Atheists, Do Some Good: Join Kiva

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!

New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
New on the Guardian: The Peaceful Side of Atheism
About Adam Lee

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

  • Psychodiva

    I provide funds for the education of a young girl in Zimbabwe through Plan International – it took me a while to find a non-religious organisatin like Plan and they are few and far between – but worth it. I find that most athiests don’t shout or parade about their charitable or philanthrpic work – they just do it- maybe we should make it mroe obvious- mind you- through using Plan I was able to get a fair few othr atheists involved in the same projects :)

  • The Ridger

    Kiva is a good organization. I’ve been there for a while.

  • roscomac

    I joined and made my first loan. Thanks for spreading the word!

  • Gail

    This is a wonderful idea, I just joined and made a few loans; also passed this info to my friends. I know many atheists and “unbelievers” who quietly give to many charitable causes every year. I always believed that one should do these things because it is the right thing to do if one has a bit to spare, but I now am coming to believe that we do have to be more public about the fact that those of us who are “Godless” have a great deal of compassion and care very much about the suffering of humans and animals. This is a wonderful blog, I never miss an entry. Keep up the good work.

  • Opethian_days

    wow this is a GREAT idea! I’ve wanted to help people in just this way for a long time. the sort of “give a man a fish..” mentality doesn’t really help in the long term, where can see this helping tremendously! thanks ebon!

  • BlackSun

    Great idea. I’ve known about this for a while, but never got myself in gear to sign up. Thanks! And the Atheist lending group is the largest…ahead of the Christians.

  • hilo

    Just curious, what is your reference point for good?

  • Paul

    Um…I thought the point of donating money was that you don’t get it back. It doesn’t seem like a great complement to atheists to say that they are the ones giving the most to an organization that will repay the money. That’s just loaning people money. It may be helpful to the world, but it’s not the same as a donation. And $300,000 isn’t much money coming from 3000 people anyway. Most religious organizations with 3,000 members would have a budget closer to seven million dollars. I’m not sure this is going to bust open any stereotypes. But glad to hear some people are finding a new way to be generous anyway.

  • Eldon

    Kiva is a great group – and their “discussion group,” has some interesting stuff on it. I found this site b/c the URL was posted by a member. Peace.

  • Steve Bowen

    And the Atheist lending group is the largest…ahead of the Christians.

    There is something a little ironic about atheists being “holier than thou” :)
    However I agree we should be more visible and Kiva seems a great way to do it.

  • nerdiah

    Awesome. I’ve been on Kiva for a while but I’ve never joined a team. I just joined that one. Thanks for letting us know.

  • windy

    I’m a bit worried about the interest rates Kiva’s field partners are charging, and I wish they’d be a little more open about that. Still, it seems better to participate than not.

  • velkyn

    I participate in another microloan group, FINCA,

    I like them as well as my usual donations to Oxfam.

    I find that microloans allow my money to help more than one person. One person gets a loan, and then when they pay their loan back, another person can get one. I’ll never see that money again but I will benefit from it being passed along.

  • Eric

    I’m a big believer in Peter Singer’s “secular tithe”, though with a rough ride lately I barely make one percent.

    Microcredit is great, but I mostly contribute to Water For People. Rotovirus and cholera are major killers of children.

  • Chris Allen

    Humanists also have a team on Kiva. Key word, “Humanist.”

  • Nes

    Hey, I just wanted to bump this up in the recent comments area because the Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious team is at nearly $500,000 in total loans, so I think it’s worth asking for a push to get us there!

  • immortal zen

    Hi, good day to everyone. It might be too late to comment on this topic but I just want to share my thoughts about this thing. I’m currently working as a Manager in a Microfinance Institution here in the Philippines. And I am an ahteist. I’ve just discovered about Kiva related to Atheism. I’ve browsed Kiva’s Field Partners here in Phil. and unluckily all I’ve found were all Christian Microfinance Institutions. Before the Company where I’m in now, I’ve been in a Christian MFI before for three years and decided to resign because they are nearingly discovering I’m an atheist and affraid they might lay me off I volunteered myself for resignation. People here in Phil. thinks we, Atheists are bad person and that we, don’t have the capacity to help. Right now I’m in a Non-KIVA and Non-religious MFI (as declared by Foreign Partners) but still those that are in higher positions are still religious people. My identity as an Atheist in the Company is still undisclosed. Doesn’t KIVA have any pure non-religious Field Partner here in Phil.?

  • Ebonmuse

    For reference, the Kiva atheist team’s official blog has a list of religious MFIs. I’m not certain where they get this information from or how often the list is updated, so I can’t personally vouch for its reliability, but I do use it as a guideline when making loans.