The typical Christian conception of charity is based on virtue, epitomized by the person who goes hungry to feed others. It goes all the way back to the New Testament, with Jesus’s praising of the poor woman who nonetheless gave to those poorer than she was.

This conception is also remarkably authoritarian. For one, unlike the secular right-based view of welfare, religious charity is based on the inherent good of the giver, who may be as poor as the people he gives money to. It tells the malnourished not to demand bread but to give the little they have to others.

Although officially it says that rich people can’t enter heaven without giving all their possessions to the poor, in fact it lets the upper class off the hook. The rich never give money out of their own goodwill, at least not to any considerable degree. They only give when the poor threaten to riot, or when they convince the government to tell the rich to surrender some of their wealth. By portraying welfare as a question of virtue rather than as a question of dignity, the Christian view suppresses any collective organizing on the part of the poor, telling them to instead rejoice in their own starvation. The only mechanism it has to encourage giving is guilt, which has never worked to any meaningful extent.

Not surprisingly, countries with strongly religious values are also countries where the government tells the poor that their predicament is their fault, and internally, religiosity correlates with stinginess. Post-WW2 Christian Democratic parties have combined Christian values with giving out the minimal amount of welfare that’s needed to prevent a communist revolution. India’s BJP is both fundamentalist and economically right-wing. John Paul II criticized capitalist excesses but at the same time supported fascist regimes that impoverished their populations; his native Poland is both the most religious and most capitalist country in the EU.

Religious charity is also authoritarian and anti-egalitarian in a subtler way: it gives power to the rich people who do contribute to charity, as well as to organizations that handle charitable donations. Reagan said that people on welfare can never be free, but comparing even post-Welfare Reform welfare moms to people who stay at religiously provided homeless shelter shows that welfare only increases freedom. Religious charity abuses people in ways welfare doesn’t even come close to.

Meanwhile, the people who give to charity are allowed to set its precise terms: what sort of people can enjoy it, which social benefits goals are given priority, etc. PZ documented how bad it goes when it comes to privately funded scientific research, and privately funded welfare displays similar problems.

3 Responses to Charity

  1. Bruce says:

    Hi Alon. Regarding Poland as the most capitalist country in the EU – I am not saying you are wrong, but would be curious how it would stack against low-tax (and fairly religious) Ireland. Might you have links?

  2. Alon Levy says:

    I wasn’t really thinking about Ireland there, to be honest… Poland overall seems to have the most zeal about repudiating every social program from the communist era apart from pensions, which at least in 1997 ate up a fifth of the economy. I can’t find any inequality statistics postdating 1999, when its Gini was .30, up from .22 at the beginning of the decade. That’s not especially high – Britain’s at .36 after taxes and welfare payments – but it’s as big an increase as the one Britain saw under Thatcher.

  3. Katie Kish says:

    I can’t see what I’m typing because the airport computer doesn’t let you zoom in or anything… Grr, anyway, I think I faught with Alon about this around the same time last year – there is a bad rep put around all religious charities that shouldn’t be there.

    Just because a few people have a bad experience doesn’t mean we should be writing them off totally. The religious organizations that I’ve been a part of after becoming an atheist were so calm that very often people didn’t know they were religious charities. The church at my school is where the most activism is done for students wh aren’t getting enough money to eat… They also have free meals every monday n ight … With no praying, no mention of god, or antyhing like that. You just show up, eat… chat if you want, and leave.

    I’ll do more looking into this when I’m on a proper computer – but my guess is that Canadian religious charities are a lot different, and a lot “better” than American relgious charities. The point of the United Church Of Canada, which is the church that has the most charities that I know of… is to be inclusive not just to all christians, but all people who need help.

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