Not so long ago, I wrote here about the Foundation Beyond Belief’s selection of Quaker Peace and Social Witness for their third quarter, and why I think that was a bad idea. Yesterday, Dale McGowan, FBB Executive Director, wrote what sounded like a summary and wrap-up of this whole controversy, and Hemant Mehta, FBB Board President, posted about it as well. I don’t think this debate is a done deal, particularly given the conclusions drawn in those two posts.
Dale found the worst arguments anyone was making against donating to a Quaker charity, mocked those, and dismissed the entire side as too weak to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, I find the arguments being made in favor of this selection to be woefully inadequate, I’ve argued as much in detail — and haven’t heard any convincing responses. Mostly, I’ve just been ignored. Dale keeps saying in comments that he appreciates the conversation because it will help him think this through … but his personal statements on the topic in blog posts demonstrate that he has already made up his mind. Rather than engaging with ideas different from his own, it seems he is primarily interested in making the opposition look bad.
In this post, I’m going to lay out all the arguments I’ve heard in support of the selection of QPSW, and why I think those arguments are unconvincing. I’ve said a lot of this before, but hopefully organizing it like this will make it easier to follow. If anyone would like to respond to this post and defend the actions of the Foundation Beyond Belief, I’d really like them to do more than just repeat the points written in bold. I’d hope they could actually deal with the text underneath those points and explain why I’m mistaken.
Naturally, we have to begin by clarifying the aims of the Foundation Beyond Belief, because they should be tailoring their policies and actions to best suit those aims. Here’s what I think FBB is about, based on the FBB’s website and other writings by the FBB board.
- “Our purpose is to focus, encourage, and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists in the interest of a better world.” FBB FAQ
- “… the Foundation exists to allow individual humanists a means of expressing their worldview positively and doing good in the name of that worldview …” Dale’s recent post at The Meming of Life
- “Foundation Beyond Belief is a chance for us to prove we’re just as capable of volunteering our time and giving our money as any religious person. … Let this Foundation grow and let it be a symbol of the power of humanism and the effect that a bunch of atheists can have to make this world a better place.” Hemant’s FBB blog post
- “Our Mission: To demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life, and to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility.” FBB About page
I fully recognize, as Dale argued in an FBB blog post back in February, that “demonstrate” is only one verb out of three important ones in that statement of purpose. Still, that’s no reason to discard it as completely unimportant. It’s very clear from these statements I’ve quoted that the people running FBB believe that the organization exists in order to encourage humanists to be charitable “in the name of” humanism, and that they hope aggregating the donations made by humanists in this way will serve as a powerful demonstration to the world that people can be helpful and generous without the influence of religion.
So. In light of that, why is it supposedly okay to channel FBB money to an explicitly religious charity like QPSW?
1. Quakers aren’t really religious
Yes, they are. How do I know? Because Quakers call it a religion. I think it appropriate to defer to them on that call. Quakers may not read the Bible literally, but they do in general value the Bible more than the Qur’an or the Mahabharata or, say, Gulliver’s Travels. Quakers may use vague language like “the Inner Light” when talking about the supernatural, and some do interpret this in a somewhat New-Agey sense. However, it is generally understood to refer to God’s presence. We have been reminded over and over and over that there are nontheist Quakers out there. We got it. Thanks. It’s nice that they are tolerant. But they are still a religion, both by their own say-so and by any common sense definition.
The existence of nontheist Quakers makes my point all the more important. By remaining part of a religious group, they are perpetuating the norm that religion is good and necessary. In the U.S., they are being counted by conservative Christian politicians making the case that this is a majority-Christian nation and therefore should be a theocracy. For all the reasons we think Atheist “Coming Out” Day is valuable, this situation is detrimental.
The bottom line is, supporting Quakers is not just another way to support atheists. They are still a religious organization.
2. Quakers don’t proselytize
When you label your good works as being done by Quakers, you are promoting the idea that Quakers are good people. This wins converts. Don’t believe me? Ask Stuart Burbridge, Quaker convert writing for the BBC’s Faith section on why he became Quaker: “Over several years I noticed wherever there was good work being done there always seemed to be a Quaker present. I was intrigued.”
Many people are religious not because they were won over by the arguments, but because they have a sense that being a “person of faith” is part of being good. This is also why many people who are actually atheists still identify as religious (see #1). If any part of the FBB’s mission is to shatter this misconception, to show people that atheists are good people too — donating to QPSW goes against that mission.
Yes, proselytizing is a low priority for Quakers, and they don’t go door-to-door passing out tracts. But they do get new members somehow, and doing good works under an explicitly Quaker banner is part of how they do it. QPSW is one of those Quaker banners.
3. This charity does really good work
Yes, I know. QPSW is doing a lot of important work in many areas of conflict around the world, and they shared the Nobel Peace Prize 63 years ago. I’m glad that they exist; clearly it’s better for the world that someone be doing that work than that no one do that work at all. However, that is not the choice we are facing. In order to support peace, it is not necessary for a charitable foundation that values “doing good in the name of [humanism]” to pay for someone else to do good in the name of religion. There are plenty of secular charities that do quality work for peace — doing good in the name of everybody — and FBB should be supporting them instead.
4. Quakerism is a really good religion
What this really boils down to is something more like, “Quakerism is much less bad than many other religions.” That’s certainly true. As I’ve touched on already, they tend to be very tolerant and they don’t have a strict dogma, meaning they’re never going to be the ones fighting for “intelligent design” to be taught in biology classes or anything like that. They’ve been on the right side of many important social issues throughout history, championing the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, gay rights, and so on. That’s lovely. I’d be thrilled to hear that someone who was a Southern Baptist converted and became a Quaker. However, I’d be even more thrilled to hear that they had become an atheist.
I’m hardly alone in that sentiment. After all, we’re all here, talking about this atheist charity and how it should run, because we think that atheism is better than Quakerism. If we didn’t think that were true, we’d be Quakers. Quakerism is undeniably very good, for a religion — but it’s still a religion (see #1), so I’m not that impressed.
5. It’s important to reach out to religious people
Sure. It’s good to talk to religious people, let them know we exist, and let them know we share many of their values. It’s good to work with religious people insofar as we have common values and goals. It’s certainly a good idea to have, for example, the atheist group helping rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina coordinate their efforts with the Lutheran group doing the same, so that they maximize their combined output. I think we can also agree that interfaith alliance organizations are worthwhile as well; it’s great when people with different beliefs can come together and do good “for goodness’ sake,” recognizing that each member has their own path for getting there.
However, the Foundation Beyond Belief giving money to QPSW is a horse of an entirely different color. It is not, as has been repeatedly argued, analogous to the first-quarter selection of the Bergen County Sanctuary Committee, a coalition of religious and humanist groups working for human rights. Supporting that charity means really supporting bridge-building between the religious and the non-religious. On the other hand, the Foundation Beyond Belief is an atheist organization, and the QPSW is a Quaker organization. FBB giving money to QPSW is not forming a coalition; it’s just giving them money to continue doing good work in the name of Quakerism. Surely there are other, more fair ways for us to reach out to Quakers than this.
6. FBB members want to do this
If so, I’m arguing with them too. This is not just a dialogue between me and Dale McGowan here. Arguments do not become true or false based on how many people believe them. I would think that a bunch of atheists could understand this concept.
Additionally, I don’t think it’s so obvious that there is this virtually-unanimous groundswell of support. Of course, I don’t get to read the FBB board’s personal correspondence, and I don’t always know who in the stuff I read is an FBB member and who isn’t. But the responses I’ve seen (in, and in comments on, several of the posts linked above) strike me as around 50% vehemently against. Those who are not against are for the most part indifferent. Even if a handful of the 533 FBB members were happy enough about this choice to send the board a heartfelt email of praise, it’s very clear to me that many, many potential members of FBB are unhappy enough about this choice to refrain from joining, even if they had been considering it.
Were there a lot of people who were really bothered that all the FBB charities so far had been secular or humanist in nature? It seems hardly surprising that a group that promotes itself as being by humanists and for humanists would select such beneficiaries. In fact, it seems like exactly what that group would and should be doing. Certainly, after the choice of QPSW was announced, there have been some FBB members who said they don’t mind the selection of a liberal religious charity every now and then, but where were the people beforehand who were actually upset that none of the charities were explicitly religious? Who did that offend?
7. You can just switch your money out of that section for this quarter
Of course. FBB has 10 categories, and members can choose how much of their donation goes to the charity in each category each month. You could wait for each new slate of beneficiaries to be announced, do your own background research on each one, figure out which charities are worth supporting and which aren’t, and adjust your percentages accordingly. With that in mind, it doesn’t really matter if they happen to pick a charity that’s not worth supporting every so often — but this is equivalent to saying, “The Foundation Beyond Belief doesn’t really matter.” And it probably doesn’t, not that much, in the grand scheme of things. But that strikes me as a weird argument for the administrative board of the Foundation to be making.
It comes back to the question I addressed way (waaaay) back at the top of this post. What is the point of FBB? Let’s look at their statement of purpose. Is it to “encourage” atheists to give to reputable secular charities by making it easy and centralized? If so, this expectation that you will continually readjust your money just complicates the system again, undoing most of what made it easy in the first place. But Dale said, “Not only is this not the whole point — truthfully, it’s hardly a point in our mission at all. It’s a very simple matter to find and support secular charities.” I disagree that it’s “very simple,” but whatever. The executive director of FBB is not concerned with making charitable giving easier for atheists. So — is the purpose rather to “focus” atheists’ giving toward charities which deserve our support? It’s hardly a focus if it comes with the assumption that whoever wants to will just divert their money from it — and that if most everybody chooses to do so, it’s no big deal. Then, is the purpose to “demonstrate” the charitable nature of humanism in the absence of religion? I’ve argued extensively (sorry about that…) about why this particular organization demonstrates the charity of religious people, not the charity of atheists. And don’t forget that “demonstrate” is supposedly the least important of the three verbs in FBB’s statement of purpose.
What, then, is the reason why an atheist, humanist individual is supposed to sign up for the Foundation Beyond Belief? What is it for?
I’ve seen a reasonable case made that FBB donating to a Quaker charity is not the end of the world. Fine. But this is very different from making the case that it’s actually a good idea. I’m of the opinion that we should choose actions not because they simply fail to cause catastrophic shock waves of destruction in the world, but rather because they seem good or at worst neutral. Things that are bad in relatively small ways are still worth stopping.
Dale McGowan has repeatedly suggested that how many people quit FBB over this is the real measure of how people feel about it. I’m sorry to hear that, because it sounded at first as though members could really offer their input and influence the way that the Foundation works. If that’s the way FBB wants to run things, though, I guess atheists looking for charity that’s honestly “beyond belief” will have to go it alone for now.