“The Compassion Experience” and the Marketing of Religion

People defend faith, and specifically Christianity, by pointing out the fact that millions worldwide believe. Of course it’s a logical fallacy to say that something is true because many subscribe to it. Billions of people drink Coca-Cola and it may make them feel happy and sated, but does that mean it’s good for them? The same is true for faith. The popularity of religion, specifically Christianity, isn’t due to the veracity of its message but largely due to the way it elicits specific feeling in combination with impressive marketing. Thousands of years is a long time to develop memes that appeal to humans and to refine the system for delivering them.

One of the ways religion sells itself so successfully is by enmeshing morality and charity with faith, so that followers mistakenly believe they’re inseparable. This way, religion attracts believers by pulling heartstrings and appealing to human nature in a way that is actually independent of belief in any supernatural dogma. By tying religion to charity, the message can be disseminated widely and is elevated beyond reproach.

Photo by Tisha Berg
My family and I recently experienced this firsthand when we attended something called the Compassion Experience. It’s a marketing event for Compassion International, a Christian charity that employs what they dub the “one-on-one” model of giving. Donations from each individual go to sponsor a single child. The patron receives a photo of the child, a description of their life, and is encouraged to communicate with the recipient child via letters. We attended this event at my wife’s suggestion because she wanted to expose our relatively sheltered children to a bit of what extreme poverty looks and feels like. The Compassion Experience is immersive and impressively recreates the living conditions of the impoverished in great detail. We were able not only to see but actually step into the world of the suffering child, touch the trash strewn on the floor, sit on their tiny, wobbly cot, and step into well-worn shoes, all while listening through headphones to the child in whose home we were standing tell their story. True as that story may have been, it was a carefully scripted narrative designed to play to the audience. As a humanist, it all struck me as manipulative. We were given a hard sell that religion was the only true salvation for this child, a conclusion that couldn’t have been drawn by any objective person. The whole experience was designed to drive home a religious sales pitch to keep the faithful in step. As someone who’s not already a follower or potential convert, it struck me as ridiculous to see schoolbooks (particularly science texts) sitting alongside a greater abundance of Christian literature. It angered me to see pristine crosses hung above kitchen implements worn within an inch of worthlessness. So, why create this costly, intricately planned production? Why not just show the numbers and ask for help? Because, once again, the religious PR machine is well aware that cold statistics leave one dispassionate, but seeing a child's pain and hearing their voice in your own ear elicits emotions and opens wallets. As Mother Teresa said, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." This says a lot about her and Catholicism, but it also holds true for human nature, judging by the impressive number of people who selected photos of children to sponsor at the end of “the experience” we attended. My wife hadn’t realized that the Compassion Experience was a Christian event when she first saw it advertised. After reading the online FAQ and visiting the web page of the parent organization I realized it was a Christian organization with a clear missionary purpose. Even so, arriving at the location to see the slogan “Releasing children from poverty in Jesus’s name” somehow felt deceptive. My wife and I are committed to exposing our children to others’ beliefs both to teach respect and as an opportunity to better explain our own personal beliefs. Since this was a chance to also expose them vicariously to the state of real poverty in the world, we’d agreed to go. What we encountered was sensational, strongly focused on the Christian message and on making the “success” of the sponsored child appear dependent on prayer and acceptance of Jesus. The actual aid they are providing, however, has absolutely nothing to do with the religious message. When a child is sick, they provide healthcare. When a child needs food, they feed them. They do teach some practical knowledge, but it is interspersed with a greater abundance of Christian messages. The help the children are getting could, and arguably should, be given completely independent of religion. Yet, throughout the experience, the propagandist message was repeated regularly; their situation only improved after and because they prayed and accepted Jesus. In fairness, their website stated that they did not require people to believe or convert, but there was no doubt it was quite aggressively their goal. “Most important of all,” one of the descriptive handouts read, “your sponsored child will hear about Jesus Christ and be encouraged to develop a lifelong relationship with God.” Sponsors’ communication with children is monitored, and anything that doesn’t fit with Christian “values” is prohibited. This includes promoting a homosexual lifestyle or, I assume, offering proper family planning education and information about reproductive care services that falls out of line with strict Christian conservatism. To confirm this, I called Compassion International to ask about participating in the program and told the operator that I was in a homosexual relationship. I was told that they would let me sponsor a child, but since they didn’t allow any correspondence that contradicts the Bible's teachings, all photos and items with any reference to me as part of a homosexual couple would be censored. As for the people at the experience, visitors and employees alike, it was very clear that their hearts were in the right place. These folks really wanted to help. And while Charity Navigator gives the financial make-up and accountability of Compassion International a very high rating, it doesn’t measures what matters most—its effectiveness. Charity is simply not effective when there’s an ulterior motive attached. Just as the Bible puts belief in God before even the most basic moral dictum, this charity promotes teaching of the Gospel over any legitimate assistance. Here is another excerpt from their website:

The children Compassion serves receive, among other things: the opportunity to hear the Gospel and learn about Jesus; regular Christian training; educational opportunities and help; health care, hygiene training and supplementary food if necessary; a caring and safe Christian environment to grow in self-confidence and social skills; personal attention, guidance and love.

As you can read, Christianity comes before any substantive aid. Further, all of the services are offered exclusively by the Christian church in the various countries. So, your money is not going so much to sponsor a single child but to bolster the infrastructure of the Christian church worldwide. Is giving via a Christian one-on-one charity really bad if, ultimately, children are even somewhat helped? Here are just a few of the reasons it is.
  • It only helps those children who are sponsored, leaving others to fend for themselves.
  • It can give parents a feeling of disgrace that they cannot provide for their families or frustration that only certain of their children get the aid.
  • The child can come to feel “less than” and dependent on their sponsors or the church.
  • Children can be given possibly unreasonable, impractical or improper expectations like someday they too can have a giant mansion and a swimming pool like their sponsor.
  • It’s incredibly disrespectful of other cultures. It may not require it, but it pressures those in need to give up their own belief system and profess Christian faith, honestly or not. It serves to isolate those being helped from the greater population who may have another faith or none at all.
  • It does nothing to fight, and even promotes, homophobia. It could prevent access to proper family planning and reproductive health education and services, the main factor in ending the cycle of poverty.
  • The program can cultivate or exacerbate racism by placing the needy child, more often a person of color in the role of “lesser” and the mostly white first-world sponsor in the role of “savior.”
  • It diverts money from macro solutions to provide better education, healthcare, and access to food and clean water that would greater serve the entire population.
  • Because it does not address larger societal issues, it leaves the sponsored children with a bit of a leg up in a still broken society that often does them little ultimate good.
[caption id="attachment_15768" align="alignright" width="300"]Walking through the Compassion Project event (photo by Tisha Berg) Walking through the Compassion Project event (photo by Tisha Berg)[/caption] The Compassion Experience, promoted as a holistic solution to child poverty, is ultimately a Christian public relations and inculcation conduit that is far less effective as a charity than others that are free from ulterior motives. Poverty is a serious issue requiring effective solutions. A charity’s focus should be first and foremost aiding those in need, not confirming their own faith or assuaging guilt. If one truly wants to help those less fortunate, there are a wealth of respectable secular organizations like UNICEF, Amnesty International and Oxfam. If your desire is specifically to give through a religious organization, the Foundation Beyond Belief funds multiple effective charities based in all five major world religions, the criteria being that they are non-proselytizing. In the car ride home, as I started in on my opinion, my wife quickly cut me off. She, rightfully, wanted to hear what our daughters thought first without bias. Full disclosure—we have talked about humanism and religion in general with them and they were certainly aware that I was uncomfortable during the experience. However, their first reaction was about the impressive recreation. Their next was to question why we weren’t sponsoring a child. So, their take away was completely devoid of any awareness of the religious message. They felt compassion for children worse off than them and wanted to help. Period. After that, we explained how there are more effective ways, we talked about some of the things I’ve mentioned here, reminded them of charitable activities we already do regularly and promised to work with them to do even more. But the organization counts on reactions like our daughters’, swaying people emotionally to give and then using the money to indoctrinate. Religion has figured out that Hume was more prescient than Plato—that the charioteer that is human reason is often less in control of the dark horse of emotion and indeed more the slave of the passions. Closer examination, farther removed from emotional connection, quickly reveals the problems with organizations like Compassion International. But, offering these criticisms is where it gets tricky because, although they're not direct criticisms of the individuals involved, or their intentions, or of charity in general, inevitably that’s how they come off. In order to market their message, religious organizations count on the fact that it’s tough to argue against charity.Tags:
  • psrieth

    This is a good argument against protestantism or the “privatization of religion”. The Catholic and Orthodox churches are the ones with the 1000+ year institutional history which make it harder for this kind of thing to happen.

    By way of comparisson, my family member went to volunteer in a Catholic mission in Zimbabwe and we also shipped 1 ton of t-shirts there (the hyperinflation has destroyed the currency and a t-shirt can be used to buy animals for food). My family member spent over one year there . Priests who lead these kinds of missions are sometimes murdered.

    The real problem with American evangelical Christianity as I see it is its focus on individualism and tendency to let anybody “set up a Christian church”. Of course I believe the individual conscience should be free and certainly the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have their share of problems, but Americans judge Christianity largely in the context of a provincial American experience .

    Too look at the history of the Church as it existed in Ethiopia throughout its international scope at present is to really see Christianity as it exists in the world amongst humanity – for better or worse .

    To look at Christianity through the very brief experience of a microscopic portion of humanity is to miss the big picture and risks provincialism.

    It’s like the “intelligent design debate” which inexplicably rages in America for no good reason since the 2 billion Catholics on Earth abide by Church teaching which fully accepts Darwin and rejects “creationism” and “design”. Only in America , whose Christians lack the virtue of obedience and respect for scientific and Church elites, continues this rather silly debate.

    I posit then that the key to the problem you illustrate is American individualism as Tocqueville criticized it, not Christianity as such.

    Oh – and as a point of interest, the person volunteering was a trained medical professional whose year in Zimbabwe was spent working to help the sick in a hospital. As you might imagine – there is no room for putting prostelizing first under such conditions . Ideally, every good Christian recognizes that the best way to teach the principles of faith are by example. Faith itself cannot be transmitted at all. It is a gift. The whole point of faith is that it motivates those who have it, it is not something we are supposed to “push” on others – and especially not on those who are needy .

    • Toonerific

      We are all limited by our own spheres of existence. The marketing of religion as it has developed throughout history and within other branches of Christianity is certainly complex, I agree. I don’t, however, agree that faith is not transmitted. It absolutely is. Children are inculcated from birth. Nobody is born a Christian. And Christianity, as a missionary religion, actively pushes. Although non-proselytizing religious charities certainly do good, as I mentioned, the principles of faith are universal principles and are independent of faith. I agree that American evangelical Christianity is in large part a result of our unique individualism and that is quite an interesting idea to investigate further for another article. I also agree that to argue creationism or intelligent design is lending it a consideration it does not deserve. However, I think other Catholics will disagree with you about Darwin. How can you reconcile the Catholic belief in the divine, the holy trinity and biblical authority with science? How can you compare church and scientific elites? Humanism leads us away from Tocqueville’s crass and selfish individualism which is undoubtedly ubiquitous in America, and toward a respect for the individual that puts others’ needs before our own and before any church’s. Thank you for your comments.

    • Gary Whittenberger

      “Faith itself cannot be transmitted at all. It is a gift.” That is a Christian trope with no validity at all as far as I am concerned.

      Faith is a bad way of considering evidence. People can and do teach faith. When it is taught and accepted, it is transmitted. “Pushing” is just one way of influence, and there are many others.

    • AlcyoneSong

      Wait a second, you say the Catholic Church “accepts” Darwinism? I call bullshit. I also call bullshit on the claim that the church always taking a scientific stand. Gallelo can testify along with many others that the church led the persecution of anyone who dared to challenge their status quo. All religion is a creation of man, so all religion is subject to corruption by default.

      Stop saying that just because a religion is older it is exempt from being wrong or is more correct. Rather, religion evolves because man evolves.

      • psrieth

        I’m not exactly sure how to respond to this . Pope John Paul II explicitly acknowledged the validity of the theory of evolution and for every Galileo there were and are countless scientists and men and women of learning in the Church who contributed to science and continue to do so. Read Tielhard de Chardin, to name one. Or listen to George Coyne in his very delightful conversation with Richard Dawkins. You make very broad claims and I certainly don’t intend to defend the Catholic Church in all of its works, nor deny that it was and may still be the cause of wrong-doing. Institutionally, the structure of the Church is, in my opinion, more conducive to change for the better balanced with maintaining a universal communion. People are free to disagree since this is a religious question , so very personal. But regarding evolution , it is simply a fact that the Church accepts that the theory of Darwinian evolution is the best we have for explaining the origins of the universe and our species. Only protestants and diehards cling to theories which fly in the face of scientific findings.

  • Jack Pedigo

    Long ago I became a part of “Children International”. I did not realize the influence of religion in this program (at the time I did not care). I sponsored a child in the Philippines and his family had 4 other children. Later an accident with the father left him unable to work. Some time later the mother became pregnant. The organization refused any mention, no matter how subtle, of family planning. At this time I realized the self-defeatedness of the program. But of course that is not important to the religiously motivated. Their purpose is to work toward their own perceived salvation no matter the impact on others.

    • Toonerific

      Very good points. It sounds like your heart was in the right place. It is sad that the church actively works against proper family planning, one of the most effective ways to end cycles of poverty. I hope we, as a human race, can look more at real solutions to our problems, with true consideration for impact on others, and unfettered by fear of damnation or anything else. Thank you for your comment.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    You said “Charity is simply not effective when there’s an ulterior motive attached.” I think that is stretching the truth. It is important to ask the question: This particular charity is how effective in doing what?

    I view these Christian charities as a mixed bag — presenting good things along with, or contingent on, presenting bad things. For example, they might give food (a good thing) along with Christian propaganda (a bad thing). They might not give what is very important — sex education, contraceptives, etc.

    When a give to charity I try to avoid all those which mix in religion.