Charity is Not the Best Way?


This is one of the most difficult subjects for a humanist to explain. That while accepting the value of individual services provided by charity, the charity ethos itself is far from the best way of addressing need.

Why – because in the modern world two 'Sacred Cows' are used to protect religion from criticism, one is 'culture' and the other is 'charity'. The first is intended to prevent any discussion of any long-standing religious practices however obnoxious. The second is ‘charity’Anything that is done in the name of charity, is beyond criticism and reinforces the idea of charity and by implication, religion with which it is almost considered synonymous, as automatically 'good'.

Addressing people's needs by short term 'charity' as an example generosity and goodwill, while deriding the necessary long term political changes that are necessary is not solving the problems. Their chosen method, 'charity' - supplying goods or services that are in themselves good and necessary, through sectarian structures, are used to gain kudos for the church, supposedly demonstrating the inspirational nature of religions, and to gain converts.


Religion is a dominant part of our culture. It is woven into the fabric of life, its practices become cultural practices over time, and become indivisible in the minds of many people. And in many respects these attitudes many of which are punitive and controlling still shape our laws and social policy.

To the rationalist, atheist, humanists or freethinker however there is no barrier of belief to hamper consideration of cultural practices in the light of current knowledge and secular awareness, human needs and human rights. Individuals or organisations do not have a right to alter other people's cultural practices willy nilly, but they do have a right to express an opinion and in some cases try to change attitudes and practices by persuasion.

Where ‘cultural’ practices are brutal, such as the ill treatment of women, persecution of homosexuals, child abuse and animal cruelty, many of which are justified by religious doctrine, but are dressed up as 'cultural practices' humanitarians whatever their religious or non religious stance, have not only a right, but a duty to protest and lobby for change. And in such cases there is also room for the development of intervention strategies by democratic institutions such as the UN or EU.


Most of us contribute to good causes in one way or another, we respond to the needs of others in many different ways When we employ 'charity' we do it without illusions, but many go further in working to address the underlying causes of deprivation and disadvantage, through practical and political solutions and campaigning for 'rights'.

Most of those who are fully committed to the charity ethic do so out of good and laudable motives, but this should not prevent us from voicing the valid and principled criticisms of ‘charity’ as the best method of addressing human or animal needs over rational evidence-based methods and properly funded services.

To put humanists and secularists in the same boat with religion with regard to addressing disadvantage thought charity, even if we thought it right to do so, is to do us a great disservice. To compare the ability of humanists, and even the secular population with the religions who have the advantages of hidden state subsidy, premises and paid activists, traditional organisational structures and advertising opportunities, is totally unrealistic and mischievous.

It should also be remembered that most social progress up to the last century had been slow to the point of standstill. Christianity was the religion of the Poor Law, the workhouse and the poverty, the squalid living conditions, almost non-existent health and welfare of most of the British population. It was the rise of radical secular politics and secularism that took women's rights, health and welfare services, pensions and education out of the hands of the religions, that enabled real progress. It was not the established churches that advanced social policy to become inclusive, less sectarian and coercive, but pioneering scientists, professionals and politicians. Many of whom were non-conformists and non-believers.

Charity is basically way of using disadvantage and deprivation in a way that is unfair, inefficient, ad hoc, and does not in most cases imply any sacrifice by the givers that could justify the kudos it invites.

It can be said that charitable activity is good for the givers, it gives them something useful to do, or gives them a warm feeling of satisfaction or an understanding of need. It could also be claimed that it is useful in publicising the need for which the charity is set up, unfortunately many charities are hamstrung by the 'charity laws' which gives automatic status to and any religion, but prevent 'political' activity aimed at addressing humanitarian need.

But what of the recipients? The disadvantage to the recipients is that it is a lottery, it is patronising, and puts them in the position of having to be grateful, and accept whatever is handed out without comment or criticism, sometimes being subjected to religious preaching. No wonder many, especially  older people still resent any implication that they are 'charity cases', and carry that feeling of stigma (wrongly) to state benefits. It can also have the effect of preventing the development of statutory provision that would reach far more people over the whole country instead of isolated pockets of provision depending upon the level of support the charity gets.

That we have a society in which people have to stand with collection boxes for children with Leukaemia or cerebral palsy, the blind or deaf, to give food to starving people, or provide mobility aids or guide dogs is not something we should be proud of – but ashamed of.

To have what one need as of right in a civilised country confers respect on both providers and recipients. If the necessary policies and/or provision to lift people out of need are implemented, the need for 'charity' would be reduced or in many cases be eliminated.

'Charity' is beyond criticism in our society. the word has become value laden and always considered virtuous. It is the traditional way employed by the religions of providing through patronage rather than through assessing people's rightful share in a community and organising rational ways of providing for that.

‘Tin Rattling’

An example is the humble Jumble Sale, or charity 'event'. If one was to add up the time and effort spent in collecting the material, providing the venue, 'manning' the stands or stalls, advertising etc., and compare that with the actual value of the time of the people doing all this work for a 'one off' event, it is fairly easy to see that if each one (especially those in well paid employment) gave a donation to the value of an hour or two of their real 'time value' they would be likely to raise far more money for whatever cause it is being done for.

Further, if all those who take part in such activities, especially those who think that lobbing a few bob into a collection once in while absolves them from further responsibility, were willing to vote for, rather than pay lip service to, increases in forms of progressive taxation, the causes needing their jumbling and tin rattling would get what they need as of right rather than patronage.

The point is even more well made if one considers the multitude of 'charitable' activities of the rich and powerful. Many of them use 'charity' to screen their conspicuously lavish lifestyles, while others use it to hide the fact that they have nothing much to do because they do not need to work, and can pay others to do their chores, housework, gardening etc.

People who earn vast sums of money through chance of heredity, the change of talent, opportunity or even work if by chance it is in the right sector of the economy, show how generous they are by donating relatively small amounts of time, or money, (for which they claim tax relief). Sums of money are raised that appear huge, to ordinary people but are small relative to the wealth of the givers, many of whom accumulated their wealth at the expense of the poor, and by ensuring that their accounts minimises the amount of tax they pay. They also enjoy the kudos and publicity that goes with high profile charity balls, galas and dinners.

Charitable giving operates as a form of voluntary taxation that raises more from the poor than the better off in relation to their income and wealth 5.

It obscures the unwillingness to pay for necessary services under a cloak of generosity. Many charities exist to provide basic services that in a modern civilised society should be provided as of right and not left to the vagaries of the charitable sector. The provision of suitable wheelchairs, and living 'aids', guide dogs for the blind, care and protection of children and disabled people and prevention of cruelty to animals are some of the many objects of charity that should be publicly funded in a modern civilised society.

Charity may be fine for supplying the frills, the extras, but not the basics for people who need special goods and services to make their lives as good as anyone else in the society at home. In the developing world people need help too as a right not an optional gift, and if conflict is to be avoided in the future, it is in the interests of the developed world that this help should be given willingly before resentment and anger forces a redistribution of wealth and fair allocation of resources.

The overwhelming acceptance of charity has the effect of distorting the public's attitude to statutory provision, making people less willing to pay in taxation for what they think can be provide for free through charity.

Everything has to be paid for one way or another, and a rational system will work out the most effective, economical and fairest way to pay for services, this will not be possible if they are left to organisations who have other agendas of their own.

The deplorable state of provision for services for the disabled, children's homes and hostels is due to the fact that so many were allowed to remain in the voluntary sector for so long, and not subjected to the full scrutiny of democratic control. Where was Christian charity that allowed a system of 'homes' from which young people were expelled at the age of sixteen, without further provision and support for so long?

There is too the problem of fairness Between Causes, trying to raise cash for services or causes that do not catch the public imagination. Yet they may be very valuable, possibly more so than 'popular' ones. Do you give to save all the cute kittens from an abandoned litter. Or save half dead wild creatures for what may be misguided motives, or save the habitat of some wandering tribe or endangered creature or band of nomads who do not conform to our criteria of neediness. Or do we send massive amounts of money to send the dying on a pilgrimage or to helping the families of prisoners stay together or medical research? How do we choose between raising millions of pounds for a scanner for cancer diagnosis, without at the same time willing the resources to pay the ongoing revenue costs? How do you compare collecting for facilities for a premature baby unit, or individual care that allows the oldest people, who may be being kept alive against their own will, or the most disabled who were used to normal everyday life and being able to make their own decisions, to move about, or switch their radio, television or music on and off at will?

As a method of collecting and distributing money, charity is inherently unfair and inefficient. The charities with the greatest pulling power are by no means the ones dealing with the greatest need. Popular causes that tug at the heart strings, are well marketed or have the advantage of massive media interest will attract massively more gifts than the 'Cinderella' charities that do not have widespread media coverage or mass appeal, but who do as much good in their own field struggle to make ends meet. In doing this the charities have to spend huge amounts of money in order to raise money, which works well enough for the big charities, but far less well for small ones.

As has been demonstrated by the response to the Twin Towers attack on America. Thousands of people are killed or made destitute by natural disasters. People who are already poor, are divested of everything they own, children orphaned, old people left without family or shelter, by earthquake, flood and crop failure. Starvation and disease wreak havoc with human populations, and the world's givers get 'disaster fatigue'. Then an event that is massively publicised because it is in the heart of New York is so massively gifted that the American Red Cross has so much money that it runs into trouble if it cannot spend it all on that particular tragedy. However catastrophic the event to those affected, and one cannot compare the depth of individual human suffering, between one disaster and another, there is no way of rational distribution other than on the basis of need. It is not beyond the wit and wealth of modern civilisation to organise quick response teams, backup resources and co-ordinated preparation for disaster relief.

The concept of 'sins of omission' is largely glossed over in rich western societies, and all the emphasis in current thinking is on 'sins of commission'. The sporadic and time consuming nature of much 'charity' diverts attention from the need to create long term solutions. Too many people shelter in the belief that so long as they do not actually do anything bad, they are virtuous, without accepting that not to do what is necessary to actually solve a problem makes them guilty of culpable inaction.

As Validation?

The massive reliance on Charity culture also has social effects too, not all of which are bad. Many people find that in order to carry out their creative activities, they have to link these activities to some form of 'charity' because only activities advertised as 'helping this or that good cause' will attract an audience or clientele. Many social gatherings, hospitality such as 'wine and cheese' parties, garden parties, or garden visits, sales of craft products and other small creative enterprises, at fairs and fetes, etc. are no longer valued for themselves, only considered valuable if money is made for 'charity.'

Charities who get this wrong may be accused of spending a greater proportion of their gifted funds on administration or advertising. Lack of accountability has been known to lead charity fund raisers to take more for themselves than they should and there have been many cases of fraud scandals over misappropriation of funds by righteous church leaders. Charities and secular services may be forced into competition with each other which may drive standards up for some, or down for others, or even closure for some. All these issues surrounding the charity industry, take time and effort away from the efficient meeting of need in the best and most effective and fairest way possible. It may never be possible to achieve total fairness, but it is possible to use rational methods and fairer distribution and to help people to see the broader picture.

Voluntary Work and Faith based Services

Much emphasis is given in the 21st century economy, to the importance of voluntary work, meaning the encouragement of people to give time and effort doing work that would otherwise be done by paid workers. Naturally, this is considered most valuable when the work to be done is unskilled labour, and of course those most likely to have the time to do it, are the unemployed or under-employed many of who would be doing that work for money, given the chance. It is not generally thought appropriate for busy, highly trained professionals, whose well-paid time is fully taken up in the employment of their professional skills, to volunteer these skills free of charge. Their jobs are never put at risk by volunteers, because of course volunteers would not be qualified to do them, and they join trade unions and professional bodies to protect their own jobs and salaries!

The public too sees the danger in recruiting people to do jobs for free on an ad hoc basis. They understand that there is likely to be little control over such people, no assurance that they are adequately trained and suitable for the jobs they are doing. So while many well meaning people do volunteer, and do the jobs well or to the best of their ability, there is no accountability, and for those who rely on such services, little they can do if the services are substandard or not appropriate.

One result of this undermining of these jobs is that it is much more difficult for anyone to do them as a regular job, not only are they poorly paid, but people expect them to be done for nothing, and on an ad hoc basis. The result is that it is very difficult to get these jobs done at all on any adequate, regular long term basis.

That rich industrialised countries such as the US, currently one of the most religious countries in the world, and the UK under their own religious leaders, are proposing to go back to 'faith based' services is deplorable. Seen by many as simply a way to spend less on relieving poverty and deprivation it is a retrograde step, and will if implemented, cause many problems for which a price will be paid in duplication, lack of accountability, and discrimination against service providers and service users. 'Post code lottery' will be joined by a 'religious lottery' over which there will be no control.

Based on the fanciful notion that 'welfare' was always a religious province, the government seems poised to pay evangelical groups to run services regardless of their main objective of recruiting members. Sectarian services will trample employment rights by taking advantage of dispensation for church employers from EU anti-discrimination law, create competition with local authority services and reduce demand for secular provision, and if financial control, and monitoring and regulation of standards and training of staff, will either cost more in the long run or be neglected and services will suffer.

Religious people who run voluntary services under the auspices of their churches are taking advantage of people's needs. There are many examples of youth groups, clubs and activities run by members of churches in their subsided premises and schools, the prime purpose of which is to convert people often children, to their religions. They use the lack of secular community structure for which their churches are frequently to blame, to their own advantage, disregarding the rights of people to be able to organise free from religious preaching and in the case of children, religious indoctrination.

They must know that it is not possible or desirable in most places to have competing religious and religion-free facilities, and that since they have the built in advantage of premises and existing infrastructure, they are taking advantage of their position and taking away the freedom of choice of the people who need the facilities. Use the church holiday scheme and listen to the bible stories, join in the religious songs or do without!

Religious 'charity' workers claim that their religion is the inspiration for their 'charity' and that is why they carry it out in charities based on their religion. The two do not follow, and it is clear that the reason for sectarian charity is to credit the religion and bind the community to the church. If the sole purpose was the inspiration to do the best for their 'target' group, they would join up with anyone else with the same aims, regardless of their religious or non-religious belief in order to maximise their efforts. There are after all many hundreds of secular charities and pressure groups that do not have the church's privileged financial and charitable status The reward for 'giving' and 'serving' is partly the personal sense of satisfaction or purpose for the giver, the gratitude of the recipients and also the social kudos bought by the display of generosity.

Conversely those who do not give to 'Charity' or do voluntary work, but who work for low pay in the public sector, and paid or voluntarily workers in the political system will be excluded from this enthusiastic approval.

In modern Britain, while religionists and voluntary workers in the charity sector are given almost 'holy' status, politicians, and public servants, many of whom see their work as the pressing of people's rights, and the provision of public services and infrastructure, in order to address deprivation, disadvantage and deprivation are regularly despised and derided, especially by the media, who have their own agenda to follow. This has become a considerable problem in the last 10-20 years, as those who choose political ways to address the problems experienced by service users or those in need of help, are demeaned.


Typical in the field of attitude change is the attack on people advocating change of 'political correctness' as if this is a vice not a virtue, by those who support the status quo. Another example is the change of the meaning of the word 'reform' to mean 'change', whether or not it is an advance or a step back. People who demand rights and take direct action either on their own behalf or others, are not accorded the respect given to the saintly 'charity worker'. People who see the political causes of poverty and deprivation or ecological degradation will see the necessity of making some impact on the political process, but it has become a national sport much enjoyed by the media to demean these people. This seriously undermines the importance of informed political discussion, policy making, and the demands of those who see the need to further develop and improve our democratic institutions, national and local.

It would be unfair not to mention that there are at least two good effects of charity, but neither rely on any religious input. One is that it facilitates innovation in services that are monopolised by the state or local government, or religion e.g. adoption and ceremonies. Good as the institutionalisation of services is there is often a tendency for them to prevent change, reform and innovation. Good examples progressive schools set up to show that the rigid discipline and emphasis on academic studies are not the 'be all and end all' of education. The humanist movement through the Humanist Adoption Society, in the 1960s pioneered the take over of adoption services from the monopoly of the church run societies, and latterly the humanist movement has taken on the provision of humanist and secular life ceremonies such as funerals and baby namings. Once free of the sectarian monopoly they can then become fully secular and should ideally be the next step for the hospice movement. A secular service allows anyone, believers and atheists alike, to take part regardless of any criteria other than the need for the service..

There are other examples however of innovative services set up by religions but not then pushed to become fully secular, the hospice movement, and its pioneering care of the terminally ill is still dominated by a religious ethos, as are some homeless hostels run by the Salvation Army, and Alcoholics Anonymous. While such services are still valuable in themselves the fact that they are run with religious strings attached, however loosely, they will still function as sectarian institutions, inviting duplication of services in services or excluding those to whom religious content is an anathema.

The other good effect is the recycling of goods through 'charity shops', although the retailers trying to keep the prices of new goods up might not agree! However, it must be a good thing for good clothes, books, and other saleable items that would otherwise be thrown away, are made available for resale, at a fraction of the cost new. Particularly as most items are no worse than the product when new.

If the time and effort and money spent on tin rattling, collecting and selling jumble, and organising charitable events were compared to the moneys raised it would soon be seen that if people voted for increased resources being raised through any form of progressive taxation the returns would be far better and more long term, and if the policies were put in place to address the needs of those in need, there would not even be a need for the tin rattling and jumble sales in the first place. Care or services, could be provided by properly trained and adequately paid people, on a regular basis.


The criticisms made here of charity apply to the UK and the industrialised western countries, but the Churches like all colonialists has used 'charity' with or without strings attached, in their quest for followers or domination. From early explorers 'buying the place with beads' and 'trading' goods and chattels for the provision of food and shelter, social and community infrastructure, education and welfare are used as bribes and methods of control in creating dependence. Missionaries proclaim their religious inspiration, and use the goods and services as bait to convert the heathens, 'bringing them to Jesus'. This activity has gone on throughout history, from the earliest proselytisers, through the centuries. If one looks for it one can see many examples of the terrible effects of imposing religion on primitive societies, destroying cultures built up by indigenous populations to enable them to live in their groups in harmony with their often hostile environments, if not always with each other one can see the harm done by religious missionaries. Nowhere can this be seen better than the teeming cities and refuse tips of South American and African shanty towns.

The Roman Catholic policy at local and UN level, of forbidding effective birth control programmes, and abortion, has been a disaster for the developing world. Overpopulation has led to environmental degradation as they fight for survival in a land of drought. Along with support for white settler farmers using the land for commercial farming instead of developing food crop farming and land redistribution, has led to an exacerbated of destitution and starvation. Compliance with the Pope's refusal to sanction the use of condoms has helped the spread of HIV/AIDS which has caused millions of deaths of adults and children from AIDS, and left millions of children orphaned most devastatingly in Africa.

The word 'charity' has now replaced the word 'missionary'. A tin , with a picture of a starving black child, a logo and a red heart, thrust under ones nose for charity is assumed to be collecting for food, health services or other gifts in the third world. Most people would not think that it could just as well be for proselytising missionaries from some obscure cult sending bibles to China or wherever, or even less promoting notions of armagedon, saving the 'unsaved' from being sent to hell, the promotion of homophobia, or the services of an exorcist to cast out devils!

One of the most important reasons for maintaining the 'charity' ethic, for the religions today, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to collect money for missionary work, other than from their own faithful. Far more people are now against the converting of other peoples in other cultures to the Christian religion, especially by the proselytising evangelical sects, of America's right wing 'Moral Majority' but they continue with unflagging zeal. Increasingly the public are becoming aware of the dangers of proselytising religions, and the central role of religions in conflicts around the world and in subverting democratic elements. The mixture of traditional superstitions with zealous promotion of extreme Christian sects and cults and some forms of Islam has had a particularly unpleasant effect in parts of Africa, Ruanda, Nigeria and other sub-Saharan African countries where killing, including human sacrifice and mutilation are practised.

An example of the duplicity in fund raising is the UCKG the 'Universal Church of the Kingdom of God', like other an evangelical fundamentalist Christian sects, collects zealously for 'charity', which from investigations, appears to mean their missionary work running their own and 'sister' churches. Using collecting buckets displaying a red heart and white dove logo, and advertised as aiding 'the homeless, old people and drug addicts' they can be found collecting at fetes and street collections in many parts of the UK. All religions collect for what they consider 'charity' and they naturally think that the promotion of religion is charitable, a view that is enshrined in charity law. The wealthy UCKG however is the outfit that was attended by the couple who cruelly abused, tortured seven year old Victoria Climbie, until they eventually killed her. In the last week of her poor blighted life she was taken to the church at least four times, the pastor thought she was possessed by the devil. Invited to comment by one journalist who reported this case, the Church of England said its job was not to raise questions over other churches, and she commented that the responses by mainstream churches were "the most wary of the lot". (6. Ref Jay Rayner)

The BBC colludes with this use of charity to mask religious proselytising by referring to 'missionaries' as 'charity workers' .When they hit trouble or their religious and political activities in countries who take a dim view of what they see as political subversion by foreign missionaries. The BBC never questions the motives or truth of religion and their sectarian charities, rather is eager to promote them, often by not exposing the religious aspects of their activities in attacking countries with whose regimes the US/UK are critical.