Does religion corrupt charity?

“Does religion corrupt charity?” has been the question of the week at the Guardian, and this question has provoked some interesting comments this week. The issue was framed as follows:

It’s often suggested that religious charities must be self-interested. Either they proselytise, or they discriminate to the advantage of believers, or both.

It’s also suggested that the people who give to them are really being selfish, because they want to put themselves right with God, and so to benefit from their actions, rather than being truly altruistic.

Are these accusations fair? And are secular charities, or state provision, morally superior?

The first response, by Nick Spencer, reminded readers that the church largely created modern charities in the 19th Century:

Most Victorians saw the state as an “artificial contrivance … incapable of redemptive action.” Accordingly, in the words of historian Frank Prochaska, “the individual, not as ratepayer but as fellow-sufferer, was responsible for the cares of the world.”

Fellow-sufferers, commonly Christian ones, responded. By 1840, around 70% of the British working class had achieved a basic level of literacy, thanks to the efforts of Sunday schools. By 1865, the churches had set up over 600 ragged schools for destitute children. By 1889, the Church of England alone had over 47,000 district visitors in England and Wales.

By one estimate, evangelicals ran about three in four voluntary societies in the latter half of the 19th century. Christianity didn’t corrupt charity in Britain. It invented it.

. . .

The idea that Christians believe they can earn their way into heaven is about as wrong as it is possible to be. Earning your way into God’s favour is entirely antithetical to Christianity, as it was to the Second Temple Judaism from which it emerged. Those who think that Christians tithe, or pray, or run soup kitchens as a way of collecting heavenly air miles clearly haven’t met many.

Read all of Spencer’s response here. The other responses, by Jonathan Romain, Theo Hobson, Hossam Said, can be found here.

What do you think?

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