Friday, 31 October 2008

Are religious people more charitable?

The British Humanist Association, a registered charity, has been collecting money to run 30 buses across London for four weeks with the slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The Atheist Bus Campaign has been an amazing success. It has raised a lot more money that it expected to and this slogan will appear on London’s bendy buses in the beginning of 2009. On hearing of this campaign, I was about to take out my credit card and donate some money since I’ve always wanted to see a large scale campaign marketing atheism on the lines of organised religions. Yet, there was something about the slogan that made me hesitate.

Why say "There's probably no God”? Why not say “"There is no God”? The word probably carries more than an element of doubt. Do religious people say – “God probably exists.” For Pete’s sake, if there is a probability that God exists, you might as well invest some time and effort in praying to Him or buttering Him up so that if it turns out that God did exist all the while, you’ll get something in return for having believed in him. If it turns out that there was no God, well, you would have wasted some time and effort, but then, does anyone with a life insurance policy complain about having lived a long life? I am told that the organisers of the campaign were worried they might run afoul of the Advertising Standards Authority and so they used the words 'probably'. Heck, if they were worried about being pulled up by the ASA, they should NOT have used the word 'probably'. For one it would have given them so much more publicity. Can you imagine a religious ad saying 'The Bible is probably God's word?' or that 'Jesus is probably the son of God,' out of fear of being pulled up by the ASA?

I found the second bit of the slogan more problematic. “Stop worrying and enjoy life.” What does it mean? If the slogan is addressed to atheists and agnostics, it probably means atheists and agnostics have been worrying all along instead of enjoying life. But then, that would be preaching to the converted, wouldn’t it? Assuming it is addressed to the religious minded, it assumes that the religious worry all the time when they ought to be enjoying life. What would the religious be worrying about? About God’s existence? No, they ought to be happy about God’s existence. Or at least pretend to be. May be they worry about not measuring up to God’s standards and expectations.

What are God’s standards and expectations? What do organised religions want of their followers and devotees? By and large, organised religions want their members to be loyal to them. They ask for prayers. In an indirect way, all organised religions expect their followers to believe their religion is superior. It does make sense. If a religion is to tell its members that it is only as good as the next religion, why should its members stay loyal to it? What else do religions want? All religions expect their followers to be generous and kind to other human beings. Be it the Sermon on the Mount or Lord Krishna’s advice as set out in the Bhagavad Gita or Koranic rules on giving to charity, all religions lead their followers to believe that by being charitable, they gain brownie points with God.

So, when the Atheist Bus Campaign says “Stop worrying and enjoy life,” does it mean, don’t worry about pleasing God, just go out and enjoy life? Don't waste time and effort in being charitable. Don't think of other human beings. Go out and enjoy your life. If this is what’s intended, I have many issues with this campaign and my credit card will firmly remain in my wallet. You see, I’ve always had this nagging doubt that religious people tend to be more charitable (of course in the hope of a reward in the next life) than atheists and agnostics. I mean, how can an atheist compete with a religious person who believes God will match his every kindness with an hour in heaven?

Of course, I know of so many charitable organisations that don't have a religious base. There's Water Aid, Oxfam, Actionaid etc. But these organisations are manged by individuals who are paid like the employees of a large company and supported by tiny donations from people all over the world. Organisations like Amnesty International are very much ideology driven rather than just by charity. These organisations tend to have enormous overheads – more than 50% of the money they collect is spent on administrative costs. In the case of some charities, this goes up to 90%.

For most atheists, paying taxes is closest they get to being charitable. In a prosperous welfare state like Sweden, this would be sufficient. But in a country like India where the population far exceeds the resources available to the government, private charity is what keeps the country going.

Maybe religions, for all the harm they do, serve an useful purpose. By and large, they force their followers to be kind and generous to other human beings. There are exceptions to this of course. Every religion will have a fundamentalist fringe which wants to fight other religions rather than accumulate brownie points. However, on the whole, worrying about God and not enjoying life all the time, is not a bad thing.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I think religious people are more charitable.

Anonymous said...

Being an athiest myself, this made very interesting reading. Wonder if this campaign will ever challenge "mainstream religion".

Anonymous said...

Ah fundamentalist atheism! Who says only religious fundies get to be preachy, annoying, and irrational?