Churches aren’t the only organisations providing direct services

A few months ago, I commented critically on a church that was withdrawing some of its outreach services to the homeless community in opposition to a mandate requiring such services to be provided to all customers regardless of intoxication status. The state government initiated the mandate as part of a ‘Housing First’ approach, a programme proven effective across the United States in terms of helping homeless people get into recovery. Agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development find that it’s easier for people with substance abuse problems to get help from a shelter (shocker) than it is on the street — and thus, some states are requiring recipients of state funding to serve everyone.

This shelter wanted to remain dry, so the church decided to shut it down. I said the move was unchristian, and I stand by that statement: If the Christian church is dedicated to the worship of G-d and following in the actions of Christ, they need to act like it. According to the church’s own text, Christ didn’t turn down love, assistance, or affection for anyone, spending time with people at all levels of society and supporting those often left to die or molder — much like homeless people with substance abuse problems. I have a hard time believing that Christ would have refused a seat at the table to a drunk, homeless veteran or that he would have denied succor to a mentally ill woman using heroin to self-medicate. When a church does that, it’s unchristlike, and it reflects poorly on the so-called ‘morals’ and ‘values’ of church elders.

Notably, many churches engage in these and similar practices, imposing their own beliefs about how people should live on those receiving direct services. This, too, is unchristlike. The practice of requiring people to copy out Bible verses, listen to a sermon, or read Christian literature before receiving housing, food, or other services is abominable, and churches that do this should be ashamed of it.

But a commenter hotly retorted with a snide comment about ‘atheists’ and how my comment wasn’t relevant because ‘atheists’ never provide these kinds of services, as though this was some kind of brilliant defense of the practice. Apparently I was supposed to feel ‘awks’ because I commented critically on the topic, since criticising charities is now not allowed? Aside from the fact that evaluating the practices of charities should be a key component of discussing how and where to allocate charity resources, and I was well within my rights to make a comment on the subject (yes, even as a dreaded atheist — I wasn’t attacking Christianity or the church, but was focusing specifically on the church’s practices).

Moreover, that person was also wrong. In the community involved, atheists do in fact provide those services, free of judgement and commentary, and the same holds true across the nation. Yet, atheist charities are typically ignored and shunted aside, and that needs to stop. They run, just as many church charities do, on the fundamental belief that we should provide support to those most in need of it, and the attitude that atheists have no moral compass because they aren’t religious is vile. It’s possible to offer social services without a religious affiliation, and such charities may not be explicitly atheist, but they’re still run by atheist people. To act like atheists sit around and watch people die in the streets is patently ridiculous.

Can atheist charities be every bit as awful as churches? Yes. Forcing cultural and social beliefs on people is not acceptable no matter where they come from, and a charity demanding that people renounce their faith should be condemned alongside those that evangelise. Do some discriminate on the basis of nasty moral panic? Absolutely, and a clinic that refuses services to sex workers or doesn’t offer needle exchange equally should be condemned regardless of religious affiliation. Discriminating against people is wrong, period, but in the case of religious charities, it is also unchristlike, and I see no reason to refrain from saying that.

Some people seem fond of the belief that the only groups providing direct charitable service are churches. That is wrong. Many churches do in fact provide such services and the work they do is important and valuable, but they’re not the only ones. However, they tend to get more press and community support due to the social role they occupy. Moreover, thanks to the structure of government funding and aid, brought about in part by people like President George W. Bush and his hateful ‘faith-based initiatives’ — used to replace actual government-administered social services — churches are more likely to receive government assistance with their service programmes. That means that they should be held to the same standard as other government agencies.

If my tax dollars are being used to provide services, they should be applied equally. Period. If a church wants to use entirely private donations to fund discriminatory services, that its affair, though I will criticise it nonetheless as a social and cultural critic concerned with social justice and equality. But as soon as money I have earned and paid into the Treasury comes into the picture, I have a literally vested interest in the subject. No organization that discriminates against recipients of services should be getting government monies — but when a church does it, it comes with an added sting.

So, sorry to those to whom this is news, but atheists actually provide social services all the time, including, shockingly, in collaboration with churches. And, sorry, being an atheist doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to comment on hateful and discriminatory practices.

Image: Burnside Church, Wairapa, New Zealand, Phillip Capper, Flickr