Some weeks ago I was at a meeting of Sacramento Freethinkers Atheists and Non-Believers and someone said, “Why are religious organizations better at charity than secular organizations? And shouldn’t we try to pick up the slack? What can we at SacFAN do to promote ‘good works’?”

This remark bothered me for days, so much that I was forced to do the research and analysis necessary to determine whether there was any truth to it. There wasn’t. The truth is, religious organizations are not better at charity than secular ones.

In the first half of this report I showed that the widely cited statistics that seem to show that Christians give much more to charity than atheists do are fatally flawed, and do not mean what religious apologists want them to mean. Despite the claims, there is no evidence for this special generosity that is supposed to emanate from the Christian faith. This second half will show that the good works produced by secular institutions are astonishing in their scale. Religious contributions are trivial in comparison.

International, secular, charitable organizations

The first point that needs to be made is pretty obvious. If you don’t think that there are secular organizations out there doing beautiful things, let me remind you of a few examples.

UNICEF provides children in over 150 countries with health care, clean water, nutrition, education, emergency relief, and more. ($3 billion in 2008)

Oxfam works in nearly 100 countries to overcome poverty and injustice. ($772 million in FY 2008–09)

CARE, a humanitarian organization fighting global poverty, puts special focus on working alongside poor women because, equipped with the proper resources, women have the power to help whole families and entire communities escape poverty. CARE also delivers emergency aid to survivors of war and natural disasters. ($700 million in FY 2008–09)

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement promotes humanitarian principles and values; provides disaster response; teaches disaster preparedness; promotes health and provides care. ($450 million in 2009 – and this does not include their 186 national societies)

Save the Children Federation works to ensure that children in need grow up protected and safe, educated, healthy and well-nourished, and able to thrive in economically secure households. ($400 million in 2009)

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people to survive and rebuild their lives. ($240 million in FY 2009)

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières is an international medical humanitarian organization working in more than 60 countries to assist people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe. ($168 million in 2008)

I adapted these descriptions from the organizations’ About Us pages. The dollar amounts are the annual program expenditures cited in their annual report – this is the amount that was spent on helping people, not organizational overhead. Compare these numbers with any religion.

But please remember to compare apples to apples. When it comes to the delivery of charitable services, a strongly religious organization necessarily embodies certain inefficiencies as compared to a secular one. For example, religious observances cost money, and those costs will have to be deducted from the charitable effort. More silver chalices, more ceremonial wine and wafers, more statues of Jesus means less medicine or food or whatever the charity was supposed to be about. Promulgation, too, siphons away resources from humanitarian projects. More priests on the plane to spread the Good News around means fewer doctors on the plane to treat malaria or tuberculosis or AIDS.

Evangelism is routinely considered part of the mission. When churches list their charitable efforts, I would bet you a million dollars that most of them include “spreading the Good News” on that list. But it is not charity, it is marketing.

When you donate to (or volunteer for) a church, the primary beneficiaries are the church and the people who run the church. This does not help children in Africa. It does not even help children in the church’s own neighborhood. You must keep these considerations in mind when comparing charitable work by religious organizations to charitable work by secular organizations.

Social welfare programs in the secular democracies

There are secular institutions bigger than UNICEF. Much bigger. They’re called countries.

Of course everything such entities do is not benevolent, but if you want to talk about good works, the world’s secular democracies perform charity on a fantastic scale. Think of all the taxpayer-funded social-welfare programs in these countries. Year after year, all over the world, citizens who are doing well enough that they have to pay taxes contribute trillions of dollars to their less-fortunate neighbors, no matter what anyone’s declared faith may be on either end of the transaction.

Here are some of the things we do here in the United States in a single fiscal year. (The following text is adapted from FY 2010 information at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.)

Social Security provides retirement benefits to retired workers (36 million of them, as of December 2009) and their eligible dependents. It also provides survivors’ and disability benefits. ($708 billion)

Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP provide health care or long-term care to low-income children, parents, elderly people, and people with disabilities. ($753 billion for all three programs)

Safety net programs ($482 billion) provide aid (other than health insurance or Social Security benefits) to individuals and families facing hardship. In 2005, according to CBPP analysis, such programs kept approximately 15 million Americans out of poverty, and reduced the depth of poverty for another 29 million. The programs include:

  • earned-income and child tax credits, which assist low- and moderate-income working families
  • cash payments to eligible individuals or households, including Supplemental Security Income for the elderly or disabled poor and unemployment insurance
  • in-kind assistance for low-income families and individuals, including food stamps, school meals, low-income housing assistance, child-care assistance, and assistance in meeting home energy bills
  • other programs such as those that aid abused and neglected children.

If you even think about comparing these numbers to the efforts of any religion, or all religions together, you are going to feel kind of ashamed.

Someone will say, “But every taxpayer pays for these programs, the religious as well as the non-believers.”

Yes, but the point is that the whole arrangement is a result of secular thinking. The question in front of us right now has to do with the differences between religious and secular institutions. Is the organization responsible for the enormous expenditures on social welfare listed above a religious one, or is it secular? The government of the United States of America is almost perfectly non-religious. It was designed by secular humanists. It is the reification of a humanitarian social contract with no theological component. Religion had no role in the Constitution or the New Deal. None of our laws or institutions are based on the Christian Bible or any other “holy” book. And of course the social safety net has been relentlessly opposed by all major religions. There are people who claim that compassion is essentially a religious impulse, but this is upside-down and backwards. Around the world and across history, the societies that have provided such humanitarian structures for their citizens have all been secular. In fact it never happened until quite recently – when religion began to lose its hold on our imaginations. Religion makes democracy impossible.

Someone will say, “Your secular democracies, especially the United States, do terrible things – making war on innocent people, for example – as well as good.”

Yes, but so do religious organizations. So that doesn’t get us anywhere. On the other hand, democracy is a humanitarian idea in its very essence. The only reason democracy exists is that it’s supposed to help everyone have a better life. You can’t say the same thing about religion. The purpose of religion is not to give people a better life, unless you mean after they’re dead.

Look through the holy books of the Big Monotheisms. There’s hardly a mention of how to have a decent life, or how to provide a decent life for others. The topic simply doesn’t come up.

The Q’uran’s primary message seems to be, “If you don’t believe this book, you’re going to Hell.” It’s all about pleasing Allah – which really means pleasing the author of the book and the head of the church, a guy called Muhammad. I don’t call that a good life. I don’t call that equality, or respect, or kindness. The Christian Old Testament – its first five books are also known as the Jewish Torah – glorifies and abjectly worships a creator-god who has no interest whatever in the welfare of human beings. The God of Moses and Abraham (and Muhammad) wipes out cities, tribes, and whole ecosystems when he’s in one of his moods. Obviously, compassion’s got nothing to do with it.

In the New Testament we do see an occasional glimmer of kindness, but it is rare. And Jesus never mentions justice (in the modern sense of fairness, as opposed to the older sense of retribution). Nor does he ever once use the word ‘democracy’. The authors of the holy scriptures seem to have been just fine with the prevailing social structure of that ancient era: absolute tyranny, with a man on the throne who can be as vainglorious, capricious and bloodthirsty as he likes. That is what Moses and Muhammad and all the other “prophets” advocated. There is not a single sentence in any of these books on how to set up a just society – one where everyone counts and everyone matters. But this is the entire object of the foundational documents of secular democracy.

Little wonder, then, that secular institutions provide so much more kindness to those who need it than religious institutions do.