Saturday, November 18, 2006

Religion motivated millionaire "Secret Santa" to acts of charity (but not in the way you'd think)

CNN today has the story of 58-year-old Larry Stewart, a communications industry tycoon who's been secretly handing out gifts of cash to random strangers during the holiday season. He's been known as the "Secret Santa," and has outed himself because he's sick with cancer and wanted folks to know who he was and what he's done in the hopes of inspiring further acts of random kindness.

Stewart certainly seems a swell chap, though one could debate the wisdom*, if not the unimpeachable altruism, of walking around handing out Benjamins to anyone and everyone. But what I found interesting about the story was this little tidbit, which is another piece of ammo you can whip out the next time some Christian tells you you have to be Christian to be moral and treat people kindly. Note: the article doesn't specifically say Stewart is non-religious himself, but it does say this:

[Poverty] was a feeling he came to know in the early 70s when he was living out of his yellow Datsun 510. Hungry and tired, Stewart mustered the nerve to approach a woman at a church and ask for help.

The woman told him the person who could help was gone for the day, and Stewart would have to come back the next day.

"As I turned around, I knew I would never do that again," Stewart said.

So basically, when Stewart was young and broke, he went to a church, because we're all programmed to think that churches are places of charity that will eagerly help the unfortunate. And he got told to piss off. Oh sure, sure, the woman might have sincerely meant for him to come back the next day, and he would indeed receive help. But odds are she was giving him a politely worded brushoff after sizing him up and categorizing him as "useless, jobless loser". And so Stewart went away, vowing never to be like the person he met at the church.

Now I'll grant some folks may interpret the story a little differently. They might say that Stewart left the situation embarrassed at having asked for charity in the first place, and determined to get himself together and succeed on his own. But there's no indication Stewart had no motivation to do that in the first place; he was simply caught in a bad patch in life, as so many people are, and was looking for a temporary lift to tide him over. If the woman at the church had generously given him a donation, would he have been less likely to go on to make his fortune in cable and telecom businesses? I don't think so. In life there are driven, goal-oriented people and there are ones who aren't. The ones who are driven and motivated are more likely to make it to some degree in life, period, though both are equally likely to have hard times when starting out. I suspect that Stewart's describing a bit of resentment and disappointment at the woman's treatment of him. And besides, if Stewart were simply embarrassed at himself for asking for charity, he'd hardly be likely to be so sympathetic to others needing it after he'd become a self-made man, that he'd make a hobby of handing out hundred-dollar bills every year.

Stewart didn't need the payoff of a godly reward to motivate him to bring a little light into people's lives. He just did it to see the smiles on their faces and to know he'd helped another human being. And his cash handouts certainly had a much more beneficial, tangible effect on the lives of the people he helped than any Christian who'd have told those people, "I'll pray for you!"

* — I won't give panhandlers on street corners money, for instance, though I have on occasion given them food or drink. In randomly giving away cash, you may be unwittingly funding someone's habit. And in the case of panhandlers that's true more often than not.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a little tidbit that I noticed. Last week, ABC news ran a John Stossel special about charitable giving. One of the points raised was that charitable giving is highly correlated with religiousness (religiosity?) - the more religious a person is, the more likely he is generous to charities. Which I don't doubt.

    But the show spent a lot of time talking about how many very rich people are now giving their money to philanthropic organizations, or creating those organizations, while they're still alive.

    The three biggest givers? Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Ted Turner. See any thing these three have in common, besides being stinkin' rich?

    They're all three atheists.


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