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.