Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Are Unbelievers Stingy Ol' Meanies?

It is sad that the blogosphere and surrounding Net contain so many inherent lies and egregious portrayals of Unbelievers that it's difficult to keep up. Normally, I don't worry or lose sleep at such things, but I happen to know that if these misrepresentations aren't forcefully countered they DO tend to become part of extant urban legends, especially in religiously-dominated Amerikka.

Thus, in order to challenge these disgraceful lies one must also place one's cards on the table and exhibit perhaps a profile (say of monetary giving) that one ordinarly wouldn't share. But the lies demand truth and truth often requires examples.

The above image was captured on one fundie blog and the putative header of the blog was: 'Tithing: A Foreign concept to the Unbelievers'. In fact this is a gross mischaracterization! Unbelievers across the spectrum do give, but since they don't subscribe to religions or attend churches, their giving doesn't fall under the "tithing" category, which is taken to be a RELIGIOUS injunction, demanding one-tenth of one's money for donations. Thus blaming an unbeliever for not tithing is like blaming an eagle for not having teeth! It's totally absurd.

However, as author Tom Rees has pointed out ('Atheists Are Generous: They Just Don't Give to Charity', Free Inquiry, December 2010-January 2011):

"when you widen the scope to include charitable behavior other than simple cash gifts, the idea that religious people are more generous than the nonreligious takes a huge hit. "

Included under this rubric are time allocations to the less fortunate, including volunteering to man food banks, or homeless shelters or (if one is an unbelieving M.D. in an example Rees cites), choosing to work among the poor in groups like 'Doctors Without Borders', effectively taking a pay cut. In addition, atheists and other unbelievers were more than four times more likely to donate blood than believers.

Also shedding light on giving tendencies are the studies of Daniel Batson (op. cit.). For example, one such in 1973, created a situation in which students had to pass along an alley where a man lay slumped over, seemingly unconscious. A few stopped to help but the highly religious were no more inclined to stop than the non-religious or atheists.

In another variation, students were asked to volunteer to help raise money for a sick child. Batson discovered the religious students were indeed more likely to volunteer than their NB counterparts, but ONLY if they were informed that their help was "probably not required"! Batson rightly concluded that religion seems to "promote the need to be seen to as generous, but not generosity itself" which can manifest in many ways.

Meanwhile, Psychologist Vassilis Saroglou (of the Universitie Catholique de Louvain) put the implications in plain language:

"The contrast between the ideal and self-perceptions of religious people and the results of studies using other research strategies is so striking that researchers may be tempted to suspect moral hypocrisy in religious people"

Other more recent studies, such as by Deepak Malhotra at Harvard Business School (using an online charity auction house) found that both religious and non-religious bids perfectly matched in frequency except on Sundays, when religious bids went up while those from the non-religious went down. Mahota concluded this directly was a result of charitable (money) donations being a regular feature of church attendance (including "tithing").

Thus, Mahota concluded that the church environment (in which people didn't wish to be seen by their neighbors as spiritual ingrates) drove their giving rather than any inherent spirit of generosity. To substantiate this, he found that the religious were woefully derelict, such as in working with the poor or giving blood. For example, the simple act of giving blood (as opposed to money) entailed a sacrifice made for an anonymous stranger, hence not at all stimulated by religion or religious beliefs. (And it certainly isn't mandated in any part of the Bible!)

Another more cynical (and sinister) reason many atheists are wary of charitable monetary giving, comes by way of Daniel Chen at Duke University. His investigations across differing religious sects found that giving was less a case of pure charity than "social insurance". In other words, the religious bought into the general conservative meme that charity was a preferable option to keeping the poor masses relatively content, than social welfare provided by the government. Never mind that if all the latter's social services were cut, there would have to be a 26-fold increase in charity to compensate for the loss.

As Rees notes (op. cit., p. 43):

"Arguably, charity is a means to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Seen in this light, it is a competitor to state welfare programs, because money taken in taxes can't be given as charity. But charity is a relatively ineffective tool for redistributing wealth"

For example, in terms of charity -giving people will always have their favorites. (Mine include: Helping Up Mission in Baltimore, Feed the Poor, St. Jude Research Hospital, and 'Feed the children' as well as local rescue missions and CARE). I also am wary to ensure the maximum amount of anything donated is going directly for HELP, not administrative paper-pushing. So, yes, in that regard there are "strings attached". Just blind-giving is plain stupid, because while God may "love a cheerful giver" (to hear the religious) he detests blind idiots taken by scoundrels and con men. Particularly since every dollar given blindly to a scam artist is less that can be given for a true needy cause or organization.

My point is that if there were 100 million others like me giving in the US of A, certain demographics and groups would never see a red cent. Not out of any "greed", or maliciousness, but because each person has only a limited stock with which to part, unless he's a millionaire or a Bill Gates- style billionaire. But THAT is exactly why more atheists prefer to give more in TAXES and then have the state or federal government distribute the benefits more equitably!

And besides, in the end, charity is contingent on the vagaries of markets and economics. In the last (2008-09)recession, for example, money -giving fell nearly 8% across the board - rendering many food pantries nearly empty. Thus, governmental assistance via higher taxes makes a far more compelling moral case.

Given this, it isn't at all surprising to find in Chen's research that support for government assistance and welfare was inversely proportional to religious 'in group' giving (e.g. evangelicals or Pentecostals giving to their own church, kind) Thus, the more the religious were committed to tithing, for example, the less likely they were to favor government assistance ...such as home heating oil subsidies for poor elderly, or nutrition programs for poor children. This explains why such a large proportion of fundagelicals are Republican, and why Republicans are now prepared to take the budget axe to all these programs. They're basically doing the political bidding of their (mainly) religious-conservative followers! Care for the poor? Don't make me laugh! Anyone who truly cared for the downtrodden would never be a Republican, which literally stands for Big Business and Wealth!

Chen's research also found (on an international scale) that government welfare programs were strongest where atheists are more common, and less likely where the religious dominated. The ironice aspect of this?

Since state welfare dwarfs charitable giving (even in nations with small welfare states such as the U.S.) the result is that the LEAST religious nations also have the highest flow of wealth from the rich to the poor.

In other words, the cartoon depicted on the fundy's site is ironically more apropos to evangelical Christians in the U.S. than to non-believers!

Let's also take a look, in ending, at a comment made on that same site:

"Now , although many NB's DO give to various ( and good ) charities and individuals - one must ask WHY they give . Is it because they sincerely want to help , or because it simply makes THEM "feel good"? Is it truly a gift from the heart - given "cheerfully" and "not grudgingly" ( cf. 2 Cor. 9:7 ) , or does it come with the proverbial strings attached"

But as I pointed out, the only "strings" - at least for atheist monetary givers- is that charities be recognized and legit, not fly by nights, and also that the preponderance of their monies go to actual help, not administration. Atheists giving also want to make sure their donations end up where the charity says it will, and not padding the pockets of some church or other!

For those interested, a useful monitoring site is: http://www.charitynavigator.org/

As for his other questions, the research I already cited by Chen, and earlier Malhotra and Batson, shows in fact it is the religious who give to feel good. They are conditioned by their church environment to be SEEN as giving generously, not because they really wish to (else they'd also be equally involved in giving blood, or working with the poor not merely writing about them).

Lastly, it is always somewhat unseemly to criticize unbelievers for stinginess or "greed", either as a group, or personally when that (criticizing) person may also be receiving any form of largesse from said unbelievers, whether as an outright gift, or donation. 'Nuff said.

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