Humanism is a view of the world that prioritizes reason, compassion, and human empowerment as the means for living ethical lives and making transformative positive change in the world. Humanists spend a lot of time countering the pernicious lie that people need to believe in gods in order to either know right from wrong or be motivated to do what is good. Most of the emotions and rational capacities that lead to all humans, worldwide, having moralities are no less common in non-believers than in believers.
But some humanists, atheists, and other secularists are suspicious of attempts to do charity under the banner of their atheism or, even, of their humanism. They worry that such a thing might be unseemly or be about attention seeking and self-promotion rather than charity itself. There are already countless amazing secular charities and amazing secular people involved in charities, irrespective of whether they’re secular or religious, and they do good for goodness’s sake rather than to promote their worldview. “So, why do we need distinctly humanist or atheist charities?”, they ask.
I love and appreciate the conscientiousness in such secularists’ skepticism. I love that they want to avoid the selfish, manipulative ulterior motives of some religious charity. They want to avoid the exploitative mindset that makes good deeds merely a tactic for proselytization and that is willing to waste and misdirect money and effort that should be spent tangibly improving people’s lives into the less urgent purpose of trying to convert (or deconvert) them to one’s own worldview.
So, why get involved with and support the explicitly humanistic charities? And, specifically, why support Foundation Beyond Belief?
For several reasons. For one thing, religious people give more to charity on average, and they do so not because they’re intrinsically better people, but because their religious communities afford them more regular opportunities. They are the sorts of organizations that routinely exhort people to charity and organize the opportunities to give one’s time and money. They are the kinds of groups that centralize values in the first place. People go to church and typically get charitableness preached to them constantly throughout the year. This value is reinforced regularly and then as an outgrowth of that, opportunities to do what they at least perceive to be charitable are motivated.
If humanists care about compassion and human empowerment as much as monotheistic religious people care about compassion and serving God, then we should emulate their successful models of values inculcation and the means they have developed for transforming those values into actions. And if humanists are already coming together for community, both online and in the real world, it would be outright unethical for us not to conscientiously be turning our communal life into one that led to concrete actions embodying our values. If we are going to gather around our shared humanistic values, we are hypocrites if we only want to do this so that we might talk about our values rather than tangibly implement them.
It’s clear that all people can be good without God, but it’s also clear that it’s hard for people to be good without good influences. Humanists should be proactive about creating communities that aim to be good influences on their members. Many people desperately want such communities. Routinely irreligious young adults run back to the faiths they were raised in upon having children because they see moral education as crucial and they are humble about realizing how hard that is to do it right. So, they dutifully turn to what they see as the only game in town for systematic inculcation of moral values: religion.
If we humanists are convinced that theistic, faith-based religious institutions are actually teaching a lot of terrible moral and intellectual values, which threaten to stagnate or regress people’s moral and intellectual growth, then it is absolutely incumbent upon us as humanists to offer robust humanist communities of value formation and values implementation that people can turn to instead of theistic religious ones when they’re trying to raise their kids to be ethical people with community support.
We also need to take seriously that even though the raw emotional and rational materials for ethical development are innate, intense processes of enculturation influence what specific values and moral codes develop. Values don’t just grow on trees. Institutions and families and authors and artists and communities create and shape people’s values. Secular people cannot be lazy and passive about values in our culture. We have to be active and deliberate participants in our society’s debates about what is good and bad and what is right and wrong. We need to get out of our myopic and shortsighted tendency in our culture to conceive all values debates as political or legal ones and take responsibility to be leaders on questions of personal values and morality. Churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues already vigorously focus on these roots of culture. If we want to counter their often warped values, we need to be focused just as vigorously on being positive developers, teachers, and implementers of our own, more rational and more empowering, values.
And, in this context, what humanist charity has the potential to offer that other existing secular charities don’t is a holistic philosophy to both underpin and motivate the charity. It’s not only about doing good deeds but also about personal character formation based on conscientious, rational thinking about what it is to be a good person and live a good life. There is a positive feedback loop we can create in which our abstract thinking, our moral self-development, and our work to empower others all mutually inform and reinforce one another. Our thinking can change the way we approach charity and our experience doing charity can improve our personal ethical practice, which can in turn improve our abstract reasoning about charity, etc., etc.
This is not about proselytization. It’s about offering an alternative to those who put proselytization above doing whatever people tangibly need as the first priority. The only extent to which humanist or atheist specific charity is about advertising ourselves is in that it has the effect of sending the message that we are charitable people too. Whether we like it or not, we live in a world where the best and most effective help people get comes from distinctly secularly developed medicines and other technologies, and from extraordinary secular aid organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, UNICEF, etc., and yet still the vicious lie that charity is the unique domain of religions persists. Unless the religiously propagandized populace actually sees the words HUMANIST or ATHEIST emblazoned on the volunteers’ shirts or in the organizations’ mission statements, the tangible good we do gets obscured for being unsung. We shouldn’t do charity only because we want people to be humanists. We should do charity for its own stake. But if in the process, we can destigmatize humanists and prove with our deeds that we are good without God in a way that an image-obsessed culture can actually grasp, then I am all for that.
As humanists, we value critical thinking on par with our compassion, just as we value human empowerment over the service of imaginary beings. And this tangibly influences how Foundation Beyond Belief chooses projects to support or to initiate for themselves. Every time there is a disaster, Foundation Beyond Belief reliably kicks into gear finding the organizations, whether national or local, that they can estimate will have the biggest positive impact to support and that’s where they direct the funds donated to them. This is just one of the many ways that this is an evidence-based charity. Last year, Brittany Shoots-Reinhard wrote a post for Camels With Hammers explaining numerous more ways that Foundation Beyond Belief puts science in the service of compassion and human empowerment. So, check that out for more information.
And this summer (July 18-20, 2014) you can go to my second favorite city in the world (Chicago) to learn much more about how you can be a high impact charitable person; one who better lives up to all your humanist ideals simultaneously, by attending Foundation Beyond Belief’s first annual conference (aptly titled) “Humanism at Work”.
Having just gotten back from yet another wonderful atheist/humanist conference (this one being the American Atheists), I cannot recommend the experience of an atheist/humanist conference highly enough. It’s a fantastic and reinvigorating experience to connect with people who share your values and enthusiasms. It’s a great opportunity to make friends, network, and share ideas. And it excites me to no end that the great people at Foundation Beyond Belief are putting together an atheist/humanist conference that will be all about how to do good for other people.
There is an impressive list of speakers including Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist, Greta Christina of Greta Christina Blog, Nigerian human rights activist Leo Igwe, Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism Adam Chalom, Foundation Beyond Belief’s 2013 Humanist Innovator Award winner Carmen Zepp, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for Arizona Seráh Blain, chair of the Dallas–Fort Worth Coalition of Reason’s Diversity Council Alix Jules, social psychologist Dr. Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, the founder of Responsible Charity Hemley Gonzalez, the tornado survivor who told Wolf Blitzer she was an atheist Rebecca Vitsmun, and the executive director of Giving Evidence Caroline Fiennes. Read their bios here. Additionally, Foundation Beyond Belief’s “Pathfinders”, a group of young people who travelled the world researching needs in various regions, in order to lay the ground work for a humanist equivalent to the peace corps, will have a panel discussion at the conference.
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