God’s welfare dilemma

Atheism flourishes with economic satisfaction, while religion often thrives when people are undereducated and desperate.

In a study of 137 countries, atheism was generally more widespread in those with well-developed welfare programs. I’m not surprised. Countries that provide universal health care and education, along with adequate social safety nets, are likely to have citizens who feel more secure and in control of their own lives. Atheism flourishes with economic satisfaction, while religion often thrives when people are undereducated and desperate.

Welfare battles in the U.S. usually focus on government social safety net programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance and Medicaid. Conservatives complain that the government transfers their hard-earned tax money to people allegedly unwilling to work, and many claim we should leave it to the church rather than the state to assist the truly needy. So it’s no coincidence that our poorest states are mainly in the Bible Belt.

Most Americans will agree that work should be available for everyone, that we should encourage self-reliance, and that we should discourage potentially productive citizens from living entirely off government programs for their entire lives. But, as usual, the God is in the details.

Speaking of God, or the lack thereof, Israel is one of the most secular countries in the world and it provides significant welfare benefits to its citizens. So why do I and probably all other atheists think there is a major flaw in the Israeli welfare system? The problem started in 1949, when the first chief rabbi of Israel persuaded Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to exempt a very limited number of ultra-Orthodox students from military service so they could study full time in yeshivas. The rationale was that tens of thousands of students in Europe had been wiped out during the Holocaust, and some of the best surviving scholars should be released from military obligations and given financial assistance in order to continue their religious studies.

That temporary solution became permanent, and the original handful of full-time students grew to 60,000 in 2012. Even the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) acknowledge that not all are fine scholars, but they insist on continued military exemptions and generous taxpayer subsidies for all who wish to devote their lives to Torah study. As a consequence, graduates from these religious schools have received the equivalent of zero to four years of secular education, while secular work force participation among Haredi men is only about 40 percent. These Haredim currently make up about nine percent of the population, but may receive half the country’s total welfare payments. To make matters worse, the situation is rapidly becoming even more unsustainable because of astronomical fertility rates in these impoverished and ghettoized religious communities, while the more affluent Israeli secular Jews aren’t bound by a “be fruitful and multiply” theology.

Nonetheless, some of the “liberals” in the ultra-Orthodox community are attempting to share the burden of citizenship, but not without strong opposition from their peers. Haredi who volunteer for military service are often verbally abused, spit on and humiliated while walking through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

Americans largely agree we should support Israel, our major ally in the Middle East, but that Israeli policies should not be above criticism. I wonder what the American religious right, which seems to offer the most unequivocal support for Israel (often more than for American citizens), would say if, in this country, able-bodied individuals studying religion and refusing to work were guaranteed taxpayer support and urged to have as many children as possible who would also be encouraged to live off life-long welfare subsidies? Conservatives are the loudest to complain about foreign aid in general, except when it comes to aid for Israel.

Fortunately, quite a few Haredi are acquiring the necessary skills to be productive members of Israeli society, perhaps because there isn’t an abundance of jobs for Torah scholars. Some are even slowly becoming familiar with modern technology, just as I am.

I recently learned, to my surprise, that I have a kosher telephone, “kosher” because it cannot access the Internet. I justify my Luddite tendencies not with theology but with refusal to be a slave to the Internet. I’m not proud of my ignorance, though, and I’m gradually entering the twenty-first century. With initial assistance from friends, I’m now able to manage my own Web site, which includes my Washington Post blogs. My next goal is to acquire the skills to use a non-kosher telephone. I hear they are a lot smarter.

Image courtesy of Paul Sableman.

Herb Silverman
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  • jonesm2

    No need to get a smart phone just yet, Herb. They are more trouble than they are worth.

  • Openletter2004

    “Speaking of God, or the lack thereof, Israel is one of the most secular countries in the world and it provides significant welfare benefits to its citizens.”

    Any country that pays ANY of it’s people to do nothing but study “holy books”, pays some of those who did nothing but study holy books to go around doing “religious” inspections of restaurants, and harassing merchants because of the displays and books, and ALLOWS it’s overly religious to harass women and girls on public streets and transportation is NOT SECULAR..

    Atheism and secular humanism do not reject helping those who cannot help themselves. At the same time there is a large and growing “christian” population that believes that Jesus would be a Marxist redistributionist were he walking the Earth today. Even the “conservative christians” think GOVERNMENT should force other people to take care of those who cannot care for themselves. They (and the non-orthodox Jews) do this in spite of “GOD’s” clear instructions in Deuteronomy 23 to shun and ostracize the physically disabled.

    Even Jesus supposedly said that “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” so a societal expectation that those who can work should work isn’t a sign of uncaring neglect or indifference.

    Mr. Slverman clearly doesn’t understand “christainity”. All those “conservatives” who also claim to be “christian” want the government to give them the money so they can decide, based on religious grounds, who should get the welfare. The goal of these “christacrats” is to use tax money to proselytize and punish.

    They want the same power here in America that the Ultra Orthodox have in non-secular Israel.

  • h5r2

    Israel is a country where the majority of its citizens are secular, unlike the U.S. They have open atheists in the Knesset. Unfortunately, they have a powerful ultra-Orthodox group that has inordinate power. I hope that is changing.

  • Rongoklunk

    Very boring article. I’ve read many good ones by Herb, but this one is boring. Wasted 5 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.

  • WmarkW

    Herb’s caught in the same conundrum Susan Jacoby was, that they want to advocate an Age of Reason, but “reason” to them means liberal political positions. Rather than address a significant question about the anti-motivating effect that welfare has in ghettos or trailer parks, he wants to talk about a purely religious application in a small foreign country.

  • SimonTemplar

    “Atheism flourishes with economic satisfaction, while religion often thrives when people are undereducated and desperate.”–Silverman

    Yet another pathetic version of the “atheism=smart, religion=dumb” meme.

    ______________________

    “Conservatives complain that the government transfers their hard-earned tax money to people allegedly unwilling to work, and many claim we should leave it to the church rather than the state to assist the truly needy. So it’s no coincidence that our poorest states are mainly in the Bible Belt.”–Silverman

    Yet overly simplistic, factually vacant comments like that actually call into question the whole “atheism=smart, religion=dumb” presupposition.

    _________________________

    “…there is a major flaw in the Israeli welfare system? The problem started in 1949, when the first chief rabbi of Israel persuaded Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to exempt a very limited number of ultra-Orthodox students from military service so they could study full time in yeshivas.”–Silverman

    and

    “I wonder what the American religious right, which seems to offer the most unequivocal support for Israel (often more than for American citizens), would say if, in this country, able-bodied individuals studying religion and refusing to work were guaranteed taxpayer support and urged to have as many children as possible who would also be encouraged to live off life-long welfare subsidies?”–Silverman

    You actually make a good argument for the idea that those who live off of government subsidies should have to provide mandatory military service. Though I suspect you did not intend to make such an argument.

    Such is the danger of not thoroughly thinking through the logic of your position.

  • 3vandrum

    “In a study of 137 countries, atheism was generally more widespread in those with well-developed welfare programs” This confirms that atheists are also compassionate people, may be more than believers.
    Israel is secular but not atheistic country

  • SimonTemplar

    Most religions tend to have teachings which support a work ethic. This is true of Christianity. Take care of the poor, yes. But encourage them to better themselves (Hinduism not so much, caste system and all that).

    Social welfare style policies can also be found in religion, including in the Old Testament. The slavery system that existed at that time was a sort of social welfare. It was a way for a person to work to earn their keep in society. But it was temporary. The slavery was to last 6 years after which time the slave was to be set free unless they chose to be a bond-servant for life. One could also sign their property over to a debtor for 6 years, after which time it was to be returned to the original owner.

    There are obvious downsides to social welfare programs which do not encourage participants to improve their situation, problems which the author chooses to ignore. We have seen this negative side of welfare play out in cities across America. So if it is true that welfare is more widespread in generally atheistic cultures, it is also true that the social problems associated with welfare also are widespread in those same cultures, unless some of the atheists were smart enough to follow the Bible’s lead and provide for ways for welfare participants to better their prospects.

  • SimonTemplar

    There are religious people from all walks of life. There are even religious college professors, scientists, economists, and the list goes on. There are also very wealthy people who are not well educated and well educated people who are not wealthy. It is absurd to make a link between faith and education. I believe you can do so only on the most superficial basis and by ignoring other important factors.

    However, the more wealthy or successful or self reliant someone is, the more likely they are to believe they have no need for faith in God. If any modern sociologists or blogger thinks that this is something new they should read Matthew 19:23.

  • Crazy Okie

    In what universe is welfare considered economic satisfaction? Europe has the largest and most generous social welfare programs in the world, all the universal healthcare & education that Dr. Silverman thinks are so so wonderful. Europe has probably the highest percentage of atheists as well. Yet they have rampant unemployment and their economies and government are collapsing under the weight of their debt. Considering the rioting in Greece, Spain, etc… are the European people “satisfied”?

  • pelicanwatchcb1

    Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and ultra-Christian conservatives in the USA provide abundant evidence of the kind of kind of self-defeating, contradictory, oxymoronic nonsense that derives from trying to build public policy on religious dogma.

  • Rongoklunk

    “Such is the danger of not thoroughly thinking through the logic of your position.”

    If you thoroughly thought through the logic of your position as a Christian you’d end up being an atheist. Because religion is an ancient belief from the days before knowledge. Making up gods is about the first thing our ancestors came up with, out of fear and ignorance. Over the eons they invented more than 3500 of them. They were clearly addicted to inventing gods because it gave them solace, and less fear of death and existence itself. And it continues today.
    Science shows that religion is not compatible with reality. Death is death for us as for all living things. And if the fact that some scientists believe in a god – put it down to childhood indoctrination, which is extremely difficult to overcome. Even the brilliant Carl Sagan was religious in his youth, and it took him years to overcome it. But as he said in later life, simply believing was not for him, because he wanted to “find out”, he wanted to “know”, not just to believe. Believing without evidence is silly. That’s why religious folks have faith, instead of expectations. Because it is so unlikely to be true.
    And 93% of members of The American Academy of Sciences do not believe in a God, you can look it up at Wikipedia.