The Secular Tithe

How much money do you give away each year?

For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll start by answering my own question: I try to give at least $200 a month to nonprofit educational and charitable causes. I think it’s a reasonable amount, although I know I could (and should) be doing more.

Speaking out as nonbelievers is well and good. There will always be a need for forceful, effective advocacy for atheism. But I’ve come to realize that, if we really want to build a secular and enlightened society, speech is not enough. It’s even more important that we offer material support – our money and our time – to organizations that do good by advancing the values that atheists hold dear. We don’t have to copy the example of the churches that demand an astonishing 10% of their members’ income, but I think every atheist who can afford it should donate at least a few percent to groups working to uphold the causes that make this world better. Call it a secular tithe.

In this post, I want to suggest a few worthy candidates for those donations. I won’t mention secular, non-controversial causes like Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF or Feeding America, all of which I also donate to, but to groups that specifically advance atheist goals, in one way or another, even as they do good in the wider world. This isn’t a comprehensive list, of course. If you know of other worthy causes, post a comment and tell us about them!

Kiva: A microcredit organization that I’ve written about before, Kiva connects donors with entrepreneurs in the developing world who want to take out small loans to start or expand a business. By spurring economic growth, microfinance groups like this are one of the most effective means of reducing global poverty. Bonus: The vast majority of Kiva’s loans are paid back, and your seed money is returned to you in time – which multiplies your donation’s effectiveness by enabling you to lend the same money out over and over again.

Added bonus: Kiva’s lenders can organize into communities, and right now, far and away the largest lender community on the site is made up of atheists! If you join this group, not only will you be doing good for humanity, you’ll be contributing in a very visible way to dispelling the stereotype that atheists lack generosity or charitable impulses. (If you do join, tell them I sent you!)

Planned Parenthood: Founded by Margaret Sanger (whose motto was “No Gods, No Masters”), Planned Parenthood is on the front lines of the battle to protect the reproductive rights of women, providing medically accurate information about pregnancy and access to safe, effective birth control and abortion. This, of course, makes them absolutely loathed by the religious fanatics who think that women’s bodies should be made the property of their church and the elderly, male clerics who run it.

In addition to the endless protests, threats, harassment, and burdensome laws from right-wing legislators, Planned Parenthood has often been the target of terrorist violence from militant Christianists. They haven’t buckled, and they deserve our support to help them carry on the fight. In few other areas is your giving so effective in pushing back against the religious right. Even if you can’t donate money, you can always volunteer a few hours escorting patients at your local clinic.

The American Civil Liberties Union: The fact that Christian conservatives so despise the ACLU ought to be reason number one for politically aware atheists to support it. But if you need more persuasion, consider how many groundbreaking civil-rights victories the ACLU has been involved in – including some that are very valuable to atheists, such as Abington v. Schempp (striking down teacher-led prayers in public school), U.S. v. Seeger (a ruling that the nonreligious can be conscientious objectors), and Epperson v. Arkansas (bans on evolution violate the First Amendment).

Even today, the ACLU is hard at work challenging unconstitutional entanglements of religion and government, as well as battling excessive government secrecy, intrusive police power, laws that restrict free speech, and generally defending the principles that benefit all citizens in a free society. Every American ought to be thankful that they exist, because they’re not afraid to defend unpopular causes in the name of protecting the Constitution, and in the long run that benefits all of us.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation: If you want to support an explicitly atheist organization, you couldn’t do better than the Freedom from Religion Foundation. An educational and advocacy organization based out of Madison, Wisconsin, the FFRF represents the views of the rapidly-growing segment of the American population that is nonreligious. Like many other groups, they wage legal battles across the country to protect the constitutional principle of separation of church and state; but possibly even more importantly, they work to educate the public about the views of nontheists.

Through atheist billboards, bus ads, and speaking engagements and TV appearances by co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, the FFRF brings the message of freethought to a public that needs to hear far more of it. They also have an annual convention; a radio program, Freethought Radio, that’s broadcast weekly on Air America; and a monthly newsletter, Freethought Today, that publishes essays from members, reports on the FFRF’s legal work, and lists arrests and convictions of clergy in a section called the “Black Collar Crime Blotter” (a full-page spread, in small type). I know of no other group that does more to speak out on behalf of atheists and publicize our viewpoint. If you’re an atheist and an American, and you’re not already a member, what could possibly be keeping you?

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.

  • http://anadder.com Michael

    Direct Relief is a very large organisation that helps disaster areas and is rated as one of the most efficient charities by Charity Navigator, with 99% of funds going to projects with just 1% spent on admin and fundraising.

    In fact I think the most important site is the meta-site Charity Navigator — it lets you investigate charities to find one based on what you’re looking for.

    http://www.charitynavigator.org/

  • Mountain Humanist

    I am a member of the Rotary Club and Rotary Foundation is dedicated to advancing “world understanding, goodwill, and peace through the improvement of health, the support of education, and the alleviation of poverty.”

    The Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation supported solely by voluntary contributions from Rotarians and friends of the Foundation who share its vision of a better world.

    Thanks to its efforts, polio has almost been eliminated across the globe.

    Obviously, Rotary has members of all religions and philosophies (admittedly mostly Christian in the U.S.) but demographics can and do change.

  • http://holocenehominoid.blogspot.com Stephen Moore

    I regularly donate about 3% of my income to charity each month. I would like to be in a position to donate more (10%-15%), but I have a meagre income and am limited in the amount I can put aside and still be able to support myself. I’ll also give one-off donations of $2-$10 to street collectors and door knockers. Not the most efficient means of contributing (relatively little of that actually gets used for charitable purposes), but I’m prepared to wear that cost knowing that it is employing someone.

    I like the idea of Kiva. I can make a one off modest loan and use the return to reloan, gradually building the amount of capital that is available.

  • John

    Soon the Foundation Beyond Belief will be starting up (they’re currently accepting donations for the Founding Fund Drive on the left of that page). It’s the brainchild of Dale McGowan, editor of Parenting Beyond Belief and author of Raising Freethinkers. Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist is on the board as well.

    Check that first link for details, but the way I understand it, they will be disbursing donations to a different set of humanistic (small-h) charities each quarter. I’m excited to see what they are able to do.

  • http://atimetorend.wordpress.com atimetorend

    Thanks for the links. Since leaving the church I’ve set up a “tithe” savings account with automatic weekly transfers from checking. It has been accruing for a few months but hasn’t been distributed much yet. I actually just set up a kiva account last night. I also have appreciated having more flexibility to be able to help people out that I know in person.

  • CSN

    I’ve really enjoyed being a Kiva member. I joined after you first posted about them and made me aware of the thriving atheist lending “team.” One of my biggest hang-ups about charity has been my cynicism about the inefficiency of big charity organizations and never knowing how much of my donation was actually getting to the people and causes in need. ‘Did I just buy their president a new office chair?’ With Kiva you not only know that 100% of your donation is getting through (helping Kiva out is an optional add-on donation) but you even get to know exactly who you’re helping! Imagine if the ACLU gave you the flexibility to donate to costs of a specific court case that really meant something to you! Personally I’ve made it my plan to always donate to female entrepreneurs in countries where they are especially oppressed (i.e. dominantly Muslim countries.) I’m an unemployed student now but I very much look forward to when I can step up my donations.

    The objective of course isn’t to feel morally superior but it WAS a pretty coup when I was talking with a fundamentalist Christian recently and was able to say “Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, largest group on Kiva” in response to his atheists-never-do-charity-work lie.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Given that most of our modern problems can be traced to overpopulation, I heartily recommend Zero Population Growth: info@populationconnection.org.

  • Dave

    My wife and I have been making donations to Heifer International for several years. Most members of our family really do not need any extra “stuff” at holidays, so we accumulate what would have gone for gifts and make a lump sum contribution to Heifer.

    They provide breeding livestock to families and individuals. The first born offspring is then passed on to another individual in the region.

  • http://www.shadowmanor.com/blog/ Cobwebs

    I second Dave’s suggestion of Heifer International. It gives people the tools to help themselves, plus one of the items you can purchase is a colony of bees. I derive a lot of quiet amusement from the idea of “Give the gift of bees!”

    I’d also recommend the Electronic Frontier Foundation (http://www.eff.org/), since digital civil liberties are kind of a big deal.

  • Mad House
  • Sarah Braasch

    Of course, as a former intern at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I can’t say enough good things about them. They are the real deal.

  • Nes

    One thing to watch out for with Kiva — if it’s something that may bother you, though I know some don’t care — is that some of the MFIs are religious, and it’s not always obvious from the name (or even the description!). The official blog for the atheist group has a post with a list of known religious groups and a firefox add-on to automatically mark MFIs that you want to avoid, though they need not be religious. Maybe you want to block out ones that have a high default rate or something, or, for the Christian readers, maybe you want to single out the Christian ones so you can loan to them.

    To answer the question in the OP, all I’ve done for charity so far is $100 from my tax rebate that went to Kiva, $25 of which has been re-invested already (and which, sadly, already puts me over the average number of loans on Kiva). I’d love to do more, but it’s hard to do so when you end each month with about $5 if you’re lucky. I’m already planning on doing at least another $100 next year when I get my tax rebate again.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    My office regularly teams up with United Way. In everything I’ve ever seen by them, they advance the entirely secular goals of improving education, income, and health for all; I also like that they emphasize both diversity and inclusion, acknowledging that diversity always exists in social groups but inclusion must be created. Also, it so happens that one of the donations in their next annual Leadership Giving Booklet will be from “An Atheist.”

    Thanks very much for the charity suggestions! The four you mentioned hit very close to home in terms of values I’d like to see promoted the world over (robust business, equality between the sexes, liberty, and secularism). Giving to charity is something I’ve been interested in my entire adult life, but I’m lazy and so never really got past the hump of doing the research to find the most worthy charities, passively waiting for opportunities to come my way.

  • http://www.neosnowqueen.wordpress.com neosnowqueen

    I like to give to animal charities – someone needs to take care of them, and it might as well be me. I’m thinking about alternating between people charities and animal charities every year. I would love to give 10% of my income, but my income is pathetic, so we’ll see whether that’s feasible.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Thanks for the suggestions. I’m always on the lookout for non-religious ways I can help my community.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    I’ve had an automatic EFT to the ACLU from my account every month since the Dover trial. OK. It’s not a fortune, but it allows me to be consistent, and not forget to write a check. And anyone who doesn’t think the ACLU does good work has small b for brains. For Christ’s sake they’ll represent anyone, regardless of political affiliation, if their civil rights are being violated.

  • Alex Weaver

    I probably spend on average about 1% of my income buying fast food meals for people on streetcorners with signs; it strikes me as vastly more productive than giving them money with no idea how they’ll spend it. Last year my household had some extra money and we gave a fair amount, mainly to various political advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood, and to support efforts to defeat the old guy who would very likely die of a heart attack in office and give his successor an opportunity to use the US’s nuclear arsenal to help the end of days along. This year our expenses have increased dramatically, in large part due to having to move to renting an actual house in order to get our daughter in the right school service area, and all the groups we previously donated to keep calling us up asking for money x.x

    There are enough uncertainties and irregularities in my income that any kind of scheduled debit donation is right out of the question. Kiva looks like a really good approach but I need to figure out how to make ends meet at home first.

  • http://alitheiapsis.wordpress.com/ Aly

    No one’s mentioned public radio or television yet. NPR, PBS, et al are often the most educational media sources of their kind. I’d rather turn off the radio than listen to anything else. They minimize the sensationalism and maximize the depth and breadth of their coverage. PBS always has great documentaries and informational programming; their quality-to-crap ratio is higher than the other “educational” channels (History, Discovery, etc.).

    The only time I don’t like to watch/listen is when it’s pledge week—all the more reason to donate, I guess!

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I make a monthly debited donation to The John Aspinall Foundation Which is funding conservation efforts, with a particular focus on Gorillas.
    Following Ebons’ prompt I signed up for Kiva last night, mainly because I feel I should contribute something to human welfare as well and this seems a good scheme to me.

  • terrence

    Seems like all the commenters are righteously following Dr. Friedman’s maxim, “Every American has the right to do good, at his or her own expense.” Ebon, if you find it “astonishing” that churches demand 10% of their members’ income, what adjective would you apply to the percentage of your paycheck that is witheld or extracted for federal, state, local, property, and/or sales taxes, as compared with the percentage of income confiscated that prompted our forbears to rebel against King George?

  • AC

    terrence,

    Ebon is pretty clear on his views of tax.

    Tax caused the American Revolution? That’s, at best, a gross oversimplification.

  • 2-D Man

    Terrence, governments provide us with roads. Churches provide us with proselytism. I suspect you actually have a use for roads.

    Speaking of roads, another secular charity, right along side Doctors Without Borders, is Engineers Without Borders. Their mission can be summed up in the same fashion: use of expertise to help impoverished nations (they do more than just roads).

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com Spanish Inquisitor

    No one’s mentioned public radio or television yet. NPR, PBS…

    And with the constant attack and reduction of funding from the right, they need the money more and more.

    Terrence, governments provide us with roads. Churches provide us with proselytism. I suspect you actually have a use for roads.

    I’m reminded of this every time I have to take a long trip on the Interstate Highway system. What would travel in a country our size be like without it? We take a lot for granted when we complain about taxes.

  • Andrew Morgan

    For what it’s worth, I generally don’t donate money. I don’t gain any particular satisfaction out of donating, and I would prefer to work, to the greatest degree possible given the amount of control I have over my life, for myself.

    I might consider making donations to causes I feel particularly strongly about (I’ve donated to political candidates, for example) but certainly not to large organizations such as the ACLU, and definitely not to people who might just happen to need the money.

  • Alex Weaver

    Seems like all the commenters are righteously following Dr. Friedman’s maxim, “Every American has the right to do good, at his or her own expense.” Ebon, if you find it “astonishing” that churches demand 10% of their members’ income, what adjective would you apply to the percentage of your paycheck that is witheld or extracted for federal, state, local, property, and/or sales taxes, as compared with the percentage of income confiscated that prompted our forbears to rebel against King George?

    What’s even more obnoxious is that every time I sit down and eat in a restaurant they BRING ME A BILL! I mean, what’s the world coming to when a person can’t just get a whole bunch of service FOR FREE?

  • terrence

    When communication fails, the fault lies with the communicator, so mea culpa. And it so happens I spend most of my life on the interstates, where I also pay for my meals along the way. NOBODY in their right mind objects to taxation per se, as some of you seem to think I was saying. The key word in my previous comment was PERCENTAGE, not taxes. In many states, combining the federal, state and local income, property and consumption burdens, many Americans are compelled to turn over 50% or more of their earnings to one form of government or another. And Zeus forbid you should have anything left over to invest for you and your family’s future. If you lose, screw you; if you win, Uncle Sam wants 35%. Oh, and be sure not to die with anything over 600,000. Finally, I own a copy of The Declaration of Independence, have read it many times, and am well aware of the reasons for the Revolution.

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  • Alex Weaver

    Finally, I own a copy of The Declaration of Independence, have read it many times, and am well aware of the reasons for the Revolution.

    You are also aware that political figures aren’t always 100% candid about their real reasons for decisions in pieces made and circulated to advertise and justify those decisions to the public, right?

  • 2-D Man

    I guess I was a bit obnoxious with you, Terrence, but it led nicely into plugging EWB. Sorry about that.

    It really sounds like you’re peeved that governments, specifically yours, use tax money to buy and manufacture weapons and somesuch instead of using it to actually govern. If I’ve read you correctly, you wouldn’t mind paying taxes if the money were to go to helping the people.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    One of my biggest hang-ups about charity has been my cynicism about the inefficiency of big charity organizations and never knowing how much of my donation was actually getting to the people and causes in need. ‘Did I just buy their president a new office chair?’ With Kiva you not only know that 100% of your donation is getting through (helping Kiva out is an optional add-on donation) but you even get to know exactly who you’re helping!

    I couldn’t agree more, CSN – that was a huge part of the reason I joined Kiva. The ability to know exactly who you’re lending to, and what they’re spending the money on, gives you a tangible sense of having made a difference.

    Peter Singer, among plenty of other philosophers, have observed that most people would willingly sacrifice, say, a pair of expensive pants to rescue a child drowning right in front of them – but very few people would spend an equivalent amount of money to save the life of a person in the Third World. The immediacy of Kiva and other similar microlending sites, like Heifer International, could be a powerful way to overcome the apathy that most people feel about charitable giving when the need isn’t right in front of their eyes.

    The objective of course isn’t to feel morally superior but it WAS a pretty coup when I was talking with a fundamentalist Christian recently and was able to say “Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, largest group on Kiva” in response to his atheists-never-do-charity-work lie.

    Hah! Well done, sir. That’s how we win hearts and minds!

  • terrence

    One more thing, 2-D Man, Alex, et al….I am on your side in applauding one of the coolest ideas ever invented, namely Kiva. But HOLY SHIT, are you aware what they are up to??? It’s….it’s…..OMG, IT’S CAPITALISM. Arggghggghhhhh…….

  • Alex Weaver

    One more thing, 2-D Man, Alex, et al….I am on your side in applauding one of the coolest ideas ever invented, namely Kiva. But HOLY SHIT, are you aware what they are up to??? It’s….it’s…..OMG, IT’S CAPITALISM. Arggghggghhhhh…….

    Having this conversation with you is becoming like arguing with the dining room table.

  • Serenegoose

    I don’t donate any money to charity, save for a few pennies I have that I put in charity boxes. Me and my partner get a grand total of £160 a fortnight to survive on. If I had more, then I’d donate more, but it wouldn’t be realistic. I do applaud those who try and make a real difference through charities though. Gods knows I’ve relied on charities for some real help in my life.

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  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    OMG it’s capitalism? I can’t tell if that’s supposed to be funny or not.

    “OMG it’s putting money into the hands of someone who I consider likely to use that money to turn a profit, generate wealth, and help raise a nation over the years from third-world destitution to first-world prosperity.” Umm… exactly?

    Sharing is caring, says Karl Marx, but there are quite a few people in the world who I don’t care about. More to the point, there are some people who I care about quite a lot, and there are groups of people who I can’t realistically help as groups, by myself, no matter how much I care. But there are some people within those groups who can help those around them, and some of them will be better at this than others, so I’ll try to pick the best ones and help them help each other… or something like that, at least.

    Capitalism, in point of fact, is simply the most effective way we’ve seen to harness greed for good purposes. Greed won’t go away because we change how we talk about things, and that’s all communism does: we change how we talk about what we now call “property,” with special attention to possessive words like “yours” and “mine” and “ours.” Talking about things differently doesn’t change human nature, and greed is a part of human nature; “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” merely discourages ability and encourages need in people as they currently are. And “how people currently are” needs to be taken into account when considering how to make laws: we can’t just shut out reality and pretend that people will go along with whatever system they’re presented, we have to appeal to their actual characteristics and find ways to encourage the most helpful use of their abilities. Communism loses because it fails at the “encouraging” part; capitalism perversely encourages some unhelpful uses, but other laws can hold this in check, and the helpful uses are still encouraged better than under a communist system.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Oh, and also, with respect to the fact that one’s investment in Kiva may be returned with a bonus and reinvested or whatever… I see this as playing Wall Street to developing nations. This strikes me as awesome. We’re speculating on their future financial success!

  • Jerryd

    Peter Singer, among plenty of other philosophers, have observed that most people would willingly sacrifice, say, a pair of expensive pants to rescue a child drowning right in front of them – but very few people would spend an equivalent amount of money to save the life of a person in the Third World.

    Ebon, Singer also mentioned in a podcast at Point of Inquiry that he liked givewell.net, GiveWell. Here is a quote from their home page that describes their purpose. “GiveWell started as a group of donors who couldn’t find information on which charities are truly changing lives. Now we’re identifying the best, telling the truth about the rest, and sharing what we’ve found.”

    Interestingly I clicked on the All Charities tab and searched for Kiva in the 2008-2009 ratings and found it not highly recommended. They give an explanation for their model, which I interpreted as not terribly negative on Kiva, but that they had better charities to recommend. Their lack of a recommendation notwithstanding, I still like Kiva. But I’ll look into their other recommendations for future giving.

  • Eric

    Screw NPR. Give it to Pacifica statons if you’ve got one. KPFT rules!

  • http://ian-iansjourneys.blogspot.com/ Ian Reide

    I am currently living in the 3rd world (se Asia) and I have decided, with the consent of the people concerned, to not give my family and friends birthday/xmas gifts, but to donate what I would have spent on gifts to a local, worthy charity. This has a number of benefits, directly of course, 3rd world people are helped, my family and friends benefit as they are helping people who need the help, and I have an enjoyable few hours meeting people who are doing good work.

    This is a way to donate, which does not prove to be an extra burden (unless you wish to give more), and helps those who need the help.

  • Scotlyn

    It is good, and very satisfying in a personal way, to donate time as well as money.

    Here is an interesting idea that I’ve only just stumbled on – the Transition Town concept is about building local resilience to threats such as climate change, dwindling energy supplies, etc – while networking and exchanging ideas with other local groups engaging in a similar effort.

  • http://www.skepticaloccultism.com/ pendens proditor

    I just finally joined Kiva.

    The #1 lending group is currently “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious” with $846,225.00 loaned. The #2 group is “Kiva Christians” with $561,750.00 loaned.

    Yet another statistic that will go overlooked by most of America.

  • Jerryd

    Another charity that I support is Freethought Books Project. In this case you can either donate money or books that will go to prisoners to give them an antidote to the religious brainwashing they get while incarcerated.

  • 2-D Man

    I figure I’ll tack this one on too. Since I don’t have money, I donate blood. I just gave my 15th donation of platelets today.

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