Tithing Atheists

In an interview, Templeton Prize winner Francisco Ayala defended religion as a salve for the poor, and Jerry Coyne had this to say--
As P.Z. has noted, none of us are boorish enough to preach atheism to our dying religious grandmothers. Indeed, religion does bring some hope and meaning: that’s why it is strongest in those societies that are most dysfunctional (e.g., the work of Gregory Paul and others). But religion is also a potent source of poverty, misery and disease (look at AIDS in Africa, for instance, or the effect of Islam on the suppression of women, or of Catholicism on the abuse of children), and by and large it’s an excuse to do nothing. Without faith, we have only ourselves to look to, and, rather than blaming God, we must realize that we have to roll up our sleeves and fix those problems ourselves.
Many problems here. Religion is strongest both in dysfunctional societies and in highly functional societies--like ours. Some religions seem to increase prosperity (Protestantism, Judaism), some seem to decrease it (Islam, Catholicism).

Worse problem: his assertion that religion is "an excuse to do nothing." Apparently not, since some of our most vibrant philanthropists are religious. Tracy Kidder's biography of Paul Farmer is a must read in this regard. It's also true that many of the largest philanthropic organizations are religion-based--like World Vision.

Worst problem: the bit about how, "without faith, we have only ourselves to look to, and, rather than blaming God, we must realize we have to roll up our sleeves and fix those problems ourselves." It seems it doesn't work that way. Today a New York Times article reports that secular households "give less on average than do religious households." Why is that? An atheist by the name of Dale McGowan has an interesting theory, as the article reports.
From a practical standpoint, atheists almost entirely lack the communal infrastructure of religious people--the system of congregations, the pattern of weekly meetings--that enables philanthropy.
It's easier to get involved in good works and give regularly if the opportunities present themselves regularly, and doing good is intertwined with other pleasant activities.

So what's an atheist to do? A. Become a non-believing participant in a religious congregation. That makes varying amounts of sense depending on the religion. B. Get the communal aspect of giving in another way. For example, join your local chapter of Amnesty International and go to the monthly meetings. C. Overcome stasis without anyone's help. Go on, write that check to Oxfam. You know you should. D. Link arms with other non-believers and give to an organization like Foundation Beyond Belief, run by McGowan.

I like what McGowan says here--
One of the things I'm trying to get past is a dismissive attitude about why religious people give--that it's out of fear, a fear of God or a fear of damnation. It's out of a human need. And we secular humanists have to have enough self-confidence to look at what they're doing right as well as wrong.
Indeed. Religious folk don't sit around blaming God. That's nonsense. Quite possibly for sheer reasons of being better organized, they're the ones more likely to fix problems. It doesn't hurt to give credit where credit is due.


Tea said...

"Religion is strongest both in dysfunctional societies and in highly functional societies--like ours."

You do realize what a glaring exception America is when it comes to religion? And even that can be explained partially by admitting that, although America as a whole may be highly functioning economically speaking, the differences between the rich and the poor are much, much bigger than in any European country. Way too many people in America go hungry, don't have basic health insurance, access to basic education, they live in trailers and self-reproducing poverty ... That is not a highly functioning country by European standards, where religion is "the weakest".

Also, your claim that "secular households give less on average than do religious households"
is based on Freedman's claim about "the United States’ nonbelievers." I'm not saying that this is different elsewhere, but, once again, you should realize how atypical America is when it comes to religion, and not make such generalizations.

"Religious folk don't sit around blaming God. That's nonsense."
Actually, many religious people do just that, as opposed to atheists, who rarely blame god for anything. Of course, this may just mean that many atheists blame something else, or simply don't care. But saying that it's nonsense that religious people don't sit around blaming god is just that: nonsense. (Except that they may not exactly "blame" him, since blame presupposes some kind of guilt - while god, in his infinite wisdom, sure has a great plan and thus has nothing to be blamed for.)

Jean Kazez said...

On the way different religions have different impacts on prosperity, a very good source is "The Central Liberal Truth" by Lawrence Harrison. There are several different religions that are prosperity-boosters, and many countries where the effect is clear. There are also several religions that depress prosperity, and again, many countries where the effect is clear. His chapter on religion and prosperity is very interesting and convincing.

As to secular households and giving. Right, that was a US survey. I don't know if this is just an American phenomenon. I do know Jonathan Haidt has done studies that show the same thing--more religion correlates with more giving.

As to sitting around blaming God--the issue was about whether believers sit around blaming God instead of doing something. It may be puzzling, but the "instead" part is not true. The same person may think the earthquake in Haiti is part of God's plan, but also contribute funds to help the victims. In fact, the person (in the US) who believe the religious bit is more likely to help the victims than the person who doesn't. I rather like McGowan's explanation-- it's all a matter of infrasctructure.

amos said...

Catholic charities are building about one half of the temporary housing for victims of the earthquake here in Chile, and they do it with voluntary labor, generally students. During the Pinochet dictatorship, Catholic human rights organizations played a very courageous role, defending human rights and sheltering non-Catholic dissidents, including atheists. By the way, several priests were murdered or disappeared by the dictatorship.

amos said...

One more point: the campaign of the Church to get people to donate money or labor to the campaign to help earthquake victims is totally secular. No mention of heaven or hell. They say: when you help others, you feel better about yourself; happiness is giving to others.

Ed said...

I don't wish to dismiss the effects of community on a person's giving and volunteering level, which I think is a significant motivating factor. However, I wonder whether these studies that compare secular charity and religious charity take into account that religious people and secular people may tend to define giving and volunteering differently.

I suspect that religious people include tithing to the church as charity and spending time helping at church events as volunteering. If they help to organize a church's potluck, for example, wouldn't they consider that volunteering? And I believe that a weekly contribution to the upkeep of the church (aka collection plate) is considered charity.

I don't think secular people have the same attitude. For example, my friend who helps to organize a monthly vegan potluck dinner does not consider that volunteering. He's organizing a party of people with similar interests. I also doubt that the attendees at his potluck consider their contribution to the event, which covers hall rental and cleanup, to be charity.

Jean Kazez said...

I assumed that the studies compare secular giving and religious giving to the same kinds of charities--Haiti relief, hunger relief, that sort of thing. That's what I gathered from the article, but I may have to write to McGowan to get some clarification. I've been wondering about this question as well.

amos said...

I wonder if that study includes lots of other things that people volunteer to do in name of the public good that aren't exactly charity work: for example, working in a political campaign, working in environmental causes,
getting involved in community betterment activities, etc.

amos said...

One more activity that people volunteer to do in name of a public good: blogging about animal rights or other good causes.