Politics & Policy

The Trouble with Good Works


Editor’s note: Christianity has been taking a beating for years now, with one tony atheist tome after another rolling off the presses — and still no end in sight.

And so far — with the exception of a Michael Novak here and a Dinesh D’Souza there — believers have largely turned the other cheek.

Now, finally, comes more payback — with THE LOSER LETTERS, a Screwtape for our screwed-up time.

In the latest round over God, Mary Eberstadt hits control-alt-delete on National Review Online . . .

Dear Friends Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Onfray, Stenger & etc. again,

As I explained in my first Letter, I really do believe that one of the most important contributions I can make as a newly converted atheist is to let You know what is and isn’t working for our Side when it comes to winning the so-called hearts and minds of the rest of our Species. In some areas, as I observed about sex (!), it’s definitely better for us Brights just to change the subject and not to compete with the believers at all.

It’s like they keep telling me in here, some things are just bigger than you are, and there’s no point in even trying to pretend you’re in control. The same goes for Us atheists, too! Sometimes, You just have to cut your losses and hit control-alt-delete.

One big case in point is “good works,” or the question of who is more likely to be on good behavior with the lesser members of the Species, Us or the believers. And here, as a matter of general strategy, I cannot stress enough something that some of You are just refusing to get: We Atheists are much better off emphasizing what the other Side has done wrong than anything we Brights have done right.

After all, 2,000 years of Christianity have given us plenty of ammunition to train on our adversaries without Our having to fight loser battles in the field. I mean, appreciate our resources here! Here’s just some of what can throw in the Catholics’ faces alone: any number of popes, a way higher number of bishops, much of the faculty and administration at both Georgetown and Notre Dame, and — thanks to the latest round of priest-boy sex scandals — even whole orders and seminaries (You know the ones I mean) striving day and night to undermine the Church! There are all kinds of corrupt clergy who are doing more to give the Loser a bad name, just by the atrocity of their examples, than anything we atheists could possibly dream up or execute Ourselves. Not to mention all those influential lay websites and public figures who dish out awesome piles of Catholicism Lite. You know — the ones whose Catholicism amounts to cherry-picking what they like about the Loser’s books and leaving out all the parts they don’t! Seriously, how could We possibly confuse matters among the papists any more than they already have themselves?

And if the Catholic Church has been the cake, some of the Protestants have been perfect frosting. Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, John Hagee, Jeremiah Wright — have a little appreciation for how much preachers like these help Us out! Just think how much harder it was for our Side back in the beginning, when their stupid books were fresher in the Dull’s cerebral cortexes and the Christians were actually being all pious and suffering in the Coliseum and planting their butts more firmly on the quote moral high ground! Ditto, how about another little “thank you!” to those renegades like Warren Jeffs, who pop up alongside their 20 wives and 50 kids regular as desert clockwork, leaving us atheists to hoot and holler profitably about our biggest asset, “religious hypocrisy.” Talk about getting manna from Somewhere!

Add to those any number of historical fiascos whether real or exaggerated, and You’ll see that we atheists can undermine lots of believers, simply by emphasizing how badly a few of them have behaved — and again, we don’t need to get too far off the historical reservation to do it.

And if all else fails, just repeat after me like You’re Freddy Mercury or something: Galileo! Galileo! Galileo!

But we Brights don’t need to, and in fact shouldn’t ever, take the unnecessary further step of crediting our own Side with good behavior. In fact, if I could have offered our new Movement one single bit of advice on this, it would have been: Don’t even go there.

But would any of You have listened? Ahem? Unfortunately, just about Nobody has grasped the point.

Here is Mr. Daniel Dennett, for example, waaaaaay out on the very limb I’m warning about: “There is no reason at all why a disbelief in the immateriality or immortality of the soul should make a person less caring, less moral, less committed to the well-being of everybody on Earth than somebody who believes in ‘the spirit’” (italics are His). And Mr. Sam Harris, same: “The fact that faith has motivated many people to do good things does not suggest that faith is itself a necessary (or even a good) motivation for goodness.” Everybody, and not just You guys but others in the history of our Movement, seems to agree about this: the believers must not be allowed to claim that religion at its best makes people behave well — or even better than they would behave without it.

Now if You all just think for a minute, You’ll know as well as I do why this is so damaging for Us: because the actual evidence for claiming that atheism will do as much good in the world as Christianity and other religions is embarrassingly against us. As in, way.

I’m not even talking here about the tired charges made by the Other Side about what happens when atheists actually run the world — mass murder, genocide, concentration camps, and the rest of the 20th-century record. Of course plenty of people do want to rub Our noses in History, the twerps. Papal point man Michael Novak appears to have been running especially annoying defense lately. I mean, that crack of his last year about how Mr. Sam Harris tries to “explain away the horrors of the self-declared atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi in Germany, and Communist in the Soviet Union”: Ouch! That one had to hurt, even if it was totally off the wall in any historic sense. As if any one of those governments could top the Inquisition in a body count! Right?

Equally annoying are the people who argue that the record doesn’t support Your claim that Nazis and Communists and whatnot were really somehow religious underneath — You know, as if Paula on American Idol is secretly a fat bald Male teetotaler whose skin is Naturally almost as tight as Hillary Clinton’s. If You ask me, that mathematician and non-believer David Berlinski gives the “secretly-religious” theory a real smack in his treacherous new attack on Us, The Devil’s Delusion:

What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.

In one sentence, too! What a pain Berlinski is. He might as well be working under the table for the Loser. I wouldn’t be surprised. (Idea: The next time You Guys want to burn something, let’s start with his book!)

Now, I know how those trumped-up accusations about Atheist murder and genocide and whatever annoy Everybody — me, too! — so I’m not going to dwell on this any further. I’m worried instead about something related that hasn’t gotten the same attention as the little “excesses” of our recent History, but could be just as harmful to our Side if the Dulls started looking at it. It’s the Fact that the religious people in the West, generally speaking, take better care of the sick and weak than do secularists and atheists, and they know it.

Hospitals, soup kitchens, social services, charitable networks; missions, prison ministries, orphanages, clinics, and all those other institutions embodying the distasteful fixation of the believers on the Weak — now how can we atheists possibly compete with all that? The Catholics: 615 hospitals, 1,600 local agencies under Catholic Charities, over 7,500 schools and 221 colleges and universities; lay organizations like the Knights of Columbus, Black and Indian Missions, Society of Vincent St. Paul, and several hundred more engaged in charitable activity — all just in America. And that’s not to say the papists are the only ones who have it going on. So do the Jews, the Muslims, and the Protestants. Look at the evangelicals with their nonstop loser outreaches of all kinds and their foreign missions too — to which they shovel some $2.5 billion a year.

Then there are the Mormons, and I would most definitely not want us atheists messing with the LDS in any kind of goody-off contest. What’s the number one American city for charitable giving? Salt Lake City. Where are four of the ten American counties where charitable giving is highest? Right next to Salt Lake City. Oh, but you say, that’s all for the Church of Latter-Day Saints, hence suspect. Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state where volunteering — i.e. coaching, collecting food, etc. — is highest is also: Utah.

One of the worst things that’s happened lately for all those claims of Yours that believers and nonbelievers are morally equivalent in their behavior toward others in the Species is another horrible new book. This one’s by econo-brain Arthur C. Brooks and is called Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide: Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why it Matters. Geeking over what he calls “the fruit of years of analysis on the best national and international datasets available on charity, lots of computational horsepower, and the past work of dozens of scholars who have looked at various bits and pieces of the charity puzzle,” numbers nerd Brooks shows beyond a doubt one fact that our Side should not want out — i.e., that American believers are more “generous” in every sense than the enlightened likes of Us.

Brooks says that religious people give more to charity than non-religious people — in fact, much more: “an enormous charity gap,” he reports, “remains between religious and secular people.”

To see this, imagine two women who are both forty-five years old, white, married, have an annual household income of $50,000, and attended about a year of college. The only difference between them is that one goes to church every week, but the other never does. The churchgoing woman will be 21 percentage points more likely to make a charitable gift of money during the year than the non-churchgoer, and she will also be 26 points more likely to volunteer. Furthermore, she will tend to give $1,383 more per year to charity, and to volunteer on 6.4 more occasions.

Brooks goes on to test the charity gap up, down, and sideways. The results are always the same: “People who pray every day (whether or not they go to church) are 30 percentage points more likely to give money to charity than people who never pray (83 to 53 percent). And people saying they devote a great deal of effort to their spiritual lives are 42 points more likely to give than those devoting no effort (88 to 46 percent). Even a belief in beliefs themselves is associated with charity. People who say that beliefs don’t matter as long as you’re a good person are dramatically less likely to give charitably (69 to 86 percent) and to volunteer (32 to 51 percent) than people who think that beliefs do matter.”

In fact, it’s not even all dollars and cents. Brooks also reports that religious people volunteer more than seculars — and even give more Species blood!

Now leaving that nasty little bit of Empiricism aside, there’s an even bigger problem for Us in this talk of good works. It’s that the Dulls don’t only do this charitable stuff because their stupid backward books tell them to; they also think that helping the weak is good thing to do just in and of itself. And as long as they persist in believing such an Unnatural thing, it will be hard for us atheists to bring them in by promising that the unbelievers do better at this game. They’re stupid: yes. But not that stupid.

As a Dull child, for example, I personally knew a Catholic priest who left a comfortable suburban parish to start up a mission — in a part of the country of Togo so crappy that it makes Calcutta look like something out of How to Marry a Millionaire. Just the pictures of his well-digging, barefooted, pretty needy-looking African clients probably kept me in the believers’ ranks longer than anything else. I don’t know even know why, mind You! After all, I was not Genetically Related to these people closely at all, so the continuance of their DNA was neither here nor there for me. But something about that priest’s risky involvement with them got under my skin, and it also seemed somehow to reflect well on the religion in whose name he did these things.

That’s the psychological effect of this kind of selfless behavior by others on your average believer. It’s like an addiction with them. I appreciate that Mr. Hitchens at least tried to address this problem with his har-dee-har-har attempted takedown of Mother Teresa. But it failed totally. Even most of Our allies in the secular media (and they are legion as You know!) were embarrassed by it. What’s the point of arguing that You shouldn’t do good things with bad money which seems to be Mr. Hitchens’s only coherent point? What are You supposed to do with bad money – bad things only? Do You know how lame this kind of Pick me! Pick MEEEEEE!’ Variation of atheist journalism looks to everyone else?

For another example, consider how things look if we compare, say, Western Europe (which thankfully is largely post-Christian now) with the U.S. (still occupied outside the major cities by Dulls). Do you remember what happened in secular France in summer 2003? How about some 14,800 “excess deaths” (I love that word “excess”!), mostly among the old, mostly in that citadel of civilization, gay Paree? That’s just an official French estimate by the way; others were higher. Some of those old bodies were never even claimed, just laid out in those plain thin wood rectangular boxes outside Paris like Pottery Barn Teen was having the biggest outdoor mattress and box spring sale ever or something.

Now, everyone official says they know the reasons “why” this happened — because of heat topping 100 degrees during a month when most of the city, including much of the nursing home staff, went on vacation. Well, there’s secular Europe for you: Granmamma’s in a “home” getting heatstroke, and her family, or what remains of it, is too busy with Eurail and Ryanair and vacation ooh-la-la to care. And so Nature got to dispose of a whole lot of Unfit people at one swoop. Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, any more than any other real Darwinist would. But my point is, does anyone really believe this would have happened if France were still a Christian country?

Not that plenty of atrocities didn’t happen when France was Christian! But the point is, would this particular atrocity, i.e. the totally freaky abandonment of the old and sick and weak in one of the most modern cities on earth in the name of leisure, have happened if Christianity still colored the way people behave in Europe? Was it thinkable in a world where what the religious call “the family” still had force behind it? For that matter, does anyone think it would have happened if all those geezers had been Muslims rather than post-Christian Europeans?

No, no, and no, and all for the same reason: because organized religion would have intervened. The American Christian response after Hurricane Katrina, to take one counterexample right in our Face, was as fast as the American government’s was lame.

But then again, why should the believers’ edge in caring for the Unfit surprise us atheists? After all, it’s not as if hospitals and soup kitchens abound in our inner cities in Darwin’s name. There’s not exactly a Bright network within the prisons bringing aid and comfort to the people inside. And it’s not like the sociologically Unfit show up at Los Alamos or the Natural History Museum, say, when it’s 30 below outside and they want a blanket and a bowl of free slop. Oh, and how about the many atheist families who have adopted six or eight or ten children, including those with handicaps? Right! I don’t know any either.

And that’s just my point: not only should our Side refuse to compete on fronts like these when there’s no evidence to our credit anyways; we should also be clear among Ourselves that we atheists don’t want the kind of world in which Nature’s rejects, the sick and the old and the frail of any sort, flourish anyway.

That’s what upsets me so about Your collective insistence that atheism can pick up the moral slack of religion in the matter of good works. It’s so hypocritical! Do we really want a society, say, abounding in family-minded people who take in other people’s Unfit offspring? Next thing you know after that, people might get the idea of protecting, say, crippled infants, or people in comas, or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s patients or other unfortunate parasites on our Species. And how Natural is any of that? Answer: not!

No, competing against the believers on grounds of good behavior will do our Side no good at all. I urge you with all my DNA to stay away from that game. The reason why we’ll lose it every time is simple: because their highest authority, the Loser, tells them to care for the sick and weak, whereas Ours, Nature, tells us the opposite.

The trick to end-running it is clear enough: Just keep focused at all times on the evils committed in religion’s name. Never mind how long ago they were! Try not to let the Dulls point out that you are comparing religious apples (i.e. what institutionalized religion did in Europe 600 years ago) with atheist oranges (i.e. what institutionalized atheism did in Europe 60 years ago). Mercifully, as it were, many of them are just ignorant enough of history not to call our bluffs on rhetorical saves like that.

But never, never, never, pretend that we have a code that would in any way render us as attentive to Nature’s Castoffs as the Dulls are, because we don’t — and not only don’t we have one, but in principle we don’t want one. And next, before introducing you to my barfogenic former boyfriend Lobo (!), which is where my own conversion story really begins, I want to get going on a couple other kinds of Bright chatter that need to be dialed down in the future for our Movement’s sake. Remember, I’m only here to help!

Yours Empirically 4-Ever,

A. F. Christian

Mary Eberstadt — Ms. Eberstadt has written for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including National Review, Policy Review, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, First Things, and the American Spectator.


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