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!

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About Adam Lee

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


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