Secular Charity

I recently read an article in the Post-Gazette about a man who was inspired to provide food for homeless people here in downtown Pittsburgh after reading John 21:17: “Feed my sheep.”

The “Feed My Sheep” organization is a terrific one, but an obvious question comes to mind when reading stories like this: how important was the religious motivation for the charity? Can secular humanists and non-theists serve others in their community, or are they naturally more self-centered? Can they be willing to help other people if God isn’t prompting them from the inside or threatening them from the outside? If so, why are there so many religious charities?

Part of the answer to these questions lies in simple statistics. If over 80 percent of Americans claim to be Christians, a majority of charities will naturally be affiliated with that group. In fact, there is a surprising number of secular charities (percentage-wise) in America, and I will provide a few links at the bottom of this entry.

I also won’t discount the positive humanitarian prompting that can emerge from verses like John 21:17. Along with phobias and genocides, religion has also supported positive actions and outreaches like “Feed My Sheep,” especially here in a country that thankfully cherry picks its religious mottoes from the more benign and moral parts of its holy book. Most religions are an accumulated mass of teachings that represent both the best aspirations and the worst atrocities of humanity–all tied together with the common thread of supernatural involvement. This leads to good things as well as bad. Black and white pictures of religious consequences are inaccurate.

Nevertheless, as secularists who don’t believe that God is there in the background supporting people who are performing any actions (good or bad), can we still see value in having a religious text to help prompt positive social action? “Yes” and “No.” Yes in the sense that community and feeding the hungry are good things; “No” in the sense that religion is both unnecessary and adds unfortunate baggage to the positive root action. In other words, many religious charities are good, but they could be far better (and safer) without the religion.

I’ve worked in two different religious “soup kitchens” before, and both of them proselytized as they distributed food. Part of their teaching was about love, but a lot of it was also about “faith” and praying for God to help the homeless find jobs or ways to elevate themselves beyond their current circumstances. Not only is prayer statistically worthless, but giving people false hope or taking their focus off of real ways to elevate their status (such as working at it instead of wasting time in prayer and wish-thinking) is morally questionable in and of itself. Many of Christianity’s most famous and popular teachings (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) dish out plenty of questionable advice (e.g., Matthew 6:25-34: “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear,” etc). Is this really a good way to live, not giving a thought to the concerns of tomorrow?

Besides these concerns, however, I object to spreading religion because it’s not true. Arguments are made frequently about the relative harm done by religion, and people come to various conclusions. In the end, religion isn’t primarily bad because of the harm it does. It’s bad simply because it’s wrong. And that alone is a good reason to support secular charities over religious ones: help promote the spread of verified truth instead of superstition. (There are also legal [and therefore moral?] concerns about church/state separation for government-sponsored charities and the Faith-Based Initiatives mess, but that’s a topic for another time.)

So what are these secular charities? Is it actually possible for people to do good without divine prompting? I think anyone who has ever enjoyed a simple friendship or wanted to return a favor after benefiting from the selfless action of someone else will innately know the answer to this question. Occam’s Razor neatly slices away the need for supernatural explanations of goodness. Helping others can be fulfilling, it promotes welfare and does good in the world, and it is evolutionarily explicable. Here are a few good secular charities:

  • The Fred Hollows Foundation is inspired by work of the late Professor Fred Hollows, whose vision was for a world where no one was needlessly blind. This Foundation has worked in 29 countries and has restored sight to more than a million people. Hollows passed away 11 years ago from cancer, but he was always outspoken on his atheist beliefs. His widow, Gabi Hollows took over the Foundation after his death.
  • S.H.A.R.E., the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort, was developed about twenty years ago by the Council for Secular Humanism to provide an alternative for those who wish to contribute to humanitarian efforts without the intermediary of a religious organization. S.H.A.R.E. has contributed most recently to the Tsunami disaster relief effort and victims of Hurricane Katrina.

If you wish to contribute to a charity but are concerned about religious proselytizing, is good resource for finding out if organizations may be using donations in ways you aren’t aware of.

On the whole, however, it’s important for secular humanists to break the negative stigma that surrounds the non-religious and demonstrate that humanism is about supporting and appreciating humanity, not destroying the world with subversive, evil philosophies. In general, I find charity work to be very rewarding–for both myself and others–and I’m an atheist….

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2 Responses to Secular Charity

  1. mikhailovich says:

    I’ll definitely stick around after CFI next week. The discussion nights are great. Victor Bernard is a pleasure.

  2. Laura says:

    I am super glad you posted on this because you said it much better than I would have.

    I’m really excited to look at ways we can contribute. I think the GPCFB is a great place to start and Brandon made a point to tell me that money goes a lot further than canned good donations. For the next DS meeting we’ll definitely take food and/or monetary donations. I think if it works well we can really get some competition going with the other DS groups. I was even considering sending out a mass email to contact all the coordinators of each local group, telling them how we organized it.

    We should brainstorm! I think Liz and I are getting together after the CFI discussion group next week. You should stick around too.

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