Donating to charity, the atheist way

The Foundation Beyond Belief is a great organization, and if you haven’t heard of it before I think it’s high time you learn about it. You can sign up as a member and then have an automatic charitable contribution sent each month to a rotating set of charities in different categories. The goal, according to their About page,  is to “focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists. I fully support this idea.

That being said, I have a bone to pick with one of FBB’s recent decisions. They explicitly state that the charities they choose “may be founded on any worldview so long as they do not engage in proselytizing,” and in light of that they have chosen Quaker Peace and Social Witness as one of their charities this quarter. Obviously they’re not violating their stated policies — they’re not breaking their word in any way — but I do think that this move (and this portion of their policy) is ill-considered.

As I’ve already quoted above, one of the central goals of the Foundation Beyond Belief is to “demonstrate the generosity” of atheists. The idea that religious people are somehow more charitable/moral/etc. is commonly brought up in support of religion, so this message of generosity among the nonreligious is an important one to get out. However, there are two different types of charity going on — one, the monetary contribution to a charitable organization, and two, the charity work itself being done by that organization. It’s definitely good to show that lots of money is being donated by atheists. The ability of FBB to publicize the amount of money donated through them will certainly still help the image of atheists. But the organization in this case is an explicitly Quaker one. A lot more people are going to see the work of the Quaker organization that this money funds, in countries all over the world, than are ever going to read FBB’s press release or visit their website.

The Foundation Beyond Belief explicitly bans charities that proselytize. Why is that? I can see two different possible reasons. The first is simply that money spent proselytizing is money that doesn’t go to the main charitable goal, so that charity is being less efficient. This obviously doesn’t apply to the Quaker organization in question. I think there’s a second, larger reason to avoid organizations that proselytize, though. I think it’s a bad thing on the whole when people become religious (see: the rest of this blog), and I don’t want my money to have the side effect of making people religious.

The fact is, there is much more to proselytizing than handing someone a pamphlet full of text, or arguing with someone about the nature of the divine. In the real world, people don’t become religious through rational consideration of arguments. They become religious because they associate being religious with being good. It’s an emotional response: “this is what good people do, and I want to be a good person.” It is impossible to go out and do good works under a big sign that says “These good works brought to you by Christians!” and not be proselytizing. I think that if the Foundation Beyond Belief is really trying to promote the goals it says it is, it would be better served by a policy that prohibits the selection of any explicitly religious charity.

The foundation gives two arguments in defense of its selection that I have seen. The first is that this is is analogous to their earlier selection of the Bergen County Sanctuary Committee. Now, “we made a bad decision in the past” is not generally an acceptable reason that a similar bad decision is okay now — but I actually think that old decision was a fine one. That other charity is  not explicitly religious, but rather a coalition of religious and humanist communities, so the problems I explained above don’t apply. Their sign would read more like: “These good works brought to you by people who care and want to help, some of whom happen to be religious and some of whom are not!”

The second defense (also argued here) is that Quakers are extremely accepting of other opinions and don’t proselytize. Many have very liberal/vague/flexible understandings of “God” and the denomination has traditionally been on the right side of all sorts of important social issues. This is great. I have a lot of respect for Quakers, as I do for Unitarians, Reform Jews, and members of other groups with this sort of tolerance for others and for free thought. However, that’s really not the point. If all Christians became Quakers and Unitarians, it’d be great. If all Orthodox Jews became Reform Jews, it’d be great.

But I don’t support those religious groups. I’m an atheist. While I’m happy to hear when people move away from fundamentalism toward a more liberal understanding of religion, I think it would be best if people became (or stayed) atheist, and that’s the goal I want to support. Donating to charities in a way that will encourage people to join liberal religions is still clearly counterproductive to me.

To be fair — as a participant in the Foundation Beyond Belief you can decide how to allocate your monthly contribution, and if you don’t like the selection in a particular category you don’t have to send your money there. But a huge part of the advantage of an organization like FBB, from an individual perspective, is that it could take a lot of the work out of finding secular charities. It would be nice to be able to trust the Foundation to make choices that consistently support its stated, central goals.

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17 Comments

  1. Aristarchus

     /  July 7, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    I entirely agree with you here. It’s an argument I’ve made a lot of times against government funding of religious charities. The religion gets public credit for something that’s really being done by atheists/the government.

    I don’t know if I would go so far as to advocate forming a charity called “The Atheist Food Kitchen” (and if one did exist, I wouldn’t want the government donating to it) but at the very least I would not donate to anything with a religious name. There are also issues with hiring discrimination, though I don’t know if they’re relevant to this Quaker group.

  2. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. This is an experiment designed to inspire exactly this kind of conversation. Whether FBB will support another progressive religious charity in the future is an open question, and this kind of input will help us decide.

    I think the strongest argument in favor of the occasional inclusion of a (very) progressive religious charity is that many of our members want to. It’s that simple. They see bridge building with the sane religious as an expression of their humanism, not a contradiction to it. And since (as you noted) each member can tailor the distribution, there’s no need for all to agree on that. So why create a Foundation that serves only one kind of atheist? Instead, we’ve created a flexible system that allows each individual to express his or her secular worldview exactly as s/he would like. And yes, for some, a secular worldview includes strong gestures of support for religious progressives.

    Again, I really appreciate you taking the time to add your voice.

    Dale McGowan
    Executive Director, Foundation Beyond Belief

  3. Dale — Hello! I didn’t expect you would notice this post. Thanks a lot for your comment. While I’m not interested in promoting specific liberal religions directly, I am certainly in favor of the general goal of “building bridges with believers” (as it was put at Daylight Atheism) — I just think that sort of thing is much better served by supporting groups like the BCSC, interfaith+atheist organizations that really are that bridge. At any rate, I really appreciate how seriously you all are considering these issues!

  4. “the sane religious”

    Now there’s an oxymoron if there ever was one.

    Okay, I admit I’m being mean. But the truth is that ALL religious people, regardless of how otherwise kind and progressive they might be, hold INSANE beliefs about the world, how the world works and how it got here, and our purpose for living. Their religion meme requires that they pass on these INSANE beliefs to the next generation of their children, as well as to any other citizens they can infect. Though apparently Quakers don’t generally proselytize.

    Some of the Quakers insane beliefs include the concept of sin, redemption through Jesus Christ, the inerrancy of the Bible (this may depend on sects), and that an invisible supernatural being is guiding their every move.

    And these are the progressives.

    Count me among those who will never knowingly donate to a religious charity no matter how seemingly benevolent its aims.

  5. Some of the Quakers insane beliefs include the concept of sin, redemption through Jesus Christ, the inerrancy of the Bible (this may depend on sects), and that an invisible supernatural being is guiding their every move. And these are the progressives.

    I’m sorry, Annie, this is just plain false. Since there is no shared creed, “Quaker beliefs” is an almost meaningless term — certainly nothing to present as you have here. I know several progressive Quakers personally and have learned a great deal about their perspective and that of liberal Friends overall. The very strange list you provide (biblical inerrancy…among progressive Quakers??) would cause every one of them to burst out laughing (and then immediately feel bad for doing so).

    The list would be a particularly poor fit for those Quakers who consider themselves religious but completely nontheistic. Where do they fit on your sanity scale?

    I’m very serious about getting my facts straight. I hope you’ll share your source so I can correct my own misunderstandings.

  6. Dale — I don’t know what Annie’s source is, and I wouldn’t have made all the statements she did, but I share some of her feelings on the topic, so I think I can shed a little light on that angle in general.

    I don’t think it makes sense to count so heavily the existence of nontheistic Quakers. It’s true, they don’t kick people out for not believing in God, but that doesn’t mean that Quakerism doesn’t value belief in God. There are also many nontheistic Reform Jews, but it would be silly to say that Reform Judaism is nontheistic.

    Quakers use a lot of language that is easy to read in a broad spectrum of ways, depending on your personal predilections, and I imagine this makes it very easy for many modern Quakers to be nontheistic and still identify strongly as Quakers. But my understanding is, phrases like “the Inner Light” or “the spirit of Christ within” do actually (when first used, and most of the time) refer to some notion of a supreme, supernatural being and his son whose life went something roughly like the stories in the Bible. This isn’t the most insane version of religion out there, but when you get right down to it there are still a bunch of pretty wacky assertions.

    A friend of mine once applied for a teaching job at a Quaker school, and was told he would have been hired if not for the fact that a Quaker applicant turned up at the last minute, and they had to give priority. They’re still an exclusive club, and they value their own beliefs over other people’s beliefs (however nebulous those concepts might be).

    (My sources — I have a number of Quaker friends, but I’m also confirming things I remember them describing using Wikipedia. Not the best source ever, but the Beliefs section is pretty extensive.)

  7. @NFQ: I don’t see where I’ve leaned heavily on the nontheist Friends — I simply note their open existence, which says something about who liberal Quakers are as a group. And far from denying theistic belief in Quaker ranks, I want to clearly recognize it, and to say they deserve support anyway for the extraordinary work they do. That’s the point of this experiment — if they were predominantly nontheistic, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about.

    As for the exclusivity, I shrug. One of the most vehement torrents of outrage I’ve heard from nontheists about the Foundation came after a blog falsely reported that one of our board members was a Christian. If it’s fair for us to focus our mission by including only nontheists on the board (which we do), it’s fair for the Quakers to similarly focus theirs.

  8. Kathryn S.

     /  July 12, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Annie is confusing progressive/Liberal Quakers with Orthodox Quakers, a very different thing. The Liberal branch of Quakerism split from the Orthodox in the 1820s, and it’s that non-dogmatic branch that went on to most strongly champion abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights and non-violence. No coincidence of course…once they gave up biblical inerrancy and all the rest, they started doing some serious good in the world.

  9. Aristarchus

     /  July 12, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    @Dale: I don’t think anyone is disputing that this charity “deserves support” in the sense that them getting money is better than that money being used to buy new cars or whatever. And they definitely have the right to discriminate in hiring, just as FBB does. However, I think the discrimination in hiring (and the charity name itself) says something about what their mission is. FBB needs an all-atheist board, because the charity is fundamentally atheist (as opposed to just “secular,” like Amnesty International or Doctors Without Borders is). A religious board member would likely not share some of the stated goals of the organization. Quaker Peace and Social Witness has every bit as much right to that “focused” mission, but if they need to exclude non-Quakers in order to focus their mission, then their mission is in a fundamental sense a Quaker mission. Now, they are Quakers trying to promote peace. I hope they succeed. I also hope that church soup kitchens succeed in preventing people from starving. But when I want to promote peace, or prevent people from starving, I will donate to atheist (or secular, at least) charities that do that.

    And yes, people can fiddle with their monthly allocations to avoid money going to this group. That means it isn’t a disastrous decision. But you could just as easily argue that people on the other side of this debate could easily just donate to this group or others like outside of the FBB system. The whole point of FBB seems to be removing the need for you to carefully research charities yourself, so why not play it safe and stick to only the types of charities you’re sure everyone who’s contributing will be happy with?

  10. Dale: Every time I’ve read the argument that Quakers are worth supporting because they don’t have a creed, it’s evidenced with this link to nontheistfriends.org — right away in the FBB blog post announcing it, and again in your comment yesterday, and (I just saw) in the FBB blog post from last Thursday about this controversy. Adam brought it up in the comments over at his post in favor of QPSW at Daylight Atheism. It certainly seems like it’s been a key piece of the argument. If you were intending to acknowledge Quaker theism clearly and support QPSW in spite of that theism, I would have thought you would have spent less time painting a picture of Quakers as a secular group that didn’t care a whit about religious beliefs or lack thereof.

    I actually think that the significant presence of nontheist Quakers supports the argument that I’m making. It demonstrates that there is a deeply ingrained belief in society that being religious is a good thing, and that good people are religious people are good people — so much so that people who don’t even believe the basic tenets of their religion want to remain associated with it. But these people, even if they become members of increasingly liberal denominations, are still lending their support, explicitly and implicitly, to prop up religion as an institution — which I think is an overall bad thing. I want to make the statement loud and clear that nonreligious people can be and are good people too, and I think that sort of thing goes a really long way towards encouraging these nonbelieving “religious” people to finally say that they are nonreligious.

    Aristarchus: Yes. Thank you. This is exactly what I was going for when I mentioned exclusivity. If there really are no particular beliefs associated with being a Quaker, there would be nothing to be exclusive about.

  11. The whole point of FBB seems to be removing the need for you to carefully research charities yourself, so why not play it safe and stick to only the types of charities you’re sure everyone who’s contributing will be happy with?

    (1) 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. (2) FBB is not about playing it safe. Among other things, we’re trying to do something that challenges the traditional paradigm of secularism.

    I wish I could continue in what is a quality discussion here, but other fish are jumping into the pan. A final point, if I may: Many nontheists are applauding this precisely because of the point it makes. Sure, they can go elsewhere, as can the rest of us. But that wouldn’t give them a means of collectively expressing their humanism, which is one of our mandates. Can we make this small accommodation for another way of being nontheistic, or no? That’s the question, not whether you or I agree with their position. Members can and will vote with their feet, as it should be.

    Thanks for helping me to continue thinking this through! – Dale

  12. “If it’s fair for us to focus our mission by including only nontheists on the board (which we do), it’s fair for the Quakers to similarly focus theirs.”

    Certainly. However, it’s precisely why you shouldn’t advertise yourself as an Atheist charity and then turn around and give money to them.

    I had some reversals of fortune and haven’t signed up for regular giving. Because of this, I won’t be when I give up. Lesson learned. Don’t even trust an Atheist distributor to not use charitable monies to support the hugest “evil” (for lack of a better word) in this world — religion.

    I will continue to do what I’ve been doing when I’m able to give. And that is make a cash donation to a secular charity and not be lazy and check it out myself. Not a dime of it will be going to Foundation Beyond Belief.

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