Holier-Than-Thouism

My recent post encouraging readers to join the atheists’ group on Kiva stirred some controversy in a comment thread on Reddit. One commenter, whose sentiments were echoed by several others, writes:

You should give because you believe in something – not just to prove a point and rig this like it’s some kind of game.

With respect, I say that these are not mutually exclusive options. I believe that Kiva is an excellent idea; I wouldn’t have recommended it if I didn’t. But at the same time, our giving through Kiva does prove a point, and I see nothing wrong with that.

As a strategy, targeted microfinance is a brilliant idea. It can’t replace charities that provide necessities like vaccinations, food or clean water for those in urgent need, but those types of charitable giving can at most sustain life. Kiva, meanwhile, is a way for people to improve their lives and add to the wealth of their community and their nation. In the long run, this is the only way to lift people up out of poverty and help developing nations join the industrialized world. And Kiva adds an additional innovation – the ability to see, on a personal level, the people whom your loan is helping – which gives donors a more personal connection to the recipient of their loan, and that can only make them more likely to participate again.

At the same time, lending through Kiva benefits us in a different way. As I wrote in my previous post, atheists are often accused of being selfish or lacking in charity, and our status as the largest group there provides strong evidence that this is not the case. This isn’t just a matter of scoring points in a debate. Anything that we can do to push back against the false stereotypes that are spread about atheists will improve our public image and make people more likely to give our position more consideration. And that’s not a small thing, not when the world is beset by warring fundamentalisms and badly needs a dose of cool reason. The more people listen to the atheist message and abandon the religions that cause them to tyrannize their neighbors, the better off we will all be. If our involvement on Kiva, or any other charity, is an opening that we can use, then it is all to the good.

Regardless of what motive moves you, I don’t think giving money in support of a worthy cause is ever a bad thing. I didn’t join Kiva, or recommend that my readers do likewise, because I want to “beat the Christians” – but if other people do feel that tinge of competitive envy, and if it spurs them to join and contribute when pure-minded appeals to altruism wouldn’t have worked, then so much the better. I’d even be happy if a Christian site saw this post and urged their readers to join so that they could beat the atheists! Regardless of who “wins”, the result of this competition is more money flowing through a worthy secular charity to help lift people up out of poverty.

This is another of those situations where atheists can’t win. If we don’t organize and give to charity in a visible way, we’re accused of lacking generosity and compassion. If we do organize and make a show of being charitable, however, we’ll be accused of being holier-than-thou, or doing it just because we want to impress people or show off. Clearly this isn’t an argument we can win, so there’s no reason even to try. My attitude is that we should ignore the perpetually disgruntled and do what we know is right. Donating our time and effort to charity, whether through Kiva or any other organization, and doing so as atheists, is a win-win situation: help for the needy and good publicity for our cause.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Adele

    “You should give because you believe in something…”

    No… you should give because you want to help people.

  • Opethian_days

    lol
    believe in something… like helping people… <__>

  • http://corvustristis.livejournal.com Corvus

    It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend re: Valentine’s Day. The friend was not a fan and wanted to know why I was doing something for the holiday. “It’s an excuse to celebrate.” says I.

    “Why should you need an excuse to celebrate?” says they.

    “Just because I don’t NEED an excuse doesn’t mean I won’t use one when I get it.”

    So you like to do good for people. Great! And maybe you shouldn’t need any more reason than “doing good” to do so… but does that really mean you shouldn’t use a reason when you get one, out of some fit of “holier than thou” pique? Shouldn’t doing good be, well, good for most any motivation?

    Screw “give because”. What matters is the “give”.

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    Even if you end up doing some good deed – something that helps people in need – for reasons that someone else deems as “ultimately selfish” (showing off, reducing your guilt, fear of divine retribution…), does it matter? If the people in need get the help what does it matter what reason the donors have for giving?

    Btw, if anyone would like to donate money to me for ultimately selfish reasons of showing off, keeping up with the Joneses etc, go right ahead! ;-)

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    If only the religious kept their mouths shut when they donated … maybe.

  • Gary

    I once had a roommate who claimed that no action could truly be altruistic. No matter how hard you try not to benefit from the help you give others, you’ll benefit in some way, so we are all selfish deep down.

    I argued in response that it is pointless to think this way. The actions are what’s important, and no matter how one twists the motives for helping others, help was given, often at a negligible benefit for the person who helps. If one gives without planning to benefit, their actions could still be considered altruistic, even if the giver profits in the end unintentionally.

  • Richard P

    “You should give because you believe in something”
    Don’t you understand this has nothing to do do with reason or need, it has to do with credit… We’re all evil people we cannot do good, we can especially not do good and take credit for it… That would be horrible. If we accept that we can do good.. for no reason but that we want to, then we have to give up that pathetic excuse for a god.. The next step to that is to think that I might be responsible for my own actions.. Then I could not blame my failings on the temptations of the devil… then I would actually have to live like I profess you should, instead of living this delusion of weakness. Don’t you understand then I wouldn’t have an excuse to live this lie. No don’t go thinking you can do good things, that is gods realm your treading on.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    that is gods realm your treading on.

    There is no such thing.

  • http://thebeattitude.com theBEattitude

    I give because I desire to help people in need. Christians give because they are afraid of what god will do to them if they don’t.

    Giving in god’s name is just “proving a point” and “rigging” their act of compassion to prove an imaginary god’s existence.

  • http://www.wordsthatsing.wordpress.com Lirone

    I think to be fair, we should grant that many Christians give out of concern for other people – the idea that it gains them a few stamps on an access to heaven card is a bonus for them, in the same way that raising the profile of atheist giving is a bonus from working through Kivu. For me accepting the good motivations of much Christian charity is the flip side of the “you can be good without god” argument

  • Curtis

    Kiva, meanwhile, is a way for people to improve their lives and add to the wealth of their community and their nation. In the long run, this is the only way to lift people up out of poverty and help developing nations join the industrialized world.

    I applaud your logic and choice of charities. Helping people help themselves is the only effective way to alleviate poverty. However, this year I am tripling my donations to my childrens’ PTA instead. This year, it seems more appropriate to be locally charitible.

  • Rob

    According to Jesus, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” Matthew 6:3-4. If the Christians truly took this to heart, we wouldn’t need to advertise that Atheists are the biggest group on Kiva.org. But since they thump their own chests and proclaim that we have no morals, advertising our good works becomes necessary. If we can advertise our morality while doing good works, I don’t see why we shouldn’t take advantage of a win-win situation.