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

"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.”

Secular Humanism 

The Fellowship of Freethought, Foundation Beyond Belief, and other charitable organizations catering to atheists and freethinkers also derive their values from humanism -- as do many atheists and freethinkers themselves. In describing FoF’s membership, Moore provided a good basic definition for humanists: “people who really want to make a difference in the here and now, because this is it, this is the only life we have.” Moore and McGowan's understanding of humanism keeps them from believing religious faith has an innate moral advantage, only accepting that churches' structural advantage has lead to more religious giving. But some non-theists don't even agree with that, challenging the existing data regarding “who really cares” as biased or inaccurate.

Besides the fact that the studies ignore the distinction between a disinterested Christian and a passionate atheist or humanist, they also rely on self-reporting. “And when churchgoers pat themselves on the back for doing what is socially expected, sociologists grow skeptical,” writes Tom Flynn, Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism. Flynn points to sociologist Kirk Hadaway, who found it incredible that 40% of American attend church each Sunday -- more churchgoers than church seats. So in 1992 he literally had every person in the pews in a large Ohio county counted, coming up with half the number reached through self-reporting. “To this day, Americans tell pollsters they were in church the previous Sunday at the 40-percent level,” Flynn continues. “The difference is, now social scientists know that half of them are lying.”

And, of course, a portion of the donations from churchgoers go to maintain the actual churches. Atheists are also coming out in (financial) support of their own -- in just a week this January, more than $25,000 was raised for a college fund for Jessica Ahlquist, a high schooler who received death threats for successfully challenging the constitutionality of a public school prayer banner.

“I think it’s important that we do have organizations like Humanist Charities and Foundation Beyond Belief,” says Maggie Ardiente, director of development and communications at the American Humanist Association, which orchestrates Humanist Charities. “We’ve just been giving quietly for years and years ... but because of this myth that’s out there, we’ve felt it’s necessary to be a little more vocal about our giving and our support.” She pointed out that secular organizations have long been doing good, such as Doctors Without Borders (not to mention agnostic/atheist philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet), but atheists and secular humanists don’t get credit for these groups. "Part of humanism is about helping others, and being good without God.”

Can We All Just Get Along?

Ardiente and others agree that encouraging more atheist/humanist giving and volunteering is a positive action, one their organizations can help with. Like the Foundation Beyond Belief, Humanist Charities also has a local community partners program, as does the Center for Inquiry’s SHARE program (Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort).

The growth of charitable outlets designed for atheists, freethinkers, and secular humanists not only rallies nonbelievers and increases their public profile, it can also provide a venue they feel more comfortable donating to. The SHARE website explains its motivation thus: “skeptics and humanists are frustrated that so many charitable organizations, especially those that help people afflicted by natural or human disasters, have efforts coordinated by religious organizations. These organizations sometimes proselytize to the people in need of their services. This is entirely unacceptable.”

Ardiente says that AHA’s members shared this concern: “they wanted to make sure that their donations really only went to food and water and shelter, things people needed, not religious proselytizing.” They also look to counter “the really negative rhetoric of some of these religious leaders” -- think Pat Robertson on Haiti -- and encourage people to give what’s needed “rather than praying, rather than trying to blame God or ask God why this happened.”

Despite these concerns about proselytizing and negative religious forces, many nonbelievers want to work with religious charitable groups. Members of the Foundation Beyond Belief, for instance, can choose to donate to religious beneficiaries through its “Challenge the Gap” program. “We wanted to create the ability for secular humanist or atheists of any inclination to express their worldview as they see fit, and one of the things our members expressed in interest in was occasionally giving money to religious charities,” McGowan explained.

Lyz Liddell, advisor for “Challenge the Gap” and the Director of Campus Organizing for the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), sees a need to create bridges with religious groups to better achieve the end goal of helping people in need. SSA supports high school and college student groups, which they encourage to consider charity a priority and participate in service projects, which are often held in collaboration with religious groups.

Younger people have gotten creative with fundraisers, asking for donations to “send an atheist to church” or reading religious texts for charity -- creating something positive out of many religious people's desire to challenge nontheist beliefs. A “stone-a-heathen” event at one school simultaneously raised money and awareness for the ongoing practice of stoning in certain countries.

However, even when atheists, freethinkers, and secular humanists may wanted to reach out, the gesture is not always returned. Todd Stiefel of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation received unexpected attention when his donation to the American Cancer Society wasn’t welcomed with open arms. He says that he has “repeatedly come across people not wanting money from my foundation or from me basically because I’m an atheist” -- either because of the group’s own prejudices or a fear of backlash for associating with atheists. So while being criticized for inadequate charity, atheists can’t even give their money away?

The Foundation Beyond Belief has also occasionally been turned down, although McGowan stresses that overwhelmingly the charities selected enthusiastically accept the donations. Neither Stiefel or McGowan wanted to dwell on this negative experience, but Stiefel did say that this discrimination only motivates him to do more. “We have lot of work to do to break down the stereotypes and false information that is out there about us ... I think that reason-based secular values are American values, and I think that over the test of time we’ll be able to show the world that we are every bit as ethical as anyone else.”

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