Religious Charity: Winning Converts with Bribes?

One of the criticisms I’ve come across from atheists and some non-Christians generally is that religious, and particularly Christian charities, are somehow morally suspect because they combine their charitable work with a distinct religious message. The implication in this accusation is that religious charities really aren’t interested in those who help, only in exploiting their need to promote their particular faith. The accusation isn’t new by any means. It’s been around since the 1890s, when the slang term ‘rice Christian’ was coined to describe an Aboriginal who had falsely converted to Christianity for food. 1 This particularly version of the accusation has been raised most recently by militantly antichristian Hindu nationalist governments in some of the Indian states, who have used it as a pretext to outlaw conversion to Christianity, despite rebuttals and protests from Indian Christians that they don’t use such tactics. Now there are religious organisations who do cynically use charity as a means for gaining converts. However, my own personal experience, and those of people I personally know who have worked with various churches and church organisations in the UK, is very much that the mainstream Christian churches in the UK do not use charity in this way, and are very sincere in working for those in need as an end in itself, rather than as a means of gaining potential converts. I am not saying that the Christian churches are unique in this, or better than other faiths. I understand that one Spiritualist church, for example, supports a secular charity working in its area, for example. I am merely stating that in my experience as an Anglican (Episcopalian) in Britain, with friends and relatives in the Methodist and Roman Catholic churches, and the Salvation Army, this is most definitely not the case. I’ve no doubt that the Baptists and the Reformed churches have the same attitude to charity, though I can’t speak from personal experience with them.

Regarding the Anglican Church, an atheist friend of mine surprised me once by telling me how much he admired the Church because of its charity work. When I asked what he meant, he said that the Church supported a number of charities and good causes of which the majority of people would be unaware. He further surprised me by telling me that he thought the Anglican church should be less reticent about telling people about its strong and enduring tradition of charity work.

One example of the charity work the Anglican church does is in housing for the homeless or those otherwise in need. The Church has an equal opportunities policy in this particular charity, so that its employees and the recipients of its charity do not have to be members of the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church. Moreover those studying for ordination within the Church are specifically trained as a formal part of their study for the priesthood to give charity without any hope of thanks. This includes seminary students being given food vouchers to give to the homeless on the streets of particular British cities. The students have to give a voucher or vouchers to a person needing it, and then move quickly on before that person can thank them. It follows Christ’s command in Luke 6:35 to ‘do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again’. 2 The great medieval rabbi, Moses Maimonides, highly esteemed anonymous charitable donations, considering them second in value only to giving a gift or a loan to someone, or taking them on as a partner or finding them a job. ‘Giving charity to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, the recipient not knowing the donor’s identity, for this is a good deed of intrinsic value, done for its own sake. An example of this is the Hall of Secret Donations which was maintained in the Temple. The righteous would donate in secret and the poor would be supported from it in secret. Approximating this is giving to a charity fund.’ 3 Behind this, in the view of the great rabbi, was ‘giving to one whose identity one knows, although the recipient does not know the donor’s identity’ and ‘giving without knowing to whom one gives, although the recipient knows the donor’s identity’. 4 Maimonides gave as an example of a gift to people the donor knew, though they did not know the donor, was ‘the action of those great sages who would walk about in secret and cast coins at the doors of the poor.’ 5 He also gave as an example of giving to people one did not know, although they knew the donor ‘the action of those great sages who would wrap up coins in a bundle and throw it over their shoulder. The poor would then come to take it without any embarrassment.’ 6 Clearly, despite the difference in time and religion, something like Maimonide’s recommendations for charitable giving are followed by the Anglican Church, though this stems from Christ’s instructions to give freely without ostentation instead of Talmudic tradition.

 A similar attitude towards charity for the homeless informs the Methodists and the Salvation army. A friend of mine stayed in accomodation run by the Church in my home city, and noted that it insisted on tolerance towards non-Western cultures and its work supplying food to the homeless. This was either in soup runs, or given spontaneously as people turned up on their doorstep to ask for it. I’ve also seen the Roman Catholic church similarly give food to the homeless on request for the homeless without any ideological strings attached. I was visiting a particularly historic site in London, which is now part of a convent. Secular visitors, however, are able to go round during certain hours. We were being taken through the building by one of the sisters when a couple of crusties – young, homeless people – knocked on the door. The man explained they were on the street, and asked if they had any food for the woman. The nun listened, left and returned a few minutes later with a package of sandwiches that she gave to them. The couple then left, and the nun continued our tour. In all of this there was no fuss, no preaching, just a simple gift. One of my cousins, another Anglican (Episcopalian) also worked for the Salvation Army in my home city. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, in 1999 the Salvation Army was the foremost charity fundraiser in America for the eighth year running, raising $1.4 billion in cash for charity. 7 I’m not surprised. They work extremely hard over this side of the Atlantic. My cousin worked in the kitchen for a homeless hostel they ran, and again there was no pressure on those using the hostel to convert. This attitude – that places the person in need in the centre of the organisation’s concerns – has apparently been present in the Salvation Army since the 19th century. This was quietly demonstrated in the family history of one of the leading British broadcasters on BBC 1’s show, Who Do You Think You Are? This particular show features a different celebrity each week and follows them as they trace their family tree. One of the celebrities featured was the veteran newsanchor and scourge of dissimulating politicians, Jeremy Paxman. Despite his affluent lifestyle now, Paxman was surprised to learn that his ancestors had endured horrific, grinding poverty in Victorian Britain, with one of his female ancestors raising her children only through the support of the local Salvation Army. Another friend of mine, who was not only a member but worked in one of their charity shops, remarked afterwards how glad she was that even then the Church had been more keen to look after her and her children, than engage in any kind of preaching about whatever personal defects or circumstances had brought her into such a state.

Along with a concern to support the poor, the traditional attitude to charity was that the poor should also be enabled to support themselves. Maimonides himself strongly advocated sturdy self-reliance. It is also why, when the Moravians built a model village in Northern Ireland, they included communal workshops for the young men and women in which they were to learn the trades that would support them in maturity. In the 18th and 19th centuries at least, religion was considered to be an important source of the self-respect and self-reliance that created good, hard-working citizens. In the 19th century the British Anti-Slavery Society supported a number of Christian missions to Africa, long before the military invasions of the continent in the latter quarter of the century. It was felt that conversion to Christianity would provide indigenous Africans with the moral values that would encourage them to abandon the slave trade. Instead, provided with Christian morality, and access to Western, American and European markets, African would instead turn to producing legitimate goods and products, like cotton, free of slave labour. In this respect, the Gospel was not something extraneous or even ‘parasitic’ as I have seen such attitudes described, to the philanthropic intentions of those leading the missions, but seen as an important and intrinsic part of leading Africans away from the evil and barbarism that the Western demand for slaves had created.

Thus, while some religious organisations have done and continue to use charity cynically as a means of gaining converts, the mainstream Christian churches in Britain today certainly do not use it as such. Even in the 19th century, the promoters of such Christian charity saw this as complementing, rather than contradicting, their concern for the recipients’ of such charity’s material needs. As well as nourishing their souls with the Gospel, they saw the Christian message as giving them the hope, self-respect and industriousness to support themselves as good citizens and respectable members of society. 


1. ‘Rice Christian’ in Eric Partridge, abridged Jacqueline Simpson, The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1972), p. 763.

2. Luke 6: 35 in the KJV.

3. ‘Maimonides on Charity’ in Whitfield Foy, ed., The Religious Quest (London, the Open University/ Routledge 1978), p. 389.

4. ‘Maimonides on Charity in Foy, Religious Quest, pp. 389-90.

5. ‘Maimonides on Charity in Foy, Religious Quest, pp. 389.

6.’Maimonides on Charity in Foy, Religious Quest, pp. 389-90.

7. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial – Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 158.

16 Responses to “Religious Charity: Winning Converts with Bribes?”

  1. Becoming a Christian Says:

    Its not easy becoming a Christian. I had a few people who tried to convert me. It didn’t quite work but I see the allure of such an offer. The power and feeling of joining such a community must be great. I was not offered bribes, but then what’s a bribe? the promise of eternal life?

  2. Ilíon Says:

    Christians do charity for the sake of charity.

    That some non-Christians convert (or “convert”) to Christianity thinking that to be a means to get a bigger piece of the pie may be human nature. But so what? What does that have to do with Christianity? OR with charity?

    But, let us suppose that some Christian charities — or even all Christian charities — are but bribes to win converts.

    Again … especially for the ‘atheists’ … we must ask: so what? The implication behind this (false!) accusation is that it is better to let starving people starve (if feeding the starving is the work the charity does) than to “bribe” them with food to join one’s religion.

    I wonder whether these people ever stop to *think* about the implications of their wild accusations against Christianity. I’ve just pointed out a practical implication, above.

    Here’s another practical implication: were it really true that Christian charities amongst the Indians were bribes, the Hindus could *easily* diffuse the bribe by just doing the damned charity themselves! But they don’t; they’d rather outlaw the Christian charities … and let’s be honest, sometimes kill the Christians.

    Here are some metaphysical implications of this sort of accusation: it *matters* whether people are or are not Christians; there is *more* to a human’s existance than eating and … voiding.

  3. Rich Says:

    Problem is you can’t disentangle the two, unless you want to be a secular giver. An I don’t think altruism in its purest form is possible. If you gain a happy feeling, satisfaction, it isn’t. Something motivated the act, and that is probably linked to a reward of sorts.

    From a pragmatic standpoint, I’ll take the lesser of two evils. I have donated to religious charities myself. But the giving and the evangelizing remain at least implicitly entangled.

  4. JOR Says:

    “An I don’t think altruism in its purest form is possible. If you gain a happy feeling, satisfaction, it isn’t. Something motivated the act, and that is probably linked to a reward of sorts.”

    I agree that altruism, in its purest form, is impossible; but that’s only because altruism, in its purest form, is nonsensical (because people can’t act on motives they don’t have). But hedonism also errs; for instance, it’s probably not true that those who derive a ‘happy feeling’ from the practice of charitable giving, do it for that reason; rather, they derive a ‘happy feeling’ from the practice of charitable giving because they think they’re doing a good thing. Now it’s still true that they’re doing this thing because of motives they themselves possess (they think it’s good and they want to do good), so they’re not being altruistic, in the purest sense of the word. But they’re not doing it for a ‘reward’ – be it psychic or material – either, or rather, they’re not pursuing it as a mere instrument to satisfaction.

  5. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Ayn Rand once warned in her tireless cynicism that is matched only by the other cynical atheists activist (she was one, just not an ACTIVIST about this!) of the three “F” words that she felt are destroying our world.




    Hopefully these is still positive room for the first. OF course she meant by this the realm of “mysticism” of which BR reminds us already kind of surrounds many alternative visions of atheist thought….

    THIS then is the best libertarian mode (seeing that JOR is back in action and waiting for this!) for those libertarians who are Christian of one fold or another.

    Better to have faith distributed by true mercy and aid and comfort than “faith” via government power by FORCE.

    A situation that should appeal to all except the most radical Marxians who want to both end religion and replace aid with government prowess only.

    Which is almost always failure, but that’s another issue…..

  6. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    If you gain a happy feeling, satisfaction, it isn’t.

    Rich I know what you’re saying here and NO–you should not do these things JUST for that kind of reason. It is true that Christ warned the Pharisees about their hypocirsy and publically LOUD do-gooding and loud prayers being all holy. We can give and secret and please God the better.

    Having said that, there is a difference in the dangerous pride of saying

    “oh look at me–see how good I am”, vs. a quiet sense of satisfaction about helping other people in need.

    Nothing wrong with that, and in fact I think it could motivate people just as it did yourself, right?

    Just like if you have a ladyfriend, Rich, and make her happy with flowers or candy or just getting her rattletrap car fixed as a kind gesture and not expect any sparks later that night, you’ll still get a good feeling for the efforts. Or you should. I don’t think all aid is understood to be just some kind of ratiocentric pragmatism about helping others helps the gene pool.

  7. Rich Says:

    “oh look at me–see how good I am”, vs. a quiet sense of satisfaction about helping other people in need.

    Agree with you in that. And I’m not saying that these are noble persuits. But pure, selfless giving is not accesible to us – but then perhaps it’s a positive/blessing (take your pick) that we feel good when we do good things.

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys. Yeah, I admit those who give to charity do get a sense of satisfaction from doing so. However, while that’s part of the motive for giving, it’s not the whole reason. People give to charity or do voluntary work because they believe that what they’re doing is right, not just because they’d feel bad if they didn’t support it. And I have to say that I think it’s entirely right that people should feel good when they give or support a charity. Kant’s belief that people should act altruistically solely from a sense of duty seems joyless to me. It seems right to me that altruism, as a manifestation of good, or the Good, should be a source of pleasure, just as beauty, another aspect of the Good, is a source of pleasure, rather than a coldly critical academic aesthetic appreciation.

  9. JOR Says:

    “Kant’s belief that people should act altruistically solely from a sense of duty seems joyless to me.”

    Well, I’m not a Kantian but I notice most people are somewhat unfair to Kant on this point. He did say that people should cultivate their characters such that they take pleasure in doing good; he just didn’t think that such emotional satisfaction should become the reason we do good.

  10. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Kant’s belief that people should act altruistically solely from a sense of duty seems joyless to me. It seems right to me that altruism, as a manifestation of good, or the Good, should be a source of pleasure, just as beauty, another aspect of the Good, is a source of pleasure, rather than a coldly critical academic aesthetic appreciation.

    Well BR I certainly agree in principle. But not all duty is pleasant. And at first perhaps just as we have the tiresome duties of kitchen and home and general maintenance of our own lives it could be tiresome elsewhere to service other people’s needs. But then I guess the heart has to be in the right place as well, dosen’t it?

    I have experienced myself, from my own family, the trials of caring for a gravely sick parent who had to be waited on hand and foot. Not darwinian inpu there, mind you. Mom was 68. No more kids forthcoming. And yet there we were and even had to readjust finances and help her with room and board and medical bills and fight off her other relatives lawyers who tried to kick her out of her life estate by some clever manuevering.

    Perhaps that’s why we here in the states (and to a larger degree places like the Netherlands, where legal for years) so much talk about pulling the plug early for “mercy” sake (or maybe a good night’s sleep—LOL)—whether grandma wants to go to the great beyond…….or not…….


    It gets old, and can strain new marriages with young kids (like mine was). Not for the faint of heart. Speaking of which, those who truly get either satisfaction from helping others in the true hellholes of the planet or just made of stern nerves–they have my every blessing and sympathy.

    I suppose it only makes sense to get a sense of satisfaction from this kind of work. Maybe BR is right and that a sense of duty is not quite enough, though a noble thing to say?

  11. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for that little bit of info on Kant, JOR – I wasn’t aware of that.

    I can well appreciate your own predicament looking after your mother, Wakefield. My grandmother was seriously ill for a number of years, and had to be looked after by my mother. Now it’s fair to say that we didn’t have the problems you had. We didn’t have to worry particularly about medical treatment for her, and by the time Gran became ill my brother and I were no longer children. But it was still a strain.

    However, people have been looking after their elderly relatives since far back in human prehistory. One of the skeletons recovered from a Neanderthal grave in Israel or Syria was of a 45-year old man, severely handicapped with arthritis and with a withered arm. The archaeologists who excavated the grave noted that he would have required a lot of care from the other members of the tribe or band. Yet he was clearly looked after, and buried with reverence. Flowers had been placed in the grave, and if memory serves me correctly, he and the grave had been sprinkled with red ochre. This strongly suggests that the Neanderthals had a belief in the afterlife, symbolic thought and looked after respected elderly relatives. The scientists speculated that it was because he had experience that was valuable to their survival. I’ve no doubt that’s true. In traditional societies the elderly are respected for their experience and wisdom. It could, however, be also because he was loved because he was someone’s father or uncle, and so valued for who he was, not just the knowledge he held. In this instance, one could make out a case that the advocates of euthanasia have a far colder attitude to human life than the Neanderthals.

    Anyway, I entirely agree with you, Wakefield, that those working for others in some of the real hellholes in the world rightly deserve the utmost respect. And I think that while many do it because they enjoy doing good, I also think that in some cases there is a sense of duty involved as well: people are doing it, because it is right, and they feel compelled to stand up for what is right, rather than ignore the problem. There’s a sense of satisfaction there and duty, but it seems to go beyond – sometimes – a purely disinterested conception of duty. I think it’s more the case that people care, and often care passionately, about what is right.

  12. beastrabban Says:

    It seems a paradoxical thing to say, but I think that some people engaged in charity work or other altruistic moral activity may do so out of a sense of duty, but that duty is something that is grounded in their emotions as well as their intellect. It affects the whole person, and goes beyond mere intellectual assent to correcting a perceived problem. Stating that one is doing so out of duty is a noble thing to say, because people don’t work for charities for self-interest, though personal motivations may be involved. Indeed, sometimes they’re acting against their best interests. But they do it because they care passionately about others, and this emotional element may be implied by their comments on doing it from a sense of duty. So perhaps the two attitudes to altruism aren’t quite diametrically opposed.

  13. JOR Says:

    Well, according to Aristotle, our emotions and our intellect are both parts of our rational nature. Neatly transcends the dilemma faced by Stoics/deontologists and sentimentalists alike.

  14. beastrabban Says:

    Yeah, I can appreciate the sense in that, JOR. I’ve got a feeling Aristotle’s right.

  15. Feyd Says:

    Very interesting as ever Beast. When I used to do voluntary work with drug users I was open about my faith, think I helped encourage some of them to start praying. It surely has to be a good thing if we can introduce folk to Christ at the same time as helping them materially or emotionally. It would be totally wrong to make any help offered conditional on the recipients showing an interest in religion, but if they do so much the better.

  16. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the reply, Feyd, and kudos for your voluntary work with drug users. It’s not something I could do, and I respect those who can. Regarding the issue of encouraging people in need to take an interest in religion, while I share your opinion it’s also something you have to be careful with. It can look like preying on people when they’re most vulnerable, which is something that needs to be avoided. On the other hand, I have had people tell me how much they’ve appreciated a word of religious comfort when they’ve suffered a medical crisis when it’s been offered.

    A few years ago there was a bit of controversy over here when it was suggested that the Gideon Bibles in Britain’s NHS hospitals should be removed and made available only on request on the pretext that they were health hazards. I ended up arguing against this on the Net with some very committed atheists. I don’t think I made much headway with them, but afterwards one of the others people on that particular forum posted a very interested message of support.

    A few years ago she had lost a child after a serious illness. The hospital in which the child had been treated, although now part of Britain’s NHS, had originally been a Roman Catholic institution, and Catholic clergy were still very much part of the hospital scene, though they were never intrusive. After the loss of her child, one of the priests asked if there was anything he could do for her, and spent a little time with her giving a few words of comfort. She told me how much that had helped her in her grief and loss. She had not found the religious element in the hospital intrusive or offensive, and appreciated the priest taking the time to help her without pushing religion on her.

    It was really encouraging reading this lady’s experience, and it did show that religious help is appreciated by people who may not otherwise have much contact with the Church.

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