that if you were sample the two groups over and over you would sometimes find non-religious samples that do more than religious samples and vice versa, repeated indefinitely.

So with that said I need to stumble along through my waterfall of thoughts.

A lot of charity and service work is obviously done through churches. And a lot of the people involved are obviously religious. And third, obviously people who become disillusioned to religion may still wish to do good but avoid those religions they so dislike. This, however, should not have to reflect the non-religious as a whole. Taking the atheists for example, Guy Harrison does a LOT of work, Bill Gates donates a lot of money to charity. Being an atheist does not mean you'll be doing less.

I served a mission and though it was proselyting I did get to do service every day, basically. However, it is a little more difficult for me to do something like that now. Especially in America. Where even the government supports church run/funded charities and service opportunities. Separation of church and state is little vague.

But, again, as long as it's getting done, right? There are plenty of secular organizations, though they probably have different issues with taxes an such when compared to something like, say, a church. More loopholes I'm guessing, but they do exist. Hitchens, on a podcast maybe, was talking about how some religious service groups like to talk about how they aren't there to proselyte or be boastful, but just to do their job. Where they don't need to talk about their religion to help people, they simply just help, beliefs put on the side. ... I think their attempts to appear and come off as more 'secular' and 'non-religious' speaks volumes.

Most people will admit that doing something for the right reason of just doing it, and not because of some eternal benefits, is a far nobler thing. Demosthenes and I agreed on a similar point, "so long as they are doing good, I don't much care why." And I think a lot of people would agree. The atheist may enjoy the 'warmth' that comes from helping others, making their actions non-altruistic, but I can't see how ANY religious person can perform a truly altruistic action. They know they will benefit from it, even if it's just a smile from God. I actually inserted this thought into a paper I wrote last year about how Christ wasn't altruistic in his Atonement (according to Mormondom) because he knew he would ascend and be placed on the right hand of God. That and according to the doctrine he was the only who could do it, so ....

But I digress. I use the Hitchen's statement to point out how religious groups sometimes try to come off as non-religious in their service. Mormons of course where bright yellow shirts so they don't quite count. Atheists probably do the same thing, as more of a 'hey, I'm an atheist but I still like to do good in the world and help my fellow human beings!' Again, it's better to just do good for goodness sakes, but I like 'good' atheists better and I always have. In high school I was always more impressed by my friends who were non-religious but still stuck up what was right.

Now, I recognize the good that comes from religion. I still have a couple posts to do on the '9-page reply' email from Demosthenes, but he mentioned, in not so many words, that he picked out my off-hand remarks when I had plenty of positive ones too. Charity is obviously one thing that religion has a monopoly on. So if we get rid of religion what do we do about charity?

First, I don't think religion is going away. Deism will definitely be around forever, the more concrete gods of religions are on the run but they aren't gone yet, and religions will continue to moderate themselves and evolve and adjust. Just to make it clear - I do not think religion is going away. That said, if it did how would we replace it? ... That's the big question. I've seen The Atheist Tapes, and during the Daniel Dennet interview he basically says the same thing only more eloquently and much more philosophically. Dennet is like a Socrates Santa hybrid. I kind of have an answer though, but not one that I like. Commence more rambling.

Religion has a way of taking over people, jump-starting their deeper emotions, lighting fires, commandeering the driver's seat. It's a combination of dogmatism, ideology, and having something to follow. People love to have something to follow, to fight for, to lead them. I venture that this is one of those 'human nature' things. If it's not religion then it's the country (patriotism) or government. These type of unifying and energizing systems give people a boost to go a step beyond what they would normally do. On one side we have people who kill abortion clinic surgeons, fly planes into buildings, and Westboro Baptists. On the other we have Mother Teresa, the Mormon bishop who truly cares, and people who donate thousands a year in money, and days worth of hours in time to charity and service.

How do you replace something like that? With something equally dogmatic and ideological? This post is a slight answer to a slight question that was actually posed to me. Religious people are doing more, but not by much, and most organizations are religious in nature, but especially in America that's just how it's gonna be for now. If religion went away tomorrow I think we would find a world where there would be a lot less service and charity done. Socialism comes to mind, not the Stalin type of course, a more 'open' and not as 'extreme' form of it, a more conducive society to 'free-thinking' would be nice.

The double-sided whatever to atheism is this: when you view this life as all you have then you'll want to make it the best it can be, and being selfish comes with that. But if you care about people and society and the world, then you could end up like Guy Harrison and go doing trips every year.

My atheism inspired me to do more, actually, with this life. I mentioned this when I began my blog, months ago now. I felt so liberated, and I felt like I need to contribute to this world more. Being free of Christianity means that the world does not have to get worst, it can get better. I can make a difference. So as it is now, this is one reason why I remain an atheist, I feel like I am more in control of where I can go in life. I have more responsibility since there is no God or Devil out there. I have more reason to do the right thing, this is my one chance. I have to make things count. I have to like people and try harder to be pleasant cause if something happens, gods forbid, then I won't get another chance with them to set things right.

For me, and I don't think I'm unique, atheism inspires me to do more. And I think that's why atheists are not statistically different from religious people in how much they contribute to the world. I have many friends who think like I do, and yet they think other atheists don't think the same as them, or aren't as interested in doing service for others. News flash, if we're all talking about it and concerned about it, then I'm betting other atheists are too.


  1. I don't know that religion is the primary motivating factor for charity. I don't know if you were trying to say that either. Empathy is a scientifically observed fact of human nature - we like to help each other. We don't like to see others in pain. It's what keeps a social species' society together. If religion were gone people would still empathize with the plight of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized and try to help them.

  2. I have a way of sometimes stating things perfectly clear, but then being vague elsewhere. My last three paragraphs basically sum it up, though I don't 'shout' it.

    And yes, I think caring for others is an evolutionary trait.

  3. Two quick points. First, empathy is taught, not inborn. Have a few kids and you'll learn that quickly. In human history empathy for one's tribe has been fairly universal (and socially reinforced), and those outside the tribe don't count. This is why slavery and genocide are the norm rather than the exception, as the victims aren't fully human. The Jews were the first to extend that circle of inclusive empathy to the entirety of the human race, and they were looked on as morally inferior for doing so. Roman historians actually cite Jewish opposition to infanticide as a reason for crushing a benighted Jewish culture. Peter Singer, a well-known ethicist at Princeton, agrees. From then to now, the only group that asserts the fundamental equality of all humans are those coming from a Judeo-Christian background. Nazis only included Aryans, Marxists only included the working class, Koreans and Japanese only included their own race groups, Islamists only include specific kinds of Muslims. The idea that all men are created equal is, in fact, not self evident, and Jefferson only thought it was because he was raised on the Bible.

    Second point: Agreed that as individuals the religious and the irreligious in America donate similarly. And that "in America" part is pretty essential. The point, however, is not individual, it's institutional. The overhead of secular charities is much higher than the overhead of religious charities, by and large. And by "much higher" I mean that LDS humanitarian efforts have a %6 overhead, while the billions donated to the celebrity drives for Haiti never got there. Religious charities are usually staffed entirely by volunteers who are giving their lives to God. That kind of self sacrifice is difficult to find without the promise of an eternal reward. I agree completely that a focus on the afterlife tends to make many people disconnect from this life in an unhealthy way, and this is reason number 6,425 why I prefer Jewish theology to Christian. That said, Mother Teresa was not a Jew, and I don't think she could have been. As soon as atheists and secularists are able to build charitable institutions that use money efficiently I will support them wholeheartedly. In the meantime, giving to Catholic, Jewish, and Mormon charities is the best use of charitable dollars available to us.

    I think I've said several times before on this blog that I have no problem with atheists on a personal level. My beef is organizational. Build something comparable to the Boy Scouts, Jewish Hospitals, Catholic Charities, or the Perpetual Education Fund, and then you'll have a case that secularism is a viable option. I doubt that secularism is capable of supporting these kinds of institutions, but I'll be thrilled to be proven wrong.

  4. You talk about it being difficult to serve on a daily basis in the States. While I think the service opportunities are often more subtle and more difficult to locate, they're definitely still there (even where I'm at). The actual work you'll be doing isn't the same as the work you might be doing in some remote country elsewhere in the world, but it is still service.

    Demosthenes, what do you think of organizations like the Peace Corps? It isn't the same as the organizations that you mentioned, but it is definitely service oriented (although, I will also concede that a big piece of their puzzle is developing the individuals who serve). It is a government run institution. Is that secular enough for you? Or are you expecting it to be separate from the government as well?

    Also, maybe I'm finding them because I'm looking for them, but I know quite a few non-religious people (no promise of the after-life reward) who have definitely devoted their lives to helping humanity, most often through service. Most of the people, like most religious people who end up devoting their life to God, did something else with their lives for awhile before deciding to refocus them, but they refocused them all the same. I think those kind of people (non-religious service oriented individuals) are actually becoming much more common. Many of them still work through some of the previously mentioned organizations, but religion isn't what is motivating them.

    And in a similar mind, I believe that the more we as individuals, religious or non-religious, can find a regular balance between or daily lives and serving others, the better. The sooner we can recognize the opportunities that we have and make them regular rather than exceptional, the more likely we'll be able to make changes.

    But, all of this is coming from an half idealistic, half realistic mind, so maybe I'm just building sandcastles by low-tide.

  5. Heretic, I very sincerely hope that such examples of devoted secular humanitarians do multiply. As much good as religious charities do, they understandably cater to their own first and I would like to see a more universalist approach that might be easier to enact without the religious tribalism. I'm just not sure that most people are going to give without some notion of a reward, and I disagree with Joey that unmotivated altruism is somehow more noble. If I'm the recipient of charity I want the person giving it to be publicly honored so that more people are drawn to duplicate that example. A child who gets cancer treatment is just as helped by a corporation giving for a tax break as by an anonymous donor. We as a society should incentivize altruism any way we can and make public heroes out of those who give the most.

    While I support the Peace Corps, my issue with government organizations like them is that they are tax-sponsored, not charity-sponsored. Government bureaucracies have no incentive to be efficient as their supporting donations have no relationship to their results. I want groups to be judged by outcomes and not by intentions, and while the Peace Corps gets praiseworthy outcomes, the investment required is far higher than it would be to get the same results through a private charity.

  6. I like what Demosthenes is saying. I think secularists still need to prove themselves, even if they are close to being even in some terms. I also think that humanitarian efforts are not the only yardstick by which to judge a belief system, but that's probably another subject.