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Why You Don't Need God to be Good: the Rise of Atheist Charities

Charitable organizations geared towards non-believers are growing.

"Good without God" has become a catch-phrase of the increasingly vocal atheist and freethinker movement -- from books to billboards, the non-religious are asserting the strength of their humanist ethics. As atheists emerge from the closet and stand up for themselves, one message they're bringing along is that charity is far from an inherent monopoly of the religious.

In his book "Who Really Cares," social scientist Arthur C. Brooks hypothesized a “gap in virtue” that might explain why he found religious people donate 25% more to charity than secular individuals. But Dale McGowan, who founded the Foundation Beyond Belief in 2010, didn't buy it. 

“I find the question of churchgoing really telling,” McGowan says. In place of a virtue gap between the religious and secular, he sees a structural advantage in the church system. The website for the Foundation Beyond Belief (FBB), which he launched in 2010, reads: “Call us crazy, but it just might have more to do with whether or not a shiny plate full of the donations of your friends and neighbors passes in front of you like clockwork, up to 52 times a year.” Atheists just need their organizations geared towards giving, not God.


Even Brooks admits that his findings don’t prove any connection between believing in God and an natural imperative to give. “If charity is indeed a learned behavior, it may be that houses of worship are only one means (albeit an especially efficacious one) to teach it. Secularists interested in increasing charitable giving and volunteering among their ranks might spend some effort thinking of alternative ways to foster these habits.” Today, the Foundation Beyond Belief and other groups have put plenty of effort into thinking of these “alternative ways.” And they have big plans for their future.


McGowan designed the FBB to operate on a monthly automatic donation model, gaining 1000 members and raising nearly a quarter million dollars in two years. And other successful online atheist charitable ventures have captured the mainstream media's interest, leading USA Today to write, “Atheists aim to change image of penny-pinching Scrooges.” The large Reddit atheist community raised over $200,000 for Doctors Without Borders in November, nearly crashing Reddit with the high traffic; FirstGiving, the online fundraising site they used, called it “one of the most successful grassroots fundraising efforts we’ve ever seen.” A Dallas/Ft. Worth Fellowship of Freethought (FoF), FBB’s 2010 and 2011 Partner of the Year, demonstrates the benefits of an in-person community. The Fellowship’s goal is to “create that sense of real intimate community, that is found, quite frankly, most often with churches and other religious communities,” says Executive Director Zach Moore. “Let’s do something like that, but not anything superstitious, supernatural, no appeals to authority.”


FoF holds a monthly gathering to talk about shared purpose, enjoying the sense of community. Moore identified three core values: providing “social support” and an “educational resource,” and participating in “charity and charitable outreach.” Their most successful fundraising project has been simply to hold a casual cocktail party and ask for donations, like one would for political candidates.


McGowan and Moore see the goal of their organizations as “focused, planned charitable giving,” explaining that atheists, freethinkers, and secular humanists already excel at helping during catastrophes, but that still adds up to less overall giving in the course of a year. Moore identified the partnership between his local group and the FBB as a “perfect fit,” because it provided an ongoing purpose that rallied members. “It’s not about criticizing this church or that church,” Moore comments, “but guess what, we can do the same thing, and we can do just as good work as any of those churches out there.” He also sees many churches as losing their charitable priorities, saying, “I know Christians and other believers who have come out of churches because they’re unsatisfied.” Moore prophesies an “emptying of American pews [that’s] going to create an amazing opportunity for humanist organizations.”

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