An accusation that’s often leveled against atheists is that we lack charitable impulses, that faith-based organizations do the hard work of caring for the needy and atheism only promotes selfishness. This is a hateful slur, and to counter it, I’ve discussed outstanding acts of charity by individual atheists in the past. Evidence like this shows that, as a group, we do not lack compassion. On the contrary, we know that this life is the only one we’ll ever have, which gives us the strongest possible motive to improve the welfare of our fellow human beings in the here and now.
Another rejoinder to this accusation is that, if there’s any discrepancy between atheist and religious charitable works, it’s because many theists donate to explicitly religious organizations, making their contributions highly visible and easy to tally up, whereas atheists generally just give to secular charities and feel less need to advertise their acts of philanthropy as specifically arising from their atheism. But while this is true, it feels unsatisfying. It would be better if there were a way to count just those contributions made by atheists, so we could present definite evidence of how we measure up.
Well, I’m happy to report that such a way has come to my attention. This evidence comes by way of Kiva, a philanthropic organization that helps impoverished communities in developing nations. Kiva does good through “microfinance”, a strategy which consists of making small loans, typically $1000 or less, to local entrepreneurs who use the money to launch or expand a business. These business plans can be as simple as buying livestock, so that rural farmers can add meat, milk, eggs or skins to their marketable commodities; or they can go toward the purchase of tools or machines so local people can start a machine shop or a clothing store. (Another microfinance organization you may have heard of is Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, whose founder, Mohammed Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.) When intelligently targeted, microfinance can help impoverished communities break the cycle of poverty and become self-sufficient.
On Kiva, anyone can sign up to be a lender and give to entrepreneurs listed on the site. If they’re asking for more than one person can give, multiple lenders can join together to fully fund a proposal. If the business plan is successful, your seed money is repaid. Kiva has already loaned out over $24 million and claims a default rate of just 2.2%.
What does this have to do with atheism? Only this: Kiva’s volunteers can join together into lending teams, keeping track of the total amounts that everyone on a team has given out. And when you view all the teams, the largest – with the most members, the largest number of loans, and the largest total amount of money loaned – is a team named “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious“, with over 3,000 members and over $300,000 loaned so far. This is a potent counterexample to any claim that atheists lack concern for the common good. (This was originally posted by 2[Y] and came to my attention via Lynet, who submitted it to the next Humanist Symposium. I hate to steal the host’s thunder, but this was too good to not report on sooner!)
This is a great achievement, but we can do better. I’ve joined Kiva and become a member of the atheists’ lending team. With my first donation, I’ve supplied the last piece to fully fund a loan request from a grocery store owner in Tajikistan. Kiva makes the process easy: donations can be as small as $25, and there’s a reasonable expectation that your money will be repaid. If you’re a nonbeliever who cares about the welfare of the world, join me there and let’s do some good!