"If you are going to evaluate the religious organizations on their contribution to society, it needs to be done in terms of "the return on investment" - ie. people in society invest X and they get Y.And that is the main point - so much of what goes to religious-based charity is used for proselytizing their brand of mythology rather than alleviating the suffering of this world. To a believer, they are doing the best charity work possible - ensuring eternal paradise for the poor unsaved. If it is true, then this is certainly a more pressing concern than the fact that they are starving and diseased in this lifetime. However, it is completely false, and it is preventing the good that those resources could be doing. I wonder how Christians would feel about Muslim charity groups using the money to spread the true word of Allah, even while watching children die from starvation...
Money that has been spent on building beautiful churches that are functionally derelict, or money spent promoting and defending a religious belief, could have been spent on human beings, not in honor of an invisible deity. As an example, in 2006, Gideons International received $115 million from 'Gods people' as they put it, and $105.7 million of this was directly contributed for the purchase and placement of Bibles and New Testaments. Was that a good use of peoples' donations?
If everyone in the UK gave the church £1 per year (ie. the church gets £55 million a year) and they setup a charity in each major town of the UK to help the needy at a total cost of £10 million per year, have the people in the UK got a good return on their investment? The people may be pleased with their soup kitchen or whatever, and feel that the church is indeed a great organization for helping, because each person has only given a small donation of a £1. But when they see the bigger picture and realize that the remaining £45 million is being used to put bibles in hotel rooms, fund faith schools, campaign against gay rights, etc, they may start to wonder whether the church really is a good investment. That £45 million per year could certainly be put to better use."
An argument that charitable work may be seriously reduced without the church and without religion is easily countered. Secular charities already exist that put as much of their donations as possible into the causes they support, keeping only enough to pay the bills and promote the charity. If there was no church, encouraging people to donate funds to demonstrate their love of Jesus, these people would give to these other charities, enabling them to be stronger and do more good for society. If a secular charity spent a huge amount of money creating and distributing a book that simply says how wonderful the charity is, people may stop donating to that charity. They donate to the church in the knowledge of this, as charitable work is not the driver for the donation. What donation would you make for a chance of eternal life?"
Aside from being an enormous hurdle to maximizing our kind-heartedness, it illustrates further the failure of Christians and other religious people to consider their epistemological responsibilities (you will need to scroll down in order to read the section on epistemological accountability). By failing to hold good reasons for what they believe, religious people are dramatically raising the price of feeding the poor and other magnanimous actions.
Sam Harris has worded this, as he always does, better than I could ever dream of doing myself:
On the subject of doing good, I ask you, which is more moral, helping people purely out of concern for their suffering, or helping them because you think God wants you to do it? Personally, I'd much prefer that my children acquire the former sensibility. On the subject of doing bad: there are, at this very moment, perfectly ordinary Shia and Sunni Muslims drilling holes into each other's brains with power tools in the suburbs of Baghdad. What are the chances they would be doing this without the "benefit" of their incompatible religious identities?I am with Sam. Obviously, atheists give to charity and have a vested interest in aiding our fellow human beings (if you doubt me, just read this blog some more and remember that we're all atheists), but we do it from something aside from fear of god or desiring the boon of a happy (though simultaneously wrathful) deity. We do it because, to an extent, we can truly imagine what it feels like to be in another person's shoes. On the terrible chance that I produce a child, I would hope that it develops a sense of beneficence that is based on empathy, and gives to reduce suffering, not to propagandize while you watch them die.