Christian Charity vs. Non-theist Charity
Charity. The very word seems to be steeped in Christianity, doesn’t it?
This is probably due, in part, to the fact that the Vulgate often translated the Greek word agape (love of fellow man, also used to refer to the love between men and god) as caritatem (Latin, meaning “costliness, esteem, affection”, the word from which “charity” is derived) in what may have been an attempt to avoid the suggestion of the Latin amor which could be thought of in a more sexual manner. This translation made its way into the later English translations (Wyclif, Rhemish, and Tindale all used the word “charity”) and thus, the language of modern Christianity.
The other reason the idea of charity seems so connected to Christianity is that the scriptures mention in a number of places that the poor should be cared for. This is present in the Old Testament in some places and even more so in the New Testament. It is, by no means, the central point of any of the scriptures, but it is talked about. In fact, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
And Christians do give a lot. Most churches teach tithing (an idea which, though I have always felt was misinterpreted, comes from the old testament practice of giving a tenth of one’s produce to the Levites who, being charged with the operation of the temple were not allowed to own land, could not provide for themselves. But beyond that, they often support missions outside of their churches or give to religious charitable organizations.
I am sure that if you look at the amount of money that is given to nonprofits by people claiming to be Christian versus the money given to nonprofits by people claiming to be non-christian the scale would tip very favorably on the side of the Christians. (Possibly, I haven’t taken the time to look up actual numbers on this, so if I am wrong then please correct me. It is likely that the large donations of a few very rich non-theists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have leveled the playing field.) However, I don’t think you can count all of Christian giving as charitable donations.
I will use the budget of the church I work for as an example. Our budget for the 2012 year is $367,441. This is for a church with an average weekly attendance of 100-115, mostly middle class to lower-middle class folk and a large number of retired people. Of that budget, 10% goes to the Southern Baptist’s Cooperative Program, 2% goes to the local Association, 1% goes toward benevolence, and 1% goes toward church missions. $64,884 out of $367, 441 is going to “missions” of one kind or another.
The rest is used for to pay the pastor, myself, and other employees, pay for insurance and supply costs, building maintenance, utilities, and literature. Christians see all of that as charitable work. They view the missions the church supports overseas, across the nation, and across the city as charitable and they also think of the work the church itself does as charitable. However, even if you look at just the 14% that the church actually designates as charity, only a very small percentage of that would be comparable to what a non-theist would donate. Of the largest chunk, 10% to the Cooperative Program, some is used to help the needy in our country and around the world, but more of it is used to educate ministers, support local associations, and send out missionaries. Christians see missions work as charitable, but they often provide very little actual help and a lot of evangelism. In the end, only 1% of my church’s budget goes to actually helping needy people directly (the 1% designated as benevolence). I would say it is likely that far less than 5% of the budget ever makes it into the hands of any needy person in a meaningful way.
I’m willing to bet (again, no hard numbers) that the charitable donations of Christians to organizations outside of their local church are far smaller than the donations atheists make to similar charities. They have, after all, already given 10% of their income to their local church, there isn’t a lot left over! (The churches I have been in teach that 10% is what is required of a Christian to give to their church, they are required to give sacrificially above that to support missions and organizations outside the church, it is taught!)
And even if you count those donations Christians make to organizations outside their church, they are often not giving to something that will spend the majority of that money only on helping the needy. For years I have sponsored a child through Compassion International. This is an organization that matches children in poverty with Christian sponsors. The child is provided with essentials for living: clothes, food, and water as well as an education. However, that education is heavily Christian-centric. They are taught the myths of the bible and Jesus as truth and I am sure they receive a second-rate education in critical thinking and science. Thus, the majority of what Christians give is used in the furthering of their message. One can hardly fault them for spending so much money on this, if what they believe were really true and the message they share is the only thing that will prevent people from suffering for all eternity then it would be money well-spent.
It does not give them the right to claim that they are more active and committed to helping the poor and needy of the world than unbelievers are. It is very likely that more atheist money goes directly to helping to ease the suffering of those in need than Christian money does. Christians are more concerned with the state of a person after they die than with their living conditions here. Most of the time meeting their “earthly” needs is only seen as a means to an end: converting them and meeting their “spiritual” needs.
I didn’t originally intend to write 1000 words on why Christians probably don’t support charity any more than atheists do, but it is a matter that I have run across quite often and felt that my position needed a little defending. That said, I wanted to provide some resources for the non-religious folks who want to give. Today in America we are, after all, celebrating all the wonderful things we have to be thankful for in our lives and many see this as a time to help those who aren’t quite as well-off as we are.
There were a few of things that prompted me to write this post, and I really had meant to make this a month ago. First was a friend of mine in our local Freethought group posting a link to a child sponsorship program for a secular humanist school in Uganda. The second was an e-mail I received from the Foundation Beyond Belief concerning the crisis in the Horn of Africa. A third reason is what prompted the first 1200 words or so of this post: I want non-theists to be known for giving, to be known for helping the less fortunate around us. I would love for it to be seen that Christian charity is only a means to spread their myths while the secular world is interested in helping ease suffering in this life.
So I’m going to give you a short list of non-religious charities that I know of, I am sure there are more and they can be posted in the comments.
- Amnesty International (Wikipedia article)
- Doctors Without Boarders (Wikipedia article)
- The Red Cross (Wikipedia article)
- Planned Parenthood (Wikipedia article)
- Water.org (Wikipedia article)
- Plan International (Wikipedia article)
- Oxfam International (Wikipedia article)
There is, of course, the Foundation Beyond Belief which I mentioned earlier. They do all the hard work for you in finding the most efficient charities in various categories. You set a donation level and select causes you are interested in and they do the rest. If, for some reason, you are not happy with a charity they pick for you then you can reallocate your donation to another.
The FBB are the ones who e-mailed me about the crisis in the Horn of Africa. The countries in the Horn are currently experiencing the most severe drought in 60 years, a situation which has been called the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis” by the UN High Commissioner. They have a project going on right now through the end of the year to raise money to help. You still have a little more than a month, so check it out!
There is also that school in Uganda that I mentioned. The Kasese Humanist Primary School provides a secular education for children in Uganda. The curriculum has an emphasis on critical thinking and science. $30 will sponsor a child for a semester, $90 will sponsor them for a while year. What better way to spread humanism and science than by helping educate children?
This is just for helping out with the larger situation. There are ways to give locally, too, though in some places it can be hard to find truly secular outlets for it. I encourage you to give of your time and abilities as well as your money. And, as I said above, feel free to mention other secular charities in the comments.