Atheist Charity and Public Service

Hemant notes a rather annoying article at the New York Times about the shootings in Newtown, CT entitled “In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent.” The point of the article was to argue that atheist and humanist groups didn’t do what some religious organizations did in helping out after those shootings. The article does admit that many of our groups did step up to help out, but as Hemant notes:

This really highlights the crux of the problem. In the wake of tragedies, common wisdom suggests, people turn to faith. Any faith. It doesn’t matter which. And atheists are automatically excluded from that. The faith groups also have buildings that people can meet up at. Most atheist organizations do not. We do a lot of our best work through the Internet — or we meet up at public places that don’t always carry the weight of solemnity. But even when you do have a building, all you can do is advertise the fact that you’re there for the community in case anyone needs it — you still need the media and local officials to point grieving people in your direction.

I certainly agree with Hemant and with Greg Epstein that it is important for secular organizations to do more of this kind of thing, both because it’s the right thing to do and because it helps build alternative communities to religious ones. There’s little doubt that a sense of community is what keeps a great many Christians in their churches when they don’t really believe all that much of the church’s doctrines. And as my friend Luke Galen’s research has shown, being part of a larger community, whether religious or non-religious, is an important factor in helping people have happy and fulfilling lives.

I’m on the board of the Center for Inquiry – Michigan and we have a secular service committee that does incredible work in this regard. They were featured in a recent article in Free Inquiry, which discussed the variety of projects they do, from blood drives to river cleanups to preparing and delivering meals to those who need them. I really hope this becomes a model for other secular groups across the country. It’s exactly the sort of thing we need to be doing. But it sure would be nice if the media would give it some notice.

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  • Actually, lots of humanists like us spent DECADES advocating policies such as gun regulation, better government support of mental-health policies, more funding for public schools, more cops in non-filthy-rich neighborhoods, and, of course, taxes on everyone to pay for all that. Did people of faith support such demands? Don’t make me laugh.

    Now they’re saying humanists were “absent” in a crisis? What a disgusting hypocritical bigoted lie.

  • I’ve had in mind for a while a kind of meeting hall run by an atheist group or coalition. Mainly, it would serve as a community lecture/fine arts venue. Local college professors would offer evening lectures on history, science, civics, travel and art appreciation, and tutors would offer help during the day in reading, math and job placement. There might be an after school program run by the Boys and Girls Club, or a drop-in center for the elderly. It would also run a soup kitchen and have space that could be used as an emergency shelter. That is to say, it would basically be an atheist church, but please do not call it that.

    The problem is that setting this kind of stuff up as a church is quite simple and can be done with very little cost. Trying to set it up as a secular organization is much more difficult and requires a huge outlay of money and time just to handle the tax forms that religious groups are free to blow off. I still think it would be worth it, though.

  • davidct

    Many of us heathens are involved in many community activities. We also support our friends and family. We just do not have some atheist banner to wave while doing so. We are actually doing what Jesus says to do. Look after one another and do not brag about good works done while doing so. I guess we will have to become less “Christian” if we are to get the PR we need.

  • @Raging Bee #1 – And never mind the fact that most of the people I’ve worked beside at food banks and soup kitchens have been at least agnostic, if not atheist (although, granted, I’ve generally lived in very secular parts of the US.) I find it very amusing that even religious charities like Catholic Services and Union Gospel Mission are staffed mainly by the non-religious.

  • matty1


    If you can get over the word church I believe there is a Church of Freethought somewhere that does pretty much what you suggest and just by using the word is able to get the tax advantages.

  • anubisprime

    It is an ancient tactic of social manipulation, condemnation of a weaker group or movement by innuendo, even outright lying.

    No less so these days, and no tactic more used then by the theist apologists and their masters.

    The media is a powerful tool, and can be used very easily to criticize and pretend a smug satisfaction such as by the article highlighted here.

    It is just another line of surreptitious attack by innuendo pretending that atheism is a shallow concept not worthy of the modern world.

    It is contemptuous in so far as that the horrific deaths of innocent kiddies are being freely used in this manner to demonize secular and atheist attitudes to smooth the feathers of the theistically infected.

    The god soaked are frightened now, more then at any time in the past, they will use every opportunity to do what the xtians in particular have perfected.

    Trial, judgement and persecution in the media of that which they fear most, and if lies are needed then they will be supplied!

  • @matty1 #5 – Most UUA congregations would probably qualify as well. I just don’t like having to hid behind a veneer of legally mandated religiosity in order to be a public force in my community.

  • raven

    The funerals and burials over the past two weeks have taken place in Catholic, Congregational, Mormon and United Methodist houses of worship, among others.

    This illustration of religious belief in action, of faith expressed in extremis, an example at once so heart-rending and so affirming, has left behind one prickly question:

    Where were the humanists?

    The article was discussed at Jerry Coyne’s blog. It’s pretty cuckoo.

    The humanists and atheists weren’t at the kid’s funerals because they wouldn’t have been welcome. Most likely they were there and quiet. Kid’s funerals aren’t the time to tell people there is no afterlife and god doesn’t exist.

    The xian ghoul’s did weigh in. WL Craig did his usual stupid and evil act. Bryan Fischer pointed out that god is too weak to do anything any more. Someone at the DI blamed it on evolution.

    It’s standard death cult xian babble.

    Never let a perfectly usable dead body go to waste.

  • scienceavenger

    @#3 Amen, I’ve been doing that sort of direct, personal “charity” for years, and still am. I guess I need to put a sign in front of my house: Atheist Charity Here

    @#5 We have several organizations here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area that are as active as any I’ve heard of, and when not attacking each other over minutia, do good work. However, their efforts to get some of that necessary PR are blocked at every turn. A simple ad proclaiming “Our kids are good without God” was squelched at a local theatre, and getting bilboards with equally “controversial” messages can be quite a challenge. But progress is being made, slowly but surely.

  • anne

    The Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix (Arizona) owns a building. We have regular meetings (Sunday mornings: we’re all available!) usually involving a lecture of some sort plus other discussion groups and social events. We are in a constant debate over whether any given activity is too “churchy”. We also support a couple of local charities.

  • Most UUA congregations would probably qualify as well. I just don’t like having to hid behind a veneer of legally mandated religiosity in order to be a public force in my community.

    Why not call yourselves the “Church of Christian Atheism?” If your motives and charitable actions are more or less in accord with the relevant teachings of Jesus, then it won’t exactly be a falsehood or a “veneer.”

  • John Horstman

    Wow, that’s a bad article. It’s like saying, “Gee, there aren’t very many women or Black people in this board room. Why are they being so lazy and not running companies?” Systemic barriers, asshat.

    An interfaith service featuring President Obama, held two days after Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, included clergy members from Bahai, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and both mainline and evangelical Protestant congregations.

    Yes, it’s shocking that people lacking magical beliefs weren’t featured at an interfaith service. Did they invite any atheist (perhaps specifically humanist) speakers to talk about non-religious philosophies of life, coping, and death? No? Oh. Well. I guess that explains that.

    The funerals and burials over the past two weeks have taken place in Catholic, Congregational, Mormon and United Methodist houses of worship, among others. They have been held in Protestant megachurches and in a Jewish cemetery.

    I can buy that none of the people killed (or, more accurately, none of the families of anyone killed) were areligious. Is Freedman trying to suggest that it’s appropriate or even laudable for us to use a family death as a vehicle to interject secular beliefs into the grieving process of religious families, without invitation? Sort of like what the “black Christian youth group [that] traveled from Alabama to perform ‘Amazing Grace’ at several of the services” did? See, I think that’s disgusting, but apparently the author thinks it’s good.

    This illustration of religious belief in action, of faith expressed in extremis, an example at once so heart-rending and so affirming, has left behind one prickly question: Where were the humanists? At a time when the percentage of Americans without religious affiliation is growing rapidly, why did the “nones,” as they are colloquially known, seem so absent?

    Oh, I don’t know, maybe it has something to do with actually engaging in ethical reasoning to come to moral codes for behavior instead of uncritically accepting thousand-year-old dictates from sexist, racist, slaving rapists leading us to the conclusion that injecting our (lack of) faith into families’ responses to a tragedy without invitation would be gauche at best. Seriously?

    In fact, some leaders within the humanist movement — an umbrella term for those who call themselves atheists, agnostics, secularists and freethinkers, among other terms — are ruefully and self-critically saying the same thing themselves.

    No, “humanism” is a very specific term that refers to a branch of moral philosophy. It is in no way, shape, nor form an umbrella term for the non-religious. You’re thinking of “non-religious”.

    “It is a failure of community, and that’s where the answer for the future has to lie,” said Greg M. Epstein, 35, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of the book “Good Without God.”

    See, I disagree. I was not raised religious. I know that for a lot of people who were, a religious community WAS their community, and so they never learned how to build friends and community around other things. We need specifically-atheist community efforts for people who used to be religious, especially if they were such from childhood. However, for those of us who were raised without religion, we’re coming to movement atheism having already established community around things not related to religion or its lack. We learned from childhood how to build support systems through groups of people bound not by religion (or even necessarily shared genetics) but by shared interests and activities. We have feminist communities and queer communities and book clubs and drinking groups and friends from any number of other circles. The future isn’t going to lie in atheist ‘churches’ at all; those are an artifact of the fact that so many people are raised in ready-made religious communities. As fewer and fewer are, they’re not going to need a non-religious ready-made community because they’ll have learned how to form community around other things, like soccer or anarchy or capitalism or anti-racist activism or rock climbing or film studies or bicycling or demolition derby or the NFL or…

    Darrel W. Ray, a psychologist in the Kansas City area who runs the Web site The Secular Therapist Project, made a similar point in a recent interview. As someone who was raised as a believing Christian and who holds a master’s degree in theology, he was uniquely able to identify what humanism needs to provide in a time of crisis. [emphasis mine]

    Yes, my point exactly. This view presupposes a worldview rooted in religious community.

    “When people are in a terrible kind of pain — a death that is unexpected, the natural order is taken out of order — you would do anything to take away the pain,” Dr. Ray, 62, said. “And I’m not going to deny that religion does help deal with that first week or two of pain.

    Cocaine works even better. Let’s legalize it and market it as a way to not feel emotional pain.

    “…It takes a lot more training to learn how to deal with grief and loss. I don’t see celebrants working in hospice or in hospitals, for example. There are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.”

    Or trained, licensed counselors who, unlike clergy or ‘celebrants’, actually have that training from a (somewhat) evidence-based system. Or even friends and family. You see pastors as an active good; I see them as an active bad, even if they don’t believe in magic.

    In fairness, it should be pointed out that the families of each Newtown victim chose religious funerals. The interfaith service, by its very definition, precluded the involvement of leaders from non-faith organizations like the Ethical Culture Society or the American Humanist Association. At the most divisive, the former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee asserted that violence like the Newtown shootings occurs because “we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.”

    Oh goodie, some “fairness”, begrudgingly framed, stating something that should have been mentioned as important fucking context right after you pointed out that there were all these religious ceremonies but no secular ones. Samuel Freedman is a worthless hack (worthless as a reporter, not as a person, necessarily – I don’t know enough about him to make that judgement).

    The net effect can be to leave humanists feeling frozen out and defensive. “We send out letters, we send out press releases, we’re on Meetup,” said Anne Klaeysen, 61, leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. “But we feel people don’t pick us up. We’re not proselytizers. …”


    While tacitly excluded from religious coalitions, humanist groups did respond to the Newtown killings. The Ethical Culture Society chapter in Teaneck, N.J., helped organize a gun-control rally there. The Connecticut branch of the American Humanist Association contributed about $370 to Newtown families from a winter solstice fund-raiser. The organization American Atheists reports on its Web site that it has collected more than $11,000 in online donations toward funeral expenses in Newtown. A secular support group called Grief Beyond Belief operates on Facebook.

    So, this basically contradicts the entire first half of the article where you were saying secular groups were absent.

    Still, when it comes to the pastoral version of “boots on the ground” — a continuing presence in communities, a commitment to tactile rather than virtual engagement with people who are hurting — the example of Newtown shows how humanists continue to lag.

    Really? You cant drop your predetermined narrative even after you yourself countered it in the previous two paragraphs?

    The humanist movement of the last decade has had eloquent public intellectuals in Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

    I kinda feel like maybe Harris’ racism and Dawkins’ sexism might preclude them from humanist identification, but then you demonstrated earlier that you don’t actually know what “humanist” means. Google is hard. Hitchens was an anti-theist contrarian, decidedly not a humanist.

    Yet, in the view of internal critics like Mr. Epstein and Dr. Ray, humanism suffers in certain ways for its valorization of the individual. The inside joke is that creating a humanist group is like “herding cats.”

    Braise Jesus, it’s a lucid paragraph! Yes, the pernicious hyper-individualism that permeates a certain segment of the atheosphere is problematic. Then again, my perception of humanism has always been that it leans pretty heavily toward the socialist and communitarian. I’m unsure whether this view is coming from Epstein and Ray or from Freeman misusing the word “humanism” again.

    “A lot of humanist rhetoric of previous generations revolved around reason,” he said. “We’d say, ‘We’re people of reason rather than people of faith.’ But I’ve always been uncomfortable with that as the banner under which we march. We need to think of reason in the service of compassion — caring, being cared-about, a life of meaningful connection. Reason itself is the tool. When we see it as the end-product we miss the point.”

    Ugh, this is why I dislike organized humanism: its advocates run around saying crap like this. Compassion and community are the conclusions of reason properly applied. No individual can survive in a vacuum – humans are a communitarian species. We need community because we need community for survival, so any reasoned analysis of how to organize as people will reach the conclusions you’re looking for even without predetermining the end goal (because that predetermined end goal is actually motivated by the need for community). If we didn’t need community, such that a reasoned analysis might conclude such, then it wouldn’t matter because we wouldn’t actually need community and the impetus for it wouldn’t be there in the first place. This sounds like a bunch of trite tautologies because it is; theologians are exactly the wrong people to be spearheading non-religious community organizing specifically because of (many of) their unexamined biases toward certain worldviews and conceptions of things like community. They’re still thinking about humanism as religion, just religion without god. Magical belief is a bad part of religion, probably the worst part, but it’s far from the only problem with religion. Religion minus god still isn’t good, and that view is why the organized humanists tend to make me all sorts of twitchy.

  • cuervodecuero

    Given how many nontheists don’t organize in recognizable blocs, I find it morbidly amusing that the newsmedia in this case seem to be demanding an organized political presence exist.

    On the matter of atheist clubhouses; growing up rural, we had secular venue municipality community halls for use by locals requiring event space . In the city I live now there are neighbourhood halls, some combined with sports venues. I also belong to a club that uses a neighbourhood seniors community centre for meetings, socials and educational events. I’ve also been to gatherings in library rooms, museum rooms, malls with empty storefronts.

    Are those sorts of venues too uncertain a space compared to a clubhouse owned and dedicated to community activities?

    Specific case of gathering place aside, my experience with any community group inclines me to:

    a/ hope for the affability, authenticity and ally dynamics of the group core attempting a community service presence.

    b/ hope the greater community is amenable to at least ‘live and let live’ so publicity of a local minority organization and/or its watering hole isn’t met with hostility, active balking and intimidation of people vulnerable to majority negativity

    c/ hope enough people find social value in an organization to delay burn out of core volunteers.

    If you have those factors, wouldn’t a growing membership and bricks and mortar club space follow?

  • kermit.

    I didn’t see any southpaw charity groups, round Earth clergymen, or charities run by folks who don’t believe in leprechauns. What is >wrong with those people?

    Really, my first thought when I hear this sort of thing is that, as an atheist, I don’t really spend much time thinking about not believing in God. I don’t routinely identify myself as such. I’m a gardener, not an “atheist gardener”, a geek, not an “atheist geek”, etc. Doctors who are atheists don’t look for atheist hospitals to work in; people who want to teach don’t look for atheist schools in which to apply for a job.

    My second thought is, if I were eloquent and clear enough, I’d have written John Horstman’s post before he did.

  • footface

    Where were the humanists and atheists? I don’t know. Maybe they were mourners, police officers, teachers in Newtown, paramedics, and doctors.

  • raven

    docphil (

    •Mike Huckabee blames tax funded abortion pills for the Newtown tragedy.

    •A major tea party group blames the Connecticut shootings on teachers, unions and sex.

    •James Dobson announced that the Connecticut shooting was a result of gay marriage.

    •One of the leading conservative magazines led with a headline that declared that “Newtown is the price we pay for the Second Amendment”

    •A Tennessee pastor announced that these mass shootings occur because schools teach evolution and teach children how to be homos.

    •Anne Coulter decided that only one policy has ever been shown to deter mass murder, concealed carry laws.

    •Louis Gohmert agreed by saying that if the Sandy Hook principal had an assault rifle, everyone would have been saved. That position was seconded today by Rick Perry who advocated teachers bringing guns to school.

    •Bryan Fischer decided that God let the massacre happen in a public school because he’s not wanted there.

    •Steve Deace, a radio talk show host, said that the killings were caused by widespread child murder by parents and a school assignment that was given to students in a classroom in France.

    •Larry Pratt spoke about making schools gun free zones were the cause of the problem of the massacre.

    •The argument has been put forth that the problem in the United States is that we have a general contempt for life. It is not a love of guns.

    A blog owner called docphil has a partial summary of what the xian ghouls contributed to the Newtown murders.

    They blamed it on tax funded abortion pills (which don’t exist), teachers, unions, sex, gays, and atheists. WL Craig said it was to remind us that Xmas is coming. Several blamed it on evolution.

  • otrame

    Ah, yes. There is our good old humanist chaplain telling everyone how empty our lives are without (wait for it)……humanist chaplains.

    Thanks for the support for our community, there, Greg. Nice job of wagging your tail and rolling over on your back for the nice reporter. Don’t forget to pee a little bit too. That will prove how harmless and cute you are.

  • Where were the humanists and atheists? I don’t know. Maybe they were mourners, police officers, teachers in Newtown, paramedics, and doctors.

    And/or maybe no one noticed them because they were pretending to be religious, to avoid offending their families’ and neighbors’ delicate sensibilities…?

  • This really highlights the crux of the problem. In the wake of tragedies, common wisdom suggests, people turn to faith. Any faith. It doesn’t matter which. And atheists are automatically excluded from that.

    This makes about as much sense as complaining that the British don’t celebrate the 4th of July. For the author to think that the “nones” must explicitly identify themselves as such when helping out is missing the entire point of not wanting to belong to a religion.

    For the record, I also noticed that Packers fans sure seemed absent in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Where were those green and yellow jerseys and the cheese hats?

  • Sastra

    The Times article focused on the wrong question. Not “where were the humanists?” but “where was humanism?”

    And we can answer that last one proudly: every time someone, anyone, at any of those services or communal gatherings said something which was comforting, reasonable, reassuring, or hopeful which didn’t make direct reference to God, an afterlife, or religion — that’s where humanism was. “We will remember the victims; we will work for fewer victims; we will get on with our lives; we will love, care, and cherish this world and the people in it and each other” — Bingo! Humanism making sense again.

    They could not possibly go on and on about the supernatural without slipping into pragmatic and poetic appeals to what is humanism, and what makes sense even to atheists. We human beings live secular lives in the here and now in a natural reality we know we share. They eventually have to make connections to the real world and real solutions for real people.

    So we humanists don’t need to make some obvious show at these events: we just need to make it more obvious that what WE believe is already there.