This is a very long post. I don’t like to get involved in unnecessary atheist infighting, but I feel that this issue is important to atheist activism, and I want to do all the arguments justice by being completely clear about why I take the stance I do. I’ve been working on this for a couple days, and a lot of discussion has taken place in the thread on the Friendly Atheist post I refer to — rest assured I do address this near the end.
You may remember the two posts I wrote back in July (here and here) about the Foundation Beyond Belief‘s decision to fund a Quaker charity. While I haven’t changed my mind about my objection to atheist money funding good works done under the banner of religion, I can at least understand how a reasonable person might conclude that the name is a negligible issue as long as the work done is completely secular. Now, they’ve announced a new slate of beneficiaries, and are defensively promoting the selection of Soulforce against potential objections that it is a religious charity — and I think this time the error is much more egregious and plainly obvious. I just don’t see any way that you could look at Soulforce and see wholly good work done in the name of secular humanism, as opposed to some good work nevertheless swathed in religious advocacy.
Hemant Mehta, an FBB board member, recently wrote:
While all the groups do really excellent work, the charity that stood out to me the most this quarter was Soulforce.
This is a group whose mission is to “end the religious and political oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning people.”
Sounds great, right? And yet, some of you will undoubtedly be upset that we’re giving money to them for one key reason:
Though Soulforce is not itself a religious organization, it includes many progressive religious leaders on its staff and board.
Oh no! Religious progressives!
Later, Hemant refers to the controversy over QPSW, and clarifies FBB’s (alleged) criteria in selecting beneficiaries.
The response was (and still is) very simple: We don’t give to groups that waste money proselytizing. Neither the Quaker group nor Soulforce does that and we strongly support the excellent work they do. Supporting their cause does not mean we’re supporting their religion. That’s why we made them our beneficiaries.
From that post, it sounds as though Soulforce is an organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality in a completely secular way — that just happens to have some religious liberals involved. It sounds as though the central ideology at Soulforce has nothing to do with religion, and the actions they take are not uniquely religious in nature. Of course, a group like this might have some religious liberals involved. Most of the American population is religious, so it would not be surprising if a secular (not explicitly atheist) charity had some religious people as organizers and volunteers. In fact, it would be a good idea to make sure to recruit a couple, because most of the homophobia and transphobia in American society (and, might I venture, the world) is religiously motivated, and religious people could contribute some useful background and perspectives.
But that is clearly not what is going on with Soulforce. A cursory look around their website confirms that they are a Christian organization promoting their version of liberal Christianity. I don’t know if the FBB staff just didn’t take the time to do the research on this one, or if they have actively decided that they don’t mind subsidizing explicitly religious activities, but in either case, I’m appalled. And I want to make it absolutely clear that when the Foundation Beyond Belief claims to represent secular humanists, they don’t speak for me.
More specifics about how Soulforce works below the fold.
Initially, based on Hemant Mehta’s post and my understanding of the implications as I described above, I was expecting the Soulforce board of directors and advisory board to include a couple liberal Christians from different denominations, a reform Jew, and a progressive Muslim — something like that. You certainly see oppression of LGBTQ people in all three big monotheistic religions. (It’s US-based, so I didn’t really expect to see much representation from non-Abrahamic faiths.) So, who do they actually have?
On the board of directors:
- Chuck Phelan, chair – “additionally serves on the board of directors of Metropolitan Community Church-Los Angeles and is president of the MCC Churches Board of Pensions (USA)” [link on MCC]
- Dr. Julie Nemecek – “lost her job when she came out at the Christian university where she was an assistant dean and associate professor” and now tells her story at schools and churches [link on her story]
- Carol Boltz – comes from a “fundamentalist Christian background,” and now attends a Commonway church in Indiana and a UCC church in Florida [links: Commonway, UCC]
- Bill Carpenter – “an active student of Truth principles, active at his Unity church” [links: Unity, Truth]
There is one director, Karen Ball, whose bio does not mention religion at all. I gather she’s in management consulting. She’s also a licensed attorney.
From the advisory board:
- Dr. Sylvia Rue – “Director of Religious Affairs with the National Black Justice Coalition,” “Director of Equal Partners in Faith,” “worked with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights.” She was “co-producer of the award-winning film ‘All God’s Children’” and is billed as a “religious scholar.”
- Dan Karslake – writer, director, and producer of For the Bible Tells Me So (see here).
- Dr. Rodney Powell – “had the privilege and honor to learn and apply the philosophy and strategies of love and nonviolence under the guidance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other dedicated ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
- Rev. Gil Caldwell – a United Methodist Minister (now retired), educated at the Boston University School of Theology and Harvard Divinity School. It also lists many Methodist organizations he is active in.
- Rev. Phil Lawson – another United Methodist Minister. His bio lists many interfaith organizations of which he is an active member.
- Rev. Jimmy Creech – yet another United Methodist pastor. Well, a former pastor; in 1999 a church jury “withdrew his credentials of ordination” after he officiated the marriage of two men in North Carolina. He chaired the Soulforce board from 2000-2005, and was executive director of a group called Faith in America for two years after that.
- Jay Bakker – pastor and son of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (of 700 Club, PTL Club, and accounting fraud scandal fame). Since 1994 he has been starting “Revolution Church” branches in Arizona, California, and New York.
There are two people on the advisory board whose profiles do not mention religion: sociologist Dr. Judith Stacey, and transgender advocate Judy Osborne.
They don’t just have some religious progressives involved in their organization. This isn’t what it would look like if they sought out a variety of liberal religious leaders in order to help facilitate their secular goal of freeing LGBTQ people from oppressive cultural messages. If you were assembling a secular charity in Texas (where Soulforce is headquartered), you might happen to end up with 14 Christians on your boards. But it’s very unlikely that you would randomly get this many ministers. To me, this looks like a liberal Christian organization.
However, however — a bunch of liberal Christians could get together and run a completely secular charity. 11 of 14 of them might just happen to be outspoken religious leaders in the rest of their lives, but they might all be focused on doing good for goodness’ sake as far as Soulforce is concerned. So let’s now look at what Soulforce actually does and actually teaches.
Soulforce, in Step 1 of their “4-Step Journey,” invites LGBTQ people to “Let these six Soulforce truths help set [them] free”:
Six Soulforce Beliefs About Myself
- I am a child of a loving Creator, a daughter or a son of the Soulforce at the center of the universe.*
- I am loved by my Creator exactly as I am. My sexual orientation is not a sickness to be healed nor a sin to be forgiven. My sexual orientation is a gift from my Creator to be accepted, celebrated, and lived with integrity.
- I am not an accident. I have a purpose. I was shaped by my Creator to love God and to assist in God’s eternal struggle to win justice for all Her children who suffer injustice.
- I will not discover my purpose nor realize my power (my own soulforce) until I join my Creator in doing justice (making things fair for all.)
- When I join my Creator in doing justice, my own life will be renewed, empowered, and made more meaningful.
- In serving others, it is as much my moral obligation to refuse to cooperate with evil as it is to cooperate with good.
Soulforce wants you to admit that you are the “child of a loving Creator,” that this Creator has unconditional “love” for you, and that this Creator gave you a “purpose” which is essentially “to assist in God’s eternal struggle.” Unclear if the Creator is also God; I don’t know why they used two different words here. And I’m not sure which one of them is supposed to be female — could be diagrammed either way.
That asterisk, by the way, goes to the statement:
Neither Gandhi nor King required sectarian allegiance to any one statement of faith or religious practice. Soulforce welcomes you to do justice with us.
But do they? Stay tuned. One thing that’s for sure is that if you are not religious and do not have “allegiance to [a] statement of faith,” you are not welcome. More on that later.
Let’s skip over to Step 4, in which “The Soulforce Credo of Truth, Love, and Redemptive Suffering” is presented:
I believe that my Creator calls me to seek the TRUTH, to live by the TRUTH, and to confront UNTRUTH wherever I find it.
I believe that my Creator calls me to love my enemies, to reject violence (of the fist, tongue, or heart), and to use only the methods of nonviolence in my search for TRUTH or in my confrontation with UNTRUTH.
I believe that my Creator calls me to take on myself without complaint or retaliation any suffering that might result from my confrontation with UNTRUTH and to do all in my power to help my adversary avoid all suffering, especially that suffering that may result from our confrontation.
Once again, we are faced with difficult choices.
Here we learn that the Creator Soulforce wants you to believe in “calls [you] to love [your] enemies.” I find the idea of “redemptive suffering” in this credo very suspect as well. They don’t explicitly describe the Christian God, and Jesus is left out of this, but it’s obvious that the understanding of God underlying the Soulforce ideology is essentially Christian. Yes, Soulforce supports LGBTQ equality, but they support it because that’s what they believe God wants. They want people to believe in the sort of god that they do, and a side effect of that would be that people would then support LGBTQ equality.
Also, near the bottom of this page, they offer a sample of their “guidelines for various Soulforce Direct Actions.” Last in the list is, notably, “A marcher must be a person of faith.” That’s right, atheists — they’ll take your money happily, but they won’t even let you walk with them in solidarity.
Here are two more credos from Soulforce, regarding what your Creator supposedly wants you to do and believe with regard to your “Personal Passion” and your “Personal Possessions.” They even have handy blank spaces for your signature and the date on which you commit yourself to these beliefs as well as a little “print” button for your covenant-swearing convenience.
Some of the “Direct Actions” that Soulforce engages in are even more explicitly religious in nature. The first link I clicked on in the dropdown menu on their site labeled “Archives,” from their “2005 Actions,” was about a Vigil at the Vatican in Rome.
After a press conference Soulforce placed the flowers where Alfredo died and bowed heads in silent prayer. At that moment, six Italian policemen arrived and with only a glance at our signs asked us to leave St Peters Square immediately or be arrested. We gathered up our flowers, our signs, and our memorial cards signed by friends in America and Italy and moved them just outside the Square where protests are legal.
Got that? One of their major Direct Actions was holding a prayer vigil at the Vatican. They went to Rome and made a public show of bowing their heads in prayer together. That’s how Soulforce protests.
Lest you think this is just a relic of the distant past, one of their most recent Direct Actions from this past July was advertised as a “Pray In.” The invitation on their site begins,
You are invited to join Soulforce in a historic moment of speaking truth to power at a mass Pray In at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly (GA) in Minneapolis, July 7-10.
One of the most striking things about this event was the request for people to “Knit or crochet one or more of 1500 rainbow scarves to be distributed as witness to God’s radically extravagant love.” Still think this sounds like a completely secular outreach effort for LGBTQ equality? I’m not fooled.
Those turn out to be two of the most egregious cases, but other events are clearly couched in the same religious language as the other literature on the Soulforce website. It’s typical to find instructions such as, in this call for protests against the National Organization for Marriage, that individuals should “review Soulforce’s core values” in order to prepare. They didn’t post all those credos and principles about belief in a Creator just for fun. They expect their participants to actually sign on to all of that. It’s a key part of their message.
The Foundation Beyond Belief has repeatedly promised, as Hemant wrote, “We don’t give to groups that waste money proselytizing.” Proselytizing doesn’t just involve converting atheists to your religion. It includes converting people of other religions to your religion. And it’s very obvious to me that Soulforce is a group of liberal Christians, focusing their efforts on converting more conservative or fundamentalist Christians to their version of Christianity (or, to convince them to reinterpret their more conservative denomination’s teachings in a liberal way). This counts. On paper they might be okay with members of non-Christian religions, but looking over their credos and other statements it’s clear that Soulforce is okay with non-Christians so long as those beliefs are sufficiently similar to the Christian beliefs about God. Pro tip: if someone asks you to sign a credo, they are trying to get you to believe what they believe.
Here’s another pro tip: if someone is taking your money and using it to fund people praying, their events do not “embody the highest principles of [secular] humanism.” I was under the impression that supporting such principles was a central part of the purpose of FBB. So this group is actively engaging in proselytizing, and their activities and mission are explicitly religious in nature — and I don’t see how the FBB board could seriously have chosen to support them while still pretending to uphold their stated purpose as an organization.
I’m happy to see a lot of dissenting comments in the thread on that Friendly Atheist post. Clearly, many of you get it. I’m thinking of you (muggle, Rieux, Joe Zamecki, Aj, et al.) when I take a deep breath and mourn the fact that I’m watching a few prominent atheists who I generally respect a whole lot making some very misguided decisions. You give me hope.
The people in that comment thread who were defending Soulforce were typically arguing that it is important to convince religious fundamentalists that LGBTQ people deserve love and respect. This is obviously true, but the question at hand is not whether it is good on balance that these groups exist, or even whether or not it is worth any one individual (atheist or not) supporting them. We are discussing the decisions of a relatively large (and intended to be larger) collective of atheists, channeling their charitable contributions in order to demonstrate the generosity of nonbelievers and to encourage each other to continue doing good in the name of humanity and reality. When FBB chooses a beneficiary and pools the money donated by their members to give to that beneficiary, simply by the nature of their organization, they are sending the message, “Atheists support the work you are doing.”
The mere fact that an organization does something good is not a reason to throw the support of the atheist community behind it. Suppose that a Catholic church decided to hand out free pairs of clean socks to any homeless people who attend mass, pray with the congregation, and receive Communion. It’s good to help the homeless — so should the atheist community fund this Catholic church’s operations? Obviously not, since a major part of their work consists of things that the atheist community is diametrically opposed to. We should find other groups, secular groups, helping the homeless, and give our money to them instead. In the case of Soulforce and the fight for LGBTQ equality, there are obviously secular alternatives, as pointed out by commenter p.s..
Don’t forget: an individual atheist might reasonably feel inspired to support a particular religious charity, depending on their own personal priorities and interests. Maybe the only soup kitchen in their town happens to be run by a church, and they want to feed the hungry in their hometown, for example. But an organization that purports to represent atheists and secular humanists in general should stick to things that are atheist and/or secular.
This is essentially why I don’t buy FBB executive director Dale McGowan’s defense about how this is merely providing an “option” for FBB members, and those who aren’t interested can just shift their money around. Every charity’s always an “option;” FBB doesn’t need to do anything to provide that. From the point of view of an individual, a big advantage of FBB is having some trusted organization search for potentially worthy charities and screen them before sending your money their way. If the expectation is that, every time a new slate of beneficiaries is announced, all the FBB members have to do hours of research digging through the past of every charity to see if they are secretly religious despite being presented by the foundation as secular, what’s the point? We might as well just do our own research in the first place, and leave FBB out of it entirely. (I explained this in point #7 here, and still haven’t seen a response.)
Beyond that, there are issues of endorsement. For one thing, the selection of beneficiaries by the FBB board is, when you get right down to it, an endorsement of those charities to the FBB members. The foundation administration is saying, “We present these charities to you because we think they are worth your support.” So it seems rather disingenuous for Dale to say something that boils down to, “Yeah, whatever, we don’t care if everybody in FBB opts out of this one.” They picked it in the first place because they thought atheists should give their money to it. Additionally, from a realistic point of view, FBB members will consider the board’s endorsement when deciding where to put their money. People are less motivated to do their own research because they trust FBB’s selection process. They’re extremely likely to stick with whatever default the foundation offers.
Additionally, even in the unlikely event that a significant portion of FBB members opt out of a particular charity, the message of endorsement of that charity by the FBB (and by proxy the atheist community) is still sent. Sure, the check they get handed is slightly smaller, but it’s about the money and the message. Dale McGowan proudly cited the recognition that atheists got from Quakers for supporting QPSW. Of course it’s important to consider whether a beneficiary would openly acknowledge FBB support (and in the case of Soulforce, given their ideology, it seems very unlikely that they would). But if many atheists don’t want to be seen as supporting a religious charity which FBB has picked as a beneficiary, this kind of publicity is actually harmful, counterproductive.
Near the (current) end of the comment thread — which is presently 71 comments long — Dale left this message which makes it sound as though he is taking this criticism to heart.
Rieux (et al): Your point is hitting home, very hard. I’m beginning to think we did not do our job at all well in fully spelling out the approach Soulforce takes.
Even if we were comfortable with their approach and language, others may not have been, and we had an obligation to much greater clarity. Their direct assault on religion as the source of the problem made it difficult for me to see other serious concerns. That is my fault entirely.
Please understand that we are trying to do something entirely new here, and there’s no path. Thanks for not holding back so we can get (much) better at this.
That’s nice to hear, and it’s certainly a good start. (Of course, comment #68 on a Friendly Atheist blog post is not a public mea culpa from the FBB, so if Dale is serious about this, I would hope to see some sort of correction or announcement on the foundation’s site soon.) However, I think it still misses the point. The Foundation Beyond Belief did not merely fail to “fully [spell] out the approach Soulforce takes.” What they did was claim that “Soulforce is not itself a religious organization,” despite the reality that Soulforce is a group of religious people who actively promote religious beliefs and who organize events that often include religious activities such as prayer. FBB didn’t tell an incomplete truth; they actually said the opposite of what is true.
Yes, I suppose it would have been better if FBB had been more (or, at all) up-front about how Soulforce actually operates. But that’s not even really the problem. The problem is that, despite their stated mission to “focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists,” they are essentially channeling atheists’ money to pay a bunch of Christians to pray. That’s ridiculous, and until they realize and acknowledge that, I know I can’t support them.