Aid Beyond Belief

The days following the devastating
earthquake in Haiti
saw a surge in fundraising efforts from organizations all over the world. In
this charitable climate, the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins set up an aid
campaign of his own: Non-Believers
Giving Aid
. Why donate through his group? In addition to rallying fellow
non-believers, Dawkins claims this offers a chance to “counter the scandalous
myth that only the religious care about their fellow-humans.” There are a host
of issues that could be discussed in relation to the aid effort and belief –
why we feel compelled to help distant strangers, the problem of suffering, the
idea of natural disasters as divine punishment – but I’ll concentrate on two
main objections to Dawkins.

One objection would be that the
entire project is simply a shameless propaganda scheme to get more “data” on charity
giving among non-believers. Its purpose is to give the non-believers some
numbers to point to, some “proof” that they give lots of money to charity. And
for that reason, it is just an opportunistic ploy that is deeply inappropriate in
a time of real crisis and tragedy.

This objection reflects what some
commentators have claimed to be a general
trend
of aid organizations (and even entire countries) to turn the disaster
in Haiti into
some sort of publicity contest or charity one-upmanship. Dawkins should have
just encouraged people to donate on their own to the Red Cross or relief
organization of their choice. The same amount of money would have gone to Haiti,
and he would not be exploiting a disaster for political purposes.

Dawkins’ campaign also seems to
reflect a tendency to use charity rates as an argument in moral debates. Religious
people sometimes point to higher rates of charitable donations as proof of
their goodness – and sociological
data
shows that religious people do in fact tend to donate and volunteer
more than their secular counterparts. This is true even for religious groups
that do not have tithing requirements. But a recent article
by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham points to numerous studies that suggest this
may be due to the social trust and sense of community that religion encourages.
In fact, tightly knit secular groups and religious groups show comparable rates
of charitable giving. Therefore, social networks (rather than anything inherent
about religious beliefs) may in large part explain why religious people tend to
donate more.

If so, then Dawkins could respond
by claiming Non-Believers Giving Aid is just a mechanism to foster a sense of
connectedness among non-religious people, especially those who share a common
project. His aid initiative could be compared to any other sponsored fundraiser
like a charity run – a group of like-minded individuals united by a shared
identity and humanitarian cause.

But there is a second, more
fundamental objection – that by operating under the assumption that giving more
to charity is some sort of “proxy” for morality, he is narrowing the scope of
morality. Specifically, he is equating morality with charitable giving. Whether
Dawkins actually believes this is uncertain, but the superficial take on
morality he puts forth in this campaign is troubling. Granted, there is
disagreement on what exactly constitutes “morality” in the first place. But
it’s probably safe to say that it is in a large part concerned with behavior
that, directly or indirectly, affects others. Donating money to charity is a
spectacularly small part of this behavior.

This narrow view of morality seems
run parallel to a very narrow sense of “aid” that appears in much of the media
coverage of Haiti.
There are, of course, urgent needs of the Haitian community that in this
emergency can be best met with immediate cash donations. However, the
emphasis on short-term disaster relief can overshadow the need for aid over
time
: promoting long-term recovery services like reforestation efforts,
infrastructure improvements, and self-sufficiency. It also can overlook the
need for aid in other capacities: public pressure for new US government
policies or support for Haitians in other countries (who send money back home).
Concerns about aid (or morality) do not have to begin and end with charitable
donations – believer or not.

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One Response to Aid Beyond Belief

  • Simon says:

    If one weren’t so cynical one could just take it as part of a general campaign against the view -more often raised in the US- that there is no morality without ‘God’. If that is wrong I suppose one could question anyone that only donates to charities that they can claim for tax purposes.

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