How Much Good Do Religious Charities Really Do?

I just finished reading Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book on what we can do to improve the status of women worldwide. One of the book’s major arguments is that, despite their opposition to abortion and contraception, religious groups often do more good than secular liberals give them credit for:

Religious conservatives… have also saved lives in vast numbers by underwriting and operating clinics in some of the neediest parts of Africa and Asia. When you travel in the poorest countries in Africa… the people you almost inevitably encounter are the missionary doctors and church-sponsored aid workers. [p.142]

Kristof and WuDunn write that both religious and secular groups do important work, and that liberals, moderates and conservatives from across the political spectrum should be able to cooperate to accomplish more. I agree! And so does Saad Mohammed Ali, a U.S. resident and former Iraqi refugee who’s fluent in English and Arabic. He applied for a caseworker position at World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, for a job that involved helping Iraqi refugees resettle in America. On the face of it, he seemed ideally suited. And World Relief would have thought so too – except, it turns out, for one small, insignificant detail (HT: The Wall of Separation):

…a few days after he applied for the position last December, [Ali] got an unexpected call from the same manager at World Relief: She was sorry, she told him, but the agency couldn’t offer him the job because he is not Christian.

Saad Mohammed Ali, you see, is a Muslim. And no matter how well qualified a Muslim might be to help the people World Relief wants to help, World Relief doesn’t hire Muslims. It only hires evangelical Christians.

The opponents of atheism often accuse us of believing that no religion has ever done any good for anyone – a position that’s obviously absurd and is held by no atheist that I know of. (Even Christopher Hitchens, atheist firebrand extraordinaire, says only that there’s no good which a religious person could do but an atheist couldn’t do.) The argument that atheists actually make is twofold. First, we assert that churches and religious groups’ charitable work comes from the universal human sense of compassion, not from any specifically religious teaching. (This is most clearly shown by the fact that every religion, regardless of its beliefs, does work like this. Even Hamas builds schools, hospitals and orphanages.) Second, we assert that in spite of this, the religious beliefs of those groups often hamper their efforts by causing them to accomplish less good than they otherwise could have – even worsening the very problems they’re trying to solve.

The clearest example is Roman Catholicism: the church does social work that helps the poor and AIDS victims in Africa and Asia, but by their hard-line opposition to condoms, they’re making the problem worse by ensuring that there will be more poor people and more AIDS sufferers. A similar case is that of abstinence-only sex education. I don’t doubt that the Christian evangelicals who support these programs genuinely want to reduce teen pregnancy and STDs. The problem is that their approach has been shown to be not nearly as effective as comprehensive programs that teach about contraception.

So too with World Relief. The problem isn’t that they do no good at all, but that they artificially and arbitrarily limit the good they do by turning away perfectly qualified candidates just because they don’t hold the right beliefs. And because atheism, as a movement, is relatively new and unorganized, we don’t yet have the infrastructure to offer an alternative path to people who are rejected by religious charities that refuse to hire nonbelievers.

The major churches have been been running social programs for decades, have local branches all over the world, and have support from governments and wealthy, well-connected donors. They have a head start on us. We’re working to organize and to catch up, but this takes time – and since they won’t work with us or hire us in the meantime, it’s more difficult to get our own efforts off the ground. This makes any straightforward comparison, of the “atheists don’t do as much charitable work as religious people” sort, misguided and ignorant. (Another thought: How many current employees of World Relief are not evangelicals, but are afraid to disclose their beliefs lest they lose their jobs?)

One more point to highlight: according to AU, World Relief gets up to seventy percent of its funding from the U.S. government. That’s your tax dollars and mine, American readers, going to underwrite jobs that we can never be hired for because we don’t believe the right dogmas. This glaring constitutional violation would be excellent grounds for a lawsuit, if the right-leaning Supreme Court hadn’t slammed the door in our faces by ruling that, due to legal technicalities about who exactly is spending the money, freethinkers have no power to compel the government to respect the First Amendment. We’re at a double disadvantage: the government can take our money, use it to fund prejudiced, proselytizing religious charities without our consent, and then to cap it off, arrogant religious apologists demand to know why we aren’t accomplishing as much good as those charities!

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://kdegraaf.net/blog/ Kevin DeGraaf

    While I agree wholeheartedly with most of this post, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we atheists need to build up a charitable “infrastructure” to “get our own efforts off the ground”.

    In my humble opinion, this line of reasoning concedes the point made by religious apologists that atheism is a religion and, therefore, it’s fair to compare charitable donations given in the name of atheism to charitable donations given in the name of other religions. I reject their psychological projection and the poorly-reasoned arguments stemming from it (“Atheists are uncaring and immoral!”).

    I don’t think it’s wise to go about setting up charities explicitly based on a *lack* of belief in any particular fictional being(s) — gods, fairies, leprechauns, etc.

    I give to charity because of the universal human sense of compassion you mentioned. I don’t see any reason to associate that with disbelief in Yahweh or Thor or the great juju under the sea (to use Dawkins’s hilarious example).

    This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with *secular* charities, which I’d define as those that don’t take a position on religion at all. In fact, being secular is a non-negotiable criterion for my personal charity selection — Doctors Without Borders would be a good example.

    Perhaps I’ve misunderstood or misconstrued you, and I apologize in advance if that’s the case.

  • http://base8.lavenderliberal.com/index.html Buffy

    There’s nothing “charitable” about so-called religious charities. The Faith Based Initiative should be eradicated post haste. It’s bad enough the churches leech off the taxpayers, we shouldn’t be funding their “charities”, which get little or none of the oversight secular charities have. If they want to use their “religious beliefs” to run their business let their god and their followers fund them, not the taxpayers.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I’m surprised you didn’t touch on the practice of requiring aid recipients to submit to proselytization, nor of the Catholic Charities’ willingness to withdraw charitible services in D.C. based on sexuality. Both of these points address what I feel is the main point of much faith-based charity: spreading the meme.

  • Myrdek

    If you want a way to shut up the believer who use the argument that religious people give more to charity, use other countries as examples. The most atheistic countries in the world are also the most generous. Not that becoming an atheist makes you more generous, but it does prove that religion doesn’t make people give more.

  • http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/ arensb

    One can easily argue that if a charity organization proselytizes, then the proselytizing is waste: if a church sends $1000 worth of Bibles to Haiti, that’s $1000 that wasn’t spent on something useful like food or blankets.

    I’ve occasionally seen statistics showing that religious people in the US are more generous than atheists. But I’d like to see a breakdown of the figures: how much “charitable donation” is tithing? Which percentage of donations to charitable organizations goes to helping people in need?

  • Zietlos

    “Sell the Vatican: Feed the world”?

    Kevin, it isn’t so much donating in the name of atheism, but rather donating in the name of secular improvement, by people who happens to be a known atheist. That’s the ideal, I think. We want to help people, but we also want the fact that we ARE helping people to be recognized (even atheists aren’t totally selfless), for people to see, widespread, that people can be generous, no matter how many gods they believe in. (Or, in some people’s cases, to prove that a lack of belief brings greater effect to those in need by avoiding spending on other unneeded things, as Comment 5 says)

    So the difficulty is this: You’ve gotta show that atheists are generous, and a real part of society, without showing them to be a uniform part of society that says that without exception all atheists are generous, as individuality is one of the proud points of many atheists.

  • John Nernoff

    Religious people donate to charity because they expect a quid pro quo. Love your neighbor as you would have them love you in return. They have a God that tells them to be nice and they will get them rewarded, usually by eternal life.

    I see nothing whatsoever in the *philosophy* of atheism (or non-belief, agnosticism, etc.) that tell us to donate anything to charity, beyond what any impulse to humanism tells everybody, religious or not. Setting up atheist charities just seems artificial and trying to ape the theist to get good approval ratings from society. Sure, It might help the cause, but then to some it might seem forced and copy-cat and redolent of an ulterior motive beyond that of pure sincerity of the philosophical position.

  • joanna

    I find it frustrating when I want to donate to charity or volunteer and the only outlets available are religious, so I appreciate explicitly non-religious charities. I’m not overly concerned with societal approval ratings, but I do hate when people on the receiving end of aid feel that converting is the way to get a chance in life or that christianity is always correlated with success and comfort, just because the rich people helping them are christians. I want there to be more options for people.

    But I think whether aid work gets accomplished is more important than who’s doing it. Pretty much all of the aid workers I’ve encountered are missionaries, and they’re doing really essential work. I think creating non-religious alternatives is important, but I don’t think it makes sense to hamper religious charities right now since in many places they are the only option and still insufficient to meet the needs.

  • jemand

    I dunno about the doing really essential work– a lot of missionaries fan the flames of superstition and it results in a culture in which such things as witch burnings of children and elderly and others is considered a *good* thing. The missionaries never take their beliefs that seriously, but they teach others too without even noticing. And I don’t think it is *possible* to advance a society much when you keep women stuck in basically a slave class– producing on average 7 or 8 children, which puts *tremendous* stress on a population and society, to deal with that many more children, each of which is then shoved right back in the gender box and rinse/repeat. Missionaries might help a tiny bit with a few immediate problems– but do so by entrenching and encouraging *systems* which will continue to bear even worse fruit of hardship and oppression in the future.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Even when religious charities do actual good, even when they use their own money, they are still using that activity to advertise their brand. This self-interest cuts into any claims that religious charitable work is purely altruistic. And when they are using my money, excluding me from participation, and using it to advertise their brand, it is triply offensive.

  • Nathaniel

    A similar case is that of abstinence-only sex education. I don’t doubt that the Christian evangelicals who support these programs genuinely want to reduce teen pregnancy and STDs. The problem is that their approach has been shown to be not nearly as effective as comprehensive programs that teach about contraception.

    Sorry, gotta disagree here. While this may be true for some people, for a lot of Christians who advocate for this abstinence only is explicitly about teaching christian doctrine and bringing people into the fold. They can speak pretty candidly when among friends. As for the people who inevitably have sex, get STDs and become pregnant? Well, the sluts should have stayed pure, and now they are getting their due punishment.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The missionaries never take their beliefs that seriously, but they teach others too without even noticing. [Emphasis added]

    I’m always uncomfortable with absolutes, even when I agree with the general thrust.

    And I don’t think it is *possible* to advance a society much when you keep women stuck in basically a slave class– producing on average 7 or 8 children, which puts *tremendous* stress on a population and society, to deal with that many more children, each of which is then shoved right back in the gender box and rinse/repeat.

    Given that poverty and children/family are intimately linked, attacking poverty is actually a decent way to achieve birth control.

  • jemand

    But Thumpalumpacus, it goes the other way too, poverty and birth control *are* linked, so teaching people birth control is evil and trying to reduce it’s availability will have the result of increasing and entrenching poverty over many generations…

    You can’t effectively fight incidental poverty while pushing for vast cultural belief systems which have the result of increasing poverty.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    True, it’s an interplay. I’m just pointing out that attacking poverty is a form of liberating women from reproductive slavery.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    Thanks for writing this. It’s ridiculous that they would not hire someone who is actually an Iraqi refugee himself and who is well-qualified to help other Iraqi refugees. That, to me, shows that helping people, while certainly a goal of these charity organizations, seems to be a secondary goal — after standing up for their faith.

    Another thing that worries me about some religious charities and organizations are that they may turn away or not help certain people whose religion they disagree with or who they disapprove of (such as LGBT individuals).

  • Eurekus

    When I was a theist I couldn’t really give too much money to charity. Why? Since I don’t regard the clergy as a charity the answer is obvious. After all, I only had so much money to hand around.

    Remember Benny Hinn? He lives like a globetrotting King. What a rort!

    It’s obvious religious charities are there to give the clergy respectability.

  • Eurekus

    To finish my last comment.

    It’s obvious religious charities are there to give the clergy respectability since their benefit is outweighed by the problems they cause.

  • Snoof

    I see nothing whatsoever in the *philosophy* of atheism (or non-belief, agnosticism, etc.) that tell us to donate anything to charity, beyond what any impulse to humanism tells everybody, religious or not.

    Just out of interest, which atheist philosophy are you talking about? Off the top of my head, I can think of several (“I’m an atheist because I find the idea of gods to be logically unnecessary and/or have encountered no empirical evidence for their existence”, “I’m an atheist because I’ve never heard of gods”, “I’m an atheist because I’m a solipsist”, “I’m an atheist because it annoys my parents”, etc).

  • bbk

    I wonder what Kristof and WuDunn would have seen had they visited these places prior to the missionaries. I wonder if they would have seen people who were actually better off, or at least under more tractable circumstances for a secular effort to ameliorate. Religion has a nasty habit of creating the very problems that it purports to solve.