Strategically Supporting Religious Charities

Are there any circumstances under which an atheist can support a religious group doing social work, even if doing so may advance a religious message we disagree with?

This is on my mind because of the post I wrote last month about the Foundation Beyond Belief supporting a Quaker charity, and because I just finished reading Nomad, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s excellent second book, which serendipitously touches on similar ideas. Nomad is about the closing of the Muslim mind: the way that Islamic immigrants to Western countries often form isolated enclaves, rather than assimilate into their new society and absorb its values. The result is that barbaric practices like honor killing, female genital cutting, and violent jihadism that were once confined to third-world theocracies are appearing in Western countries, rather than immigrants taking up our ideals of tolerance and secularism.

To turn back this tide, Hirsi Ali proposes that the institutions of Western civilization need to make a greater effort to reach out to immigrants. This appeal, to my surprise, includes a section aimed specifically at Christian churches, encouraging them to make greater efforts to proselytize, and urging atheists to support them in this:

I hope my friends Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens… will not be dismayed by the idea of a strategic alliance between secular people and Christians… [p.240]

That is why I think we must also appeal to other, more traditional sources of ideological strength in Western society. And that must include the Christian churches… We should bury the hatchet, rearrange our priorities, and fight together against a much more dangerous common enemy. [p.243]

Even though Hirsi Ali stresses that she intends us to work together with “mainstream, moderate denominations” and not the fundamentalist “freak-show” churches that oppose women’s rights and science, I was taken aback by her argument initially. After all, it runs against the grain of what atheists tend to believe.

Hardly any atheists are willing to aid religious groups that proselytize, and it’s easy to come up with good reasons why. Doing so means that our contributions, directly or indirectly, will be used to advance religious beliefs that we don’t agree with – and history has shown over and over again that churches which accumulate secular power, even the mainstream ones that are allegedly more enlightened and tolerant, tend to use it to restrict the freedom of nonbelievers. In most cases, there are secular competitors that do just as much good without spreading unreason. And even more important, there’s a growing humanist and secular community still establishing itself, one that needs our support to build an infrastructure and could put our aid to worthier use.

All these arguments are good ones, and I think they offer convincing reasons why atheists shouldn’t support religious groups under most ordinary circumstances. But there’s a counterargument that I find more difficult to dismiss.

Although I think atheists should evangelize, we can take it for granted that we’re not going to reach everyone, no matter how vigorous our effort. Becoming an atheist is a big leap, one that a lot of people just aren’t ready to take. There are many who still need the comforts of religious belief, illusory though they are, and won’t even consider our arguments in good faith. Given that this is so, isn’t it better for us if those people join a moderate, liberal faith – one that respects secularism and teaches reasonable moral ideas, one we can easily coexist with – rather than a fundamentalist cult that attacks science, opposes equal rights for women and gays, and fights for theocracy?

This is a similar dilemma to the one that faces American freethinkers in the voting booth. For the most part, open atheists don’t stand a chance of winning elections, which means our choice is usually between a Democrat who panders to religious voters but by and large respects separation of church and state, versus a Republican who courts the religious bigot vote and is an active supporter of theocracy. Given these choices, I believe it’s better to support the religious progressive – even if I have to hold my nose and ignore insipid, god-drenched campaign rhetoric. Admittedly, this boils down to choosing the lesser of two evils. But withholding our votes in protest means only that the fundamentalists and theocrats, who definitely aren’t going to sit an election out, become that much more influential.

That’s why, on balance, I do agree with Hirsi Ali that there are cases where alliance with religious moderates, even evangelical ones, pays strategic dividends. Whether we should underwrite Christian efforts to convert Islamic immigrants, I’m not so sure. But I think it’s worthwhile to, for example, support courageous reformers like Irshad Manji who are trying to liberalize Islam from the inside. This is basically the same argument I made in “The Soft Landing“: we want the world’s transition away from religion to be as calm as possible, not a world where the moderates fade away and leave only belligerent fundamentalists. When we can further that aim by tactically supporting religious moderates and reformers – shifting the overall tenor of a religion in a direction that’s friendlier to us – we can and should.

I do want to stress one point: we shouldn’t ally with believers when doing so requires us to give up our own voice. (This is how my argument differs from that of the accommodationists who tell us to pipe down and stop criticizing religion.) Our alliance will be most effective when we unite in pursuit of a common goal, not a common message. We’ll always have differences of opinion and we should be free to air them. And we certainly shouldn’t enter any alliance that’s conditioned on our subservience.

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About Adam Lee

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