Toot not thine own charitable horn

Alistair McBay suggests that charity work should be done because it’s a good thing to do, not as a way to justify arbitrary privileges.

Recently some Christian leaders in Scotland angered at secularists challenging their privileges have responded by pointing out the National Secular Society and other secular groups don’t run care homes, or operate food banks, or run adoption agencies. Secularists have been the target of this ill-informed sniping from both the Free Church of Scotland and the Church of Scotland, and Anglican and Catholic leaders have made similar attacks in the past.

It’s a familiar trope. “You rage-bloggers aren’t out there bagging up groceries for war refugees so shut up!” You can plug in any terms you like in order to jab at anyone you don’t like. What did you do in the war Daddy; Dear Muslima; first world problems; professional victims; yadda yadda. It’s not always wholly unreasonable, but most of the time it’s mostly unreasonable. Use sparingly if at all.

The NSS is not a registered charity, it is a not-for-profit campaigning organisation. It would be more accurate for the churches to compare us not with themselves, but to the Christian not-for-profit think-tank Ekklesia, which is also a campaigning group, not a registered charity, and doesn’t run care homes or food banks.

And that kind of distinction applies to so many things. Journalists aren’t firefighters; musicians aren’t doctors; engineers aren’t charity administrators. Different people do different things. Lots of things need doing. We get to choose.

I know of no secular charity that prostitutes its charitable works as justification for retaining special privilege in society – that seems to be the sole prerogative of some religious groups. All over the UK, every day of the year, people of all religious beliefs and none perform selfless works and activities to raise funds for those worse off in some way, or give up their valuable personal time as volunteers to make better the lives of others less fortunate. Yet the only people who consistently brag (sorry, bear witness) about what they do in this regard are church leaders looking to leverage this work in exchange for power and privilege, and to champion their allegedly superior belief system.

I suppose they want to think their allegedly superior belief system is good for something.

Of course many secularists donate or support charities run by religious groups, including the many secularists who are also believers. How wonderful it would be if Christian leaders could continue the good work that their churches and congregations do because they are just good people with a human desire to help others, and did so without using it as a bargaining chip for special favour and influence.

Yet in its own way the NSS funds charitable organisations and activity. For example, we may not run schools or provide shelters for battered women, but our annual Secularist of the Year fund has recognised and rewarded charities such as Plan UK which supports the education of girls and young women around the world, an award we made in recognition of the wonderful example of Malala Yousafzai. We also continue to support secular groups such as the Southall Black Sisters, who do such sterling work on behalf of victims of domestic abuse in the UK’s black and minority ethnic communities and challenge the religious dogma which contributes to their marginalisation. And we could do so much more of this if only we didn’t pay our taxes in full and enjoyed the tax breaks and regular Government handouts the churches receive.

I have yet to see any church leader comment that the £15m handed out in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement for church roof repairs would be better spent directly providing a happier Christmas for many of the homeless. And this, remember, is on top of the £42m Listed Places of Worship Grants Scheme, which provides funding amongst other things for auto-winding turret clocks, pipe organs and bells and bell ropes!

See? That’s the danger of this “why don’t you do _______ instead of what you are doing?” trope – it can be applied to almost anyone; it’s a gun that fires backward.


  1. says

    I know of no secular charity that prostitutes its charitable works as justification for retaining special privilege in society – that seems to be the sole prerogative of some religious groups.

    Then again, I’ve definitely seen billionaires argue against higher taxes with the argument that they would be less able to support philanthropic causes. It doesn’t work any better for them either, of course.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    For anyone who wants some sources on the subject of non-religious charity:

    Set aside those “charitable” donations to local churches, and the study shows that the churchier regions are generally stingier toward “secular” charities. You know, like those secular categories of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.

    Don’t let anybody tell you religious people are more charitable than atheists. It’s just not true.

    Well, the first thing to note, is that a significant amount of church donations do not go to charitable work at all but the upkeep of church property and the support of church staff. This will vary greatly depending on the amount of ‘tithing’ churches do. In one case study, only 5% of the donated money was actually spent on charitable work.

    In a church budget I got ahold of, less than 1% was earmarked for charity. They spent more on advertising. But let’s continue:

    This forms the biggest part of the black hole of charity. Some may see upkeep on churches as charity but I see it as organizational maintenance for a select minority. Charity is something you give to help those less off than you…to right a wrong…to make the world a better place or to correct a societal ill.

    Let us not forget that a significant amount of church charity, notably televangelists, is fraudulent. “Proportionally more money is lost (and stolen) from the collection plate than is lost from the accounts of a secular (non-religious) charity”.

    The prime and over-riding purpose of churches is to save souls…to do this they must ‘convert’ people to the faith. That is, from a moral stand point, secular charities are doing their good deed to make the world a better place…to relieve suffering… Churches do this as a side-effect. Why do I not donate to the Salvation Army? The church soup kitchen? Not because I think they don’t do anything good for the community but when I give to them I am helping them do their primary purpose… proselytize to the needy and downtrodden.

    A hundred billion a year is wasted on church charities to allow them to take advantage of the poor in need of a meal, the addicted recover (well, recover by replacing one addiction for another) or in any number of other ways using human suffering to promote their theocratic agenda. I think most religious people think they are doing good, but if you crunch the numbers, you are better off giving to the local BC food bank, OXFAM Canada, Amnesty international, doctors without borders…there are a lot. From “The Black Hole of Charity”

    Church involvement provides a powerful impetus for individuals to engage in voluntary activity. But, if we look at volunteering from a slightly different angle, it also serves to channel volunteers into internal church-maintenance activity at the expense of more general-purpose volunteering. Among people who volunteer … more frequent church attendance leads to a lower probability of engaging in secular, informal, or advocacy volunteer activities. (p. 100–101)

    People who go to church a lot volunteer a lot – but only for the church. They’re too busy to do “general-purpose” volunteering. Church participation makes them less generous with their time, not more. And what kind of work is it that they are volunteering for?

    In 1995, 82 percent of religious volunteers indicated that the work they did for their religious organization was … internal church maintenance activities. Such a high percentage suggests that there is a distinction to be made between nonreligious and religious volunteering. (p. 102)

    Indeed there is. Internal church maintenance! – this is not feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless. It’s not humanitarianism. It’s not generous, it’s inward-facing. It benefits, not people in need, but the church itself. The organization. The priests.

    Secular charities:

    Christians see missions work as charitable, but they often provide very little actual help and a lot of evangelism.

    It is very likely that more atheist money goes directly to helping to ease the suffering of those in need than Christian money does. Christians are more concerned with the state of a person after they die than with their living conditions here. Most of the time meeting their “earthly” needs is only seen as a means to an end: converting them and meeting their “spiritual” needs.

    But hang on a moment. There’s more to generosity than handing over cash to a charity, and there are plenty of other ways to help your fellow humans. How do the nonreligious perform when it comes to generosity in kind, rather than in cash? There have been a few studies looking into this, and they reveal a rather different picture. Take, for example, a 2007 study of doctors by Farr Curlin at the University of Chicago. Private general practice can be pretty lucrative, but some doctors choose instead to work among the poor—effectively taking a pay cut in order to help the most needy. Curlin found that 35 percent of nonreligious doctors, compared with 28 percent of Catholic and 26 percent of Protestant physicians, choose this calling—no sign here of mean-spiritedness among the nonreligious.

    These results are not flukes. When assessed in objective, unprompted conditions, the religious are consistently found to be no more generous, kind, or caring than the nonreligious.”

    Rees also notes all the confounds. One of them is that “a large part of religious charity goes, to a large extent, straight into the pockets of co-religionists”.

    “Put private and public giving together, and Denmark—one of the least religious countries in the world—is clearly the far more generous nation. and (original article’s vanished behind a subscriber wall)

    Do religions engage in charitable work that addresses the physical needs of the poor? Many do, but that is not their primary focus. Religions are quick to trumpet when they do charitable work-ironically for Christians, since the Bible explicitly says not to (Mathew 6:2). But they don’t do as much charitable work as a lot of people think, and they spend a relatively small percentage of their overall revenue on such work.

    For instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormon Church), which regularly trumpets its charitable donations, gave about $1 billion to charitable causes between 1985 and 2008. That may seem like a lot until you divide it by the twenty-three-year time span and realize this church is donating only about 0.7 percent of its annual income.

    We recognize that there is a lot of variation in how much religions engage in charitable work, and we don’t want to discourage religions from doing so. However, comparing their charitable giving to the performance of secular charities is informative. The American Red Cross spends 92.1 percent of its revenue directly addressing the physical needs of those it intends to help; only 7.9 percent is spent on “operating expenses.” If you use a generous 50 percent cutoff for indicating whether an institution is primarily a charitable organization or not (that is, they spend more than 50 percent of revenue on charitable work addressing physical needs), we doubt there is a single religion in the world that would actually qualify as a charitable organization.

    On the difference within a charitable organization between religious and irreligious contributions (and lists of some of the biggest donors in the world – all atheists):

    Regarding “group efforts”—, the micro-financing organization that has distributed $261 million to people in 61 nations, has “lending teams” that post their generous efforts online. The leading team on November 22, 2011, is “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists, and the Non-Religious.” These 18,127 benevolent blasphemers have lent $5,623,750 in 187,920 loans. Their simple motto is: “We loan because we care about the suffering of human beings.”

    Trailing behind in the #2 slot are the “Kiva Christians” who have loaned $3,211,250. Their supernatural rallying cry is, “We loan because: Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)”

    I’m gleeful that the irreligious are the most altruistic because I was incessantly told the inverse by credo-worshipping commenters after I published my article “Tax the Churches and Give the Revenue to Hungry Children.” Pious posters informed me that my secular proposal would seriously damage charitable causes, because it would hamper the vast, sublime generosity of the devout. Ha! The numbers above suggest that their contention is just the usual sanctimonious drivel. A favorite slogan of atheists is, “We Don’t Need God To Be Good” and the philanthropy figures I’ve presented indicate that is exactly the case, indeed, we seem to be “BETTER without God.”

    The historically unprecedented socioeconomic security that results from low levels of progressive government policies appear to suppress popular religiosity and creationist opinion, conservative religious ideology apparently contributes to societal dysfunction, and religious prosociality and charity are less effective at improving societal conditions than are secular government programs. – Gregory Paul, from “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions”,

    Charity and Christmas: Does it bother you that churches give less to charity than Golf clubs?

    Idiot congressman defends denying poor children school lunches by quoting non-existent scripture

    Reviewing “tied aid”, aka “corporate welfare”:

    Let’s not forget the Christian leader who called for levying taxes on atheists for NOT going to church:

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    In conclusion, a nice response to the question, “Why are there no atheist charities?”

    Christian apologists often insist that their religion promotes extraordinary generosity and altruism. As proof, they point to Christian-sponsored hospitals, clinics, schools, colleges, homeless shelters, halfway houses, and other educational and charitable organizations. “And where are the atheist hospitals?” they tauntingly ask. “We don’t see any atheist programs to help the poor and needy,” they jeer.

    But these claims are far weaker than they may appear. In Muslim countries, for example, there are Muslim schools and charities. In countries dominated by Buddhists we see Buddhist institutions. Even in Cuba, there are schools, hospitals, and public aid organizations, a fact that is frequently pointed to by apologists for Castro. So why should it be thought unusual that, where Christians are to be found in great numbers, there also are to be found Christian-sponsored charitable organizations?

    Then there is the history of Christianity in the West. As recently as a few hundred years ago, it was dangerous, if not fatal, to so much as openly doubt Christian theological doctrines. That is the practical form that “Christian love” and “Christian charity” has taken for the overwhelming part of its history. Its ferocity was only moderated by the innovative principle of state-church separation, a principle still denied and denounced by the most energetic of Christian zealots. How, then, can special merit be accorded to Christianity? What is so singularly virtuous about doing what others are forcibly prevented from doing? And how honest and principled is it, given these circumstances, for Christians to claim exceptional virtue for themselves while disparaging their historical victims?

    Even today, unbelievers are relentlessly reviled by many Christian leaders.

    Given the context of Christians’ past and current treatment of those with contrary religious opinions, it is outrageous for anyone to point to Christian educational and charitable organizations as “proof” that Christianity excels at promoting compassion and humanitarianism. Those who make such fraudulent claims are like those who said, a century ago and more, that the absence of blacks and women in political office or other positions of responsibility “proved” that they lacked the character and intellect to vote or pursue professional careers. Then, as now, faith-blinded Christian apologists who are unwilling or unable to think excel in circular reasoning and question-begging, not in generosity or human feeling.

    If Christianity were so spectacularly marked by the urge to give to others without asking anything in return, Christian institutions would have done far more than they have. As it is, almost all religious hospitals, clinics, schools, and colleges charge and collect fees that are the same as, or very little different than, similar non-religious organizations. Those associated with religious groups may receive modest or token subsidies, either in the form of cash from generous believers (and unbelievers!) or in the form of free labor provided by an order of monks, nuns, priests, and other volunteers. But the secular organizations engaged in the same activities manage not only to survive without such help but pay taxes to the state and dividends to their shareholders as well. A reasonable person would conclude that the religiously-affiliated schools and hospitals, far from being praiseworthy examples of altruism, are, in fact, inefficient and wasteful of money and resources.

    There are still laws on the books of several states that atheists are not allowed to hold public office or serve on juries; those privileges are reserved for those who believe in God.

    Given how horribly atheists have been treated by Christians in the past (and yes, it continues today), it comes as a surprise that this persecuted minority, which has had to avoid self-identification for its own protection, has NOT gone public with some big works project that would no doubt have been fire-bombed by Christians long before it could have been completed??

    A recent study by the University of Minnesota found atheists to be the most hated and distrusted minority in the US – much more unpopular than Muslims (poll taken AFTER 9/11 terrorist attacks). So why are we not doing more publicly? When even just being open about our lack of belief can result in our being fired from our jobs and attacked by our Christian neighbors? Wow.

    I get nothing back for most of my charitable giving, because I give it *directly* to the needy and they don’t give me receipts that I can use for deductions come tax time. I regularly give to a homeless woman who hangs out at the plaza I do my grocery shopping at; I gave a 1-semester scholarship to one of my son’s friends for his first semester at college; I’ve put aside money to similarly help his younger brother and another friend; I’ve helped a poor family of undocumented immigrants when they were in financial straits; I helped a friend for several months when she was out of work; I help out another friend who is disabled and on a fixed income. The list goes on. But my contributions go uncounted and unnoticed because I’m giving to *PEOPLE*, not organizations.

  4. says

    Yet the only people who consistently brag (sorry, bear witness) about what they do in this regard are church leaders looking to leverage this work in exchange for power and privilege

    …and this despite the fact that their founder specifically forbid such shameless self-promotion.

  5. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    Well I wish he had provided a link to the original article so we could know precisely what was said by the ‘church leaders’, or quotes for that matter.

    It seems a very odd claim for a Scottish church to be making since the NSS has been objecting to the churches being involved in adoption and the vast majority of UK charities are secular.

  6. says

    Blanche…I’ve asked you before not to do these huge document-dumps in here. If you have whole book-length comments, then save them for your own blog.

  7. Al Dente says

    I prefer the Jewish concept of charity over the Christian concept. Christians see charity as good works done by the donor. Jews see charity as aid and support for the needy.

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