Update: FBB drops Soulforce

Dale McGowan, executive director of the Foundation Beyond Belief, has announced that the foundation is withdrawing its sponsorship of Soulforce, calling its selection “a serious mistake.” The announcement was posted on the FBB website as well as on the Friendly Atheist blog. Go ahead to one of those links and read it before you continue; I’m not going anywhere.

The first thing I have to say about this is that it was absolutely the right action for FBB to take, and I am happy that they took it. When you take a public stance on things and then are confronted with compelling arguments against your stance, the easy and all-too-common thing to do is dig in and defend your initial position all the more vehemently. The Foundation Beyond Belief took the high road and admitted their mistake, and they deserve praise and respect for that.

Of course, I don’t want to go too far here. Yes, the apology improves things, and yes, I’m glad they did it. But they still made the initial mistake, and this was not an easy mistake to make. From Dale’s description, you might think the religious endorsement was very subtle, tucked away in places and ways we’d be unlikely to catch it. He says that “the organization used religious language to reach their own audience,” as though Soulforce was merely willing to include religion-specific vocabulary in press releases, and refers to “a ‘credo’ page” on the site as if there were only one. But we know that the Soulforce website was full of direct advocacy of religious beliefs and the promotion of exclusively religious events — and Dale says that he “personally spent hours going over Soulforce’s financial statements, mission and vision, press releases, annual reports, and history of activism.” And somehow it got through FBB’s selection process. That’s still worrisome, and leaves me with doubt about the judgment underlying their selection process in the first place.

I mean, Dale McGowan thinks that “[their] support of a Quaker peace organization succeeded brilliantly.” You already know that I disagree with the appropriateness of FBB funding a charity with an explicitly religious name. I could accept FBB taking the stance that that case was borderline, that they recognized some downsides but thought it was in a gray area where it was still worth selecting. Instead, Dale thinks that supporting a Quaker organization was obviously the correct thing to do. At the same time, he says that he “will continue to look for appropriate opportunities” to “[sponsor] a progressive religious charity.” But why? Why does the Foundation Beyond Belief think that it needs to institute some kind of affirmative action for religious charities? Sure, there’s been debate over whether it’s acceptable for atheists to give to faith-based organizations, but I still haven’t heard FBB’s explanation of why they actually should … especially in light of the myriad secular charities that are worthy of our support.

More importantly, I’m still waiting for a clear explanation of why an atheist looking to participate in charitable giving would want to sign up for the Foundation Beyond Belief rather than just making their own personal donations. I can think of two very good reasons why we might want to. One: pooling our money together and being able to announce aggregate numbers for charitable giving by atheists is a good way to get positive publicity, which could help counter the demonization of atheists as uncaring or unhelpful compared to people motivated by faith. And two: it’s tough to find the time to do all your charity research from scratch, so having a trusted organization review potential beneficiaries for efficiency and effectiveness is useful — and having a trusted atheist organization review them for efficiency, effectiveness, and secularity would be even better. I think those are both clearly worthwhile goals for atheists to have, and I think the Foundation Beyond Belief is very well-positioned to fulfill those goals.

The thing is, Dale has outright denied that either of these goals are central to FBB’s purpose. On the subject of the public demonstration of atheist generosity, he wrote on the foundation’s website,

Our mission statement includes not one but three main purposes—”to focus, encourage, and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists.” Demonstrating our generosity as a community is important, but it’s arguably the least important of the three.

So. “Demonstration” of atheist generosity is the least important. And that’s not hard to believe. After all, they seem to think there’s some benefit in sending atheists’ money to groups which spend it on demonstrating the generosity and compassion of religious people. Good thing they weren’t really trying, right? (Though somebody might want to tell board member Hemant Mehta, who seemed to think — at least back in April — that they were.)

Now, you might expect that “encouraging” donations by making them easier is really what it’s all about. However, regarding the research assistance, facilitating the process of conscientious charitable giving, he said in the comments on my blog,

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.

Yet Dale, who is employed to do this, spent all that time researching Soulforce and still missed the fact that it was promoting religion? Maybe it’s not that simple. At any rate, if it’s neither of those two goals, what is the central aim of FBB? Is it this other interpretation of “encouragement,” where the foundation fills the role of a passed collection plate, nagging and guilting atheists into giving? Lots of secular charities do this on their own, and have their own opportunities for regular donations, so I don’t see what FBB thinks they’re adding here. Is it to create “focus” — whatever that means? Every time it’s talked about, it sounds like another way to say “encourage” or “demonstrate.” Seriously. Why should any atheist expect to derive personal benefit or create any public good from donating through FBB as opposed to donating privately?

I asked this question back in July. Now I’m asking again. Does anyone, any proponent of the Foundation Beyond Belief, have any idea why someone should be motivated to sign up?

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  1. You ask why someone should be motivated to sign up for FBB membership. I can speak only for myself, of course. I think I’m exactly the right audience for FBB. I’m an atheist, and just as FBB came along, I had been looking for ways to give more of both my time and my money to good causes. I entirely agree with FBB’s policy of including certain religious groups that do good work — I’m less concerned with shouting my atheism than I am with making the world a better place. I guess I don’t see FBB as a PR campaign, or an effort to advance atheism. I just see it as an opportunity for me to support charitable work around the world. FBB is not for everyone, I suppose. If your goals aren’t the same as FBB’s, then don’t sign up.

    I think Dale McGowan’s handling of the Soulforce incident shows incredible integrity, making me all the more proud to be a member of such a fine group. You criticize him for not anticipating opposition to Soulforce, and that’s fair, but he admits freely in his “Mea Culpa” post that he had blinders on in this case — he loved the idea of Soulforce, he wanted to believe that it was a good match, and his desire for it to work out compromised his ability to truly judge Soulforce in an unbaised way. That’s not good. But McGowan freely owns up to it. Why do you continue to kick him while he’s down?

  2. Hi, k-dub. Thanks for trying to answer my questions.

    I guess I don’t see FBB as a PR campaign, or an effort to advance atheism. I just see it as an opportunity for me to support charitable work around the world. FBB is not for everyone, I suppose. If your goals aren’t the same as FBB’s, then don’t sign up.

    Do you see FBB as having any other goal/s, besides giving money to a bunch of charities? What is the reason to give through FBB, as opposed to just donating to a bunch of charities yourself?

    Why do you continue to kick him while he’s down?

    I’m sorry that what I wrote sounded like a “kick” to you. That’s not how I meant it. I’d like to believe that there is room in this discussion for honest criticism without the assumption of malice — and even though, as I wrote, I very much appreciate Dale McGowan’s apology for this one incident, I think there are still big issues in FBB’s overall approach that need to be examined. Given that I’ve written a number of very extensive articles about FBB’s funding of religious charities in the past here, I thought that failing to respond to Dale’s post and the beneficiary change would be pretty uncool.

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