Why Does Religion Get Credit For Charity?

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After expressing some concern in yesterday’s post about the unity and confidence of atheists, I was delighted to see a piece in the New York Times about the Foundation Beyond Belief‘s secular tithing efforts and other atheist charities:

Mr. McGowan’s effort, while unique in its tithing system, is part of a broader upsurge of charity by atheists. A coalition of 20 secularist groups, calling itself Non-Believers Giving Aid, was formed after the Haitian earthquake to take in donations that ultimately went to organizations like Doctors Without Borders. The charity known by its acronym S.H.A.R.E — for Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort — has raised $102,000 for relief in Haiti. The amount surpasses the total for previous efforts by S.H.A.R.E tied to Hurricane Katrina ($80,000) and the Asian tsunami ($45,000). About half of the 1,200 donors to Haiti were giving for the first time.

I share Hemant’s hope that this visibility motivates more atheists to give.

However, I also have concerns about the way the article was written.

Rather than juxtapose these charities beside the charities of religion, the article focuses on the charity of religion:

From a practical standpoint, atheists almost entirely lack the communal infrastructure of religious people — the system of congregations, the pattern of weekly meetings — that enables philanthropy. Both the Foundation Beyond Belief and S.H.A.R.E. rely almost entirely on outreach via the Internet.

But it is also true that the written and filmed jeremiads against religion by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins have forged an atheist “brand” that dismisses religion as a baleful force, superstitious at best and lethally divisive at worst. A figure like Mr. McGowan, along with the authors Susan Jacoby and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, embodies an internal rebellion by secularists who are willing to credit organized religion, whatever else its failings, with appealing to a human desire for community.

The article paints this supposed schism in the atheist community that doesn’t exist, because apparently, religion gets all the credit for charity. So,  you can’t be against religion and for charity? That’s a false dichotomy and it’s also self-defeating. It would be no different than the people who run a shelter for homeless LGBT youth that say they still think all homosexuals are pedophiles, but they’ll help protect them while they’re kids.

And unfortunately, this mixed messaging is McGowan’s fault. Look at how he paints it:

Mr. McGowan has made the same point several times in his blog. In a posting about “things the religious (generally) do (much) better than secularists,” he listed giving generously, connecting good works to beliefs, and building community. More important than simply raising money, he wrote in a recent post, “is focusing and encouraging that generosity and compassion in the first place.”

I appreciate that the article points out that there are challenges to the unity of the atheist community, but there seems to be some tautology at work. You can’t blame the atheist community for not building community when the prejudice and demonization against atheists has prevented atheists from being open and visible.

I think the Foundation and these other charitable groups make up a growing foundation upon which we can build a better infrastructure, and we should. But just because religions have charities and nonbelievers haven’t had charities specifically for nonbelievers in the past does not mean that religion gets credit for charity.

This is the same phenomenon I see so often in the LGBT movement: an effort to find the good in religion so that religious people are less apt to condemn atheists. This, to me, is like handing over resources to the enemy. We are showing that you can be “good without God,” which should completely undercut the need for God, so what is to be gained by giving God-believers credit?

And honestly, I’m not sure they always deserve it! I’ll end my post with a personal anecdote.

This weekend is Easter, and I am expected to spend much of it with my big Catholic family. They are my family and I love them, but they are Catholic. Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll sit around the dinner table with 20 family members who just that morning will have gone to Mass and given money to the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church has a lot of charities and arguably do a lot of good work. Service is very much an expectation and value of Catholicism. But the Catholic Church has made it quite clear that demonizing and discriminating against the gay community is a higher priority than charity. They’ve pulled out of adoption services to avoid having to put children in same-sex families. They’ve pulled out of a number of charitable services to avoid having to comply with nondiscrimination laws with hiring. They would rather give their employees NO benefits than have to give benefits to a same-sex partner. They recently punished a homeless shelter in Maine by pulling funding because the shelter supported marriage equality.

They’ve also spent the last week using every opportunity to use homosexuality as a scapegoat for all the priestly pedophilia, when the two have absolutely nothing in common. A Catholic priest even went so far this week as to compare the Catholic Church to Jewish holocaust victims. (Apparently they forgot (or ignored) that gay men were also holocaust victims.)

My family members give money to that organization and proudly identify with it. Is that the true model of charity?

I think not.

Please consider giving to the Foundation Beyond Belief or another of the growing secular charities. Show not only that we can be “good without God,” we can be better.

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There are 3 Comments to "Why Does Religion Get Credit For Charity?"

  • Buffy says:

    I’m so sick of religious people bleating about how fabulous they are.
    We give!!!
    So do we.  We just don’t run around crowing about what good Christians we are for the next year like some people do.  We give as a natural extension of our desire to help others, not because some church/clergy/’holy book” said we should.  Accordingly we don’t feel the need for outside reinforcement orrecognition of our acts.
    We do lots of really good things!!!!
    Sure you do, but not only do you crow about how Christian you are while you’re doing them (and often have your religion in the name of your charity), but you try to push your faith on those you’re ostensibly providing aid to–sometimes as a condition of receiving help. Here’s a hint–it’s not charity if you get something in return.
    We bring people together!!!
    If you bring people together only for the purposes of pushing your propaganda that’s not community, it’s indoctrination and control.   Let me know when all are welcome whether or not they accept your dogma.
    Let them take off their crosses and do their works n silence.  Let them build a community that includes everyone.  Until then they’re just self-serving,greedy SOBs who care only about perpetuating their own religion.  The “good works” they do are but a means of doing so.

  • ZackFord says:

    I love knowing that any post I write will have an encore comment from Buffy. It’s like icing on the cake!

    (Sorry your comment didn’t take at first; it found its way into the spam filter. But now all is right in the world!)

  • Terry Stone says:

    I am working to spread the word about the Foundation and am thrilled to see your nice words about our efforts. I like the idea of a check arriving at a worthwhile charity with “Atheist” written all over it.
    Here’s the url, so you won’t have to bother with a google search:
    http://www.foundationbeyondbelief.org .

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