Atheists Do Good Works, Too

Seattle Atheists Philanthropy CharityChristians sometimes boast that they gather to do good works and contribute to good causes. But this isn’t a Christian invention—people give time and money to good causes, atheists included.

Seattle Atheists has been an educational nonprofit organization for a decade. In addition to hosting social events and lectures and being a popular presence at local street fairs, Seattle Atheists members have participated as a group in disaster relief fundraising, assisting the local NPR pledge drive, holiday gift wrapping for charity, blood drives, and more.

Another regular event is the American Cancer Society’s annual Relay for Life. The summary page for the Seattle Atheist team is here.

Cancer is on my mind at the moment. Just a few weeks ago, a close relative of mine was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer, nine years after the initial diagnosis. Cancer affects all of us, if only indirectly.

The Relay for Life is a fundraiser, a celebration of cancer survivors, and a memorial to loved ones lost to cancer. It’s a 24-hour event at a local track, and team members take turns doing laps. A particularly moving tradition is the luminaria ceremony held after dark. Paper bags holding candles line the track, each one remembering a particular friend or family member dealing with or who has died from cancer.

Over three decades, the Relay for Life movement has raised nearly $5 billion to fight cancer. “Help the American Cancer Society create a world with less cancer and more birthdays.”

You can donate to the Seattle Atheists team here.

The hands that help
are better far than lips that pray.
— Robert Ingersoll

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  • RichardSRussell

    You will often hear Christian apologists making 2 egregious misrepresentations:
    (1) Religious people give way more to charity than atheists.
    (2) There are hardly any atheist charities.

    Error 1A: If you just look at absolute dollar amounts, of course a larger group of people (the religious, at ~80% of the population) are likely to give more than a smaller group of people (the non-religious, at ~20%). The proper comparison, usually ignored by the apologists, is per-capita giving.

    Error 1B: Contributions to the churches themselves get lumped in with “charitable contributions”, even tho the collection-plate take hardly goes to the needy, afflicted, abused, etc. Indeed, some such contributions go to support abusers and afflicters, and a goodly chunk goes to support fabulously wealthy “ministries” that don’t even come close to being needy. (Greedy, yes, but that’s a different thing.)

    Error 2: The United States is a secular nation. None of its governmental agencies, at any level (federal, state, or local), is on a religious mission. Quite literally, they function “without god belief”. That is, they are, in the purest sense of the word, atheistic. And they do 10 times the good works of all the private and religious charities put together.

    • Nicely stated.

      And good observation in 1B about charitable money supporting a system that can benefit abusers rather than the abused.

    • smrnda

      Another point – our secular government, via food stamps and other benefits, kicks the ass off almost all charities. At the same time, I’m hesitant to *claim that* as ‘secular giving’ since it’s tax money, meaning that plenty of religious people have contributed as well.

      • RichardSRussell

        Yeah, but it’s not given in the name of God, or because God “told them to do it”.

        • smrnda

          Whenever Christians whine about the secular government taking their money, I remind them that Jesus said to SHUT UP AND PAY TAXES, and that was back where taxation was definitely *without representation* .

          What US Christians hate about government welfare is that it works, and it gives people in need assistance that is without strings attached , you don’t have to go crawling to some cult to beg for help and they can give you any *help* they want. I mean, I once was on disability, and I was so happy that the government treated me like a number – I got my benefits conditional only on seeing a psychiatrist regularly.

          I also don’t like the way religious charities proselytize. It’s like some kind of vulture evangelism.

        • wtfwjtd

          “What US Christians hate about government welfare is that it works, and it gives people in need assistance that is without strings attached”…

          That’s very true, and I would only add that churches are also miffed about the fact that this cuts out the middleman–that being themselves. In other words, they see welfare programs as the government muscling in on their racket. As Bob has pointed out in another post, something like maybe 5 per cent at most of what is donated to churches actually goes to programs that help the needy, the rest going to…perpetuating the well-being of the religious organization. It’s a grossly inefficient setup, all on the taxpayer’s dime.

        • If church donations are tax deductible, country club dues should be as well. They perform similar functions in people’s lives and give similar fractions of their revenue to actual good works.

        • wtfwjtd

          If our tax code was more equitable, this would indeed be a good place to start.

        • Lbj

          How many country clubs help feed the poor? How many country clubs go into poor neighborhoods to make them better? How many help unwed mothers?

        • You tell me: what fraction of country club revenue goes to good works of any sort. Question 2: same question, but about churches.

          With that data, we’ll be able to answer your question.

        • Lbj

          Throughout history we know Christians and churches have been feeding the poor, educating them, founding orphanages, etc
          I have never read anywhere that any country club does this kind of work. When I think of country clubs I think of rich guys chasing a white ball and having drinks and that is about it.

        • Let me help you out. What you’re trying to say is, “Wow, Bob, that’s a great question. Frankly, I don’t have figures. Indeed, when I think of it, churches’ closed books means that this is pretty much impossible to answer.”

          If you’d speak frankly when faced with tough questions, we’d all appreciate it.

          Thanks for your stereotype of country clubs, but I’m not sure that’s something solid to go on. I would imagine that they channel either their own revenue or serve as a host for fundraising for disaster relief. Not much, but something. How much more do churches raise? Perhaps we’ll never know.

        • smrnda

          I pointed out above that you don’t have to look hard to find Country Clubs doing some kind of charitable events and giving.

        • A helpful data point, thanks.

        • 90Lew90

          Yeah like those Irish nuns who dumped the bodies of nearly 800 children who died in their “care” in a septic tank out the back of the convent.

        • SuperMark

          Yeah they didn’t seem to care all that much because they were all bastard children. Gods people at their finest.

        • smrnda

          Actually a quick google search of ‘country club’ and ‘charity’ has found a few hits of charitable actions done by country clubs.

        • smrnda

          Actually, pompous rich jackasses like to be seen doing charity. Not that I think it always does any good and isn’t mostly motivated by PR and tax dodges..

          I have been in a few really poor neighborhoods, many of them are filled with churches and the huge concentration of churches isn’t doing much for the communities. Drive around the south side of Chicago sometime or take a bus, note all the churches in the city’s poorest and most high crime areas.

        • Lbj

          Right. Welfare is the great success of America. How many people on welfare do nothing?

        • MNb

          Is this what you mean when you write about “Love your neighbour” and Matth. 7:1?

        • wtfwjtd

          Christians like Justas would rather see 100 destitute children starve to death than for one “undeserving” able-bodied person get provided food by the government. I meet this kind all the time.

        • smrnda

          Do you have any statistics related to that statement, or are you just throwing out the usual *welfare queen* rhetoric?

          As a person who is currently rather affluent, most poor people work far harder than I do, and many people who receive government aid actually work, it’s just so many jobs pay shit money. Since the Clinton administration, aid has become more conditional on meeting work requirements.

          Also, when I mention “welfare” please take a more global perspective. Western Europe is mostly made up of welfare states, and they do fairly well.

      • avalon

        Logic tells me that taxes are not the same as charitable giving.
        Bob hasn’t threatened to seize my assets or throw me in jail if I don’t donate to his favorite charity.

        Religious organizations often favor thinking of taxes as charitable giving. It absolves them of the responsibility of using their own donations for something other than their own internal, self-interest programs. (‘Help those outside the church? That’s what we pay taxes for!’)

        • The discussions with individual Christians that I remember were not favorable to taxes as charity. That surprised me–I’d have thought that they’d see society coming together to help the needy as Jesus-like as well as a way to get charity out of those good-for-nothing atheist who don’t contribute to church charities.

        • MNb

          “That surprised me.”
          That’s because you try to be a good human being. It was the same when Dutch socialists in the past tried to secularize helping the needy (say 60 years ago). To christian credit they did get support from christian politicians, but far from all. I think it has to do with what I wrote elsewhere: charity creates unequal relationships, with the needy unilaterally depending on christians. People are usually unwilling to give up such positions of power.
          Justas underneath gives one of the popular arguments:

          “How many people on welfare do nothing?”
          Alas this is the mainstream idea in Dutch politics anno 2014 as well. In Justas’ case though it’s a fine example of christian empathy.

        • avalon

          It depends on the motivation of the donor. If your donors contribute because they’re motivated by altruism, then higher taxes means they’ll have less disposable income to donate. But if your donors are in the higher tax brackets, it’s possible they donate for the tax deduction. These donors (the wealthy) actually give more to charities when taxes higher. (Higher taxes mean that the value of the tax deduction per donated dollar is more.)

          But my main point was that (unlike charitable donations) taxes are not voluntary, there are collected under the threat of violence.
          There also seems to be a good bit of hypocrisy involved. I have some very liberal friends who see government programs as “society coming together to help the needy” and vote accordingly. But then they turn around and take every possible step to minimize their taxes!
          Along similar lines I know a liberal doctor who is all in favor of Medicare and Medicaid programs, but won’t accept them at their own office.

        • wtfwjtd

          The only problem here for churches is, if they push the “taxes as charitable giving” line too much, they could be setting themselves up for a big hit in revenue. If their parishioners get the idea that their tax burden counts towards the (semi-biblical) mandate of donating 10 per cent of one’s income to God, then they can strike off a portion of what they have paid in taxes to count against this mandate.

          In the fundie culture I grew up in, one was commanded to compute the “tithe”(10 per cent) that was owed to the church based on gross income, not on net income. And taxes paid never, ever counted as charitable giving of any sort, lest the amount perceived owed to the church might be reduced.

          I wonder if Bob has ever done a post on this topic? It might come as a surprise, and/or a shock, to someone on the outside of the fundie culture to learn of some of the money shenanigans that churches regularly demand of their parishioners.

        • smrnda

          Agreed that it’s different, it’s just that 1. I wanted to demonstrate where most of the help for people is coming from and 2. tax funded welfare programs work better than charity much of the time .

          I do agree that a functioning welfare state will decrease the perception that churches need to do charity, but I don’t feel incredibly attached to them being in that business. At the same time, it is an issue if it means more $$$ is freed up for proselytizing.

    • MNb

      @1A: it seems that christians per-capita indeed give more.
      @1B: it seems that Dutch CBS (Central Office for Statistics) corrects for these things. For one thing there hardly are Dutch “ministries”.
      @2: That’s an important point. European socialists, who tend to be atheists and at least all are secularists, generally dislike charity exactly because it makes people dependent. I’ll admit immediately that the ideal has enormously watered down, but I clearly remember the socialist ideal of enabling everybody to take care of him/herself, ie without such dependency. I also remember something about equal opportunities for everybody, but that seems to be totally forgotten in Europe.

      Another objection is that the list is incomplete if we don’t look at the other side of the coin. Atheists are underrepresented in jail in all democratic countries. Secular democracies hardly ever make war to each other. I can remember three last 50 years. Total amount of deaths, wounded and POW’s: exactly zero.

      • RichardSRussell

        @1A: it seems that christians per-capita indeed give more.

        And, if so, why wouldn’t they be content to just say so and leave it at that? But noooooo. They’ve gotta trumpet the total dollar amount, which grossly exaggerates how much better they are than atheists.

        @1B: it seems that Dutch CBS (Central Office for Statistics) corrects for these things.

        As they should. In the US, there is no equivalent federal bureau, just a line on the individual income-tax form for “charitable donations”, into which tithes to churches get lumped indistinguishably along with contributions to, say, the Red Cross or Amnesty International.

        For one thing there hardly are Dutch “ministries”.

        Lucky you. In the US, you can hardly walk a mile without tripping over a church or synagog. And that doesn’t even get into the televangelists.

        • wtfwjtd

          “Lucky you. In the US, you can hardly walk a mile without tripping over a church or synagog.”

          A mile? Hell, here in the bible belt you can’t even hardly go a block without running into one or even several “houses of worship”.

        • katiehippie

          In my town, I can walk 2 blocks and pass 4 churches.

        • MNb

          @1A: You should ask them, not me. I’m not a christian; never been. I’m just presenting the facts as I know them.

          “Lucky you.”
          I know. There are a few though in Suriname, where I live. They worry me, but aren’t too successful. Yet.

  • In Italy the situation is even worse, as most of the health system is controlled more or less directly by religious (mostly Catholic) orders, or associations, with the quite explicit support of political authorities, as they see it as a way of avoiding too much public spending; however, it doesn’t work, as these associations are always asking the government for money, claiming they are providing a service for EVERYONE, even if they always try to impose their religious agenda, so in their hospitals you are forced to follow their backward rules when it comes to contraceptives, assisted reproductive technology…, and the fees are terribly high!
    Still, each year they also ask citizens for donations and financial help, claiming they have been doing “so much, for so many people!”.

    • We’re wrestling with a similar problem in WA state. Catholic hospitals are gobbling up independent hospitals, which could be a good thing except that they’re imposing their religious restrictions. I’ve heard it argued that it’s a deliberate attempt to skirt liberal laws, since you don’t see this happening in conservative states that are already oppressive to abortion, etc.

      • smrnda

        It’s also a way in which they are attempting to make sure that consumer choice doesn’t exit. Since consumers would prefer not to have their health care dictated by the Catholic church, they must buy up hospitals so consumers are stuck with them. Their acquisitions are clearly being made with that strategy in mind. They also then pretend “well, people CHOSE a Catholic hospital!”