The selfishness of religious charity

Doing good to do well in the afterlife is not as admirable as you think

A few weeks ago, my father and I had a rare debate about religion. The debate began when my father, who is a Christian, expressed his view that religious people are inherently more charitable and selfless than atheists.

In my experience, my father is not unique in this belief. There undeniably exists a stereotype in many cultures that religious people are charitable and compassionate, while non-religious people are selfish and hedonistic.

I find this phenomenon deeply offensive. Unfortunately, it seems that a great many people have internalized this misunderstanding of how charity and morality relate to religious affiliation. In reality, there are certain aspects of religion that in fact promote selfishness, while atheism neither encourages nor condemns selfish behaviour.

Religious conviction, or lack thereof, has very little to do with the frequency with which one performs charitable acts. I have known many religious and atheistic people alike who care deeply about the world around them and act accordingly. I have also known many people from both categories who are solely concerned with obtaining personal success and happiness.

Separating humanity into two categories (religious and non-religious) and using these categories as a basis for determining people’s general charitableness is absurd.

However, when you compare charity performed by an atheist with charity performed by a Christian, there are certain fundamental differences. (I use Christianity as an example because it is my father’s religion of choice, but these arguments apply to nearly all religions.)

The first difference is that when a Christian acts charitably it is at least in part because he or she believes that such actions merit a reward in the form of an afterlife spent in a utopian Heaven. In contrast, when an atheist performs acts of charity, he or she expects nothing in return. It seems to me that performing acts of charity solely for the sake of helping others is a great deal less selfish than doing so because one expects a divine reward.

When a Christian missionary performs acts of charity, he or she often does so for a price. There are many instances in which Christianity, and other religions as well, have used charity as a facade for mass conversions. Entire cultures and communities have been utterly destroyed as a result.

Certain Christian organizations are quite open about their desire to convert the masses. For example, Youth For Christ include the proselytizing of inner-city youth in their mission statement. Their number of conversions is tallied up at the end of the year as a measure of success.

Other organizations have genuine intentions that do not include conversion, although it must be said that even among these groups there is often a tendency to distribute their religious literature, which is merely a subtler way of manipulating vulnerable populations.

These crucial differences between atheists and religious people demonstrate that atheists are, in fact, less selfish than religious people in respect to charity, contrary to what many religious people would like to believe.

I would encourage you to think twice next time you hear someone make a remark that continues to propagate the inaccurate and offensive stereotypes of the charitable Christian and the hedonistic atheist. Stereotypes like these are the enemies of progress and we must always challenge them if we are to move forward in constructive debate between the religious and non-religious communities.

Katerina Tefft is a first-year politics student and a member of the University of Winnipeg Atheist Students Association. The group will be holding a presentation and open discussion on Wednesday, March 31 in 3D01 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.

Published in Volume 64, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 25, 2010)

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