The launch of a new humanist/atheist charitable foundation, Foundation Beyond Belief, has given me an opportunity to say a few words about atheism and charity.
One of the major scholarly books on the subject of the relationship between religious belief and practice on the one hand and charitable contributions on the other is Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism. The book reports empirical research that shows that conservatives are far more generous with their time and money than liberals. Furthermore, the factor that is most strongly associated with charitable actions is religious practice. Religious people give significantly more of their time and money than poor people.
One could complain that this is book was merely a hack job by somebody with a political agenda. Yet, in looking at reviews of the book, I have not found much in the way of criticism of its scientific methods or their results. The sources that I found were inclined to say that the research was properly done and should be taken seriously, even by those who do not like the particular conclusion.
Evaluating the quality of the research is outside of my normal area of work, However, the moral implications that the author draws from the empirical findings are well within my normal area of work - and those deserve some scrutiny.
Let us start with the fact that no amount of statistical relationship between religious practices and charitable actions implies that a god exists. It is almost certainly the case that no god exists. If there is an inescapable link between belief in god and charitable acdtions, we are faced with a tough choice.
We could go with the noble lie - filling peoples' heads with a fiction that is known to promote charitable action.
This option has two problems. The first of these is that it can only be carried out by and large by those who have a substantial disregard for truth and evidence. A regard for truth and evidence helps us to keep our efforts focused on things that actually work, as opposed to wasting our time on that which has no effect or, worse, spending our efforts on actions that do more harm than good.
Imagine that you are sick and you are faced with three liquids you could take. The first contains a useful medicine, the second contains plain tap water, and the third contains a deadly poison. In this type of situation, the usefulness of a love of truth and evidence becomes quite clear. Even if charitable contribution is linked to a belief in God, the price of giving up a love of truth and evidence may have far worse consequences than we would find in giving up whatever difference is found in the charitable acts of atheists and theists.
The second problem with the noble lie is: What if we get the lie wrong? Even if belief in God is an effective way to cause people to become more charitable, we run the risk of mixing the fiction that a God exists with some other potentially harmful errors. For example, a religion that professes the value of charity might also include false beliefs against the use of condoms or other forms of birth control that contribute to the spread of disease.
Or those who invent religion might burden it with a prejudice against homosexuals that inspires its members to be charitable, but to engage in political actions that do a great deal of harm to the well-being of homosexuals.
Or the inventors of religion might end up including statements that glorify flying airplanes into sky scrapers or blowing oneself up at a soccer game or a shopping center killing hundreds of people. If we are going to weaken our interest in truth. Their love of dogma without evidence might leave them holding whole nations hostage to threats of violence if their particular dogma is not accepted - a dogma that, even with its call to charity, may contain some very harmful elements.
However, we only face this problem under the assumption that there is some necessary link between belief in God and charitable actions. If this assumption turns out to be false, then we have other options available. That is to find those elements that cause religious people to be more charitable than those who not religious and to copy them in a society that respects truth and reason, whose members hold that no god exists.
For example, it may well be the fact that religions are successful in forming a strong sense of community that, in turn, inspires charitable actions. In this case, rational atheists would see this as reason for atheists to promote a stronger sense of community - to set up those institutions and practices that make a community and which bind people together.
It may well be useful to bundle the children up once a week and to take them along to a meeting where they gather with other folks and hear lessons that praise the value of charity and that makes a big deal of helping the less fortunate members of that group. This may well help to promote a love of charitable actions that will stay with most children throughout their adult years, and be passed on to their children.
Such a gathering need not be devoted to preaching fictions such as the existence of a god or make-believe stories of prophets that have been dead for centuries. It would also include a love of truth and reason - lectures on the marvels of science in fields from astronomy to zoology.
In both cases, the leap from the premise that religious people are currently more charitable than the non-religious to the conclusion that we should praise religion and condemn atheism is invalid. In fact, it's a bigot's leap - the leap that we will find people making if they are disposed to find reasons to hate atheists and think they are successful when they discover such a relationship.
The fair and just person asks, "How can we arrange our institutions to make atheists as charitable as theists?" The bigoted hate monger immediately leaps onto the desired assumption that it cannot be done.