Jesus Christ told his disciples that, in bestowing alms, they were not even to let their left hand know what their right hand did. But this self-sacrificing method has not been generally approved, and comparatively few Christians "do good by stealth and blush to find it fame." They more often "do good for fame and publish it by stealth." Nay more, their "charity" is actually their boast in their controversies with "infidels." Look at our hospitals, they say; look at our orphanages, look at our almshouses, look at our soup-kitchens. It is a wonder they do not boast of their asylums, but perhaps they think it would invite the retort that they not only build them but fill them. Such boasting, however, is utterly absurd from every point of view. Since the world was in any degree civilised it has never lacked some kind of benevolent institutions. It is absolutely certain that hospitals are not of Christian origin; and there is hardly a country in the world, with any pretension to rank above barbarians, in which some species of provision is not made by the rich for the necessities of the poor. Every Mohammedan, for instance, is required by his religion to devote a tenth of his income to charity; whereas the Christian system of tithes is entirely for the profit and aggrandisement of the clergy.
Still more ridiculous, if possible, is the Christian cry, "Where are your Freethought hospitals, almshouses, and orphanages?" Freethought is a poor, struggling cause; its adherents are comparatively few and scattered; it has no endowments to lessen the current cost of its propaganda; and it is unable to exact subscriptions by the orthodox method of boycotting, or to acquire them in return for a good advertisement. Still, the Freethought party does manage to relieve its necessitous members; and the Freethinkers' Benevolent Fund is not only well supported, in excess of all demands, but is probably the only Fund which is administered without a single farthing of expense. Besides this, Freethinkers support ordinary local charities, when deserving, just like other people; although frequently, as in the case of almost every hospital, religion is forced on the recipients of such charity, whether they wish it or not, and religious tests are maintained in the administration.
As a rule, however, Freethinkers are not inclined to attach so much importance as Christians to organised almsgiving. At the best it is but a clumsy way of alleviating the worst effects of social disease. The Freethinker attaches more importance to the study of causes. He is like the true health reformer who believes a great deal more in exercise, fresh air, and wholesome diet, than in physic. For this reason Freethinkers are generally students of social and political questions. They are Radicals in the philosophical sense of the word; that is, they recognise that real, lasting improvement can only be achieved by dealing with the causes of poverty and degradation. Many Christians, on the other hand, thoroughly believe that the poor will never cease out of the land; and they seem to regard these unfortunates as whetstones, provided by a beneficent providence, on which the wealthy may sharpen their benevolence.
Christian charity, even in its highest form, is infinitely less merciful than science; a truth which Mr. Cotter Morison enforces in the seventh chapter of his Service of Man. Sanitation, medical science, free trade, popular education, co-operation, and such agencies, have done tremendously more than religion to diminish evil and mitigate suffering. On the other hand, it is indisputable that much of our boasted charity is worse than wasted, as it tends to produce the very helplessness and pauperism that furnish it with objects of compassion.
Charity is very good in its way, but what we really want is justice. Let us go in for justice first, and when we have got that we shall see what remains for charity to do. Probably it will be found that unjust laws inflict a hundred times more misery than charity could ever alleviate. If that be the case, the most charitable man, after all, is he who devotes some of his time, thought, and energy to political and social reform. Good health for the next generation is more valuable than medicine for the diseases of the present generation.
Charity, also, in its largest sense, is far wider than almsgiving. It is a questionable charity which gives you a shilling if you are hard-up, and persecutes you if you think for yourself. Most of us do not require soup-tickets, but we do require civil treatment, respect for our independence, and smiling rather than frowning faces. The man who lifts me up from the road when I stumble, deserves my thanks; but I doubt the sincerity of his kindness if, when he learns that I honestly differ from him on the Atonement, he knocks me down again. Assisting people who agree with you, and wilfully injuring those who differ, savors less of charity than of zeal. You may be a very good Christian, but I venture to say you are a very bad man.
When Saladin died he ordered charities to be distributed to the poor, without distinction of Jew, Christian, or Mohammedan. Yet this brilliant ruler had to repel Christian attacks on his dominions, and to witness the most abominable cruelty wrought by the soldiers of the Cross. Where, in the annals of Christendom, shall we find such a noble example of true charity; of charity which overflows the petty barriers of creeds, and loses itself in the great ocean of humanity?