The Third Sect

Alison Wolf bemoans the state of charitable giving and volunteering. ‘I asked a group of students, mostly in their late 20s, whether any of them did regular work for a charity. There were blank stares… They were typical of 21st-century Britain.’

But not to worry – help is at hand:

Modern Britain doesn’t do God and so links between religion and charity are not readily acknowledged, certainly not among atheists. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues against the idea that morality needs religion and doubts believers are, in practice, any more likely to behave well than non-believers. Yet a surprising number of our best-known charities have a link to organised religion.

This is not just a Victorian inheritance, as with Barnardo’s and the NSPCC, it is also true of newer, postwar domestic charities. They are rarely overtly religious, but many were founded by clergymen or draw much of their active support from religious groups. The Samaritans is one example, but so are several of the high-profile homeless charities, such as Crisis, which developed in response to an absence of state support.

People who are actively religious are almost twice as likely as their peers to volunteer. This must be partly because all the world’s major religions enjoin their members to help others, but it is also, surely, something structural. Churches (broadly defined) are ‘about’ worship, so they exist independently of any particular charitable activity they support. That also means they are there, with their networks in place, in a crisis. No one needs to set them up. Alastair Murray of Christian homelessness charity Housing Justice argues that the churches are, if anything, more activist than ever and have the huge advantage of being outside government bureaucracy and target-setting, able to respond to local need.

There is another motive, less noble but more obvious, for the faithful’s involvement in charitable works. It’s the same motive held by the nineteenth-century European missionaries and the Christian HIV groups working in Africa today. Perhaps some good has come from this work in the present and past.

Yet aid from the faithful tends to be conditional aid. As Sam Harris explains in The End of Faith:

President Bush recently decided to cut off funding to any overseas family-planning group that provides information on abortion. According to the New York Times, this ‘has effectively stopped condom provision to 16 countries and reduced it in 13 others, including some with the world’s highest rates of AIDS infection.’ Under the influence of Christian notions of the sinfulness of sex outside marriage, the US government has required that one-third of its AIDS prevention funds allocated to Africa be squandered on teaching abstinence rather than condom use. It is no exaggeration to say that millions could die as a direct result of this single efflorescence of religious dogmatism.

Much religious charity work is undoubtedly done out of a common humanity. But there is also a desire to win converts for a dying faith. Domestically two of the most prominent areas for religious charities are mental health and substance abuse. This should not surprise us, as in both you can find many people with shattered minds and low self-esteem. The happy and fulfilled don’t tend towards religious conversions, but life’s casualties make a harvest of captive souls.

Take Alcoholics Anonymous – surely the most common, long running and well known alcoholism therapy in the UK. The programme requires total abstinence (which, if you’re a binge drinker, can initially be meducally harmful) as well as endless group sessions. Its formal traditions, and seven of its twelve steps, are explicitly religious. Most alcohol treatment programmes rely on it in some way.

Yet AA has a success rate of only 5%. NICE would not approve a drug that worked in only five per cent of patients. It gets even worse when we consider that five per cent is a natural remission rate for many serious conditions. So AA may be taking credit for the recovery of people who may have simply recovered anyway. Critics have taken exception to AA’s philosophy of abdicating personal responsibility (not the best way to gain good mental health) and some have even termed it a form of cult religion. My link leads to an article – long but worth reading – that includes a report on a test involving ‘pat-a-cake’ therapy. Addicts went to regular meetings where they sang the pat-a-cake song and then talked amongst themselves – about TV, music, whatever – for an hour. The differences between this ‘treatment’ and that of a formal AA programme were found to be negligible.

Or take mental health. A close friend of mine was sectioned last year. Her NHS Trust didn’t offer a counselling service but could find the money to employ a ward chaplain and a Faith Room. She would ring me up in tears and complain of bullying from members of staff who worked on the ward purely to gain authority over those weaker than themselves. Wolf mentions the Samaritans, again the best known crisis line service in the UK, which is staffed not by trained and paid counsellors but by volunteers. Lay people, mostly retired, who may know absolutely nothing about mental health are touted as the first port of call for the depressed and suicidal. Mental health issues are supposed to be as debilitating as physical ones. But if you break your leg, you need an ambulance – not a priest.

But it’s not all about traditional religion – counterknowledge gets a look in too. This week, I will register with a local health centre to find treatment for agoraphobia and panic attacks, and it seems only natural that its programme should include acupuncture – which has no proven medical value beyond that of the placebo effect.

Of course, as Pragna Patel has pointed out, governments love the voluntary sector because then they don’t have to spend as much money on the welfare state. We may be heading for a situation akin to pre-Bevan times when the care of the weak and sick was entrusted entirely to the church. Good for government and business, not so good for substance abusers and the mentally ill – but then, who cares about those losers?

This development will be largely unopposed, because an air of saintliness has congealed over the act of volunteering. And it is seen as vulgar to demand a day’s pay for a day’s work.

This sounds very cynical so I’ll propose some positive solutions. We need more secular charities (although the ones that exist, such as Doctors Without Borders, get far less attention than their religious counterparts). We need a structural change. The third sector should not exist. Volunteering and community work is noble and people should be paid for it. In the meantime, government should phase out funding for faith-based groups unless they can prove that their religion does not dictate their charity work.

But this is all pipe-dream stuff; shouldn’t we live in the real world? And if you’re drowning, you don’t question the motives of the man who throws you a rope. Yet, as countless Scout children have discovered, the human being is not naturally generous with his time and money, and normally wants something else in return.

As Christopher Hitchens said, reviewing the life of the celebrated fraud Mother Teresa:

MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God… The rich world has a poor conscience, and many people liked to alleviate their own unease by sending money to a woman who seemed like an activist for “the poorest of the poor.” People do not like to admit that they have been gulled or conned, so a vested interest in the myth was permitted to arise, and a lazy media never bothered to ask any follow-up questions. Many volunteers who went to Calcutta came back abruptly disillusioned by the stern ideology and poverty-loving practice of the ‘Missionaries of Charity,’ but they had no audience for their story. George Orwell’s admonition in his essay on Gandhi—that saints should always be presumed guilty until proved innocent—was drowned in a Niagara of soft-hearted, soft-headed, and uninquiring propaganda.

Update: Watch the fantastic Penn and Teller for more on AA’s effectiveness – such as it is.


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