“Let’s see, we have scores of Baptist Hospitals, Method[ist] Hospitals, Jewish Hospitals, Catholic Hospitals, etc., etc.. Each of these have ‘outreach’ programs both here and in the most dismal places on earth, staffed with dedicated medical doctors and nurses. Where oh where are the Atheist’s hospitals, or soup kitchens?”
—quoted by Jonah Goldberg for National Review Online
“One hundred years after Christ had died, suppose someone had asked a Christian, What hospitals have you built? What asylums have you founded? They would have said, ‘None.’ Suppose three hundred years after the death of Christ the same questions had been asked the Christian, he would have said, ‘None, not one.’ Two hundred years more and the answer would have been the same. And at that time the Christian could have told the questioner that the Mohammedans had built asylums before the Christians. He could also have told him that there had been orphan asylums in China for hundreds and hundreds of years, hospitals in India, and hospitals for the sick at Athens.”
—Robert Green Ingersoll, “What Infidels Have Done”
The accusation is often made that atheism, if widely adopted, would have detrimental effects on the well-being of humanity. One common example of these supposed negative effects is the cessation of charitable and humanitarian work done by religious believers, which atheists, being the bitter, reclusive misanthropes we allegedly are, would not choose to continue.
While these criticisms are usually made without any shred of substantiation, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if a study were to be done that found that religious believers, on average, do perform more charity work than atheists. If such a thing were found, I would expect that it isn’t because religion makes people morally better than atheism. Rather, it would be because churches often organize charitable activities and exhort their members to participate, while atheists, as of yet, have no comparable social structure. Such a finding could be explained not by superior moral sentiment among churchgoers, but simply by increased opportunity.
However, this is in no way to imply that atheists do not participate in charity work or that we lack generosity or concern for their fellow people. On the contrary, I know from personal experience that many atheists do participate in charity. It’s just that we don’t do it because we are atheists. Nor, in most cases, do we feel the need to trumpet our atheism as the motivation for that work, the way some theists do. We do it simply because it needs doing, because we are concerned with the well-being of our fellow humans.
Many of history’s great humanitarians have been nonbelievers. Robert Ingersoll speaks of some renowned infidel philanthropists in his essay linked above. Even in our own time, we can witness atheist acts of beneficience such as those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who have each individually made the two largest charitable donations in American history and can rightly claim credit for spurring many other ultra-rich to do the same.
Now we can add another name to the list of atheist philanthropists – that of Robert W. Wilson, a retired hedge-fund manager and confirmed atheist who is giving over $22 million to charity. The beneficiary of his largesse, however, might strike some atheists as a bit unusual:
…Wilson said he is giving $22.5 million to the Archdiocese of New York to fund a scholarship program for needy inner-city students attending Roman Catholic schools.
Although I always prefer to support secular organizations over religious ones, I understand Wilson’s decision and can find little fault with it. The desire to help needy students from poor families get a quality education is a great and praiseworthy act of compassion, and in Catholic schools, at least, the degree of religious indoctrination is likely to be minimal. At least these schools do not discriminate against prospective students who hold a different faith, and teach good science unpolluted by superstitious notions like creationism. In any case, I hope these students remember that though they are attending a Catholic school, it is an atheist who put them there.
This donation is in addition to the almost $150 million that Wilson donated to charity in 2006, according to a survey by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, making him the 12th most generous philanthropist in the U.S. (He has a personal fortune of over $500 million and has said he intends to give away most of it before he dies.) Clearly, atheism in no way impeded these people’s desire to do good, and the outstanding amounts of money they have given away will make a great deal of difference in the lives of a vast number of people. The next time an ignorant proselytizer looking to score rhetorical points accuses atheists of lacking concern or compassion, we will now have another excellent counterexample to that claim.
“Philanthropist” is a perfect word to describe these people. From the Greek, it literally means “lover of humanity”, and that is precisely what an atheist who gives away his personal fortune to help others is. A theist who does good works only because he wants to earn merit points with God, or as a form of advertising for his faith, arguably is acting from selfish motives and therefore does not really deserve to be praised at all. An atheist, on the other hand, does charity not to win the approval of a distant deity, but as a tangible contribution toward improving the lives of other human beings who are in need of assistance right now. We do good because it is the right thing to do, and not for any other reason.