Thou shalt not take thy local charity for granted
UNEMPLOYMENT has almost doubled in a year. Brian Lenihan says we're living beyond our means -- and he's right.
Tax revenues continue to collapse. What's the answer?
One small one is to stop taking for granted the religious among us because they are the ones we can count on to be charitable and the need for charitable people grows by the day.
Earlier this week we discovered that demand for help from the Society of St Vincent de Paul has risen so far, so fast, that they are literally running out of money.
In the greater Dublin area there has been a 44pc increase in calls for help compared with last year. There has been a 36pc increase in Cork, and a 30pc increase in the mid-west.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul is precisely one of those organisations we take for granted.
We're glad to have it there. We commend its members. But in all honesty we don't give it half enough credit nor do we think to credit the religious motivation of those who raise the money, visit the sick and the elderly and disburse the money and other help to those who need it.
In particular we take the religious motivation for granted. Atheist and polemicist extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens is fond of asking religious believers to name a single good thing they do that atheists can't do. In other words, to name something beneficial that the world would lose if religious believers were to vanish from the face of it.
Well, one thing we would lose, or which would certainly greatly diminish, is the charitable impulse.
Roy Hattersley, the former British Labour MP, is one atheist who would probably concede this point.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina he noted the absence of 'free thinkers' and atheists from among the volunteers helping out in the aftermath of the disaster.
He saw that the Red Cross was on the ground in big numbers. He saw that the Salvation Army was on the ground in big numbers.
He might have observed that numerous Christian churches opened their doors to take in families whose homes had been flooded. Many ordinary Christians opened their homes.
Hattersley wrote at the time: "The Salvation Army has been given a special status as provider-in-chief of American disaster relief. But its work is being augmented by all sorts of other groups.
"Almost all of them have a religious origin and character.
"Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs and atheists' associations -- the sort of people who not only scoff at religion's intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil."
The fact is that the charitable impulse is stronger among religious people than among non-religious people. And yes of course, there are lots and lots of exceptions.
There are extremely generous atheists and incredibly mean-minded, tight-fisted Christians.
But where in Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter, is the 'rationalist' version of the Society of St Vincent de Paul or the Salvation Army? I don't see it. Hattersley is right.
There is an ever growing body of data testifying to the relative generosity of religious believers compared with their secular counterparts.
For example, in America religious believers earn 6pc less on average than those who rarely or never attend church but they give 30pc more to charity.
They are also more likely to be involved in charitable work and they give more time to charitable work.
Irish census data backs up this.
One in 10 Catholics help out charitable organisations or their own church.
The figure among Church of Ireland members and Presbyterians is much higher at 17pc. They are far more likely to help out their local church than Catholics, probably because they have a longer history of lay involvement and are less clerical.
The census data makes no distinction between practising and non-practising Christians. You can be sure that levels of volunteerism are higher among practising Christians.
The census also looks at levels of volunteerism among those with no stated religion.
Among this group only 6pc are involved in charitable work. So the Catholic figure is 50pc higher and the Protestant figure is three times higher. Admittedly, the figure for the non-religious improves when other forms of voluntary activity are thrown in, for example, sport. But this isn't the same as charity.
So the question is, who is more likely to help out when the going gets tough, the religious person or the non-religious person? In general, it's going to be the former.
We have had great fun throwing off at the churches, at religion, at religious believers right through the years of the Celtic Tiger.
In doing so, we were content to overlook the tremendous value to society of religious believers.
If you still find yourself resisting such an idea, why not ask the victims of Hurricane Katrina for their opinion. Better still, ask the victims of the recession who, this very night, will have one of the 9,500 members of the Society of St Vincent de Paul calling to their door.