Friday, January 08, 2010

Atheism and Charity: Rational Giving

If we are going to look at the difference between theists and atheists with respect to charitable giving, one of the concepts we should introduce is that of rational charity. This is the idea of putting one's money where it can do the most good, and not wasting money on that which has no effect, or that which actually harms the people that one is trying to help.

We get significant examples of this from religious charities.

There are those who devote a considerable amount of effort building churches where they could be building water treatment plants, and teaching a set of religious myths where they could be teaching people to better understand the real world in which they live.

They do more harm than good by teaching that which substantially ignorant tribesmen who have long been dead once held to be immoral as if those ignorant tribesmen had perfect knowledge. They encourage behavior that is destructive, discourage behavior that would be helpful, and institutes an attitude that any who would dare to question these ancient and false beliefs must be condemned as heretics.

However, even if one gets around these problems, there is a great deal that one needs to know in order to engage in rational charity. There is so much information out there that most of us base our decisions on very little information. In fact, we are more likely to be guided to make our decisions based on proximity than on reason - those organizations that are closest to us and easier to reach as opposed to those that do the most good.

We have ways of knowing the types of things that are relevant to determining how much good can be done by a particular set of actions Mostly they involve the types of research that scientists are particularly good at conducting. You take a course of action, you compare it to relevantly similar actions, you look at the various outcomes, and you pursue the option that produces the best outcomes.

It takes a lot of work to determine whether your charitable dollars are being used properly. However, the work could well be worth it. $250 worth of effort that goes into seeing that a $750 contribution will be well spent is better than a $1000 contribution to an organization that wastes $500 on activities having no effect, or spends $300 doing $700 of harm while spending $700 to do only $500 in good.

This is a risk that one takes when one's charity is directed by the recommendations of substantially ignorant tribesmen who have been dead for centuries written into some ancient book.

If each of us has to do that work ourselves it would take a great deal of effort - and it would be wasted effort. It would be more rational to assign the task of selecting charities to somebody we can trust, who will then do the effort of determining the quality of the plans created by the recipients of that money.

Those trusted individuals could then give us the results of their research, helping the rest of us to ensure that our charitable contributions go to organizations that do more good and less harm with the resources we give them.

In fact, it may be worthwhile to pay such an organization to research these types of issues and get back to us. A $1000 contribution to an organization that takes $100 off the top to make sure that the remaining $900 goes to where it will do the most good is far more efficient than $1000 to an organization that pursues some type of magical solution to a real-world problem or one whose philosophy has its members performing or advocating behavior that is actually harmful.

The best method for determining whether a charity is doing a good job is to employ the tools of verifiable premises and logical reasoning that have been such a benefit to science generally. The fact that the leaders of an organization are pious is not sufficient to conclude that they are doing a good job. One should look instead at what the organization has actually accomplished with its money in the past, and at the quality of reasoning used in determining what actions will produce the best outcome going forward.

Do the leaders of the organization respect the principles of reason and evidence when it comes to making plans?

The consequence of this approach should be the ability to do more good with the resources that are available - save more lives, put more families on a more secure foundation, promote more effective forms of education, provide education in those areas that are the most useful, promote rational economic and social reforms, and the like.


Tim said...

Your point about some charities being much more efficient than others is very important.

Also, when most people think of giving, it's generally a simple matter of donating. There are other models, though admittedly hard to find, that are designed to build the income of the one getting involved as well as the benefactor.

This is one such case-

josef said...

Alonzo, this is your fifth post on the subject of atheist charity. You have frequently said that atheists are less charitable in general than their religious counterparts, at least according to some metrics that estimate charitable giving of those groups.

In the first comment back in this thread, I linked to several pieces of research showing no difference in giving between atheists and theists.

I was wondering what research you have looked at, that show atheists less giving. For instance, the one about blood donations- I tried googling it but your posts are the first to show up, and many links to atheist blood drives (perhaps ironically, given my question). I'm not skeptical of whether the research exists, but I am a little skeptical of the inference that atheists are less giving, even on traditional metrics.

Doug S. said...

If you want to point people toward efficient charities, this is a good place to direct them to.

For The People By the People: You Decide. said...

I have not found atheist to be any less charitable than the believer. In fact when an atheist donates to a charity or to an individual he/she is doing so without a 'commandment' from God without the conscious or subconscious belief that the charitable act is going to help him/her get into heaven. There is no heavenly benefit in doing good deeds. I Personally believe this makes their charitable act more honest and precious. Just my 2 cents worth

Anonymous said...

Having studied the history of architecture I don't agree that building a church is necessarily a zero sum game. The choice of water treatment versus churches seems like a false one to me. What is more in the towns were I have lived many of the church buildings were so beautiful that I was happy to see them despite the fact that I didn't use them. There is hardly a city in existance that doesn't benifit from religious architecture. New York City, the largest city in my neck of the woods, has numerous examples of church buildings which make the world a better place, including St John Cathedral, St Patrick Cathedral, Trinty, St Paul's Church and numerous other examples.

Unknown said...

Giving a donation without ANY reason whatsoever IS an irrational act! Giving a donation because of compassion within you is actually a Commandment from your heart - AND THEREFORE FROM God!

Compassion is NOT somethiing we arbitrarily choose to have or not have. It is in ALL OF US! It is put there by our Maker - God! But, because we are given free will, we can arbitrarily choose to follow its guidance or suppress it within us!