“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: