Note: this piece was previously published on my first blog, The Unbelieving Voice, last year. Recent discussions have prompted me to republish it for a larger audience, here.
A man, seeing a homeless person, takes pity on him and hands him a dollar. The homeless man is grateful—they shake hands and part.
A second man, seeing the homeless person, takes pity on him and hands him a dollar. The homeless man is again grateful—they shake hands and part.
What is the difference between the two benefactors?
If I were to tell you that one was an evangelical Christian, and one was a militant atheist, we suddenly have a serious topic of discussion on our hands. The given is that they gave the same amount of money, were equally kind in their interactions with the homeless man, and similar in all other standards by which the generosity of the act can be, on the surface, based. Therefore, the question arises: are we dealing with actions of equal moral magnitude?
The answer, most would be surprised to find, is no. It is and always has been my contention that a good act is only altruistic when it goes unrecompensed materially—that is to say, my definition of altruism for the sake of this argument discriminates against, say, the good feelings one receives from performing a benevolent act. An altruistic act is one performed that is in no way reimbursed on a physical level.
Thus it is that, when an atheist gives freely to a person in need, they do not by the nature of their life’s philosophy expect a reward of any kind. If they do not believe in karma, they therefore do not expect the benefit of their actions to come back to them in the future. They do not believe in heaven, or god, and don’t expect to be divinely congratulated or rewarded, or even recognized for their service. The only primary goal that can be assumed is that the deed was done for the sake of the deed alone, and that no compensation for it was necessary.
This cannot be assumed of the theist in the same respect. Surely, there are many believers who happily give their time and means to help those less fortunate than they, but it cannot logically be assumed based on their ideology that they do not expect or want a reward for their services. When it is given that you are constantly being watched, every move being scrutinized for the sake of Judgment Day (or judgment of any kind), it necessitates the assumption that this may compel your actions, and otherwise inspire you to acts of compassion that one was not previously desirous to commit for the sake of oneself. Again, this is obviously not universally the case, but it is an assumption that must be made when no other information is known.
Perhaps this is too reductionist—I admit, I am guilty of the act of oversimplification at times. However, the case in point—that the atheist can never perform an action with the intention of spiritual reward, while it never can be ruled out that the theist may be performing the same deed for that very reason—at least must be illustrated by the previous hypothetical. But does this say anything about the morality of the situation? If a dollar could buy one’s way into heaven, as Monsieur Géborand attempted to do with a sou, is the dollar worth less to the one in need of it? If we were to assume the spiritual world to be capitalistic in nature, would it be an immoral action to pay your way through goodness?
The faithful might have escaped this question had they not been promised rewards for their charitable indulgence—which makes the action less moral than it otherwise might have been (i.e.: it can’t be proven that I’m doing this for you, and it can be reasonably assumed I am doing this entirely for me). The proof of this can be found in Bible verses such as:
Matthew 1:4: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Proverbs 19:17: “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”
Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”
Proverbs 21:13: “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.”
Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Let us not forget, of course, that the Beatitudes are themselves a series of bribes, a list of prescribed virtues that have merit in themselves but, to the theist mind, are coupled with rewards, instead. Actions that should be self-apparent in their desirable quality are instead transformed into a series of remunerations:
Matthew: 5:3-12: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Charity, generosity, forgiveness, meekness (a highly overrated virtue, in any case), mercy, purity in heart (whatever that means), peacefulness—are not all of these characteristics that people should adopt based on their own merit? O! what a piece of work is man, that we would need to be rewarded for the act of helping another who was in need of it, or at least be promised the possibility of the reward to consider the action? From these, one can see that, no matter how loudly one claims the contrary, the theist can never disentangle himself from the spiritual “reality” that his charitable efforts on Earth can never be wholly for the sake of the action, but that they are tallied by the omniscient view of his deity and used either for his benefit or to tip the scales toward his eternal punishment. Only for those who perform identical actions that live in unbelief of this same reward/punishment system, can we assume that this isn’t the case.
Furthermore, the weight of the reward at hand must also be taken into account: the reward of a pat on the back or a brief bit of notoriety might be worth ignoring for the sake of having done something worthwhile. Or, if we were to more materialistically look at the same circumstance, to say that giving away one dollar might come back as a reward of five. But theists are not gambling with such tawdry jackpots—for them, the game is eternal paradise, infinite splendor, and ultimate exaltation. How can this not be a piece of the formula by which we measure the morality of their actions? How could we look at even their most benevolent of acts and not take into account that they happen to be planning toward that very sort of heavenly retirement?
All of these observations take place on an even playing field: an atheist gives a dollar, and a theist gives a dollar, and we deduce what we can merely from this information, alone. But what if these variables were changed? What if the Christian gave more than a dollar? What if they gave ten? A million?
This hypothetical is easy to entertain, as it is well known that Christian and otherwise religious groups do charity work ranging in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year. This is offset, however, by the exorbitant cost they also waste on the most tawdry of things—the Effingham Cross in Illinois, for example: a 198-foot-tall steel eyesore that cost circa $1.1 million to build. Or, if that doesn’t quite turn the stomach, consider the mega-monstrosity of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, a ministry that has an annual budget of $70 million per year, which is exactly as much as the entire country of Norway donated to UNICEF in 2012. Such extravagance is so self-evidently ludicrous and distasteful that it doesn’t require comment from Yours Truly, and besides which I have written about it before. But these examples help illuminate the self-proliferation of churches and their iconography as opposed to the charitable work that they do or the generous motif they claim to represent. After all, it’s difficult to justify calling Joel Osteen’s church (the largest in America) a “charitable” organization when it cost $75 million to renovate the space in which it resides, and its pastor lives in a mansion valued at $10.5 million.
None of these facts are required to remember, however, that charity is not the province of the faithful. Secular charities doing excellent work all over the world—the ACLU, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Goodwill Industries, The Nature Conservancy, S.H.A.R.E., The United Nations Children’s Fund, and UNICEF—are all making great strides in aiding the world with relief from natural disasters, polio, poverty, epidemics, and the violation of civil liberties: each and every one of these companies working under the premise that they won’t go to heaven for their efforts, nor will any of their participating partners receive the kind of income from their work that Mr. Osteen does. It must be assumed that his benevolence is greater and therefore worthy of the exorbitant recompense. “A bone to the dog is not charity,” as Jack London says. “Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.” I would be tempted to compare Mr. London’s quote to that of the story of the poor woman in the Gospel of Mark, who stood in a line of rich people that threw in large amounts to the temple treasury being collected. When her turn in line came, she threw in only a small copper, and Jesus praised her, saying: “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” This would be a rather inspiring parable on the nature of charity, were he not praising her for her contribution to a church and instead her generosity to others. The warm feelings are somewhat dissolved when it’s realized that, instead of asking her money, the temple treasury should have given her some.
Of course, the faithful contribute to some of these causes in ways that we secularists would never dare dream. In my most coldhearted day, I cannot imagine finding a homeless, starving Haitian citizen, who had just lost everything in a devastating earthquake, and in all my grace, sacrificing the time and expense to give that person . . . a Bible. Proselytization is the fruit of all compassion, it would seem, for an Albuquerque faith-based group who sent six-hundred solar-powered audio Bibles to the grief-wracked Port-au-Prince in 2010. Whatever can be said about secular charities in whole or in part, the work of the godless cannot be accused of such abject and bitter callousness.
In this same vein, some of the most “charitable” religious causes are so easily found to be fraudulent in their endeavors that they reek of the obscene. Would it be too cheap at this stage to bring up Mother Teresa, in whose orphanages countless children perished from her refusal to give them modern medicine, and her endless quest to end contraceptive use in a country where the vast number of HIV/AIDS cases were in heterosexual couples and, while the epidemic has come down a bit since Agnes’ time (undoubtedly due to greater sexual education in the area sans her caterwauling), still reports that 7% of all HIV cases are that of children? I leave it to you to decide, gentle reader, what kind of charity this was, though I posit that it was none at all. In so many cases, the religious don’t seek to give help—they’re simply expanding their doctrine, their own way of seeing the world, to the most credulous and impressionable of people, those who in their destitution, illness, and pain will turn to anyone and anything that is extended to them. It’s not kindness or benevolence, in Teresa’s case or any others. It’s simple opportunism. And we atheists can be accused of the same the day that we pass out copies of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason in lieu of vaccines in Calcutta.
Is it possible to do less and still call it charity? Can theists even retain their Bibles and their rants on condoms—perchance even do nothing—and still have the unmitigated gall to refer to it as beneficial, moral work? They do, indeed: and they call it “prayer”. Those with raised eyes calling to Plath’s empty sky may think they are doing all the good in the world, but thanks to work such as that done by the Templeton Foundation’s Great Prayer Experiment, we know this not to be the case. And besides which, appealing to a higher authority to take action in a world where we have the power to help those in need is an act of cowardice, an abdication of our human responsibility: how can one sit in a room and pray that god sends help to a tsunami-ravaged Japan when the room in question cost as much to build as could rehabilitate untold thousands—perhaps millions, in the cases of these mega-churches—of people? This is without getting into the logical instability of attempting to sway the pre-determined future of a globe set by an omnipotent, omniscient deity. If god knows all and sees all, then his plan is inalterable, and therefore intercessory prayer can literally do nothing to change an already designed future—unless you think you can change the mind of the Alpha and Omega. Those praying for the relief of indescribable pain for myriad reasons in a distant hemisphere would measurably do more good by posting a Facebook status instead. So indeed, “Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”
In a charitable sense, could this get even worse? Surely, the immorality of doing nothing and claiming it to be something cannot be trumped by any action. It is the sad case, however, that many believers have gone so far as to thwart the kindly efforts of atheist humanitarians just by virtue of their non-belief. In an article posted by The Washington Post in December, 2013, we see a number of these attempts at kindness overruled by self-serving believers (or for their sake), including:
“A group of Kansas City, Mo., nonbelievers was told their help was not needed after they volunteered to help a local Christian group distribute Thanksgiving meals.”
“A $3,000 donation to a Morton Grove, Ill., park, collected by a local atheist group, was returned. Park officials said they did not wish to “become embroiled in a First Amendment dispute.”
“A group of Spartanburg, S.C., atheists was denied the opportunity to help at a Christian-run soup kitchen. The soup kitchen’s executive director told local press she would resign before accepting the atheists’ help and asked, “Why are they targeting us?”
The biggest rejection, as reporter Kimberly Winston goes on to say, was a $250,000 donation to the American Cancer Society. What sane charity would turn down a quarter-of-a-million dollars when given freely to one of the most deadly illnesses in our country? While the ACS didn’t cite their hesitation to accept money from an atheist organization as cause for the rejection, the fact that the check did come from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation is something to be seriously considered.
Finally, let’s consider the act of charity on an otherwise even playing field—meaning that, for the moment, let’s put away all the other previous facts and look at faith-based organizations as genuinely charitable institutions: does this then make them moral institutions? It would seem that the goodness of an entity must be measured directly against the evil that it also does. In the words of the late, great Christopher Hitchens as he debated with former Prime Minister Tony Blair on the subject of churches as charitable organizations in November of 2010:
“I knew it would come up that we’d be told about charity, and I take this very seriously, because we know, ladies and gentlemen, as it happens, we’re the first generation of people who do really know what the cure for poverty really is. It eluded people for a long, long time. The cure for poverty has a name, in fact: it’s called the empowerment of women. If you give women some control over the rate at which they reproduce, if you give them some say, take them off the animal cycle of reproduction to which nature and some doctrine—religious doctrine—condemns them, and then if you’ll throw in a handful of seeds perhaps and some credit, the floor of everything in that village, not just poverty, but education, health, and optimism will increase. It doesn’t matter; try it in Bangladesh, try it in Bolivia, it works—works all the time. . . . Now, furthermore, if you are going to grant this to Catholic charities, say, which I would hope are doing a lot of work in Africa, if I was a member of a church that had preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms, I’d be putting some conscience money into Africa too, I must say. . . . It won’t bring back the millions of people who have died wretched deaths because of their teaching. That still goes on. I’d like to hear a word of apology from the religious about that, if it was on offer, after all, otherwise I’d be accused of judging them by the worst of them, and this isn’t done, as Tony says so wrongly, ‘in the name of religion’, it’s a direct precept, practice, and enforceable discipline of religion, is it not, sir, in this case? I think you’ll find that it is. But if you’re going to say, all right, the Mormons will tell you the same, ‘You may think it’s a bit cracked to think Joseph Smith found another bible buried in upstate New York, but you should see our missionaries in action.’ I’m not impressed. I’d rather have no Mormons, no missionaries quite honestly, and no Joseph Smith. Do we grant to Hamas and to Hezbollah, both of whom will tell you, and incessantly do, ‘Look at our charitable work. Without us defending the poor of Gaza, the poor of Lebanon, where would they be?’ And they’re right, they do a great deal of charitable work. It’s nothing compared to the harm that they do, but it’s a great deal of work all the same. . . . The injunction not to do to another what would be repulsive done to yourself is found in the Analects of Confucius, if you want to date it, but actually it’s found in the heart of every person in this room. Everybody knows that much. We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong. We don’t need tablets administered to us ten at a time in tablet form on pain of death to be able to have a moral argument. No, we have the reasoning and the moral suasion of Socrates and our own abilities. We don’t need dictatorship to give us right from wrong.”
Verbose though he was (and famous for it), Hitch summarized beautifully the fulcrum of the argument, which is that no matter what good works believers choose to banner in their pamphlets and billboards, they still have the wracking manacles of the evil that they do to contend with, which far outweighs their charity. The argument of the immoral actions of the faithful is a list so long that it took the whole of my previous book to discuss it in any detail, and the attempt to rehash it here would be futile. Suffice it to say that it would be the worth the time of the reader to understand that basic point as well as they can, whether gleaning it from my work or from anyone else’s, in order to see the incredible imbalance between the “good deeds” of religion and the bloodshed, ignorance, pain, and despair it actually creates, making the idea of a few million spent here and there on various humanitarian causes very prosaic indeed.
I would be beyond remiss if I did not close with one of the most poignant and pertinent distinctions between theist and non-theist acts of charity—one that for all its obviousness sometimes hides in plain sight: charity is mandated by religion in many cases, certainly in the case of monotheism. If we were to ignore all that was previously discussed in this section: that a theist may be playing the game for himself, that their charity pales in comparison both to their exorbitant selfishness and the otherwise malicious actions of their church, and that theists don’t have a particular monopoly on charitable acts to begin with—all this means nothing in the face of the fact that theists are told to do it. Much like our first example with our two benefactors and the single homeless man, we can rest assured that there are likely many religious people who give freely on their own accord—but we cannot exclude the assumption that they may be working merely under the direct command of their divine dictator. And as it can be reasonably assumed that an act of forced charity isn’t really within the accepted spirit of charity at all, there is good cause to think that any inspiration of human solidarity or good will is sapped from the beginning. Coerced faux-kindness is, to a certain degree, a charge entirely vacant from the atheist rap sheet.
Of course, the question must then be asked—and most simply in a variation of our previous hypothetical: if a murderer gives a dollar to a person in need, is that less of a moral action? The answer: no, but we can certainly agree that the murderer, by the nature of his dollar-giving, is not thereby an example nor an authority on morality. This, in a nutshell, is my view of the believer’s claims when unimpressive words like “charity” come along.
(Image use: labelled for reuse by flickr.com, Wikipedia Commons)