On The Uses and Abuses of Tragedies for Atheism

American Atheists has decided to put up the following three billboards this week in New Jersey:

The first thing worth noting is that American Atheists seems to sincerely want to help with relief efforts in the Philippines and to raise awareness about how to do it more effectively. They were offered free billboard space to advertise during the Thanksgiving season and they chose to switch the billboard to be a message encouraging to donate to victims in the Philippines and they are using the main page of their site to send people to Humanist Crisis Response, Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders. As an organization that depends on donations in order to exist, in their minds, sending their donors to other organizations is the kind of self-sacrifice that is consequential and an expression of their heartfelt desire to put another important cause above their own organization’s.

But there is a lot that is problematic with the way they are doing this.

First, most people will only see the billboard and they will have no idea about the backstory of the American Atheists having a cost-free billboard to use. They are likely to have the same reaction I had, which was: “it’s ironic to spend money on an ideological billboard about one’s position on religion instead of giving to tragedy victims while accusing others of wasting their money not helping tragedy victims but instead promoting one’s religion.”

Now, I am glad that American Atheists did not actually make the choice that spending money on a billboard attacking religious people’s charity was wiser than spending that same money on donations to the victims. But I imagine only the tiniest fraction of people who see the billboard will know anything about the billboard being free. So, the appearance of hypocritical irony very well could be what many see. That’s not really well thought out from a PR perspective.

Relatedly, the billboard is the message. Most people who see the billboard will not go to the website. American Atheists did not even put the “/relief” url in the actual billboard but just the address of their main website. So, while the message is clear that they don’t like the way that they think religious people go about donating and otherwise helping, it is really clear from the billboard that they are actively raising funds themselves. There is nothing on the billboard showing the great orgs they’re promoting. If people go to the website they’ll see all that. But without it the billboard is a much more paltry, petty, and condescending message.

But much more seriously, the billboard is exploiting a time of tragedy to get ideological. American Atheists is acting aghast that anyone is calling them exploitative, saying that it is ironic since they are sending their donors to donate to other orgs than their own, which they take to be the opposite of exploitative and purely altruistic. Except that it’s not just altruistic. Of course no one is naive enough to think organizations helping with relief efforts are going to (or should) give charity without any expectation of benefit to the organization, whether it be in PR or tax write-offs, etc. So there is nothing wrong with American Atheists hoping to benefit in some way from their attempt at charity here.

The exploitative aspect of this is that they are taking advantage of a tragedy to demean the prayers of the suffering and those in solidarity with them. They are taking advantage of the tragedy to send a message that can easily be read as implying that there is something mutually exclusive about praying for people and giving them real help. This also comes off as tastelessly self-righteous. “You foolish, useless religious people pray, but the rest of us know to give real help.”

American Atheists are calling this “an educational message” that “religion is a lie”. But it’s not educating anyone to just make an assertion. And while in numerous appropriate forums I am all for having hard confrontations with religious people that deeply challenge their beliefs and values, mixing a combative agenda into a post-tragedy charitable gesture wrecks the opportunity to prove you can be magnanimous and tasteful and above the fray. When responding to a tragedy you should be just putting your logo out there with a message that is unambiguously focused on those you are purporting to help and maybe something about how helping is an outgrowth of your values and commitments (though less is more even here). It should not be about you and your agenda. It shouldn’t be advertising and it certainly shouldn’t be a time for picking fights.

“But how will anyone pay attention to my organization if I’m not being controversial?” People will get the point that you’re there because they will see your name credited and they will learn about the proactive steps you are taking to help. And even more importantly they will implicitly understand and respect your restraint in not taking the moment to advertise. They will not be distracted from your charitableness by your attempt to coopt the forum for your own purposes. To do otherwise and to turn your charitable gesture into a smear against your enemies like we find in the American Atheists’ press release bashing churches for their supposedly inferior understanding of charity and their proper place, is to effectively grab the mic, steal the spotlight, and make everything about you and your axes to grind as though you and your concerns are the only thing important in the world and can’t ever not be center stage. When responding to a fresh and devastating tragedy, all your normal politicking should be on hold. Deviate from that and you make the story about your lack of shame and tact.

And in cases like this American Atheists represent atheists all over the country like this whether we like it or not. It’s really frustrating. As much as I love some of the people who work at American Atheists and eagerly support and am proud of most of the nuts and bolts activism that they are behind, they make some huge tone deaf and offensive choices about big optics issues and moral fights to pick. I didn’t like it when they mishandled the iconography of slavery offensively, when they decided to take on a Holocaust memorial monument on Ohio statehouse grounds as a supposed violation of the separation of church and state, and, James Croft has persuaded me, I should have been more skeptical of their choice to go after the cross at the 9/11 museum related to the 9/11 memorial.

Back to the one billboard’s false implication that giving prayers and more tangible aid are mutually exclusive endeavors and the religious somehow do the former to the detrimental exclusion of the latter. The fact is that religious people are demonstrably more charitable on average than religiously unaffiliated people. There are very good reasons to think that this is for reasons that have nothing to do with beliefs in gods. Luke Galen recently gave an incredible lecture broadcast on the impeccable Reasonable Doubts podcast in which he gives a richly detailed and insightful analysis of what the data on the pro-social behaviors of religious, irreligious, theist, and atheist people really says and does not say. (Seriously listen to it, it’s a must!) But, here’s the thing. While there is no reason to think that theists or religious people are inherently more capable of charity than atheists or irreligious people, what is demonstrably clear is that all the praying statistically has not created people who never give “real help”. Prayer is part of an entire matrix of religious practices that have an end result of quantifiably more charity from religious service attenders than us. So it is not the enemy of charity.

And who knows just how many of the people driving past the American Atheists billboards did give tangible aid and then when they realized the limits even of their money to help they also took a shot on prayer just in case that might also help? Such people don’t need to be condescended to that they don’t care about “real help”. A lot of people who resort to prayer are kitchen sink types willing to do anything to achieve the good, even desperate long shots like prayer.

They’re usually not fools who just wait on magic when tangible resources are available. And neither do the countless people who tweeted “Pray for the Philippines” need to be chastised. Expressions of solidarity matter to people. And since we’re looking at a country that is 95% Christian and, as of a 2000 census had only .7% people who either specified no religion or outright claimed to have no religion, it is fairly reasonable to expect that the prayers by the average Fillippino who learned of them were taken as an appreciated global expression of sorrow, love, and hope for their well being, rather than as an expression of religious people’s indifference to giving “real help”. The implied claim that somehow those calls for prayers stopped religious people in any significant numbers from actually helping with material aid where they might otherwise would have is sorely lacking in evidence. And unless it can be demonstrated, it’s fairly insulting and condescending to praying people to assume it.

And, in fact, it is quite likely that plenty of people in the Philippines want religious support and resources as they deal with the existential horror they are suffering. As one book once put it, “man does not live on bread alone”. People have psychological, “spiritual”, and philosophical needs, in addition to their material ones–even in the wake of tragedy. In fact, especially in the wake of tragedy. And, whether we like it or not, a sizable proportion of human beings prove regularly and adamantly religious in nature and find any manner of solace, resilience, and hope in dark times through the use of religious resources.

Now do I think that supernatural, superstitious beliefs are an awful route to solving philosophical and existential problems? Yes. Do I have serious qualms about the nature of the supernaturalistic religions that people turn to during tragedies? Yes. Do I worry that the psychological palliatives of faith are a poor substitute for a truth based view of the world and a proactive, naturalistic, humanistic ethics? Yes. Yes. Yes. I will continue to do my level best to devote a huge proportion of my personal and professional energies to liberating people from faith-based falsehoods and their frequently attendant authoritarian ethics and institutions. I swear on the graves of Socrates, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, and Christopher Hitchens, peace be upon them all, that I will continue to oppose these falsehoods.

But I won’t take the moments of grief and tragedy as the opportunity to pick these fights. That’s one of the few really important lines.

Many atheists report being rankled by religious people who foist their religious perspectives on them in their moments of grief, who insist on trying to force them to think within their tediously false supernaturalistic worldviews at precisely those moments when the lies and banalities of faith are the most hollow, worthless, and even morally offensive to many atheists.

And so I will not be equally insensitive in return to religious people. I am not going to seize upon moments of tragedy to take pot shots at religious believers.

Now, I have gone after (and would again) religious believers who exploit tragedies to attack atheists, secularists, heretics, or any other sorts of “infidels” who they disgustingly try to scapegoat. And I will speak out against the exclusion of atheists from civic ceremonies that invite religious representatives. There is no reason for us to suffer abuse, demonization, ostracism, marginalization, or erasure when a tragedy strikes. There is no reason to let others use us as a political football when they are the ones exploiting a horrific event to try to score ideological points. It is important we challenge and reverse such narratives. (See my post On Criticizing Religious Statements in the Wake of Tragedy.)

And there are two extremely legitimate roles that atheists and humanists and other non-believers have in the wake of tragedy that can rightfully employ billboards. For one thing, we can do (better) what American Atheists was trying here in part to do and motivate fellow non-believers to give time, money, and other resources to charity through an appeal to our shared identity as fellow atheists or humanists. And what we can also do that is directly germane to our missions as activist atheists is reach out in a positive way to those who are suffering disillusionment and rejecting their faiths as part of their grief. And we can reach out to those who didn’t believe in the first place and are irritated with the religiousness around them after tragedy. These doubters, new apostates, and existing non-believers each need to know they are not alone and that there are others they can talk to and join with who won’t complicate all their pain with religious banalities, trivializations, impositions, and lies. There are ways to do variations on our existing and very successful “Don’t believe in God, you’re not alone” style campaigns, that can be clearly distinguishable from negative attacks on the sources religious people are turning to while their minds and hearts are fragile and desperate.

I don’t want people turning to superstitious and ultimately exploitative religious resources for working out their grief. But it is their moral right to not be ideologically attacked in those sensitive moments unless there is a serious overriding good at stake. People deserve that psychological space to turn where they feel comfortable. If they want my input or if they have doubts, then I’m happy to let them know they can safely talk to me and I’ll share my perspective if they ask. This is the respect I would want from them. It’s the kind we should be giving to them immediately after tragedies.

Finally, there are some really important issues with religious charity that seem to be in the background of the billboards. American Atheists probably had in mind the stories about Catholics sending typhoon survivors bibles and rosaries. I doubt the average driver passing this billboard knows anything about that context, so the point about not sending bibles but instead giving real help is probably going to whizz past them on that and, again, seem like a random, petty, and clueless pot shot.

But, again, the idea that Filipinos have no religious longings that can be psychologically assuaged for them by religious paraphernalia just ignores the relatively strong Catholicism of the country. This is a place where more than 80% of people are Catholics. This must be a deep part of their culture. For fellow Catholics to be motivated to help them restore just a little bit of that is about as non-offensive to me as people sending toys so that kids who have suffered a tragedy can have a little bit of normalcy and pleasant distraction. Again, “man does not live on bread alone”, and all that. That’s all this is. Yes–I know the survivors’ material needs are monumental, urgent, and overwhelming. But is the money spent on bibles and rosaries the difference between full recovery overnight and destitution? I hardly think so. I doubt money is even being spent on them. These sound like organizations that had them on hand because that’s what they already keep stockpiles of.

Again, it’s a small gesture that may be disproportionately meaningful to what must be many devoutly Catholic people who still could not, with the cost of the bible, have had their whole livelihoods restored but could with that bible at least seek out whatever it is they want their faith to provide them as they face an awful uphill struggle. Has any atheist bothered to ask Catholics in the Philippines receiving these bibles and rosaries how they feel? Where is the humanistic compassion here? Where is the ability to imaginatively and empathetically enter into the mindsets of those religious people we disagree with, who likely make up the majority of those affected by this disaster, and to think about what they would say they wanted, needed or appreciated?

Now, I know the Red Cross discourages donations of toys and clothes immediately during a crisis and urges people to give money instead. And if the bible shipments delay basic necessities reaching people and they suffer and die, then, from a logistics perspective, groups sending religious paraphernalia can be asked to be more mindful of what they are doing and to hold off until a more appropriate time when things are more stable to send such gifts. But that can be done without attacking Catholics who are in possession of large stores of religious resources from donating what they have to give to their religious kin.

There are other problems with religious charities. The proselytization motives of missionaries (and many local church run charities) can be much more about the interests of their religion than the people they’re supposedly there to “help”. This bothers me greatly, especially with government money now flowing to religious charities through the “faith based initiatives” program of Bush and, now, Obama. And many secular people may not want to give to charities that are more about religious practices (or which enforce religious bigotries) than just straight charity work, and should be educated about issues related to that. And, of course, any given religious charity can be inefficient or counterproductive like many secular charities.

But these issues are complicated ones that are hard to address on billboards and they really are not where the focus should be after a tragedy. What we should have been doing as humanists is what American Atheists does on its website but not on the billboards: send people to the wonderful, evidence based, charity Foundation Beyond Belief, Humanist Crisis Response, Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders. (Please go there and donate!) We should be publicizing what those organizations do in terms of tangible efficiency and effectiveness, and we can do that in positive terms.

As a parting thought: American Atheists’ new billboards echo closely their founder’s words that “An atheist believes that deed must be done instead of prayer said.” Here is what Rebecca Vitsmun, the atheist Tornado survivor who made so many of us so proud after she told Wolf Blitzer that she was an atheist on CNN, had to say about this quote on her Facebook page (quoted with her permission):

I’m kind of appalled that one of the quotes that the Atheists Alliance chose to put on their monument says “an atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said” as if religious people are only praying and not helping. I can’t stand when either side falsely accuses the other for not being kind, considerate and loving to those in need. While atheist friends of mine were first responders at Briarwood Elementary, reuniting frightened children with their families, my theist brother walked around pulling victims out of their homes. Anders is wearing diapers donated by theists and I am wearing clothing donated by atheists. 15 theists shoveled out my house while just as many atheists were shoveling in Shawnee.

My point is this, I don’t know a single person who didn’t do everything they could to help those in need in any way they could think of. Even Brian and I pulled shoes out of the heap that was our home….still in a daze only moments after the storm….to shoe neighbors who road the storm out in their house and were walking down the street, shoeless, in the debris.

Okay, so atheists didn’t pray, but they worried. They said to themselves, “oh no! This is terrible! What can I do?”

I’m tired of both sides pointing fingers and pretending the other side doesn’t care. We all care. Empathy is a human emotion. It is time to stop creating a divide that isn’t there.

Atheists took a major step back when they decided to use that quote on their monument.

It’s shameful.


Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Paul Loebe

    Methinks ye protest too much. Marketing costs money but in the end raises more than the initial cost. Here endeth the first lesson.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      If it’s all about marketing then ditch the pretensions to altruism and while you’re at it, don’t rope the suffering people of the Philippines into it.

    • Paul Loebe

      If the money you spend is used to get more money to those suffering in the Philippines…

      Which was the point.

      The front page has the link directly in the middle of the page for the relief effort. It’s the very first thing you see.


    • Dawn

      The ends justify the means?

      Except I don’t think there’s any reason to assumes the ads actually lead anyone to the ends. Keep in mind that the links you mentioned are on the website. The billboards are supposedly meant to drive traffic to the website but you can’t point and click the billboards.

      They’re not clear. When I first saw the ads here my waffling-theist/agnostic brain saw an attack on religion and religious folk. Until I read Dan’s post I didn’t realize they were part of an appeal for disaster relief. I assumed the link was to more of the same. No visit from me. My atheist husband is of the same opinion. No visit from him.

      They’re exclusive. They isolate and shrink their potential pool of givers from the very beginning by excluding people. There are a lot of people, a lot of atheists, who will feel this ad isn’t meant for them and who will dismiss it.

      They’re offensive. That’s fair in an ad meant to publicize an idea or cause and advance discussion but when the purported intent is raising money for charity it’s just stupid. So stupid it might cause some to question if AA wasn’t simply using the disaster as a means to get access to some free billboard space. Definitely stupid enough to cause many people, theists and atheists alike, to dismiss the ad as they drive by in their cars.

      One more troubling issue that I didn’t see Dan tackle is that the AA is involving the charities it links to in this mess. If the ads actually DO drive enough traffic to the site then visitors might think the charities being linked too are partnering with the AA or might approve of it’s ads. It’s pretty reasonable to assume some might decline to contribute from those charities now and in the future because of that veneer of association. It’s also easy to imagine some spreading the word in some religious circles and costing the charities more donations.

      So not only is the end you assume far from a given but there’s a possibility that it might turn out to be a negative in terms of disaster relief donations. All things the AA should have considered but weirdly didn’t.

  • http://www.awaypoint.wordpress.com Valerie Tarico

    I think if they had put the “/relief” on the billboards I would have no problem with this. As is, as you say, it does a poor job of communicating that this is about helping and not simply about religion bashing. If they had been trying to direct relief funds into their personal coffers (like Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church does–”pray for those affected, give to our church building work”), then I would have a serious problem with it.

    • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

      Do you have any articles on the Mars Hill relief fund abuse? I am Christian, but I have made it an occasional part of my blogging/posting habits to make people aware of the abuses going on at Driscoll’s church.

    • http://www.awaypoint.wordpress.com Valerie Tarico

      Sorry Chris – I saw that a while back before I knew how to do screen shots. I’ve wished a number of times since that I had those images. I don’t know how they have reacted to the recent disaster.

    • Peter

      Here we are in the holiday season and of course we’ll see atheist groups like American Atheists trumpeting the fact they put up a billboard or whatever. They remind me of little kids who pull a prank and then run away to laugh and giggle about it. And this is what I consider all this a juvenile and childless. What is your end game, what do hope to achieve? If it’s to convince people that your worldview is more rational and necessary, you fail miserably. How much attention do does anyone you pay to billboards or news ads? After a few look you ignore them, like everyone else. But you don’t “convert” people by pissing them off. Far better, I think, is holding a food drive, a soup kitchen, toy drive or
      providing warm coats to the underprivileged. Send out a press release. That
      will gain you more publicity and get people thinking you guys aren’t so bad rather
      than stupid signs. By the way, I’m agnostic.

  • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

    Dan, I am glad to see this. I have had to learn similar lessons in advocating the oppressed/stricken. An article I read today covered just the same topic. In addition to the problems with their treatment of religion, the problem lies in their centering the focus on themselves in the process of advocating the people in the Phillipines.


  • Roy Sablosky

    “The fact is that religious people are demonstrably more charitable on average than religiously unaffiliated people.” No, this is a myth. http://yashwata.info/2010/07/15/charity1/

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, Roy. I have long been uncomfortable with giving to church being considered charity for Christians when to me that’s just giving your dues to your club or promoting your own perspective, rather than being charitable. But then I heard that religious people even gave more on average to secular charities. I only gave your piece a very quick read. But I thought I saw that there too you quoted this bit:

      Roughly two-thirds of those who attend church on a weekly basis make contributions to nonreligious charities; in contrast, only 57 percent of those attending church less than one or two times a month do so.

      I am having trouble understanding your argument about why this is not valid. Can you boil it down?

    • Roy Sablosky

      People who join voluntary organizations of any kind are more likely to donate to charity. Members of *churches* pop up in statistical studies because churches are the most common type of voluntary organization. Being in a bowling league, for example, makes people more likely to donate to charity; but there are more people in churches than in bowling leagues.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Right, and I acknowledge in my article that there is nothing inherently or inevitably more charitable about a theist than an atheist. My point in the article was that all that praying by the religious does not thwart charitableness. The end result is the same, regardless of how we would explain it. In actual dollars, on average, those who attend religious services give demonstrably more money. Therefore the idea that praying correlates with not giving money is bogus. The correlation is probably the opposite. So it’s not necessary to try to dissuade people from praying in order to get them to give tangible charity and atheists are not any more charitable for not being people who pray. That’s not to say we’re less charitable (in principle), just that our view of the world has not translated magically into a better motivation to give money.

    • Roy Sablosky

      “In actual dollars, on average, those who attend religious services give demonstrably more money.” This is incorrect. No such thing has been demonstrated. It is a myth.

      In recent years, this myth has been bolstered by statistical studies that seem to show that religious people give more money to “charity” than non-religious people. But when you look at the numbers carefully, it turns out that this is true only if we count their donations to their own churches as “charity.” As you have acknowledged, such an interpretation would be deeply misleading.

      In your original text, you called it a FACT that “religious people are … more charitable on average than religiously unaffiliated people.” This is not a fact. It is a myth. You know what? “Myth” is the wrong word for it. It is a filthy lie.

    • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

      I am interested in actual data, too, as I have been told this repeatedly, even recently. However, I noticed several glaring issues in your article. As a lifelong churchgoer, myself, I know that while much of the money does indeed go toward church maintenance, you overemphasize this point. My tiny 20 person church runs a charitable organization helping at-risk kids by giving them an after school program (and no, it’s not an indoctrination program).

      Hell, my pastor’s parents go to an ultra-conservative church which believes some terrible things, yet even they decided to put together a place where they have enough food available to feed just about anyone hungry in the entire area around them.

      So while I couldn’t give you hard data on what percentage of church giving goes to charitable causes, you do a lot of hand-waving in your article to try to dismiss money given to the church.

    • Roy Sablosky

      Yeah, I’m interested in actual data, too, but you admittedly don’t have any. Let’s be clear on what the topic of discussion is here. I take exception to Dan’s statement that “In actual dollars, on average, those who attend religious services give demonstrably more money.” The key word is “demonstrably.” I claim that IT HAS NOT BEEN DEMONSTRATED that religious people are more generous than non-religious people. Since you have no real data to bring to the question, you and I basically agree.

    • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

      I don’t really take a position on the subject. I’ve heard it said, but like you, I don’t have the mysterious data that seems to back the claims. I mostly took issue with your dismissal of religious donations, because seemingly a lot of it actually does go directly toward benevolent causes.

      If we wanted to see the data — and really it seems to me to be something of a pissing contest for religious people to brag about how great they are — we would need two specific metrics (probably more, but these are what I see): first, what percentage of the contributions go to religious organizations, and second, what percentage of those religious contributions go toward benevolent causes, excluding evangelism.

      The second part of this metric will be especially tricky, given that many “missions” projects have a mix of evangelism and direct aid/relief.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Roy, if it’s a dirty lie, why is it in your very own article, in the portion I quoted above:

      Roughly two-thirds of those who attend church on a weekly basis make contributions to nonreligious charities; in contrast, only 57 percent of those attending church less than one or two times a month do so.

      I am on Team Atheist. I would love to find out that we are give more dollars to real charities than religious people do. I am going off that numbers I have seen here and there that you admitted to.

    • Roy Sablosky

      The answer to this riddle is very tricky and surprising. I gave it to you already; here it is again.

      People who join VOLUNTARY ORGANIZATIONS OF ANY KIND are more likely to donate to charity than people who don’t join. What happens in statistical studies is that members of churches pop up as exemplars – but this is only because churches are the most common type of voluntary organization. Being in a bowling league, for example, makes people just as likely to donate to charity; but there are more people in churches than in bowling leagues.

      There is a lesson here. It is that hidden assumptions can be very destructive and very, very hard to see. The “religion fosters generosity” literature is BUILT ON an assumption, namely that there is SOMETHING GOOD about religion. We may not know exactly what it is or how it works, but there’s SOMETHING good, a precious pearl deep in the core. Almost everyone believes this, including many atheists.

      And that’s why I totally stand behind American Atheists, no matter how obnoxious they seem to well-meaning liberals like you. They are helping to chip away at the hidden assumption that religion is fundamentally a good thing. Religion is not fundamentally a good thing. It is a cancer of the mind.

      OF COURSE people can pray and ALSO give money. It may even be that the praying doesn’t cause them to give less money. But you said that religious people DEMONSTRABLY give MORE money to charity than the non-religious. This has been “demonstrated” only by “research” laden with false and deeply misleading assumptions. (Again, I recommend Luke Galen’s 2012 review article.) And because this “research” is misguided and misleading, the same two adjectives characterize your claim that a beneficial effect has been demonstrated.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I didn’t say religion is a fundamentally good thing. I criticize religious beliefs, practices, and institutions as one of the main foci of my writing. I am not a Manichean, I don’t believe it’s fundamentally good or fundamentally evil. I think it is something problematic in a number of ways and functionally workable for people in others. It’s a thing. A very problematic thing that is usually a vehicle of falsehoods, authoritarian values, etc. but which can also be functionally good at some things and may have purifiable aspects that secularists can learn from.

      And, AGAIN, if you read the article, I said there was nothing about the religiousness itself that made for the outcome. I know all the criticisms of “religion itself makes better people” research. The point was simply, the religiosity whether or not it was the cause, is not hindering religious people from giving money either to real charities nor to the whole spectrum of things they see as charities. Neither is the praying hindering charitableness. Whether or not some research just defines religious as good and begs the question, etc. is all besides that point. I don’t need David Silverman to wake me up. Please, the condescension!

    • Roy Sablosky

      Dan, I’m very sorry about my condescending tone. Thanks for continuing to talk to me despite this.

      You didn’t say that religion is a fundamentally good thing. And you did caution that maybe beliefs are not the reason behind the effect. Yet, you did say there is a religious effect on generosity. You said, “The fact is that religious people are demonstrably more charitable on average than religiously unaffiliated people.” And then you said, “Religious practices … have an end result of quantifiably more charity from religious service attenders than us.” These statements are false and misleading, especially with the words “fact,” “demonstrably,” and “quantifiably” in them. To say these things is to perpetuate traditional slanders (and the new trick of calling them scientific). I call on you to retract them.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Thank you for retracting the tone of the previous remark. I was not saying that religion was the secret ingredient that made religious people more effectively charitable on net. I was just saying that whatever matrix of factors that are going on in religion, the raw totals are more money donated to causes believed in by religious attenders. So, if you have an average religious attender, not even splitting up what is really a charity or not (which I agree with you on–church isn’t one, but it IS to them) and not giving any credit to the beliefs, all the data I have SEEN has said quantitatively they give money to what they believe in more than the average atheist does. The reasons probably (hopefully even!) have everything to do with just being a part of a voluntary organization–yes. Not everything they think of as worthy charity really is? Totally with you. But the point is that in their minds praying is not stopping them from seeing the immediate importance and following through by giving more dollars on average than the average atheist. Yes, in some other world where atheists join as many voluntary organizations that encourage charity on a regular basis with social pressure, atheists may give as much or more. But right now in raw quantities, doesn’t the data simply show the religious service attenders are giving more irrespective of the praying?

      I didn’t say anything else than that. If someone were to read an endorsement of religion as the royal road to charitable increases they would have to skip the qualifying remarks I made about how it’s all because of voluntary associations and my encouragement that people listen to Luke Galen dissect all those numbers.

      For me to take back the word “demonstrably”, can you explain to me what you find so objectionable about it? Don’t the raw totals show religiosity (or at least religious attendance) is quantitatively outmatching non-religious attendance in generating average dollars per person for at least right now, while few atheists have alternative charity motivating organizations to catch them up? Does the data not show that? Can you show me data contrary on the raw totals before we start getting to how much religion is to praise for the raw results? My only point is that prayer doesn’t hinder the raw results being higher. I said nothing that religious beliefs increase the raw results and in context I made qualifications that make clear I don’t think that’s what’s at work.

    • Roy Sablosky

      We’re both atheists, and we agree on a lot of things. My objection to your blog post was a narrow one. Many journal articles and some bestselling books have claimed to provide evidence for the claim that religious people are, on average, more generous than non-religious people. (The books include “Who Really Cares” by Arthur Brooks and “American Grace” by Putnam and Campbell. Putnam’s earlier book, “Bowling Alone”, also had kind words to say about religious involvement.)

      These books and articles claim that statistical analysis of the data from large-scale demographic surveys such as the General Social Survey reveals quantitative evidence for the proposition that religion fosters generosity. And these results have been quoted by thousands of subsequent commentators, including yourself. When you say “demonstrably,” you presumably alluding to these kinds of announcements from academic researchers.

      I have read all these sources and written my own survey article (currently in peer review). My findings are summarized in the blog post, “The Myth of Christian Charity,” that I linked to earlier. They agree with Luke Galen’s 2012 survey article in Psychological Bulletin “Does Religious Belief Promote Prosociality?”

      What we have found is that the claim of this broad literature is false. The data DO NOT support the idea that religion fosters generosity. The papers and books that say that evidence for a positive effect of religion on prosociality can be found in large-scale data-sets are wrong. The main reasons that religion APPEARS to make people more generous are:

      People count their donations to church as “charity.”

      2. The Internal Revenue Service counts donations to church as “charity.”

      3. Most people (including most atheists) believe that religion makes you generous, so when they are asked about another person, they are more likely to describe religious people as generous, compared to non-religious people. Furthermore, religious people are more likely to describe THEMSELVES as generous than non-believers are.

      The claim that the data demonstrate that religion makes you generous is wrong; and therefore your statement that religious people “demonstrably” give more money to charity is wrong. It has not been demonstrated. The many claims that it has been demonstrated are false.

      There is one wrinkle that is harder to dispose of. SOME limited data, often contradicted by other studies, show that religious people do contribute more money, per capita, on average, to CLEARLY SECULAR charities, compared to secular people. Doesn’t this show that religion makes you generous? No.

      First, ALL such data that I have seen are self-reported. So they could be contaminated by reputation effects (point 3 above).

      Second, EVEN IF the religious give more than the non-religious, it could be due to selection bias. Let me explain. If people think that religion is about doing good works (whether or not it actually is), then, on average, people who like to do good works would be more likely to join a church, compared to selfish people. That way, churches would end up with a higher proportion of generous people than in the overall population. But this would be a case of GENEROSITY MADE THEM RELIGIOUS, not RELIGION MADE THEM GENEROUS.

      I’m sorry to go on so long here. The bottom line is that your word “demonstrably” refers to a thread of the scientific literature that have I looked at very carefully and found to be utterly mistaken. They haven’t demonstrated anything. Their assumptions are false; their methodology is misleading; and their conclusions are invalid. That’s why I object so strongly to that little word.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      There is one wrinkle that is harder to dispose of. SOME limited data, often contradicted by other studies, show that religious people do contribute more money, per capita, on average, to CLEARLY SECULAR charities, compared to secular people.

      And this was my only point when I said they give more than us.

      Doesn’t this show that religion makes you generous? No.

      And I never said otherwise! I am done repeating myself. The article was clear and my thousand reiterations here in the comments are clear. In actual raw numbers religious affiliation SO FAR seems to correlate with more per capita giving to what religious people perceive as charities and even to secular charities. You have admitted this point over and over. That was all I said and I made clear in the article and over and over down here in the comments that religion itself was likely not the reason that religious people are giving more on average. The only point was that quantitatively they do give more. Regardless of the real reason why and so prayer is not stopping religious people from giving money. PERIOD. THAT was the only point. I’m done reiterating it and done having you attribute to me the different thing I. did. not. at. all. say: that “religion makes people more generous”. I never said it. I said it was other social factors that correlate with religious attendance and pointed people to Luke Galen’s work.

      I’m done responding to you. You seem so obsessed with the (worthwhile point, worth trumpeting) that religion itself is not the cause of charitableness that you refuse to even allow use of the quantitative per capita generosity of religious people (REGARDLESS OF ITS CAUSE) to disprove the false accusation that if people are religious they won’t give money but prayers. THAT was all I was appealing to the raw per capita numbers to refute. The idea that religion stops people from giving money. It may not cause them to give money. I didn’t say it did. My point was very clear, it does not stop them if per capita they are generating more money.

      That’s it. I’m no longer repeating this point. Either refute the findings that they give more per capita or stop denouncing my use of that seemingly demonstrated fact.

      First, ALL such data that I have seen are self-reported. So they could be contaminated by reputation effects (point 3 above).

      Great. Prove it is and I promise to publish your findings and trumpet them constantly.

    • Roy Sablosky

      Wow. Bludgeoning was not at all what I was trying to do. I thought you asked for clarification, so I was trying to clarify. I’ll stop talking now.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Okay, I will say one more thing. If ALL you want to say is “it’s not demonstrable that there is a per capita greater giving by religious attenders because all the data is self-reported”, then just say that. That’s the only relevant point. The entire rest of what you just wrote was attacking points I never made. You are refusing to have a conversation that responds to what I actually have written in the post and in the comments and the justification I gave for the sentence you want me to retract and KEPT ON reiterating the points I already accepted and acknowledged in the article/linked people to Galen to learn. It is extremely frustrating. You’re showing no ability to treat me like an individual, listen to my actual argument or understand what I am actually doing with the data I am citing. You’re bludgeoning me in this one size fits all dispel the myth way.

  • Roy Sablosky

    Funny that you mention Luke Galen. I haven’t heard the lecture you link to, but I read his review article on this topic (Galen, Luke W. 2012. “Does Religious Belief Promote Prosociality? A Critical Examination.” Psychological Bulletin 138(5):876-906). In my own article (currently under peer review), I sum up Galen’s findings this way:
    As pointed out by Galen in his exhaustive survey and methodological critique, correlations of self-reported religiosity with self-reported generosity are most plausibly explained by the fact that *most people believe* that religious people are more generous.

  • Rebecca Vitsmun

    I will say, that I said “we all care”, but in actuality, we all care or don’t care and it has nothing to do with whether or not we pray. As much as people from both sides are motivated to help out, there are others who say their prayer and do nothing and some who don’t say a prayer and also do nothing.

    I hate that the quote starts with “an atheist believes”. An atheist believes? There is no single thought that brings atheists together other than their lack of belief. The rest is up for grabs. While we can pretend every atheist out there is a humanist who wants to make the world a better place and who loves science and logic, the truth is, you can be an atheist and not be any of those things.

  • Anton

    Great column, with a lot of food for thought.

    I think there’s a troubling tendency in the USA to declare a moratorium on public discussion and analysis of the causes and the proper responses to tragedy. I’m not the first person to have noticed how the gun lobby benefits from this gag order in the wake of every one of our nation’s ever-more-common mass shootings. I’m all for grieving and healing, but there never seems to be an appropriate time to discuss issues in a reasonable way. Sentiment and hysteria always drown out honest, important questions.

    This has to be done in a very sensitive way, it’s obvious. I’m glad you brought up the “WTC Cross” incident, because this illustrates both the need for this kind of dialogue and the necessity of subtlety and ingenuity in the process. I’m a Christian, but I find it appalling that in the wake of a terrorist attack that left thousands dead, people decided to interpret twisted girders as some manifestation of divine Providence. This is a sentimental, moralistic nation, I agree; but this went over the line into new realms of hyperbolic tastelessness. The American Atheists needed to walk on eggshells to express their perfectly justified disgust, and they should have asked why we shouldn’t interpret this “WTC Cross” as trivializing the suffering of the victims and their families. But instead they made statements about the God who didn’t bother to spare the victims, an objection whose validity was overshadowed by its lack of subtlety.

    I live in Massachusetts, and was also dismayed that no one was allowed to discuss how hyperreligious the official reaction to the Boston Marathon bombing was. The Harvard Humanists and other nonreligious groups rightly protested the exclusion of their presence from this supposed “show of unity,” and received absolutely no response from the powers that be. Again, our nation’s retreat into sanctimony effectively drowned out necessary discussion.

    As far as this typhoon brouhaha goes, I don’t have a problem with the ad campaign. Again, it’s trying to penetrate the cocoon of sentimentality that always accrues around these incidents, and I don’t interpret the message as being dismissive of efforts to help whether by believers or nonbelievers. Religion shouldn’t be a consolation, it should be a demand upon us to help and care. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with Pope Francis when he asked Catholics to “pray the prayer of why,” contemplating the essential ineffability of tragedy and suffering. My faith is one that acknowledges such unknowables. But this shouldn’t prevent us from trying to understand the causes of tragedies like terrorist attacks, or gauge the propriety of our responses to them.

  • SocraticGadfly

    I would use an S-word for Silverman et al, but Dan doesn’t like that word.

  • wfenza


    I think you strayed out of your element a bit on this one. Your points are well-taken regarding the ethics of exploiting tragedy and choosing vulnerable moments to launch an attack. However, much of your post also dealt with the effectiveness in terms of marketing, which is really not your area of expertise and something on which you offered no data, only conjecture.

  • Ralph1Waldo

    Excellent (long) post, Dan. Your points are well-reasoned and I admire and empathize with your passion.

  • 9B9K9999

    If you have ever comforted a dying elderly confused religious mother or aunt, as I and so many other atheists have, you will know certain things. That is all.

  • Derpington_The_Third

    “The exploitative aspect of this is that they are taking advantage of a tragedy to demean the prayers of the suffering and those in solidarity with them. They are taking advantage of the tragedy to send a message that can easily be read as implying that there is something mutually exclusive about praying for people and giving them real help. This also comes off as tastelessly self-righteous. “You foolish, useless religious people pray, but the rest of us know to give real help.””

    Sorry, but no.

    Prayer has never *EVER* worked, and you want to call us self righteous because we’re asking people to actually help?

    Get off your sophist pedastal.

    • Verbose Stoic

      His whole point, though, is that praying for people isn’t mutually exclusive with giving them food, money, taking them in or doing anything that you’d call “actually helping”. Since prayer is, effectively, a free action, you can do it and still do the non-free actions as well, and for a lot of people it conveys a “we’re thinking of you” vibe that can be really helpful.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Whether you want to talk about rightness or wrongness, the AA missed a glorious opportunity here, which is why I actually count the billboards being free against them rather than for them. If they were paying for the billboard space, then you can certainly see them saying that they wanted to use it for their primary aim — promoting atheism — instead of just to support a good cause. But since it’s free, they didn’t really need to do that. Now, one of the most commonly raised myths about atheism is that atheists aren’t charitable. So here they had free billboards and victims of a disaster that we, giving them the benefit of the doubt, have to think that they wanted to help. So why not simply say something like “Philippines Disaster Relief – atheists.org/relief”? It’s simple, clear and doesn’t in any way attack religion for anything, demonstrating that atheists and atheist organizations can, in fact, be charitable even when they aren’t likely to gain from it. Which, ironically, has a better chance of gaining them something AND opposing cases of religious or other groups taking advantage of the situation to promote their own philosophies by making the contrast clear.

    There’s no way they could lose doing it, and instead they didn’t … and probably lost, because it looks like more of an attack on religion or self-promotion than being about helping people, which doesn’t help with people thinking that atheists don’t help others unless it benefits them.

  • http://atheism-analyzed.blogspot.com Stan

    As usual with Atheists they ignore the meat and go for the smoke. Christian relief was on the ground in the disaster zone several days after it hit. There are huge warehouses filled with disaster relief supplies, and semitractor trailers ready to go, to the airport or whereever.

    The Atheist accusation against Christians is comical in its juvenile caricature and lack of substance.