Over at Framing Science, Matthew Nisbet notes a survey about poverty which finds, among other things, that atheists are less likely to take part in anti-poverty efforts. There are a number of good reasons to be skeptical of this survey, which I’ll mention at the end of this post, but Nisbet seems to take it seriously, and speculates about why atheists might be less charitable than believers, giving three possible interpretations of the result. In the very first comment to the post, commenter “Roy” offers a fourth: bone-deep cynicism.
Most of the religious ‘charity’ aimed at poverty actually maintains poverty. (Casting spells on them is neutral, I suppose, although it certainly isn’t helpful.)
How many religious people will back programs for the poor that include sex education, birth control, access to low-cost abortions, health education, job training, home economics, how to eat better when money is tight, and so on?
The actual survey is dubious enough that I wouldn’t comment on it, but this annoys me completely independent of whether the survey findings are legitimate or not. “Religious charities suck” isn’t a useful response to the question, and trying to change the question doesn’t help either. The question isn’t whether religious people would support anti-poverty measures that you find reasonable, the question is whether you support them.
And I find it hard to believe that there aren’t non-religious charities out there that do exactly the sort of things that Roy is after. I don’t know who they are, because I’m not up on the activities of different charities, but there are a dizzying variety of charitable organizations out there, and I’d be absolutely stunned if you couldn’t find a range of different groups that provide those services. Rather than bitching on the Internet about how religious charities are designed to keep the poor down, how about doing something productive, like giving them money, or volunteering time to help them out?
And lest I be accused of rank hypocrisy in lecturing Roy about what he ought to do while doing nothing myself, I’ll put my money where my keyboard is: Leave a comment pointing me toward a charity or charities providing the sort of services Roy mentions (which I agree are good and valuable services to provide to the poor), and I will contribute money to one or more of them– let’s say $200. (Subject to terms and conditions that I will explain beow the fold.)
If everyone who clicks through to ScienceBlogs on a random Tuesday for the visceral thrill of seeing Michael Behe called an idiot for the ten thousandth time sent a dollar to one of these organizations (or one in a hundred coughed up a hundred bucks) that ought to be enough money to do a lot of good. So how about it? I’ll put some of my cash up– where should I send it?
Terms and Conditions: I will donate up to $200 to a charity or charities selected from those suggested in comments. Suggested charities should focus on providing one or more of the services on Roy’s list: “sex education, birth control, access to low-cost abortions, health education, job training, home economics, how to eat better when money is tight,” and must not be affiliated with any religious denomination or organization. I’ll accept suggestions of charities to donate to up until midnight next Wednesday, July 4th, and the decision of who gets the money will be announced on the blog by next Friday. The final decision about who gets the donation is mine and mine alone, but feel free to leave impassioned arguments for your favorite charity in the comments.
Survey Disclaimer: I said I’d comment on the reasons to be dubious about the survey results. Start with the fact that the same organization is selling a book titled Think Like Jesus. More than that, though, it’s striking that the paragraph extolling the virtues of religious people contains lots of numbers– the percentage participating in nine different anti-poverty actions is given for both “born again” Christians and non-born again Christians– but they get all vague when they get to the paragraph about atheists. They were “less likely” to engage in the different responses, but there’s no quantitative information. Was the difference significant? Was the sample large enough to mean anything? There’s no way to tell.
That suggests to me that they’re trying to make hay out of a small effect, which makes me much less interested in any sweeping conclusions drawn from the data. Now, Matthew Nisbet is a smart guy, and he seems to trust this group for whatever reason. He also says he plans to check their findings using some more general dataset, though, and I think I’ll wait to see those numbers before I try to make anything of this.