Would You Donate?

A reader has this interesting question:

I just received a flyer in the mail asking for donations to fund a Thanksgiving dinner for the local homeless shelter. I would really like to contribute but they are a faith-based charity and I’m worried that my donation will not be used wisely. I sent them an email… asking if the homeless people they help are required to participate in any religious counseling or if all who come to them for help are treated equally, regardless of religious participation. As far as I know there are no non-religious charities in this area helping the homeless. My question is: should atheists donate to help people knowing that their donation may be used to fund religious activities? This may seem like a silly question but it’s one I’m facing for the first time and I don’t know any non-religious people in my area to discuss this with. Thank you!

What advice would you give her?


[tags]atheist, atheism, donation, faith-based charities[/tags]

  • Stephen

    It may sound cold of me, but I’d say no. There are lots of charities you can give your money to whose activities are unambiguously secular. I’m not denying that Christian charities do lots of good work, but inevitably, some of that money gets wasted on, y’know, Bibles and tracts and stuff.

    That said, if you’re that interested in helping your own community’s homeless, funding a few Gideon Bibles may be a small price to pay. So I wouldn’t criticize her if she chooses to donate.

  • http://groundedinreality.blogspot.com Bruce

    That’s a tough one. I won’t drop any change in those Salvation Army collection tubs because of their blatant homophobia. Since it is for Thanksgiving dinners, maybe she can find out what type of food they need and buy the food instead of just giving them money. That way at least she will know that the food will be used for feeding people instead of her money being used for who knows what.

  • http://perceivingwholes.blogspot.com Jane

    Non-religious doesn’t mean anti-religious. If there really are no secular charities helping the homeless in your area and homelessness (as opposed to, say, international development or the environment) is a priority for you, then give the money.

  • http://lthargor.blogspot.com/ Joseph Morse

    If they are willing to accept the donation with the understanding that the money that you donated can not be used in any other way then what you wanted it to be used. Sure why not, but if they say they will not accept the donation with the stipulation that it only be used in a certain way, then no.

    I would also advise if it was something they felt strongly in. And the being no non-religious groups currently doing their part to help in the area, Then perhaps she should look into starting a non-profit group them selfs to help with the cause.

  • http://theshapeiamin.blogspot.com Todd M

    It might be really nice to start your own local non-faith-based charity to fulfill community needs.

    I would also encourage you to check the charter of the organization you are considering donating to. Many organizations may technically be faith-based but all of their funds going to a particular cause, not buying Bibles, tracts, and stuff.

  • http://nomorehornets.blogspot.com The Exterminator

    I’d be more inclined to contribute to the charity if it were hosting a dinner that was clearly non-religious. Since this is for Thanksgiving, you can bet there will be some major shout-outs to the Big Guy in the Sky.

    That does sound callous of me, but remember: the homeless need to be fed all the time, not just on a holiday that lends itself to prolonged prayer. Mind you, I have absolutely nothing against Thanksgiving; but I think the charity’s offer of a meal on that day could easily be perverted into a drawn-out propaganda effort.

  • http://ungodlycynic.blogspot.com/ Larro

    I would say no. After all, religious charities have had a monopoly on charity for far too long. Giving your money to them only prolongs that monopoly. I myself work for a secular non-profit that the community benefits greatly from (it’s a large non-profit servicing four counties with close to 400 full-time employees, not counting part-time and volunteer employees).
    We benefit from operating in a relatively secular part of the [U.S.] without having to compete with major religious charities. We are efficient and have a broad range of services.
    Religious charities in my opinion have lower efficacy on account of their supplementary spending on religious/spiritual “programs” and the trappings that go with those programs. They also siphon off money that I myself would rather see go to a secular organization or agency that could duplicate these services just as well if not better.
    Yet I would not fault her. I would go with donating food also.

  • http://godlesswasatch.blogspot.com John Moeller

    Like most of the other comments have said already, do the research. Wait for them to respond. If they care about taking your money, they’ll tell you exactly what they’ll do with it.

    I don’t think that giving to a faith-based organization is necessarily bad simply based upon their foundation. It matters what they do. If their priority is the secular goal of helping their fellow man, and that’s where your money will go, then contribute.

    And as Exterminator noted, the homeless need to eat year round. You might be able to find another charity with this goal that will answer your questions.

  • http://flowerdust.net Anne Jackson

    As a Christian, I agree with the above statements…do research and make sure you are comfortable with how the money is going to be used. I don’t feel comfortable giving to certain Christian organizations because of what they represent or how much of the money is used for administrative purposes.

    On another side, I don’t give solely to Christian organizations. I’ve given to secular charities and also charities which are organized by other faiths. Personally, I just want to help people and if an appropriate opportunity arises, I’ll give.

    Someone might ask, “would you give to an ______-based charity” (fill in the blank with another “faith” that isn’t Christianity) knowing they may share their faith message?” If they were truly helping people and the money was being used, I think I’d say yes, even if a religious view was expressed that was not my own. I believe the recipients still have a right to choose to have their beliefs and I see nothing wrong with someone being shown how a certain faith celebrates or shares.

  • http://theshapeiamin.blogspot.com Todd M

    Great points, Anne. I would have to say that I am onboard with you.

  • http://nomorehornets.blogspot.com The Exterminator

    Anne, you said:
    I believe the recipients still have a right to choose to have their beliefs and I see nothing wrong with someone being shown how a certain faith celebrates or shares.

    I, too, believe the recipients of charitable donations have all kinds of rights when it comes to practicing their beliefs, or being exposed to new ones. That’s all covered in the First Amendment.

    However, I, personally, don’t have to fund the organizations who preach to what is essentially a captive audience. Those homeless folks are about as captive as you can get. “You want food? Then come pray with us.”

    Now, I’m not accusing the particular charity in question of having an ulterior motive, because I don’t know that it does. But you must admit: Many religious charities do.

  • nowoo

    I started volunteering at a soup kitchen while I was still a Christian. I helped in the kitchen making sandwiches for the homeless, prepping vegetables for soup, serving lunch to residents in their addiction treatment program, as well as for the shelter’s staff and other volunteers. The shelter is a Christian organization, and they hold a worship service in the chapel before they let the street people into the kitchen to eat the soup and sandwiches that the volunteers prepare. The street people don’t have to sit in the chapel. They’re allowed to wait outside in the hallway where they can still hear the service.

    I was volunteering there as I became an atheist, and I continued for a few months after I stopped believing. I liked helping people in need, but it bothered me that I was supporting an organization that tried to convert vulnerable people into what I now consider a false and sometimes harmful belief. Eventually I couldn’t do it anymore, and I stopped volunteering there.

    Around the same time I stopped my financial donations to religious charities, but I replaced them with even more donations to secular groups like Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, Planned Parenthood, the local food bank, and others. If there was a non-religious homeless shelter I’d consider volunteering there or at least supporting them financially.

    I was a regular blood donor for years as a Christian, and now I’m carrying on that habit so I can eventually donate more blood as an atheist than I did as a Christian.

  • Mighty Favog

    Apparently, we atheists are really touchy about these things. It’s all well and good to be concerned about what the money is used for, and so, as many said above, do the research. But when I imagine myself homeless and hungry, I wouldn’t give a damn what I had to listen to to get fed. Just bring on the food! It may be unethical to preach to the “captive audience” but it’s far from abuse. Most likely, most of them are already faithful anyway.

    I give bums money when I can. Yes, I know many of them are con artists–but some are not. In the absence of any way to tell the difference, I give them the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because that way I know that at least part of the time, I am doing a good thing, and if I didn’t give to any of them, then no good was done. It hurts me none to give to the less fortunate, even if some of it is wasted–I do the best I can and sometimes there is a cost involved.

    This is not a war zone where atheists and Christians are fighting for souls. Am I to get on my soap box and preach the glories of atheism to the homeless? I doubt any of them would care. They would listen, and then say, “Bring on the food!”

  • Ada

    I like the post that said to just buy food instead. See if you can do that, if they can’t guarantee your money won’t go to religious paraphernalia.

    I also agree with the above post that a homeless person doesn’t give a rip about sitting through a prayer to get the food. One of my friends grew up Hindu in Nepal, and went to a Catholic school. She said everyone in the school went through the motions, including mass and “moral science” classes, even attending voluntary bible discussions when they had free food available, but then they went home and kept being Hindus. The Catholics had the best school in town, so that’s where they went.

    People know how to jump through hoops to get what they want and need.

  • Mighty Favog

    I just re-read the post, and had another thought concerning: “should atheists donate to help people knowing that their donation may be used to fund religious activities?”

    It occurred to me that we might ask the reverse: “should the religious donate to help people knowing that their donation may be used to fund atheist activities?”

    I like to think atheists we would welcome the support of any organization that was willing to try and get along. The upshot is that people get help. I live in a world that I see differently than 90% of people on earth, and yet I still live in that world…I may do everything I can to promote freethinking and critical thought, but the reality is that those 90% are never going to see it my way. So why should anyone suffer because of this? I know how painful it is for atheists to hear this, but religion is not a disease. In fact, as an evolutionist, I must recognize that it is apparently a normal part of our psyche. Most of the happy, successful people we see around us are religious. I am less concerned about what a person believes than I am about whether that belief is doing themselves or anyone around them any good.

    A Christian who donated to an atheist event would no doubt feel they were doing God’s work in spite of the atheists. Why should we feel any different? I can donate to a religious event with the full knowledge that I am doing so for the right reasons, and that I’m no better than any of them, and they no better than me. Remember, very, very few religious people are like those extremists that make the news, and community organizations are genuinely concerned with helping people in their community. There is some truth to the criticism that atheist organizations aren’t very active in their communities. Remember the story of the Star Thrower?

    As sad as it is, by the time someone is in the position of being homeless, it’s a little late to start trying to get them to understand The Joys of Critical Thinking. Faith is simple, and familiar, and probably the best way to keep many of them from continuing on the downward spiral. In short, I’m more concerned with the person’s welfare than whether they believe in something that I personally find fanciful. As an atheist, I know there is no place else to go, and so I’d like to do whatever I can to keep everyone alive and healthy.

    We need to fight the battle for rationalism in the classrooms, not the streets.

    Sorry to have written a book. Hemant, if you hear back from this person, please let us know what she decided to do.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike C

    I would say no. After all, religious charities have had a monopoly on charity for far too long. Giving your money to them only prolongs that monopoly.

    Wow, you make it sound like it’s a competition. Isn’t the important thing that the hungry are fed? Who cares who gets to take credit for it?

  • http://paxnortona.notfrisco2.com Joel Sax

    Give time. This way you can check out the program first hand. Also ask around. Catholic Worker houses tend to open the door for anyone.

    And look around. There are plenty of independent soup kitchens and shelters that have no religious connections. Showing these your support helps keep them alive.

  • http://evilpoet-lostinthought.blogspot.com/ EvilPoet

    If this person asked me, I would recommend they contact their local food bank.

  • http://scientianatura.blogspot.com Shalini

    One word: NO.

  • Misty

    Wow, thank you for your responses, I didn’t know my question would be posted. When I received the flyer for the Thanksgiving dinner my first instinct was to give but then I checked the shelter’s website and had doubts. Their core values include “Living for the glory of God” and “Proclaiming the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” and I worried that my donation could be misused. It’s not that I feel that the homeless shouldn’t participate in religious counseling, I’m just not sure it should be a priority for people that have enough to worry about. I like the idea of buying the food myself and bringing it to the shelter. I haven’t heard back from the charity yet regarding my question but I will do some research and see if there are other charities are in the area that aren’t religiously motivated. Thanks everyone!

  • http://thisislikesogay.blogspot.com Duncan

    I’m seeing some confusion here. Mighty Favog wrote, for instance, “It occurred to me that we might ask the reverse: “’should the religious donate to help people knowing that their donation may be used to fund atheist activities?’” Maybe I’m mistaken, but I supposed/assumed that a secular charity would not require its beneficiaries to listen to a 2-minute sermonette by Ayn Rand or Bertrand Russell before feeding them. I thought a secular charity would just provide the service without “services” of any kind. But various people here seem to suppose that atheists wouldn’t feed the hungry without preaching for our side. Are they right? I wouldn’t like to support an atheist charity that did that either, and I’m an atheist.

    Mike C. wrote, “Wow, you make it sound like it’s a competition. Isn’t the important thing that the hungry are fed? Who cares who gets to take credit for it?” I care, just because so many theists want to claim ALL the credit for good works. And it would be fair to ask a religious charity why the hungry can’t be fed without forcing them to genuflect. Further, there are problems with many religious charities: the Salvation Army and the Roman Catholic Church are notorious for their homophobia, for example. But even many Christians object to that.

    This discussion has made me wonder, though: what is the percentage of atheists among the homeless and the poor generally? Do most homeless people object to a halo of religiosity around charity? I imagine that like most Americans, they would see it as entirely reasonable to, for instance, say a prayer before a meal. They wouldn’t like being patronized, of course, the kind of treatment that has given “charity” bad connotations; but I’ didn’t think that secular charities gave in that temptation. An atheist or other secular charity needn’t mimic the worst of religious behavior, and I didn’t suppose they did.

  • Mighty Favog

    Duncan said, Maybe I’m mistaken, but I supposed/assumed that a secular charity would not require its beneficiaries to listen to a 2-minute sermonette by Ayn Rand or Bertrand Russell before feeding them.

    Yes, that is assumed. But my entire argument is about what an individual should do, for their own reasons, to benefit others., not what any particular group believes or why it believes it does what it does. If I want to help the homeless, I have many avenues through which to do so. A religious Thanksgiving event is just one conduit I may use to achieve my goal. It would benefit more people than random handouts on the street. I guess it depends on what services are available in your area. In rural areas you won’t find secular alternatives. I myself have had to accept charity from churches in my lifetime, and I don’t know whether or not they cared if I’m an atheist, as a matter of fact, they didn’t even ask. Just as the last time I stopped to help a stranded motorist, I didn’t ask their religious affiliation. It had nothing to do with what they needed.

    I don’t particularly care who gets the credit, as long as people who need help somehow get it. I’m not trying to get into heaven.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike C

    In my experience here in Chicago, most of the homeless folks are already very religious. I’ve gone down occasionally to chat with a few, buy them lunch, etc, and they usually begin by preaching to me.

  • PrimateInRepose

    I agree with everything Duncan said and yet I am guilty of giving to the local Catholic teen shelter.

  • Steven Carr

    I used to donate to Christian charities, but now Christians are boasting of how much work Christian charities do, and saying that atheists do little.

    I don’t see why my money should be used as ammunition about how generous Christians are compared to atheists.

    Once Christians stop beating me over the head with my own money, then I shall donate once more.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    If you think that this charity does good work and there is not a secular alternative, by all means donate. I am more likely to support secular charities now (in part for the reason Steven Carr raised in these comments), but I wouldn’t completely rule-out religious charities just as I can’t completely rule-out doing business with companies owned by religious people.

  • Vincent

    I’d suggest this year volunteering your time there. If there’s prostheletising you can leave and if not, then you can give next year.

  • Jen

    I have several thoughts on this, Misty:

    1. I wouldn’t assume all homeless people are willing to sit through a service to recieve food. I once read a formerly homeless man’s blog (there are several homeless blogs, and they are generally pretty eye-opening and interesting) and he talked about charity- how demeaning it often is. How many awful, dehumanizing rules there are in shelters. How many sermons he had to sit through, blaming him for his homelessness. One really interesting aspect is that many homeless people don’t think of themselves as down on their luck- they have a home, it is in their car (or wherever). They simply live a different type of life than the rest of us- and woud you be willing to listen through a sermon for food? Do you think you are better than the homeless, and somehow deserving food without a sermon? Then why do you think he wants to hear a sermon to get food when he can get food in other ways, thankyouverymuch. It might be worth it to find some homeless blogs and see what they think about charity and specifically religious charity.

    2. Is this a year-round charity or does it only exist for one day? There are plenty of people willing to donate around Thanksgiving- what about the people who do seek help and need it year-round?

    3. Do you think people are more likely to be receptive to a message when their needs aren’t being fulfilled? Does the charity think this?

    4. Is there a secular charity nearby serving the same population?

  • Karen

    I agree with Mike C.: Most of the poor and homeless who came to my church for help with food were already fervent Christians. Or at least, they knew the lingo and used it when they were getting help from the food co-operative that I founded and ran as a volunteer for several years.

    We did not insist that those who participated make any confession of faith, pray or listen to a sermon. This idea was controversial amongst the church-members, but I felt that was demeaning for those of different religions who wanted to participate. Eventually the church assigned a pastor to come down to the co-op on food distribution days to talk to people who were interested in listening to the gospel.

    But the vast majority – 60-70% – were already Christians or lapsed Christians and they knew the gospel message inside-out.

  • http://portland.daveknows.org Dave

    In my experience Catholic charities don’t generally proselytize do the recipients of the charity, as do many of the Protestant ones.

    I’ve been to both Catholic run and Protestant run soup kitchens and the Catholic ones don’t require attendance at a service, whereas the Protestant makes everyone sing silly Christian songs and listen to someone berate them for a few minutes before chowing down.

  • monkeymind

    Steven has a point. The whole “we give more, no you don’t” argument is a turnoff.
    I don’t think there has to be a huge amount of hand-wringing over this issue. Figuring out whether a charity makes good use of resources and is in line with your values is the responsible thing to do. Whether non-proseletyzing is one of the criteria is nobody else’s business. It’s not as if there is a scarcity of organizations needing donations, I would think it would be quite easy to find one where you could donate without misgivings.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike C

    I don’t think there has to be a huge amount of hand-wringing over this issue. Figuring out whether a charity makes good use of resources and is in line with your values is the responsible thing to do. Whether non-proseletyzing is one of the criteria is nobody else’s business. It’s not as if there is a scarcity of organizations needing donations, I would think it would be quite easy to find one where you could donate without misgivings.

    I agree. By all means do your homework and find a charity whose methods you wholeheartedly support. The important thing is that you give. It is supremely unimportant whose team gets to take credit for it.

  • Jimbo-b

    I prefer not to donate to religious organizations. I’m sure they do a lot of good, but you never know what underlying agenda they might have; such as spreading the gospel, etc.
    When being direct with my charitable acts, I would prefer either working at a soup kitchen or sponsoring a child as others have suggested.
    But when it comes to charity donations, I think the best idea is to think outside of local communities. Donate money to UNICEF and other worldwide organizations. People in America (even the poor!) have is good compared to other countries. I’m not trying to be callous toward homeless Americans, but from a utilitarian perspective, third world countries need our charity more than we need it.

  • Maria

    I agree. By all means do your homework and find a charity whose methods you wholeheartedly support. The important thing is that you give. It is supremely unimportant whose team gets to take credit for it.

    well said!

    I’m seeing some confusion here. Mighty Favog wrote, for instance, “It occurred to me that we might ask the reverse: “’should the religious donate to help people knowing that their donation may be used to fund atheist activities?’” Maybe I’m mistaken, but I supposed/assumed that a secular charity would not require its beneficiaries to listen to a 2-minute sermonette by Ayn Rand or Bertrand Russell before feeding them. I thought a secular charity would just provide the service without “services” of any kind. But various people here seem to suppose that atheists wouldn’t feed the hungry without preaching for our side. Are they right? I wouldn’t like to support an atheist charity that did that either, and I’m an atheist.

    good points. I agree

  • http://www.templewhore.blogspot.com Slut

    I prefer not to give money to religious organizations. There are other secular charities which I support instead. I also pay taxes and vote Democratic, because I think it’s important for society to provide the safety net and social services these people need.

    Religious organizations are great at making you feel sorry for people on religious holidays but the problem is much bigger than one meal on one day of the year. I know if I donate to a religious group at least part of the money and time will be spent on trying to indoctrinate people into their religious beliefs. To me, the harm that does is worse than the potential hunger.

  • Rob Linford

    I am definitely an atheist and I have no problem (and do) donate money to the Union Gospel Mission. It is about the only place a homeless person can find a hot meal and a bed during a 10 degree night here in Spokane. How could anyone not support them? 100% of the money goes to food and operating expenses. The proselytizing is free of cost and donated by the folks that are kind enough to work there. If there was an atheist mission I would send my money there, but there isn’t, and without my and others support homeless people would be freezing to death up here. Besides, if “Finding Jesus” raises a drunk or drug addict out of the gutter and saves their life, who am I to say that’s a bad thing. I don’t understand it and think it’s bizarre, but being delusional is better than being dead.

    There are certainly religious organizations that help people which I cant donate to because the ratio of proselytizing vs. helping is skewed towards the bible. I believe a lot of African missionary work falls in this category.

    I personally think it takes a black heart to avoid donating to something like the Union Gospel Mission simply because it is Christian based and the poor folk have to listen to a prayer before they eat their only hot meal of the day. People who are so virulently anti religious that they cant accept that sometimes religious based organizations do good need to lighten up, or at least prove they don’t have a black heart and start their own religion free aid organization.

  • http://revolutheran.blogspot.com RevoLutheran

    I’m a Christian, so I’m going to look at the question the other way. I would absolutely give money to an organization doing any work I believe in. If someone is feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, taking in orphans, educating the impoverished, protecting the abused, taking a stand for the environment, providing drugs for the AIDS pandemic, or otherwise making the world a better place for people to live in, I would give the money regardless of whether the organization is Christian, Jewish, secular, or whatever…and I would do so believing that it is the Christian thing to do. (I know that not all Christians agree, but that’s my stance.)

    I acknowledge that the logic might not work analogously in reverse, but I doubt anyone is trying to use the Thanksgiving dinner as a recuitment tool for Christianity. My advice: do whatever you think is the right thing to do. It sounds like you want to do something to help the homeless, so if you decide not to donate, you might wan to try to find another way to help. Maybe you could talk to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless if you need ideas — http://www.chicagohomeless.org/

  • Mriana

    You know, RevoLutheran, I was thinking pretty much the same thing ever since I saw this thread. I give to the WWF, but just because they care for wildlife doesn’t mean they are non-theists or theists. At the same time, if there was a group of hungry children and someone was helping them and needed help, I wouldn’t be asking if they are religious or not. I’d try to help some how. It makes no sense to worry about secular or religious when a group of people need assistance.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X