Monday, June 01, 2009

Atheism, Theism, and Charity

I saw an article today . . . one of those standard pieces that attempted to depict atheists as eager to stand aside and let people die because atheists do not build hospitals.

Regarding the comments on atheists of late: I've heard of Catholic Charities, Catholic Health Care West, the Salvation Army helping people in need, but I have never seen anything comparable by the atheist folks involving people needing a free ride to the doctor, emergency or routine health care or needing disaster relief. Hmmmm. - Lee Horner, Cortaro

(See: Arizona Republic, Are There Any Atheist Charity Groups?)

The flip response that popped into my mind was:

Yes. Atheists give to charity out of a desire to help those in need. Christians give to charity as a means of advertising their church.

The statement is neither true nor fair. It reflects a rather base animal instinct whereby if somebody attacks you, you want to hit them back. One false and unfair statement deserves another.

Yet, two wrongs do not make a right, so the theocratic bigot does not get the sting of having his false and unfair expression and bigotry met with an equally false and unfair expression of bigotry.

On the other hand, the response does hint at a related truth.

I have held that people act so as to fulfill the most and the strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. From this, it follows that the more and the stronger the desires that a particular action will fulfill, the more and stronger the reasons the agent has to perform those actions.

So, let us assume that atheists and theists are equally charitable. They both give equally to charity for the purpose of aiding those in need. However, for the theist, charity comes with an additional perk. It is way to help the poor, and it is a way to advertise the church. So, the theist has more and stronger reasons to perform an act of charity. This can be reasonably expected to lead to theists giving more money to charity such as aid for the poor and for hospitals. The ability to buy a billboard for the church is worth a little more money.

Atheists have something similar. Atheists have an interest in helping others. They also tend to have a stronger desire to understand (and thus to explain and predict) the natural world. A great deal of scientific research accomplish these twin goals.

The researcher can fulfill a desire to understand hurricanes, tsunamis, aggression, economics, game theory, and the like. The seek to understand energy, physics, electricity, construction, They also like to help others. However, instead of their motives driving them to spend their time and energy on aiding those who need it directly, they spend their time and money on studying (and preventing) the types o things that make charity necessary.

A given instance is not proof that a proposition is true, but it does provide a way of illustrating what the proposition says. I gave a significant job offer so that I could go to graduate school. I went to graduate school because I wanted to know the difference between right and wrong. I wanted to know the difference between right and wrong because I wanted to know how to make the workd a better place.

You will not find much of my effort showing up in any study of atheist versus Christian charity. Yet, this does not change the fact that the wealth that I have given up, and the hours that I have spent, were all devoted to helping to make it the case that people are better off (in less need o direct charity) than they would have otherwise been.

I can well imagine that many of the physicists, chemists, biologists, climatologists, and the like are the same way.

I do not know how successful I have been, but that is a different metric.

Of course, hate-mongering bigots are not concerned about these types of complexities. Show the hate-mongering bigot a set of statistics that they can twist and manipulate into an argument useful in selling hate and prejudice, and to them this is like winning the lottery.


Anonymous said...

I have read your blog for a long time. I am wondering have you read "god wants you dead" and what you think of it. Many similair ideas you share with it.

Mike said...

Could we ask the question: "Is there a special or significant social benefit specific to religious institutions."

Or alternatively:

"Would society suffer a significant loss if it lost its religious institutions?"

I might say "yes" to both. Channeling Joseph Campbell, I wonder if their myths, partially the Christian myth, champions a character that was charitable, kind, and loving to the poorest (in health and wealth) among us. With out that inspiration, I am arguably less courageous when balancing my needs versus the needs of those less fortunate.

On a psychological level, a proper Christian may experience a stronger motivation to do good, since their mind is concerned with an eternal reward beyond death. In addition, they have heroes and champions, stories of people who were selfless in life, to live up to.

As Atheists, might we benefit from maintaining our neurological spiritual faculties? And by spiritual faculties, I mean our appreciation of the irrational aspects of our experience: Humor, Love, Compassion, and Awe at unknown the Universe still holds.

Ian Andreas Miller said...

The flip response may be flip, but I certainly found it amusing! I'd use it purely for the sake of being snarky before providing a real answer to the original question.

Inquisitive Atheist said...

I totally agree with you here; it seems that you are sort of getting at a Kantian sense of morality where an action can only be truly moral if you do not have an interest in it. A Christian may be charitable to promote their church or to assure themselves a place in heaven, where an atheist has neither of these in mind and does the action (presumably) because its good in itself.

That being said, there are selfish reasons to be charitable that apply to theists and non-theists alike such as someone who does a charitable act not because they believe it to be good, but to receive praise for it and so as to appear charitable when they really aren't.

Eneasz said...

such as someone who does a charitable act not because they believe it to be good, but to receive praise for it and so as to appear charitable when they really aren't.

I find this confusing. Praise is one of the tools of social conditioning that we use. Thus, if someone does something to receive praise, we should praise them. That's what it's there for. To promote behavior we want to promote.

Besides, if someone does something often enough, even for reasons we would see as non-celebratory, it will eventually become an ingrained habit and they will do it for its own sake. "Fake it 'till you make it" really does work, in most cases.

Also, how can one appear charitable without being charitable? Unless they are writing bad checks, the only way to be charitable is to give resources to charity. Even if they are doing it for reasons other than "it feels good to do good", I think giving resources to charity is charitable by definition.