Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Atheist Charity

One of the hurdles that an organization such as Foundation Beyond Belief - or any atheist or humanist charitable organization for that matter - will have to cross is the fact that atheists tend to be a particularly selfish lot on average. They tend to display a rather weak interest in performing those actions that display concern for what happens to others.

It is ironic that those people who believe that there is a benevolent, omnipotent, all-loving being watching over us tend to do a better job of providing real-world help to those in need than those who believe we are on our own and we have nobody to depend on but each other.

Yet, statistics consistently show that this is the case.

It applies even to a simple act such as giving blood. At the current rate at which atheists and theists tend to donate blood, if everybody were to be converted to atheism, our blood supply would be less than two-thirds of what it is today. That is the magnitude of the difference between the donations of those who believe in a God and those who do not.

One of the theories that I have heard for this is that atheists are alienated from their community and, as such, do not form particularly strong desires to give anything back to that community. I, myself, have argued that the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto, which give the message that the person who does not support a nation 'under God' or trust in God is not fit to be a respected member of this community - counts as a form of psychological abuse. They do, in fact, alienate thee atheist from the community at large. It is not unreasonable to expect that people alienated in this way will feel less of a sense of community that would otherwise inspire charitable acts.

Face it, when the atheist gives a pint of blood or helps a neighbor in need, chances are that blood or that charity will go to somebody who holds that atheists are the least fit to hold public office, who would gladly pass around a viral emial saying that atheists should leave the country, and who holds that the person who gave him that blood is the type of person he would least want his daughter to marry.

This then leads to grand downward spiral in which the lack of atheist charity then is given as a reason for alienating atheists and declaring that they are not fit to be considered fully respected members of the community.

However, the fact that a particular form of immoral behavior has a cause does not mean that it has a justification. In fact, every immoral act - from raping a child to herding Jews into a gas chamber has a cause. The fact that we can explain immoral behavior does not imply that we have a reason to tolerate it.

In fact, quite the opposite. It still remains true that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an interest in helping others - by giving blood and performing other acts of charity. It is still the case that a person who performs charitable acts is deserving of our praise, while those who ignore or turn their backs on those who are less fortunate deserve our condemnation.

One of the implications of desirism is that the good person gets to do whatever he wants. This is because the good person wants those things that produce actions that tend to fulfill the desires of others. Therefore, he wants to do those things that others have reason (though perhaps they do not realize it) to praise and reward.

It's the evil person - or, at least, the less good person - who finds conflict between what he wants to do and what he morally should do.

The good person does not make a sacrifice when he donates money to charity - any more than he makes a sacrifice when he buys tickets to a sporting event. In both cases, the person is paying for something that he values. The difference is that the former person values helping others, while the latter person values being entertained by people running around in an arena for an hour or two.

The fact of the matter is that we are all better off to the degree that we can encourage people to adopt the first set of interests over the second. The person giving to charity gets to have his desires fulfilled - he gets what he wants in helping others. And, of course, the person who receives aid gets to have her desires fulfilled. Charity, after all, is an act that better allows the recipient to fulfill (or prevent the thwarting) of some particularly strong and stable desires.

Charity, according to desire utilitarianism - a virtue that research shows that atheists tend not to have.

There are, of course, bigots and hate-mongers in the world who like to use this fact for political gain. They like to take the general truth about atheists on average and present it as if it is a specific fact true of every individual atheist. They use these types of statistics to sell a message of hatred to those who would listen, telling their listeners and readers that this is just cause to case all atheists regardless of their individual merits.

There are atheists who make tremendous contributions or who take tremendous risks for the benefit of others. Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet are touted as atheists who have made tens of billions of dollars of charitable contributions. Pat Tillman, the NFL player who joined the military after 9-11 and was killed in Afghanistan - first sacrificed a multi-million dollar contract to play professional football, then sacrificed his life.

There is nothing in atheism itself that stands against the value of charity. There is, instead, the fact that too little work is done promoting charity among atheists.

The fact that people generally tend to alienate atheists from socity at large is not a justification for refusing to engage in charitable actions. It is, at best, an explanation. However, it is an explanation that does not deny the legitimacy of condemning the atheist who becomes selfish or for withholding praise from those who make these types of contributions. In fact, even more condemnation is deserved, and even more praise is recommended, to reverse the harmful effects of these types of social factors.

Charitable and selfish behavior both have their causes. If one needs a cause to become more charitable, then let this blog post serve as that cause. People do, as a matter of fact, have many and strong reasons to condemn those who are not charitable, and many and strong reasons to praise those who are. These facts are not muted by whatever experiences one has had as a child or the fact that society at large treats atheists unfairly. These facts are independent of those concerns, which is why those concerns do not provide an excuse for selfish and self-centered behavior.

So, it is time to fully appreciate the fact that there is no benevolent diety looking out for us, and that we have nobody to depend on but each other.

Being a typical atheist when it comes to acts of charity simply is not good enough. It's nothing to be proud of. A well-functioning community needs people who are better than that.

Today is a good day to start.


josef said...

I appreciate the message here, because disputing whether or not atheists are as generous as religious believers implicitly concedes that this point has some sort of relevance to how we should treat atheists.

That being noted, there is evidence that atheists are just as charitable as theists.

In the Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi summarized one study:

The claim that atheists are somehow likely to be immoral or dishonest has long been disproven by systematic studies. In studies that looked at readiness to help or honesty, it was atheists that distinguished themselves, not the religious. Early in the twentieth century, a survey of 2,000 associates of the YMCA found that those identifying themselves as atheists or agnostics were more willing to help the poor than those who called themselves religious (Ross 1950).

And here is a link summarizing six different pieces of research, which found no differences between theists and non-theists when it came to benevolent acts.

Also three of the top four philanthropists in the U.S. are non-theists (Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, George Soros).

Mathias said...

I wonder what the statistics look like when you exclude donations to religious institutions. Donating to a church is like donating to a social club you belong to.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I agree that there are a lot of complexities that I could not cover in a blog posting - even one as long as this.

One of the complications is the type of activity to which one is willing to donate time and money. A great deal of religious 'charity' goes to organizations whose purpose is to block legislative attempts to allow homosexuals the right to marry, for example.

Religious organizations may contribute significantly to the victims of a natural disaster such as hurricane Katrina. However, other types of contributions go into the early warning systems and the knowledge and understanding of hurricanes that help make it the case that fewer people need this kind of help. These types of contributions count, but are often not counted.

Some studies look at acts of charity that may be of dubious value. Giving money to a homeless person on the street may do more harm than good. They should get their help from institutions who are equipped to do more for them then give them cash, while giving them cash may give them the ability to avoid those institutions.

Rational charity, by definition, can do more good than irrational blind giving. Rational charity allows people to do more real-world good with less money. Yet, it can do even more real-world good with just as much money.

These studies also do not consider the voluntary efforts that a person may make as a contribution to his own project. A scientist, for example, who lives - eats - and breathes his area of expertise may donate a great deal of time to his effort to, for example, understand a particular type of cancer. These voluntary contributions, however, are typically not included in measuring how charitable a person is.

Issues of honesty have a different dynamic. A study that shows that atheists are more honest than theists may be explained by the fact that it takes a particular devotion to honesty simply to call oneself an atheist. It is more likely that a dishonest atheist will call himself a theist than that a dishonest theist will call himself an atheist.

I put a lot of emphasis on giving blood, because it is a simple act that can scarcely be misdirected towards inappropriate ends. Blood cannot be used to build a church or to fund a theocratic political end that does more harm than good.

Yet, theists donate more blood than atheists.

This fact gives credibility to those studies that atheists are less inclined to perform similar types of simple charity. It would be odd to argue that there is something peculiar about giving blood that atheists will be less inclined to perform such an act but more inclined to perform similar acts.

Christian Poppycock said...

I think one of the other aspects of this issue is that religious organizations spend a good deal of effort coordinating fund-raising drives of various types, and atheists generally lack the community structure for pulling together in this way. I was struck by my own reluctance to throw a few coins into the Salvation Army bucket last month, and got to thinking about how we might set up a secular "Solstice Brigade" or something to raise money for people in need that don't want to sit through a sermon to get a bowl of soup.

Ketan said...

Hello Alonzo!

I read your blog-posts occasionally, but it is rare that I comment.

I have, on the whole been very impressed by your arguments, and the way you delineate very subtle issues of morality and ethics, which on cursory glance seem too abstract or subjective to 'think' upon.

Again, this post was no less in the precision with which you dissected the issues involved.

Obviously, I choose to comment because I had a few doubts.

In your view, the value of an act would depend upon only the nature of the act or also the circumstances in which it is carried out. For instance, would you consider a person donating blood for his son as much charitable or less so than someone doing it for a stranger? Personally, I would consider the latter case one of greater charitability because there would be weaker obligation, and it would represent a greater proactiveness to do good. Now assuming you agree with me, if blood would have to be donated for someone who had hurt the blood donor in the past, then even greater 'charitability' will have to be summoned to donate blood. And if one would still end up donating blood to one's past adversary, that should be considered most charitable of the three cases. Here, the act remains the same, but 'amount' of charitability actually varies. But of course, this is my personal view.

So, if atheists donate blood less often, I would not think that they are less charitable, but the threshold/emotional barrier put up by the (largely theistic) society for their charitability to manifest itself is higher than for theists. This is analogous to two weight lifters having to lift respectively 100 and 67 kg (corresponding to the frequencies of blood donation by atheists and theists) despite having equal strength (corresponding to charitability in the analogy). To rephrase my doubt, are 'goodness' and 'evilness' in acts merely present v/s absent, or should they also be quantified/graded on a scale?

"It's the evil person - or, at least, the less good person - who finds conflict between what he wants to do and what he morally should do."

In context of your above statement I wanted to refer you to one of my old blog-posts - A moral brainteaser (click)....

Ketan said...

...My post is not related to your current post, but I wanted to point out it may not always be easy to make out the most moral position in an issue. And I'm requesting you to go through it only because I have seen you dissect moral issues with great precision and objectivity, so am curious of your views.

The post (which consists of a situation) would take about 5 min for you to read. And apart from your response as to what would you do, I would like to know if the situation presents any difficulty in reaching a moral decision, or could you reach it with conviction pretty quickly.

Lastly, was the methodology employed to carry out the survey about blood donation appropriate? I ask this, since at least in India in my social circle I have found atheists/agnostics/skeptics donating blood more frequently than theists. For instance, I myself have donated blood 4 times since I turned 18, which is significantly higher than the people of my college (consisting largely of theists).

Take care.

PS: I had to break my comment into two because of having to post it through my cell phone.

SS400 said...

You know, I think it'd be unrealistic to expect atheists to give more blood than theists seeing as how the latter outnumbers the former by such a large degree...

Edcander said...

supersage400 - I think he means for the average religious/atheistic person, not total blood donated by each group.

In any case, I'm not sure it's a completely fair comparison. For example, people often compare Australian Aboriginals to Caucasian groups, and then denigrate the former for being alcoholic's with massive crime rates. Now, you can argue that the crime rate is inflated due to biased policing, but the fact remains that this is an unfair comparison, because how do you know that it is the ethnicity that is the cause of the drinking, as opposed to other psychosocial factors? It's confusing correlation with causation.

In the atheist case, I'd want to know if atheists at least compare to religion's on the same socio-economic strata, and level of education.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


In the atheist case, I'd want to know if atheists at least compare to religion's on the same socio-economic strata, and level of education.

I do not know the answer in the education case, but in the case of socioeconomic background, religious people give considerably more to charity than atheists at the same income levels.

Yet, even here it is not a fair question because of the huge number of additional influences that might be involved.

In my next post I will address some of the aspects of association versus causation.

You are absolutely right, none of this proves a causal relationship - none of this proves that atheism itself is to be condemned for its effect on charity.

That is a separate issue that needs to be addressed.

In fact, this post was written in the belief that atheism is not the cause of selfishness. It would, in fact, be absurd for me to write a post arguing that atheists should be more charitable if atheism itself is incompatible with charity.

I will say more in my next post.

John Doe said...

I too give blood regularly, not because of my belief in God, but because my father was a good example.

I know I'll likely be crucified for saying this, but perhaps a reason atheists give less blood is because many of them do not share the judeo-christian morality they therefore engage in more "high risk" activity (as defined by the Virginia Blood Services, at least). Where I give blood, they ask whether I have EVER had sex with another man since 1977 (or something like that), or EVER paid for sex, or taken drugs intraveneously, and many similar questions. Because I have not chosen to engage in those activities, I can honestly answer and give blood, while someone who has engaged in those activities cannot (provided they answer honestly).

The above is not a slam on atheists, nor is it a slam on the morality of those here, it is just common sense. So the fact that atheists as a group give less blood may not be related to their desire to give blood, but due to the fact that for some portion of them their blood is not wanted because of their prior actions.

Eneasz said...

Where I give blood, they ask whether I have EVER had sex with another man since 1977 (or something like that).

Same here. Every time I give blood I protest this bigotry in the comments section. This is an example of something that causes harm for no good reason and should be removed. This bigotry can literally result in dead people who could still be alive.

Fortunately it's ignored/not enforced here, my gay friends still give blood. Still, it's a black mark on an otherwise good organization.

john doe said...

Eneasz, you are assuming it is bigoted. I assume it is to protect the blood supply. A person who has sex with other men is at a much greater risk in the USA to be infected with HIV than someone who never has. Are they bigoted against prostitutes and I.V. drug users, too?

I could care less about the feelings of gays. Giving blood isn't an exercise in political correctness. If they engage in high risk behavior, they are at risk of having HIV and not even knowing it. That puts other innocent people at risk if they donate blood.

I personally met with a man who came to my firm enquiring whether or not he could sue the supplier of blood for the fact that they gave him blood tainted with HIV. He developed AIDS and is probably dead by now (that was 15 yrs ago). Setting aside the rules so that gays can feel good about themselves for donating blood is pure idiocy.

I don't think anybody who is not in a monogamous relationship with the same person [for however long it takes to ensure that their blood is safe] should be allowed to give blood. Maybe you can convince me otherwise, if perhaps the testing is better now, but there used to be a lag time between a person having HIV and it showing up on tests.

I also know another person who was falsely diagnosed with hiv after a blood test--tests are not infallibe and thus the blood sppliers err on the side of caution.

Emu Sam said...

Many members of my family are currently blacklisted from giving blood because we have traveled to certain parts of Africa or South America within the last 2-6 years, including one who went as a volunteer for Doctors without Borders.

The trouble with not accepting blood from anyone who has not been in a monogamous relationship for the past two years (a common time span for many of the diseases they check for) is that the vast majority of people are not monogamous for long stretches of time, and we need more people to donate blood, not fewer. Furthermore, even if the donor has been monogamous, they probably cannot know if their partner has also been monogamous for the same time. The balance of probability is that they have not.

Most people have safe blood to give, even though a primarily polygamous history throughout the population might suggest otherwise.

Eneasz said...

Eneasz, you are assuming it is bigoted. I assume it is to protect the blood supply.

Then your assumption shows your bigotry. The correct question is not "have you had homosexual contact with a man in the past 40 years", but rather "have you had unprotected sex with a someone who is not committed to a monogamous relationship with you in the past two years."

Do you really want to protect the blood supply, or are you pretending to care about other people as a shield for your own bigotry? If the former (and I grant it's a possibility), then you should be making comments similar to mine every time you donate blood.

A person who has sex with other men is at a much greater risk in the USA to be infected with HIV than someone who never has.

Well shit, guess that means we can't accept blood from straight women, doesn't it?

Are they bigoted against prostitutes and I.V. drug users, too?

Are you trying to compare an I.V. drug user to a monogamous gay couple?

I could care less about the feelings of gays. Giving blood isn't an exercise in political correctness.

If your son dies because of a lack of transfusable blood, I hope you remember these words. This actually IS a matter of life and death.

they gave him blood tainted with HIV.

Of course, this must have been GAY BLOOD! No straight blood could EVER have been tainted with teh HIV! Why, that would mean that straight couples might not be monogamous!

I don't think anybody who is not in a monogamous relationship with the same person [for however long it takes to ensure that their blood is safe] should be allowed to give blood. Maybe you can convince me otherwise,

Actually, I don't want to. Please fight for equality with the rest of us.

proverbs31derwoman said...

" The fact that people generally tend to alienate atheists from society at large is not justification for refusing to engage in charitable actions."

I agree, and an example comes to mind... African Americans; a group in the minority that most certainly was not accepted by the majority for YEARS (and still has issues today).

However, they served their country (the same country that had them drinking from inferior fountains and attending inferior schools)... despite the alienation... Very interesting topic.

Edcander said...

I don't think that analogy is entirely correct. Atheists are often alienated by religious charities because it goes directly against their beliefs, the equivalent for African Americans would be to be working for the KKK.

terencem said...

Over the next few months, a humanist charitable organization called charity:poverty will be opening up at, so we shall see just how good atheists are at being good world citizens. I think they'll do just fine.

Anonymous said...

what a load of hate filled nonsense. I understand why a lot of christians "lie for Jesus", they want more people to go to church and hand over their money. But why lie about charity work?

It sounds like you're unhappy that people will kindly give their money to a charity instead of giving it to a church. What a horrible person you must be.

Ryan Broadfoot said...

If you want evidence of Atheist giving back to communities look no further than where an atheist family will be spending Easter Weekend raising $10 000 for The Bravehearts Foundation to help sexually abused children instead of sitting in church and shoving chocolate down their throats. This is not uncommon, the more you look the more you find!

Ridley said...

In the UK, you can't donate blood if you are a man who sleeps with men, a woman who sleeps with men who sleep with men, if you are recently pierced or tattooed, if you are on medication, if you holiday in certain countries etc.

This excludes a huge swathe of the population and actually, IS bigoted. The homosexuals I know are scrupulous about sexual health and contraception, much more so than their heterosexual counterparts. Oh and some of them are actually in monogamous relationships John Doe. Shocking - but then I doubt many homosexuals care to associate with you.

Last time I went to donate blood, I was asked a series of questions - after reassuring them that I didn't do heroin, they asked me if I has slept with anyone from Africa, then clarified that they meant any non-white people from Africa.

Perhaps I just had a racist nurse, who knows.

terencem said...

"The homosexuals I know are scrupulous about sexual health and contraception, much more so than their heterosexual counterparts. Oh and some of them are actually in monogamous relationships"... which planet did you say you lived on @Ridley ???

Ridley said...

Earth. Where I thought people weren't endemically homophobic. Silly me for always thinking people are better than they actually are.

terencem said...

No not silly you for thinking better of folk than they often times are, silly you for thinking its only your experience or empirical knowledge which is important and not allowing for other folk to have an entirely but no less genuine, and probably, less bigoted experience than your own, but quite different. And silly also for not realizing not everyone who disagrees with you is your enemy, any more than anyone who agrees with you is your friend.