Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Atheist Charity: The Causal Connection

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.

12 comments:

Jayman said...

If there is an inescapable link between belief in god and charitable actions, we are faced with a tough choice.

Technically, atheists are faced with a tough choice because their desire for truth and their desire for morality come into conflict, while theists are faced with an easy choice because their desire for truth and their desire for morality are in harmony.

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.

If belief in God (and not associated institutions) does make people more charitable, how could atheists ever become as charitable as theists (all other things being equal)? For a thought experiment, suppose a sense of community makes people donate 5% of their income to charity and a belief that God exists makes people donate 2% of their income to charity. In such a world, a theist with a strong sense of community would donate 7% of his income to charity while an atheist with a strong sense of community would donate 5% of his income to charity. How could the atheist ever catch up to the theist (without becoming a theist)? Theists and atheists could share the same institutions but they can't, by definition, share a belief in God's existence.

Jean-Louis Piraux said...

I really enjoy this post. I would add the following: if belief in God also means you believe that the world as it is is good because it is the expression of God's will, believers will tend to be conservative and therefore will not be willing to solve the underlying problems (income inequality etc), the excesses of which charity is tackling. To a certain extent, charity is going to help an unjust social order to go on.

Anfractuous said...

Comparative assessment of amounts of “time and money” spent on charity by atheists and theists seems to me to be a waste of time. How do we know what quality of time is spent and what kind of charity we’re talking about? How about applying some cost/benefit analysis before declaring a “winner” in charitable activity?

For instance, we’d have to know how effective the charity is at relieving whatever condition is being treated and at what cost, as in forced “belief” in a god, or if the money actually ends up in the pockets of a fat cat evangelist who preys on his congregation, or as you mentioned, actual harm in the cases of banning condoms or factual sex education, whether the time spent is on effective activity or rather on posturing and praying (not very helpful no matter how many hours are put in) etc. The list of questions is long and the cost (harm) is extremely high for the kind of charity usually associated with religious organizations.

Besides, I propose that charity becomes less and less necessary when good education and policy result in people understanding how to apply reason and science to their problems. To this end, scientists and teachers are busy relieving the conditions that would otherwise result in the necessity for what we’ve seen is dubious charitable giving. Shouldn’t this activity be counted? Obviously, scientists and teachers may not all be atheists, but that fact is irrelevant to the ends that come about as a result of good education and good science. In fact, the whole issue of “who gives more” is irrelevant. In addition, no amount of charity will result in the permanent betterment of people if governmental and corporate policies continue to bleed them of their wealth and well-being.

So the whole question of who is more charitable is about as useful as knowing whose shit stinks less. It just doesn’t matter. Shit is shit, so keep it where it belongs and don’t bring it out for the rest of us to admire.

(Okay, this whole rant ignores the value of promoting and organizing the obviously necessary generous and compassionate response to catastrophic events, etc. I’m all for it, of course. I just don’t see the need for the ad nauseum competition to discover who’s “better,” especially when based on such deceptive and frankly, bogus, terms.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anfractuous

Your premises are correct. Your conclusion does not follow.

There are important questions to be answered when it comes to making charitable contributions. You mentioned some of them. I intend to discuss this issue in a future post called "rational charity".

However, I am going to draw a different conclusion than you do. Rather than conclude that we should throw our arms up and not make comparisons, I am going to conclude that we should invest some effort into trying to figure out the answers so that we can do more good with the money that we have.

Eneasz said...

Technically, atheists are faced with a tough choice because their desire for truth and their desire for morality come into conflict, while theists are faced with an easy choice because their desire for truth and their desire for morality are in harmony.

Isn't this just another way of saying that theists have a very low desire for truth, so it's not strong enough to conflict with their desire for morality? Isn't that sorta a bad thing, since a people should have a strong desire for truth?

Also, while I agree with you that atheists have this conflict when they've deconverted after being taught that morality comes from religion, I assume that atheists raised by atheist parents (and thus never taught that) do not have such a conflict.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jayman

Technically, atheists are faced with a tough choice because their desire for truth and their desire for morality come into conflict...

How does it come into conflict?

I include in a desire for truth a desire for moral truth.

John Doe said...

I'm really curious about this: What do atheists say to other atheists who have differing moral values? I find it illogical that all atheists would come to the conclusions about morality. Being a student of history I know that they don't. Many adopt the morality of the strong man, or survival of the fittest. Their definition of morality is whatever they think is best for them at that exact moment. I can honestly say that was the way I was when I was an atheist. Not all atheists sit around having deep thoughts, some just wanna have fun. And the (it appears) atheists who frequent this blog with obvious high morals are not responsible for the atheists out there with low/no morals.

I also get the vibe that many atheists are concerned with how they are perceived by theists. "Ooooh, we have to build atheist hospitals so we don't look so bad in comparison." Why? Who cares? I'm guessing there is a chip on your shoulders, but I really don't know. I don't take responsibility for all the asshole Christians in the world. "Ooooh! I have to do something really good to make up for Jim and Tammy Faye!" Instead, my attitude is that I really don't give a shit what atheists think about me or any other Christian. It's a liberating feeling.

Eneasz said...

How does it come into conflict?

I include in a desire for truth a desire for moral truth
.

Alonzo - for me it caused conflict because my desire for truth led me away for religion. But I had been taught that morality comes from religion, so my desire for morality led me to it. Thus the conflict.

Religion lost of course, in large part due to all the immorality it promoted working against it even in it's "strong" field.

Jayman said...

Alonzo, the conflict I had in mind deals with the fact that you contemplate a "noble lie." From the theist's perspective, no lying is necessary because the truth leads to belief in God.

Jayman said...

Eneasz:

Isn't this just another way of saying that theists have a very low desire for truth, so it's not strong enough to conflict with their desire for morality?

No, see my response to Alonzo. If it were shown that religious belief makes people more moral, the atheist must either sacrifice the truth (God does not exist) for morality, or morality for the truth. But theists can promote the truth (God does exist) and morality while sacrificing neither.

Isn't that sorta a bad thing, since a people should have a strong desire for truth?

Yes, which is why I don't think atheists should try to "fake it." At the same time, realize that most of the world sees no conflict between the truth and a belief in God.

Also, while I agree with you that atheists have this conflict when they've deconverted after being taught that morality comes from religion, I assume that atheists raised by atheist parents (and thus never taught that) do not have such a conflict.

I'm not talking about apostasy. I'm saying you would have a conflict if you became convinced that belief in God made people more moral. On the one hand, you would want to promote what you perceive to be the truth (God does not exist), but, on the other hand, you would want people to be more moral (and thus have some inclination to make them believe God exists).

Eneasz said...

Hi Jayman. I kinda see your point, but I disagree that the theist has any less of a conflict. Just because he doesn't realize there is a conflict doesn't mean there isn't one in fact. And a sufficiently weak desire for truth would be one way of not realizing this conflict exists.

Of course it could (hypothetically) be the case that a god does exist, in which case the theist really would not have any conflict. But you can't avoid a conflict just by being unaware of it.

TGP said...

I'm really curious about this: What do atheists say to other atheists who have differing moral values?

Are you really asking this question in the comments thread of an atheist ethics blog?

Madge says, "You're soaking in it."