Concerning Christian Charity
by Dr. Tim Gorski, Pastor
The North Texas Church of Freethought
www.churchoffreethought.org
(printed in Positive Atheism, July, 1999)

   

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Concerning Christian Charity
by Dr. Tim Gorski

July, 1999

Christian apologists often insist that their religion promotes extraordinary generosity and altruism. As proof, they point to Christian-sponsored hospitals, clinics, schools, colleges, homeless shelters, halfway houses, and other educational and charitable organizations. "And where are the atheist hospitals?" they tauntingly ask. "We don't see any atheist programs to help the poor and needy," they jeer.

But these claims are far weaker than they may appear. In Muslim countries, for example, there are Muslim schools and charities. In countries dominated by Buddhists we see Buddhist institutions. Even in Cuba, there are schools, hospitals, and public aid organizations, a fact that is frequently pointed to by apologists for Castro. So why should it be thought unusual that, where Christians are to be found in great numbers, there also are to be found Christian-sponsored charitable organizations?

Then there is the history of Christianity in the West. As recently as a few hundred years ago, it was dangerous, if not fatal, to so much as openly doubt Christian theological doctrines. That was the practical form that "Christian love" and "Christian charity" took for the overwhelming part of its history. Its ferocity was only moderated by the innovative principle of state-church separation, a principle still denied and denounced by the most energetic of Christian zealots. How, then, can special merit be accorded to Christianity? What is so singularly virtuous about doing what others are forcibly prevented from doing? And how honest and principled is it, given these circumstances, for Christians to claim exceptional virtue for themselves while disparaging their historical victims?

Even today, unbelievers are relentlessly reviled by many Christian leaders. Consider the following recent statements by U.S. leaders:

  • "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God." [President George Bush]
     
  • "The fact that we have freedom of religion doesn't mean we need to try to have freedom from religion." [President William Jefferson Clinton]
     
  • "Radicals and atheists are destroying families." [Hillary Rodham-Clinton]

Given the context of Christians' past and current treatment of those with contrary religious opinions, it is outrageous for anyone to point to Christian educational and charitable organizations as "proof" that Christianity excels at promoting compassion and humanitarianism. Those who make such fraudulent claims are like those who said, a century ago and more, that the absence of blacks and women in political office or other positions of responsibility "proved" that they lacked the character and intellect to vote or pursue professional careers. Then, as now, faith-blinded Christian apologists who are unwilling or unable to think excel in circular reasoning and question-begging, not in generosity or human feeling.

If Christianity were so spectacularly marked by the urge to give to others without asking anything in return, Christian institutions would have done far more than they have. As it is, almost all religious hospitals, clinics, schools, and colleges charge and collect fees that are the same as, or very little different than, similar non-religious organizations. Those associated with religious groups may receive modest or token subsidies, either in the form of cash from generous believers (and unbelievers!) or in the form of free labor provided by an order of monks, nuns, priests, and other volunteers. But the secular organizations engaged in the same activities manage not only to survive without such help but pay taxes to the state and dividends to their shareholders as well. A reasonable person would conclude that the religiously affiliated schools and hospitals, far from being praiseworthy examples of altruism, are, in fact, inefficient and wasteful of money and resources.

Of course, shelters for the homeless and battered women, food banks, soup kitchens, and the like do not charge fees. They survive, almost without exception, on a variety of grants. Most often, these are government grants. But this is no less true of organizations affiliated with religious groups as with those that are not. Catholic Charities, for example, gets the majority of its funding from taxpayers. Charitable organizations also rely on the United Way and other funding sources that draw on society generally rather than on adherents of any specific religion. Even the bell-ringing Salvation Army "Santas" rely on the ordinary generosity of people generally, and not just on that of theologically correct Christians. Meanwhile, just as in the case of schools and hospitals, these religious-affiliated charitable organizations enjoy special advantages. Virtually all of them own land and other untaxed properties. In many cases, they enjoy streams of income from these assets as well as other unrelated activities, all of which are also untaxed. This represents a large subsidy from Christians and non-Christians alike, even for those religious organizations that do not receive outright grant monies from the taxpayers.

It is arguable whether such subsidies are a good value for the benefits received, even if they were not unconstitutional violations of state-church separation. But they are subsidies nonetheless. It is an abuse of the facts, of reason, and of the spirit in which these subsidies are given for anyone to claim that the success of the recipient organizations demonstrate the superiority of the religions with which they are affiliated. More importantly, it illustrates the wisdom of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which was intended to prevent this diversion of public funds to the support of religious proselytization.

This brings us to the most disturbing feature of religious "charities." For they are not motivated primarily by a compassionate desire to alleviate human suffering or the generous inclination to advance the cause of human happiness. This was well shown by many of the pronouncements of one of the most celebrated of Christian charitable leaders, the late, but still revered "Mother Theresa," who said: "I think it is very good when people suffer. To me, that is like the kiss of Jesus...." The same fundamental indifference both to human suffering and happiness is at the root of Christian groups' opposition not only to abortion but also to birth control and assisted reproductive technologies. Nowhere is this better shown than when religious charities are forced to choose between humanitarianism and their own theological teachings. Holy spirits beat flesh and blood human beings every time.

Thus the chief motivation for Christian "charity" is not love of humanity at all. It is love of Christian dogmas and doctrines. For Christian teachings do not hold that good works are good in themselves. Rather, good works merely serve to show the inward theological correctness that Christians believe is necessary to win entry into heaven and escape damnation. Good works are merely the "signs and wonders" that prove Christianity's divine authority. Most of all, good works are the bait to lure potential converts and the cost of being "saved." All of which demonstrates not that the Christian religion is morally superior, but that it is morally bankrupt.

Meanwhile, it turns out that there are secular schools, hospitals, clinics, homeless shelters, and other charities that do without Christian theology and Christian "morals." In fact, there are two varieties of them. There are those sponsored by various government agencies. And there are the previously mentioned private organizations, both non-profit and for-profit. Both public and private secular institutions have been far more successful at alleviating human suffering and promoting human happiness than any religion has ever been.

It is true, of course, that the funds extracted from taxpayers to pay for many of these secular programs are collected under threat of civil and criminal law. For this reason, it is often said that no moral credit ought to be imputed for the work they do. Yet religious organizations also depend on monies collected through taxation. Nor do they ever tire in seeking a greater share of it. It cannot be more praiseworthy for Christian charitable groups to spend these funds than for the government or a private secular organization to spend them. In fact, the opposite is the case. For the charitable Christian groups' interest is primarily in advancing the Christian religion with humanitarianism a distant secondary goal. In addition, however unworthy the tool of taxation may be, traditional Christian methods of collecting money, property, and treasure are far worse. The power of the state, after all, is obviously limited. But Christians claim that those who do not cooperate with them will suffer eternal torture in hellfire.

Not long ago, Christians enthusiastically delivered those who failed to cooperate to earthly flames well in advance of the alleged hellfire. But this is not what most of us today think of as generosity, charity, and loving-kindness.

 

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