Opinion: The vital role of faith-based charities

Thanks to a gaggle of punitive prelates, inciting imams and other quarrelsome clerics, religion is often blamed for wars, conflicts and a range of social ills. Not subsequently, though perhaps relatedly, there are those that question the public benefit of religion, too, and my last column about religion and charity was just such a secularist challenge. Yet to think honestly through an issue, one must often be willing to address uncertainties - perhaps even to be self-contradictory.

Early in the summer, research consultancy Caritas Data and the Cass Business School released a report, Charity Monitor 2008, which found that faith-based charities claimed the second-largest share of fundraised income in 2006/07. Take Cancer Research UK out of the equation, and faith-based charities attract more fundraising than any other sub-sector - international groups, social care, animals, arts and culture, or anything else.

For a start, this may serve to remind us that the very notion of charity has its roots in religion. For Muslims, say, there is zakat, the tax originally imposed by Muhammad on the wealthy members of the community, primarily to help the poor. For Jews, likewise, there's the concept of alms giving and tithing, shared also by Christians; and the New Testament is full of expressions of God's love and compassion for the poor, the most significant, perhaps, being the story of the good Samaritan.

The scale of fundraising for religious groups also reminds us that we're not in a post-religious age, but a multicultural society. Religion unites and divides, but if there has recently been a recrudescence of reactionary conservatism across religions, there has also been a revival of what rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called "the humanising power of faith". At every level of society, demonstrating a commitment to social justice, we find faith groups showing that giving is an essential part of human dignity.

Indeed, while giving figures elsewhere were static or declining in 2006/07, they rose for religious causes, up by 1.5 per cent on the previous year. In much of our popular discourse we are scathing of religion, but non-believers should be as wary as believers of mob mentality: faith, it would seem, matters.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: nptseddon@hotmail.com.

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