The Question of Atheist Charity: Less Diffusion of Responsibility?

Checking out the Friendly Atheist’s blog, I’ve come across an absolutely fascinating story. To summarize, an atheist organization wanted to give a charitable donation of $100 to a non-profit with religious ties that helps children. The non-profit refused the money because of the source, so the atheist organization started raising more money to force the non-profit to accept a donation. Ultimately the non-profit refused to accept well over $20,000, strictly because they don’t want to be associated with non-believers. This compelled a Christian man to start his own fundraising campaign to get non-atheist-tainted money to the non-profit. When atheists started donating to that one, the gofundme campaign was cancelled. Holy crap! What a crazy story!

In the end all is well. The money will be donated to a secular organization, and the Christian-linked charity will get a sizable donation anonymously. (The fundraiser is still ongoing. If you’d like to donate click here).

But it got me thinking, and it also reminded me of another story from the Friendly Atheist from five years ago. Basically there was a question about whether or not a secular organization was being discriminated against by the American Cancer Society. I went back to that article, and then something hit me.

Per the article, on the micro lending website Kiva, as of 2011 the group called Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious have donated far more money than any other group, including Kiva Christians. In fact, I just checked and this is still the case. The atheist group has raised almost $28 million, $2.5 million more than Kiva Christians.

The Question

Why is it we hear time and time again that atheists and other secular organizations are really, really good at charity, often outperforming religious institutions? To really exemplify this question, when the Catholic Church turned its back on freezing nuns, refusing to raise the money needed to provide the nuns with heat in the middle of the winter, a group of atheists came to the rescue to replace the nun’s boiler.

In this piece I offer no answer, but rather I seek to offer a hypothesis. That is, during times of charitable need, atheists cannot rely on the diffusion of responsibility through their social structures.

Non-believers, no longer belonging to the religious communities of their childhoods, feel a part of the non-religious community. And because that community is so small, the burden of responsibility is greater on each member, compelling them to do something they might not otherwise do for the greater good. The pressure to give is smaller if we know that millions of others are going to give. The pressure to give is greater if we know there is only a small handful of people capable of giving.

So my hypothesis is:

Atheists and non-believers often outperform religious charity due to a greater feeling of responsibility as part of a smaller social group.

At least, this is my hypothesis, and if I phrase the question differently it’s certainly a scientific question.

But there might be competing hypotheses. Non-believers might feel a need to prove themselves in a world usually hostile to non-belief. That is, some teachings insist that atheists have no moral barometer (to steal a phrase from Steve Harvey), and the non-believer feels compelled to prove those teachings wrong.

Another hypothesis might be that as personal income increases, religiosity decreases. And as personal income increases, charitable giving increases. In this case a single independent variable affects two dependent variables, but religiosity has no effect on charitable giving. Atheists outperform religious people strictly because they have more disposable resources.

Whatever the answer may be, the observation does not change. Although not always, secular charitable giving often outperforms sacred charitable giving (feel free to inundate the comments with instances that contradict this point).

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No Christianity, Many Hospitals: A response to Catholic News Service article

Today I read an article titled “No Christianity, No Hospitals: Don’t Take Christian Contributions for Granted,” on the Catholic News Service’s website. In the article author John Stonestreet praises the Catholic contribution of hospitals to society. Without the invention of Christianity, he notes, hospitals as we know them would not exist. I’d like to take a minute to go through the article, line by line, and offer some feedback.

Pro-abortion forces should be careful what they wish for, especially when it comes to Christian hospitals.

To be fair, everyone should be careful what they wish for, but this is a rather minor point. More important, what does this have to do with abortion?

recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who “think” that religion plays a role in solving important social problems “has fallen significantly” in the past fifteen years.

In 2001, 75 percent of those polled said that religious institutions played such a role in our society. By 2016, the percentage had dropped to 58 percent.

Here we set up the is… Stonestreet has identified a fact of society.

Now what’s changed? There’s no evidence that religious institutions have reduced their efforts in addressing the problems around them. Pew suspects that the drop has something to do with the rise of the so-called “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated.

Yes, and I agree with Pew. The religiously unaffiliated view social issues as secular problems. But that’s not the point here. The point is that society views on social issues are becoming more and more secular. More on that after the next bit.

I think part of the problem is that the religious contribution to the common good is so woven into the fabric of American life that most people these days just take it for granted and never stop to think about how prevalent it really is.

That could be, but it’s not really all that surprising. We fully understand how as quality and quantity of life and lifespan increase, the role of the church decreases. It’s a natural social phenomenon that we can watch happening in practically real time (raw data is here). The thing is, however, that religious institutionalism really is losing its prevalence (at least in the developed world).

So today I want to talk about one such contribution: religious hospitals. As Wikipedia tells us “Greek and Roman religion did not preach of a duty to tend to the sick.” The idea of the hospital grew out of the “Christian emphasis on practical charity,” especially towards the sick.

As mentioned above, the role of the church over medicine is understandable in societies where disease and death were more common. But the author seems to think (from an unsourced Wiki page) that hospitals are the product of specifically Christianity. I’m assuming he read the Wiki page on hospitals or the history of hospitals, which—before any mention of Christianity—shows examples of Greek religious hospitals, Buddhist religious hospitals, secular Indian hospitals, Sri Lanken Buddhist/secular hospitals, and Roman emergency care facilities, most of which predate the Christian hospital. While the adoption of Christianity in modern day Turkey certainly helped propel the ancient Christian hospital, the hospital doesn’t owe its existence to the Christian church.

Thus, as historian Roy Porter wrote in his book “The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity,” “Christianity planted the hospital.” Or stated differently, without Christianity, there would be no hospitals, at least not as we understand the idea.

So what? Well, first see my above paragraph. But more to the point, if Christian hospitals had never existed, does the author think that modern medical science (an undoubtedly secular area of study) would have failed to produce the MRI machine? The Hippocratic Oath, which was written centuries before Christ? Penicillin? Of course, again this is not the point. I’m waiting for him to get to his first.

That’s why, again quoting Wikipedia, the Catholic Church is “the largest [non-governmental] provider of health care services in the world.” How large? “It has around 18,000 clinics . . .  and 5,500 hospitals, with 65 percent of them located in developing countries.” By one estimate, the Catholic Church “manages 26 percent of the world’s health care facilities.”

That’s remarkable. The Catholic church certainly provides a lot of health services worldwide. But does the author think that if those hospitals shut down tomorrow the market would not fill the void? If demand for medical services remained constant but the supply of medical services dropped by 16% in the US, don’t you think entrepreneurs would be fending each other off for the largest slice of that piece of pie? The stats on the scope of Catholic hospital charters doesn’t tell us that we owe our health to the Catholic church.

So unless folks don’t consider providing health care in the developing world as “an important social problem,” the 42 percent who answered Pew’s question in the negative could not be more wrong.

There it is. That’s the problem. Who says that? Who believes helping the sick is unimportant? No one, which is why the author immediately changes gears. Straw man #1.

But in the off chance that respondents interpreted the question to mean “important social problems” just in the U. S., well one in six hospital beds in our country is located in a Catholic hospital. In at least thirty communities, the Catholic hospital is the only hospital in a 35-mile radius. This doesn’t even take into account hospitals run by other Christian bodies such as Baptists, Methodists, and especially Seventh-Day Adventists.

I already addressed the hospitals-in-the-US issue. Oh and yes, it also doesn’t take into account Islamic health centers, Jewish hospitals, military hospitals, and, for the lion’s share, Secular private hospitals and clinics. The number of hospital beds by religious sponsorship tells us nothing of the level of care.

Now for many progressives, this is a bad thing since these hospitals do not, because of their “commitment to the sacredness and dignity of human life from conception until death” define “women’s health” in the same way they do. To them, the spread of Catholic hospitals just means fewer abortions, and of course, that’s bad.

Again, who says that? Who says that fewer abortions is a bad thing? Does Stonestreet really believe pro-choice people praise abortions? Straw man #2. What secular people lament is when a church has a dogma and tries to make everyone else live by it. It has nothing to do with getting excited over how many abortions a person has. It has to do with being free to live by our own morality, not church ethics.

For someone actually sick and in need of medical care, this is completely irrelevant, if not perverse.

Well, we can agree on one thing; this is completely irrelevant.

And speaking of perverse: many also have the strange notion that if Christian institutions got out—or as some would prefer, were forced out—of the health care business, government would just somehow pick up the slack.

Two things: First, no one is trying to force religious medical institutions out of business. Straw man #3. Second, I cannot speak on behalf of everyone, but perhaps some would like the government to pick up the slack, but as I stated earlier, the free market would pick up the slack. … oh god, I can feel it coming…

This highlights the foolishness of the pro-abortion ideological crusade against Christian professionals and organizations in health care. As we’ve talked about before on BreakPoint, Washington State is already forcing Christian pharmacists (who by the way got no help from the Supreme Court) to choose between their faith and their careers. If states or the federal government attempt to force Christian hospitals to perform abortions, and those hospitals close their doors, the results would be catastrophic.

Sigh… Straw man #4. Stonestreet furthermore forgets there’s a difference between forcing someone to choose between their faith… and asking them to do their jobs. But if everyone who can’t do their jobs wants to quit on sectarian lines, let them. Medicine is inherently secular, and just as we would not accept a male Muslim gynecologist to refuse to see female patients because it goes against his religion, we expect Christian doctors to provide for everyone, no matter religious beliefs. Doctors know what the job entails. For example, I’m vegan. If I choose to work at McDonalds I’d better be willing to serve hamburgers, no matter my moral position on meat.

As I said earlier, the Christian commitment to caring for the sick, and other acts of compassion, are such a part of American life they’re taken for granted.

Americans take for granted hospitals, because as a society we’ve decided that hospitals are important to have. That’s why we have so many of them. We no longer care what role the church played in providing those services in the past. All we care about is that when we need hospitals they will be there. And whether or not they will be there has nothing to do with whether or not Christianity has a seat on the board of directors.

This article was supposed to be about how important Christian hospitals are, but it spiraled into several irrelevant arguments against abortion. I’m not sure where they came from, but there they are.

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God’s Music (Part 2)

A while ago I posted about my favorite music ever written in praise of (mostly the) Christian god. Consider this part two.

Blind Willie Johnson (1897 – 1945), an almost preacher who picked up a cigar box guitar as a child, decided the life of the bluesman was preferable to a life of the cloth. Although he left behind god’s calling, his music was infused with faith, the cross, and revelation (for example, John the Revelator was one of his go-to hymns).

As I’ve stated before, I love gospel and praise music. The lyrics don’t affect me; it’s the melody, the emotion, and cadence. Most blues music is strictly secular (despite being played by a hugely religious demographic), but Blind Willie Johnson bucked that trend. Below is my favorite Blind Willie song, “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” and it’s chock full of explicit references to his lord and savior. Behold:

Also don’t forget to check out a more contemporary recording by the Tedeschi Trucks Band (song #1 in a 3 song set. The other songs are by Elmore James and Bob Dylan):

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The GOP and Pornography: And Why Should We Protect Children from Sex?

According to this article in Fortune released today, GOP delegates meeting in Cleveland have been contemplating their party’s platform language. Among their points of contention include pornography, which is no surprise considering the amendment being contemplated was offered by the sex-obsessed Family Research Council.

The article quotes the amendment:

Pornography, with his harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life of millions. We encourage states to continue to fight this public menace and pledge our commitment to children’s safety and wellbeing.

The point of urgency here is that pornography damages the minds of children. Children are put in harm’s way due to the ready availability of pornography, or so the GOP contends. I’m not quite certain how, exactly, children are harmed by porn, but we might venture a guess—Tony Perkins is just looking out for their immortal souls.

I call bullshit on this whole thing. Public displays of sex are nothing new to children.

According to the late Moya K. Mason, MLIS, researcher and fact checker, “the bedroom was largely an invention of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Until then, all but the most privileged colonists lived in one or two rooms, and beds stood throughout their homes when not in use.”

Until the inclusion of the bedroom into average middle- and lower-income homes, where do you think mom and dad had sex? It would be quite absurd to think mom and dad sought privacy away from the privacy their single room homes provide. Their children spent their entire childhoods witnessing mom and dad get it on. And to what detriment? Seriously, what kind of negative impact did exposure to their own parents fucking have on them? None. In fact, according to Dr. Ian Kerner, sex counselor,

No studies have shown that a child who sees his or her parents having sex is going to be psychologically damaged. Interestingly, children who are raised in homes with parents who are comfortable with nudity – those who change clothes and bathe in front of the kids – are found to be more sexually healthy.

Being exposed to sexuality and nudity helps children develop. Because we no longer live in societies where it is common to witness your parents having sex (due to the invention of the private bedroom), children’s exposure to non-virtual sex is rather limited. So porn to the rescue!

But what kind of impact does porn have on adolescents? Well, I’ve pursued the literature. Most is unhelpful, but those that were appear to offer very few negative impacts. For example, one study called it a “normative experience“—that is, socially ideal. According to another study, pornography viewership was described as positive and helping college students explore their own sexualities. The worst I’ve come across—a meta analysis—finds a correlation between pornography consumption in adults and verbally aggressive behaviors (and to a lesser degree physically aggressive behaviors), but this aggression is likely the product of being predisposed to aggression and/or violence and seeking out explicitly verbally aggressive and/or violent porn.

In summary, the GOP wants to tackle porn because of the impact sex can have on children’s developing minds. But keeping sex private from children is 1) a brand new phenomenon, 2) unhealthy, and 3) socially deconstructive. There are a lot of positive effects porn has on people, including sexual growth and social development, and yes, there are also some negative effects. But these effects pale in comparison to a true “public health crisis that is destroying the life of millions.”

If the GOP wants to protect children from porn, they should start by first tacking “child” to the word, and then going after their own pastors.

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Rant about Brexit and Hume’s Guillotine

[[Per the title, this post really is a rant.]]

As a political scientist whose background includes an extensive study of international cooperation, the Brexit referendum was an event that drew out the most curiosity I’ve ever felt during my career. I have my own political views on the referendum, and I won’t litter this blog with them. Instead I wish to write about—again—Hume’s Guillotine, the tragedy of which becomes apparent especially when politics meets religion.

Hume’s Guillotine can be summed up thusly: We’ve discovered A, therefore we should X, but X does not logically follow from A.

That is, in this case, London has a Muslim mayor, therefore the UK should leave the EU. Or we could focus on the alleged cause of London having a Muslim mayor (even though it’s a weak argument, but even if it’s true it’s meaningless). Roughly one-eighth of London’s residents are Muslim, therefore the UK should leave the EU.

These two things—the fact and the normative statement—are completely unrelated. Many have argued that they are related (A is causing B. X can stop B), but I find this argument lacking. UK immigration policy is a product of the UK, not the EU. And even if the reverse were true if the UK wants to continue trade with the EU it would be bound by EU standards of decency. Don’t believe me? Ask Turkey.

The Remain side has a different argument: Nationalism is racist/dangerous/etc., therefore we should have a second referendum. How does that follow?

Anyway, this isn’t even where this post is going. This is merely an illustration using Brexit as a model.

Americans have very strong opinions about the Brexit referendum, and for the past ~week I’ve been inundated by friends, students, and family members seeking my validation of their positions. I’ve mostly left them dissatisfied with a canned sound byte: The outcome of the referendum is a realist’s wet dream and a liberalist’s blue balls. Regardless of my attempts to explain the phenomenon instead of take a side or validate their positions, I’ve been hammered with emotional arguments, and many of them are strange. One stands out as dreadful.

Per a family member: Christianity is declining in Europe, therefore the EU should collapse. That is the basic. The whole argument laments secularism and the removal of the church from the sphere of influence within Europe. They believe the EU is to blame for the waning cross, and they believe the UN, EU, and NATO have too strong an influence on American politics. If America is to be great again it needs to do it alone. And they believe the outcome of the referendum is a sign that Christ will come back to Europe and, by extension, to the US.

I do not know where to even begin with this one. “If there is no EU, Jesus will magically endow the US with all the money and power it could ever need. Eden will be restored between the southern Canadian and northern Mexican borders (and Alaska and Hawaii).” In other words, the normative statement relies on Christian supernatural agency intervening in extra-biblical ways.

The Brexit referendum is intensely interesting to me. It will impact how we explain international cooperation for years to come. Old models must be reformed, and new models must be developed. It will create entire volumes of literature that will be taught at universities. And I can guarantee you there’s a working paper from me somewhere in there. I would really like to be able to model this new development in a reasonable, rational way, without people coming to me trying to inject Jesus into this blatantly non-Jesus event. And from my own professional position, the US will either increase its wealth and power or decrease it according to how it is able to interact with its neighbors. It will take no supernatural intervention based on a 51 to 48 vote in the UK.

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Update: Orlando Shooter Did Have an Expressed Goal

A couple days ago I published a post asking what the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooter’s goal was. In it I mentioned that as far as we knew he made no demands during his 911 calls to the police. As it turns out he did.

According to a recently released excerpt from his 911 call by the FBI, Mateen stated that he was killing Pulse patrons to compel the US to cease its military campaigns in Iraq and Syria. He went on to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.

I still find Mateen’s methods curious, despite knowing his motive. The US is hardly a state that gives into terrorists’ demands. In fact, I can recall only one time in the US’s history that a terrorist organization’s actions compelled the US to withdraw from an occupied or war torn country. In 1983 Hezbollah allegedly suicide bombed the US marine barracks in Beirut, killing 305 American and French soldiers. The US responded by packing up and leaving Lebanon forever. This would be an incredibly successful terrorist attack against the US if it were not for the fact that Hezbollah was attacking a legitimate target (a military post). In other words, the Beirut barracks bombing was an act of war—not a terrorist attack. Regardless of what we call it, however, it took an act of armed conflict against two militaries to achieve such success. Proving to military brass that they are vulnerable and will suffer if they do not high tail it and run is how to achieve your goals—not attacking the military’s constituency.

Mateen walked into a gay nightclub and killed innocent civilians that had nothing to do with military campaigns in Iraq and Syria. All that Mateen proved was that civilians are vulnerable to attack—something the military is aware of. The military is also aware that its sole responsibility is to defend the US from enemies, foreign and domestic. Mateen therefore proved that the US military has to do more, not less; otherwise it breaks its oath to the American people.

I’m not trying to make an argument for or against military action in the Middle East. Rather, my argument is that, despite Mateen having an explicit political goal in mind, which I was not aware of in my previous post, Mateen was an idiot because his only success is to compel the US military to do the exact opposite of what he wanted.

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What Was the Goal of the Pulse Nightclub Shooting?

Last week’s terrorist attack against patrons of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which claimed the lives of 49 people, has me scratching my head. Although coming to terms with such a tragedy is difficult enough, the most puzzling aspect is that it was completely meaningless. There appears to be a trend by fundamentalist groups to engage in utterly futile attacks of terror that express nothing of socially relevant substance.

Terrorist attacks have many definitions, but the most common, most accepted in academic circles can be summed up as this: attacks performed by non-state actors against a civilian population with the explicit goal of changing a social or political policy. In other words, terrorists attack because murdering civilians—especially in democratic societies—helps these groups achieve their social and political goals.

With this definition in mind, what exactly was Omar Mateen’s goal? What did he hope to change in the American social or political landscape? Was he merely trying to kill gay people? If so his act was of trivial consequence to the LGBT population at large. ~4 to 5% of Americans belong to this umbrella social group, which can be rounded to approximately 16 million Americans. Although this is harsh, murdering 49 out of 16 million doesn’t accomplish much.

Was he trying to compel Americans to draft laws outlawing homosexuality? Fat chance. Societies tend to liberalize, especially in wealthier and more secure countries. Convincing a liberal society that—at worst—tolerates the LGBT community to pass laws criminalizing homosexual behavior defies everything we know about how societies evolve. In societies that have enacted protections for the LGBT communities, such as anti-discrimination laws in the US, this is essentially impossible.

Was he trying to compel the US to cease its hostilities against the Islamic State? Despite media attention on his self-proclaimed allegiance to ISIS, I doubt this. Mateen appears confused about competing Jihadist organizations. During his 911 call he claimed support for ISIS on the one hand, while on the other pledged support for al Nursra, ISIS’s arch nemesis. Furthermore, he supported al Qaeda and Hezbollah. These four organizations are diametrically opposed, even—in some cases—down to which version of Islam is the correct one.

But moreover, the US is unlikely to withdraw from its missions in Iraq and Syria due to the homicidal acts of one person—a person the US, undoubtedly, views as mentally unstable. All of these things combined—plus the fact that as far as we know Mateen never made any demands that the US leave the Middle East—paint a picture of a man with no political goal. And as far as we know he never demanded the release of Jihadist prisoners. He never even called upon other Muslims to engage in similar acts. What was the political point of this attack? [[EDIT 20 June 2016: According to released excerpts of the 911 calls by the FBI, Mateen did make demands asking the US to stop bombing Iraq and Syria. He additionally stated that this was his goal.]]

Thankfully, whatever goal he might have had appears to have backfired. Although a small few evangelicals are praising the murder of innocent people at a gay nightclub, the vast majority—essentially 100%—appears to condemn this tragedy with the strongest language possible. Mateen appears to have brought together disparate social actors on an issue they never believed they’d agree upon—that anti-gay language sometimes has tragic results.

The Orlando attack at Pulse is tragic, and its tragedy is compounded by the fact that Omar Mateen murdered 49 people for absolutely no reason. Terrorism without a goal, or terrorism misplaced in a society unwilling to accept its message, is not a way terrorists want to operate. While Omar Mateen might go down in history as a homicidal mad man, we can chalk up his actions as an utterly failed act of terror.

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