Changes at the Foundation Beyond Belief

I haven’t seen it announced at the Foundation Beyond Belief’s website yet, but FBB board member Hemant Mehta recently wrote about a change to the foundation’s beneficiary categories. Beginning in January, they’re making a new category for religious beneficiaries only, while guaranteeing that the other nine will always be entirely secular. (I think that the foundation itself will now be an 11th category, if I’m reading this right.)

This is a great improvement. If you’ve been reading along with me for a while, you know I haven’t been thrilled with the Foundation Beyond Belief’s support of religious charities in the past. One of the major problems with it was the expectation that every single member who didn’t want to support religious groups should research each charity themselves to assess their level of religiosity and adjust their donations accordingly. Now, so the plan goes, you should be able to set your account to give to some assortment of the secular options and rest assured that you won’t be funding religious activity. That makes donating easier, and should go a long way towards the “encouragement” prong of their mission.

I still object to the practice of an atheist/secular humanist charitable foundation choosing any religious beneficiaries. I continue to acknowledge that it doesn’t violate their stated policy that beneficiaries “may be founded on any worldview so long as they do not engage in proselytizing,” but I don’t think that such a policy actually serves the purpose of the organization and it ought to be revised. It doesn’t encourage atheist generosity to give to religious groups, so much as it encourages atheists to encourage religious generosity. It doesn’t demonstrate the goodness of atheists because most people will only see and hear about the religious people doing good stuff (if they see/hear anything at all on the topic). It barely demonstrates the goodness of atheists to the religious people running the charities — and even then, they are probably congratulating themselves for so effectively demonstrating their goodness to us.

(I suppose that it does focus atheist generosity to these groups, insofar as it designates groups to give money to, but of course we still have to decide whether it’s good to focus donations there so this just collapses to the rest of the discussion. Honestly, this is the prong of their mission statement I understand the least. It sounds almost like they want to encourage atheists to take advantage of economies of scale, to consolidate their giving rather than split it up between tons of groups … but if that were the case, they wouldn’t pick nine new charities every quarter. I don’t know. Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled programming.)

I also continue to be skeptical that a religious charity should really be said to “not engage in proselytizing.” There are many charities that have been founded by people who happened to be religious and who might have had religious motivations in wanting to do good works, but which nevertheless have completely secular goals and operating procedures. But when your charity’s operations essentially involve saying, “Hi, we’re members of Religion X and we’re going to do good stuff for you now,” you’re promoting Religion X, and I think that counts. This is also true if you say, “Hi, we’re all members of diverse faith backgrounds and we want to get together to celebrate, and encourage each other in, our varied religious beliefs.” You’re promoting the idea that faith is better than no faith.

Society sends us a hugely powerful message that being a good person is the same as being a religious person. And many individual religions try to make the case for their correctness by pointing out that believers are inspired to be better people through their faith, and asserting that the inspiration must have come from the deity/deities they worship. All charity done under a flag of religion is religious proselytizing, even if nobody is passing out pamphlets or screaming in anybody’s face. Is this really so hard to understand?

I haven’t heard a single argument against this from anyone involved in the Foundation Beyond Belief on any level. It’s strange to me, because on their own prerogative the organizers promised to support only charities that “do not engage in proselytizing” — why did they make that decision? Presumably because most atheists (at least, most atheists who actively identify as such enough to consider joining a foundation based on it) do not want to support efforts to win religious converts. I know I’m not interested in encouraging people to believe things I think are false! Perhaps they think that doing good things for people while telling them you’re a member of a particular religion does not win religious converts; if so, I would like to hear why they think that.

The actual argument being made in favor of giving to religious groups is that a majority of the current FBB members responding to a recent survey say they think it’s a good idea. As quoted in Hemant’s post:

Over half of the respondents (51.7%) said, “I think it’s a good idea and might even support such groups with my donation.” A further 15 percent support the idea even though they are not likely to allocate their own funds for it, and 5.5 percent said they were indifferent.

On the other side, 18 percent do not think FBB should support any religious charities but are willing to shift their funds to avoid them, while 9.5 percent said they opposed the policy strongly enough to consider canceling their membership.

The thing is, I disagree with those people who say it’s a good idea. See above. The Foundation Beyond Belief should be striving to do things that are actually good ideas, based on logic and reasoning, as well as the application of their mission as a charitable foundation, even if everybody and their pet goldfish voted against it. So I still think arguments should be made, by the members who support the idea and certainly by the FBB leadership that made this decision.

More importantly, this poll fails to take into account the many people who are not yet members of FBB, who had maybe been toying with the idea of signing up when they picked Quaker Peace and Social Witness or Soulforce (or who heard about the foundation for the first time through those controversies). Many of us, myself included, have thus far decided not to join because of the ongoing support of religious charities. As of this writing, FBB lists 673 members on their front page. The Friendly Atheist website alone gets over 110,000 unique pageviews a month, and has over 10,000 RSS subscribers. It’s a popular site, but still only represents a fraction of the online atheist community. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there’s a lot of room for growth here.

The point has been made that people deserve the option to give to religious groups, if that is how they choose to spend their money. Obviously this is true, but it is not a reason why the Foundation Beyond Belief should be facilitating it. People have the option to give to religious groups already, by making their own contribution. Ridiculous hypothetical example: I bet a majority of FBB members, and even a majority of atheists, would like a big, delicious, juicy steak. We might suggest that FBB designate a category for buying steaks for atheists. Maybe if all the atheists who want steaks pool their money, we can get a group discount or something. (Bear with me.) Some atheists are undoubtedly vegan or vegetarian, many on principled grounds, and would object to having their money used for this purpose, but they can just set up their accounts so that no money goes to the steak fund. But — what does buying steak have to do with the mission of the foundation? Nothing! It doesn’t add anything to FBB’s purpose, no matter how delicious the steaks are, no matter how happy a majority of FBB members will be to receive delicious steaks. I realize this is an extreme example, but the case against a religious category is actually stronger when you add in the point about any religious charity promoting religiousness. Buying steaks is just frivolous; it’s not actually counter to the idea of atheism.

Realize too that the front page display lists “Amount Raised” and “Members.” Can you imagine being a vegan but still being counted towards that member count, having your money counted toward amount raised, in FBB publicity when they bragged about supporting such great causes as education in the developing world, protecting the environment, and making lots of people happy by giving them big juicy steaks? Yes, once a quarter they publish a list of how much money went to which beneficiary, but they aren’t going to give that whole list every time they explain what they are to a potential partner — and it’s way too cumbersome, I wouldn’t expect them to. That’s why the separate religious category isn’t enough to change my mind about FBB membership. I don’t want to increment their member count, and I don’t want my charitable donations to be counted as part of their amount raised, as long as it will imply support for all the operations of the foundation.

I’ve written a lot, and in the absence of facial expressions and body language I know this post may come across as angry. I’m not. I guess I’m disappointed, but not really surprised at this point because it’s become clear to me over the course of these last few months that Dale McGowan and the Foundation Beyond Belief board really want to foster the “let’s all get along” approach to atheism. I wish they wouldn’t try to pass it off as something they’re doing because their members want it — clearly no one was complaining or begging for this before — but it’s their choice to run their foundation how they want to. For me, although I think the change in beneficiary categories will be a major improvement over the status quo, the harm of endorsing religion outweighs the benefit of FBB as a facilitator of charitable giving. I still prefer to give to charity on my own.

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  1. But when your charity’s operations essentially involve saying, “Hi, we’re members of Religion X and we’re going to do good stuff for you now,” you’re promoting Religion X, and I think that counts. … You’re promoting the idea that faith is better than no faith.

    Yes. Charity should not involve any inquiry into a recipient’s religion, politics, philosophy, or other irrelevant matters; nor any attempt (no matter how subtle) to change the recipient’s opinion on these matters. It should focus on getting real help to individuals who really need it.

    But it’s going too far to say that proselytizing is inherent in merely allowing a recipient to know the opinions of the charity’s personnel from the name of the organization.

    Sooner or later (if not already) there will be charities organized by humanist organizations and eventually also by expressly Atheist organizations.

    So, if your definition were adopted, when a charity’s operations essentially involve saying, “Hi, we’re members of the Metropolis Atheist Society and we’re going to do good stuff for you now,” it would be promoting Atheism, and I think that would count equally as promoting the idea that lacking faith is better than having it. In short, by your definition, such an organization should not qualify as a FBB beneficiary on the grounds of proselytizing.

    It does not matter that you think that lacking faith is better than having it. If your ideal is that proselytizing is out of place in charity work, then that applies to all proselytizing, even proselytizing for your own view.

    Therefore, if it is possible for an Atheist organization to provide charity without proselytizing (in the real active sense, not just its name), then it ought to be possible for a religious organization to do so, too. It is just one more thing that needs to be monitored, like efficiency, financial integrity of operations, etc.

    I was unaware of the Foundation Beyond Belief before I read your post. If they are actually doing the kind of investigation they say with the criteria they specify on their website, then they seem to be applying balance and judgment to the matter of delivering charity without ideological baggage. If a donor is willing to rely on the FBB’s opinion regarding “efficiency, effectiveness, moderate size …, compatibility with humanist focus on mutual care in this world and this life, and geographic diversity” why not also rely on their opinion regarding the status of “non-dogmatic, non-proselytizing, progressive religious charity”?

    All of these are only the means of having confidence in the delivery: the primary goal is the charity.

  2. Verbifex, I think you misunderstood my point. One of the parts of FBB’s purpose is to “demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists,” and supporting charities where people say, “Hi, I’m an atheist and I’m going to do good stuff for you now” is totally consistent with that goal. I don’t have a problem with proselytization itself as long as it’s not aggressive and rude; there’s no inherent problem with trying to convince other people that you are right. I start to have a problem with it when you’re actually wrong. You can go ahead and do it still, but I don’t think other people should be supporting you in that effort, especially people who agree with me that you are wrong.

    My point was that I don’t think a charitable foundation which seeks to demonstrate the generosity of nonbelievers should be sending funds to religious people who are trying to demonstrate their generosity. I thought that part of the point of FBB was to help make the public case that atheists can indeed be “good without God.” The message is seriously muddied when we try to show we are “good without God” by giving our money to people who believe they are good with God, for God, and in God’s name (and that their faith in God makes them better than people who lack it).

    The main reason I don’t want to rely on FBB’s opinion regarding the selection of a “non-proselytizing … religious charity” is that I don’t see how such a thing can exist. I argued my reasons for this in this post, and in others linked (notably point #2 here). If anyone thinks that being a clearly labeled religious charity has no effect in improving public perception of that religion or winning converts to it, I would like to hear why.

  3. I’ll just enthusiastically second all of this—the post and the subsequent NFQ comment (and I like delicious juicy steaks, too)—and stop there.

  1. FBB’s updated policies | No Forbidden Questions

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