Friday, December 18, 2009

The Problem of Atheism

The subject of atheist morality has come up quite often lately and it continues to hang heavily on my mind. I read a stat sheet recently that has bothered me profoundly. There are many positive statistics on it, but the part that gets to me is:
"Conservatives are more likely to give than liberals and give more, even in blood donations. There [sic] are also twice as likely to attend religious worship... Religious people give more to secular causes than do secular people." (these statistics were compiled from Charity Navigator, National Center for Charitable Statistics, and The Center on Philanthropy).
I have no reason to doubt this. I myself am not a very charitable person. I am selfish and solitary, I give to charity only when I think of it, which isn't often. I donate blood only when it is convenient. I haven't even donated time to a charity or cause in years.

I know that atheists are not defined by any set of principles - indeed, there is only one thing that ties all atheists together and that is the lack of belief in a deity. And yet that one thing is responsible for all judgments levied against us, especially our morality. I've addressed this before, and recently, so I won't get into it too much. I certainly don't believe that atheism will make someone evil, just as I don't think that religion makes anyone good. The problem with atheism (as far as charitable giving is concerned) isn't a lack of religion, but a lack of structure. Most religions collect some form of tithes from its followers. These tithes are often (not always, of course, but often) used for charity. And beyond this, there is a culture of giving that is woven through many church communities. The social networking that takes place in church is really tremendous, and different charitable causes are brought in by the congregation. I am not so cynical to think that the religious are all hateful zealots, nor do I think that religious people give solely to causes that are explicitly religious in nature.

Atheists, on the other hand, do not do this. Instead of going to a weekly love-in to hear about the benefits of generosity, we sleep in, we work or play video games. I'm speaking primarily for myself here, by the way, although according to the poll numbers cited above, I am speaking for other atheists as well. For those of us who want to care but are just naturally lazy and selfish, we really need structure and community.

Structure and community are two aspects that I respect and miss from my days of going to church, but they have nothing at all to do with the authenticity of religion. Simply because religious people give more money to charity it does not follow that any religion is correct. In fact, I would say that the charitable giving happens because of the people and community and in spite of the religion. There are plenty of atheists who donate money and time. I mean no disrespect to them at all. The numbers in the poll may be wrong. But it would make sense to me if they were correct.

I really intend to give more blood, more money and more time this coming year. However, history and an intimate knowledge of myself tells me that it probably won't happen. I want to be a good person - not just a pleasant person but a person who has a positive impact on society. Does anyone have any suggestions?


miriamt said...

I think there are a couple of different issues in this discussion.
• For one thing, Atheism is not a religion in the same way as “Christianity” and Judaism is in that there is a kind of agreement or structure, as you call it. So that that poll could get as relevant an answer as if the compared the charitable giving of vegetarians as opposed to carnivores, or of “Baby Boomers” as opposed to “GenerationX”ers. It would be hard to determine the motivation of their giving or lack of giving because of that particular similarity.
• Many Christians give because of a belief in a future reward for that generosity. While I personally champion what is termed as the “selfish” life perspective, I think we should all admit that we give because it benefits us. Not a bad reason (the only honest reason, really) but if someone does not believe in an “afterlife” that will repay them all their sacrifices, they may be less inclined to report their giving.
• There is an erroneous belief that giving necessarily involves some kind of currency. Of course that is, by far the easiest measurable way. But, in fact, many give in ways that are hard, if not impossible, to measure. And they may be as relevant and effective as “charity”. How about adoption of children or animals that are at risk. How about fighting to give those whose right s are being violated, the chance for fairness. How about standing up against oppression and letting your name be used to defend justice. These things are hard to measure but may, in the end be more costly than tithes……let’s see how religious people fare as opposed to the “non-religious” in Green Peace, the Peace Corp and other organizations that charitably “give” of themselves.
As with many instances of the drama that is being human, this poll reduces giving into measurable units…we are not measurable.

emma wallace said...

Well, I'm terrified of giving blood, even if I were a priest myself, I'm sure I couldn't. So, can't help you on that front.

However, you could do something like sponsor a child and they automatically deduct from your account monthly. You could also budget out money at the beginning of the month like you do with other bills, and donate it to your favorite cause.

And then make sure to answer all polls so you can lift up the atheist stats.

Ed said...

This is a great post, I have had the same thought myself. Rabbi Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens had a debate recently and Wolpe mentioned a story about a family that had lost its husband/father. He went on to describe how every week for the last 3 years people have brought that family dinners. He ends with something like "I don't know of anywhere outside of a house of worship where something like that happens" Hitchens pointed out that he like many atheists donates blood as well as money to charity, but Wolpe's example does seem to be a rather strong one. Certainly this does not prove God is real, or even that religion is a "good idea" but it does illustrate your point about structure, discipline and community. What is so disastrous about faith/religion is also in some cases a great strength- it can be a way of subverting or over riding self centered desires, thoughts and behaviors.

On the other hand I would point out that (as you most likely already are aware), the countries that give the most to charity are the same countries that are the least religious.

I think there are various ways to develop discipline in giving but one effective way for me is habit and "making it automatic" Automatically charging a certain month to you credit card is one option. Many employers also have charitable giving programs where you can set aside a portion of each pay check before taxes, to go to a particular charity. I do this pre tax option with my donation to Stop Hunger Now. I am also luck to work at a University so there are always blood drives going on. Every Friday I do volunteer work at the same place at the same time and I know there are people counting on me showing up. It is a matter of routine at this point.

Another thing I do is to periodically read a book on giving and or ethics to help motivate me. Peter Singer's "The Life You Can Save" is a good one.

I also find making public pledges to donate time or money to a cause helps, mainly because of the peer pressure and pride issues :)

Signing up to a site like Amnesty International or Avaaz helps to since they send out calls for action, either letter writing and calls or online petitions.