Atheist kindness

If there’s one particular argument over “who’s better and why” that I find disturbing, it’s the “theists do more/atheists do less to help the disadvantaged” trope. The PR associated with the “debate” over the issue has a way of making the vulnerable and disadvantaged, the very people who’s needs are supposed to be the purpose of the whole welfare venture, instrumental to other people’s self-image. Usually people who have more money than them.

Really, it seems quite selfish to me, this “we are kinder/just as kind”, kind of crap. You have these people who have a home, money and security, sponging off of the destitute for brownie points.

I’ve seen it in religious apologetics with the use of bad statistics, usually containing category errors which make unverifiable assumptions about those donating to charity. There are many avenues one can go by to help those in need, and most of them don’t discriminate against help on the basis of the life stance of the donor – hence they don’t exactly have a running census. You can’t just go and assume that all of World Vision’s work is the work of the religious – they seek donations from theist and atheist alike.

While I’m of the understanding that a number of church-based welfare agencies are pointedly non-proselytic (for example, it’s a violation of Centrecare’s code of ethics and social justice policy*), the same isn’t true of a number of religious aid initiatives. Let’s not mince words. Proselytism to the disadvantaged and vulnerable is predatory. It’s taking advantage of a lack of social justice to engage in coercion. Furthermore, it can get in the way of genuine relief efforts.

There are always resource bottlenecks in crisis situations. Even when infrastructure isn’t compromised, resources are finite and geared more closely to the supply and demand situation under normal circumstances. A large stochastic event drastically alters supply and demand in a way production isn’t geared to cope with. Take any of the serious Australian bushfires we’ve had in the past few years – we’re well equipped but in each relief effort you’ll hear words to the effect of “please no more clothes, just send food or donate directly to this fund”.

Storage space and transport are finite. Sending and storing things that aren’t needed doesn’t just not help – it can get in the way of relief efforts. A plane or truck carrying something that isn’t going to save a life could otherwise be used to transport something that could. In essence this is what John Stuart Mill called (and what economists call) opportunity cost.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that Haiti’s infrastructure was rubbish before the earthquake. It doesn’t take Einstein to tell that it’s even worse afterward. And it shouldn’t be beyond the average person off the street to be able to tell that a solar power bible isn’t going to pull anyone out of the rubble, or administer CPR, or set up a field hospital.

The easy answer to this is “ATHEIST CHARITY!!!” It’s an easy answer and like many easy answers, I don’t like it. For one, I prefer secular charity. There are two big, albeit not-necessary implications calling a charity “atheist” – either one of non-religious proselytism or exploitation for political ends: a response to the calculated stereotype that paints atheists as necessarily selfish (something the current Pope is guilty of spreading around).

It appears to be very easy for atheists to be baited into exploiting the beneficiaries of their charity, if only inadvertently. Take the recent “atheist giveaways“. Well meaning, no doubt. Needed, no doubt. And no signs of proselytism – that’s good.

But… Filming the needy at their most vulnerable – when they are asking for help – to produce a video showing how atheists can be nice, is not okay. It’s exploitative.

Sure, make a video arguing that atheists are nice people. Make a video promoting the cause of welfare. I don’t have a problem with either. There are however, right and wrong ways of going about it.

Helping people isn’t easy work, much less so when done properly. Just because the Vatican (and others) really has it in for atheists these days is no excuse to make great displays of kindness at any cost – including the cost of the dignity of the disadvantaged. This PR problem that has been foist upon us by others is the problem of said others – we shouldn’t be sabotaging our better inclinations just in order to respond.

Further to this. It should become apparent that in as far as the motives for helping people are concerned, I don’t think that the identity of the helper is particularly relevant. When I’ve done charity work, I haven’t, nor will I ever give a rat’s arse about who I do it with. At least in as far as religious affiliation is concerned.

Seriously, if you’re an atheist reading this, ask yourself “would I deny help from a theist in helping my fellow human?” If your answer is yes, then you’ve got problems. Sure, you probably don’t want to proselytise or be a party to proselytism directed at the poor – I can relate. But that doesn’t prevent you from working with religious people.

I know it’s not impossible because I’ve done it myself.

So what kind of “atheist charity” do you have if you have Christians and Muslims and fellow humans from various other religious affiliations at your side? You don’t have one. And if you aren’t church-based, and you don’t proselytise, what you have is a secular charity.

I’ve got a bit of a “faitheist” for a cousin, who likes to point out that there aren’t any atheist charities. Put simply, if you have a non-church-based charity that doesn’t proselytise and doesn’t care one hoot about who helps out, you’ve got as atheist a charity as many an atheist would ever want. Of course, these secular charities don’t stand out, but that’s not the point – they are numerous, but they’re there to help out, not to make a display.

Opportunity cost plays a part in this as well. Why waste energy on replicating welfare infrastructure that is already available to secular ends, even if the infrastructure just happens to church-based? Energy wasted on unnecessary replication of infrastructure is energy not spent on helping people.

That being said, atheists shouldn’t have their efforts frustrated either. There’s a lot of need in the world going unmet. So on the occasions that I’ve been made aware of secular not-for-profit initiatives aimed squarely at where need exists being discriminated against because of their non-religious status, I’m truly appalled. This comes down to opportunity cost as well.

A charity that serves X amount of utility, for Y amount of funding, displacing the utility provided by another contender (Z), where Xis being paid Y amount of funding to generate negative utility. Put more simply, they’re being paid to displace a better welfare agency and thus increase the need for welfare.

This can be put in even more sinister terms. Consider a thought experiment.

$1 million of funding is available to tender poverty relief. Using these funds, Charity A will alleviate $1.2 million of poverty; Charity B will alleviate $1.5 million of poverty. Due to denominational politics, Charity A gets the tender. The sinister aspect in this thought experiment is that the poor are paying $300,000 in opportunity costs so that Charity A can absorb $1 Million of funding into its infrastructure – along with all the political influence that buys – at the meagre cost of $200,000 (from tax-exempt income, of course).

This isn’t nearly as hypothetical as you may think. This, in various forms and with various sums, is essentially a lot of what happened with Job Network contracts under the Howard Government. Although the criteria for discrimination was more (albeit not entirely) secular – church-based institutions, along with more secular Job Network members, would be enticed carrot-and-stick to comply with new Job Network policy, attracting political influence at the price of giving political or religious validation to the Federal Government.

Concerns about what was best for the disadvantaged were pushed down the list of priorities as this religious-political horse trading was executed. Deserving, principled welfare groups (both church-based and secular) were themselves disadvantaged if they didn’t play along**. The needy being the end-recipient of this neglect.

The take-home message in all of this is that welfare agency, and not-for-profit attempts to better humanity’s lot in general, can be undermined when treated as political capital. Secular or not.

I am a big believer in secular welfare, and I think it the best way to bring about social justice – material needs being met with the best (albeit not infallible) guarantee of the preservation of human dignity. Not that I think for a moment that atheists have been selfish in the past, the renewed interest in welfare amongst the out-atheist community is to be welcomed. Just not as a PR exercise (why dignify anti-atheist propaganda with such a response anyway?)

In any undertaking of secular welfare however, we atheists need to keep in mind why we should be (not just why we are) going about it in the first place and let those justifications inform our strategies. We atheists are still quite capable of stuffing this up if we lose our way.

Perhaps instead of getting defensive in response to the fatuous “selfish atheist” charges, we just get on with the job and make explicit our expectations that our theist counterparts do the same. Appealing to them to join with us in opposing the treatment of welfare recipients as political currency.

~ Bruce

* Indeed, the policy goes beyond a “do not”, mandating that Centrecare workers take deliberate preventative steps against imposing their personal beliefs upon clients.

** This is all relative of course – even those that came through the process relatively unscathed weren’t at all happy about the horse trading for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the effect upon the provision of service.

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7 thoughts on “Atheist kindness

  1. Nice article.

    My understanding of the motives behind people like Dawkins is not to set up ‘atheist charities’, but to provide a portal that makes it easier for people to choose charities that are secular. For example when I clicked on the Dawkins site, I was given the option of Red Cross or Doctors without borders. There was no mention of so called ‘atheist charities’.

    Also I know of several incidences of church based tax payer funded counselling services refusing to see homosexual clients.

    • Thanks Alex.

      My understanding of the motives behind people like Dawkins is not to set up ‘atheist charities’, but to provide a portal that makes it easier for people to choose charities that are secular.

      That’s my understanding as well.

      Also I know of several incidences of church based tax payer funded counselling services refusing to see homosexual clients.

      If you require a while back, there was a religious doctor in the US who refused to help a homosexual man who had just been lynched.

      Further to this, I’m currently reading The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. I’ve noticed the phenomena myself, but in Blackmore’s words, memetically speaking this can be described as “… ‘Be good to those who act like you’. It works works like this. If you see someone else who acts the same way as you do, it is likely that you both have cultural ancestors in common. If you now help him you make it more likely that he will be successful, and hence that he will pass on his memes, including the rule ‘Be good to those who act like you’.” – “The memetic equivalent of kin selection”, Blackmore says, and I’ve been thinking for a while.

      Hope that tidbit is useful to you. I read it on the train on the way home today. 😀

  2. Synchronicity – I’ve just posted on the development of very costly altruism, DEFINITELY by non-Abrahamists, here.

    Costly? Because they are single parents adopting non-relatives, taking on years of effort. It’s common in that tribe.

    Non-Abrahamic? You’ve got to be human to be an Abrahamist, don’t you? They’re chimps.

  3. I don’t have a link, but at various atheist conventions, Psychiatrist, Andy Thomas, talks about the phenomenon of “same = good, other = bad”. His context was in disproving the ridiculous notion that religion is the only key to morality.

  4. So what is your take on the Foundation Beyond Belief (www.foundationbeyondbelief.org) which, while it has other motives as well, is in part about fighting the stereotype that atheists and humanists are selfish and don’t care about the welfare of others? I know there is a thought that by fighting anti-atheist propaganda we are “dignifying it with a response”, but if we let it go unopposed isn’t our silence tacit consent that the stereotypes are true?

  5. I don’t have much of a take on The Foundation Beyond Belief, beyond what I’ve seen a few bloggers say. In as far as I have seen though, I will say that tentatively there is far too much emphasis on trying to portray atheists as charitable.

    To borrow from Hitchens (I paraphrase), “That which can be argued without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” The existing stereotype that atheists are selfish people, is argued without sufficient evidence. One gives these kinds of arguments too much respect by going to the effort of digging up evidence – that’s the job of the bigots pushing the charge.

    It shouldn’t go unopposed of course. I think atheists should be screaming from the rooftops (metaphorically) “where’s the evidence that we’re selfish?” We need to actively put it all back on those making the charge, by demanding that they meet their intellectual responsibilities, or exposing them as bigoted charlatans when they don’t.

    None of this requires exploiting people facing hard times – often harder times than that experienced by the average atheist.

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