Gifts, Giving and Goodness

Giving charity picRecently, some of the members of the HAAM executive were having a discussion about how we, as a group, could encourage and promote more activities related to giving back to our communities, volunteerism and charitable works. Last year HAAM started an informal process of highlighting a charity of the month and doing something to promote the activities of the charity. Our promotion included activities such as collecting donations for Agape Table, D’Arcy’s ARC and volunteering as a group and individually for Lunches With Love, making healthy lunches to help some of the homeless people in our community. I personally have been quite enthusiastic about having these opportunities to put my humanist values into practice and I believe others in the group feel the same way.

This topic, though, made me consider some issues related to charitable giving in general. I think that most of us like to believe that we are doing good when we give to a charity, and I have seen many people will bring this up when trying to argue with religionists about being good without God, often citing work done by non-religious organizations like the Red Cross, or charitable organizations founded by non-believers like Bill Gates.

There is no doubt that giving and volunteering is a worthwhile thing to do, a concrete way to put our humanist values into practise and one that has its own rewards built right in. Most of us would probably agree that it just plain feels good to help. Being empathetic and compassionate is built into us and we recognize the rational utilitarian aspect of the golden rule. We help others in the hopes that they will help us when we need it. Everyone wins.

But does everyone really win? I have a good friend who will argue quite vociferously against the concept of the charity model really being effective at changing anything in the status quo. That it is a big waste of resources to rely on individual giving to actually fix anything. For example giving to a food bank does nothing to address the grave inequalities that create the need for it in the first place. That what we need is better government, tax supported programs that actually provide the people in need with enough money to buy food in the first place. That supporting these charities only props up an unfair system that keeps the disadvantaged down, while allowing the privileged to feel good about helping one day and then the next day to complain that their taxes are too high. And don’t get her going about the big business feel of some charities, like breast cancer research, that somehow selling a bunch of pink crap manufactured in countries with atrocious records on workers’ rights is a good thing. Countries where it’s not unlikely that the woman making that pink T-shirt can’t get the time off work to go and have a mammogram. While I offer these arguments as examples that my friend uses, I admit that I am sympathetic to them as well.

Another issue regarding the charity model relates to the issue of deserving and undeserving recipients. For example, I have noticed that it is much easier to give to those who we see as not being responsible for their own circumstances. People are often very motivated to help animals, seen as innocent, children with cancer, or to donate to disaster relief caused by some horrific natural disaster. But helping out a drug-addicted homeless person who doesn’t show a proper amount of gratitude? Not so much.

Looking at these two example of charitable giving with a critical eye, I have to wonder what role religious influence plays in this. First, regarding creating a more fair and equal society. Despite protestations to the contrary from those who see their religion as an inspiration to work towards social justice, I don’t actually see any concept of fairness or equality actually being taught consistently in the Bible. This is probably a reflection of the time that it was written, when there was no concept of democratic rule, basic equality or human rights. But for those who think it was divinely inspired, I would hope for something better from the Lord of the universe than quotes like this found in Matthew 26:11 “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have me”. What a way to inspire people to not actually look at root causes or solutions. But a great message to encourage tithing.

The second example of people being more inclined to help those that they perceive as innocent, I think draws even more parallels with themes in the Bible. Concepts that are held up as worthy and honourable include innocence and purity. Jesus was seen as the perfect sacrifice because he was innocent of sin. Keeping yourself sheltered and ignorant of the world is seen as a desirable path for many in this mind set. People are divided into saved and unsaved. Commit one sin or ten, damnation follows. There is not a lot of nuance in the core message. The idea of suffering being the result of sin, something you must have brought on yourself is actually a very common answer to be found to the problem of pain. It shows little recognition for the complexities of life, or for the recognition that sometimes chance, circumstance and degree of privilege play a bigger role than we realize in where we end up.

I am not drawing any definite conclusions here regarding religion being the ultimate cause of why we act this way. It is entirely possible that humans already have a built in tendency to find ways to “other” one another. It could be that religion simply latched on to a natural tendency. At any rate, at the least it offers reinforcement for these ideas. When religious people are convinced that the Bible is the last word on everything, and the ultimate answer to all of our problems, it stops us from using our compassion and creativity to find other ways. I think we can do better than that.

– Diana Goods

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