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Charity refers to the act of helping other people for no personal benefit, typically by donating money or other resources to those considered less fortunate than yourself.


Charity is praised and sometimes even considered mandatory in almost all religions and other ethical systems. A notable exception is Objectivism where it's considered something of a sin. In Buddhism charity is expected to give happiness through the well-known concept of karma.[1] Abrahamic religion have the concept of the tithe, which mandates believers to give a certain percentage (usually 10%); this is the third pillar of Islam, Zakat. In Hinduism, daāna (दान) is giving generously without thought of reward.[2]

Whether religion actually increases or decreases charitable donations—or charitable works in general—is a hotly contested topic. An abundance of studies with conflicting results have been published on the topic with conflicting results with some studies saying that religious people give more[3] and others saying they don't.[4]

One fundamental problem in the debate is that there is no agreement on what exactly constitutes charity; specifically, religious causes are typically not considered charity by most non-religious (and some religious) people, while many religious people consider this to be charity. In their view, religion bring great joy and happiness to life, and can possibly even save ones soul from eternal damnation. This is why those people are motivated to donate $300 to their televangelist so he can buy a $60 million private jet to better "spread the word".[5] Reasoning from that world-view, it makes sense to call religion charity.

Many other people disagree, either because they feel that religion is a bunch of nonsense, or because they don't see religion as a fundamental part of happiness (as some Christians do).

The definition of charity is important, as many donations to churches end up to further religious works. According to Christianity Today International 43% of Church income goes on staffing—with a further 29% on the facilities, supplies, and fees.[6] Membership drives are also often a big expense, making up 16% of church spending[7] and evangelism also underlies the actual charity work which makes up some unknown proportion of the remaining 12% of church spending on "Programs" and "Other". In a case study of St. Alban's Cathedral, 5.5% of the expenditure was on "donations"[8] with probably the majority being given to members of the diocese.

However, some charitable religious causes such as California Proposition 8, abstinence-only sex education, the Vatican's opposition to contraception, etc. are downright harmful.

Abuse of charity[edit]

While views on charity differ, there is little doubt that charity can be abused by religious institutions and leaders—usually more easily than secular institutions and leaders due to the greater (well-intentioned) trust of donors and fellow church members.

For example, a 2005 study found 85% of Roman Catholic dioceses that responded had discovered embezzlement of church money in the last five years, and that ethics codes are typically opposed on grounds such as "Why in the world would we need this? After all, this is the church."[9] Well-intentioned as this may be, it leaves churches open to abuse.

Five Nigerian priests are worth over $3 million each with one worth at least $150 million,[10] Billy Graham is worth $25 million,[11] Rick Warren is worth $14 million,[12] and Tim LaHaye has given $4.5 million to Liberty University.[13]

Charity abuse is not limited to religious organizations. In the United States, abusive charity tactics include donating paltry sums to those in need (as low as 3% of money raised), giving away undesirable cast-off items at inflated prices (e.g., air fresheners), hiring for-profit organizations to solicit funds (or even having the charity be a front for the fund-raising company), and paying high salaries to staff.[14] Dubious charities can even benefit the founder in the form of golf easements on land donations, and donations between charities among celebrity- and politician-based charities, that would seem mainly to serve the purpose of cementing political ties.[15]

Secular charity[edit]

Due to the historical dominance of Christianity, many charities with a secular mission were either founded by Christians (such as Amnesty International) or use Christian imagery (such as the Red Cross), but the British Humanist Association recommends giving to secular charities where possible, seeing no need to make charities that are exclusive except in areas where all existing charities are religious.[16] There are a number of explicitly atheist charities, and for people interested in giving to charity, there are sites dedicated to effective altruism such as GiveWell and 80,000 hours.

Effective altruism[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Effective altruism

Effective altruism is a utilitarian philosophy which attempts to use evidence and reason to bring about a net positive change to the word - partly by avoiding charities with limited or negative impact on the problems they are trying to address (of which there are, sadly, a large number), and focusing on more effective charities. In general, this is not a bad idea, but has been criticized for mostly the same reasons as utilitarianism has. It also suffers from one of the main drivers being Eliezer Yudkowsky's Machine Intelligent Research Institute, who want to spend the money on pseudoscientific artificial intelligence "research" (fanfic and blogs) rather than mosquito nets.

Dubious charities[edit]

See also[edit]

  • Tithe
  • Ayn Rand, who believed that altruism was evil and selfishness humanity's highest calling.