Tell Time to Stop Dismissing Secular Generosity

I’m sure you’ve heard by now about Joe Klein’s awful cover story in Time magazine last week, which took an entirely inaccurate and gratuitous cheap shot at the atheist and humanist community. His article focused on Team Rubicon, a wonderful organization of veterans that does crisis relief work after natural disasters. And he said this:

We deployed in the postapocalyptic shadow of the local Imax. The landscape was the sort of thing you’d normally see inside the theater — total, sometimes incomprehensible post-tornado devastation. There were cars literally wrapped around trees, 2-by-4s javelined into the sides of houses, a hospital crushed, strip-mall banality interrupted, obliterated by the storm, and then resumed a quarter-mile down the road.

But there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals — and there in the middle of it all, with a purposeful military swagger, were the volunteers from Team Rubicon.

You may also have seen Klein’s sad and absurd response to criticism he received for it, which Hemant thoroughly dismantled, and the editors of the magazine, when faced with the opportunity to make up for it, instead making it even worse. And I hope you’ve seen Dale McGowan’s eloquent rebuttal in the Washington Post.

But as Dale suggests, this really isn’t about Joe Klein. Frankly, Klein has been a tired hack for most of my adult life, so I’m not at all surprised by either his initial absurdity or his equally inane response to criticism. It isn’t even really about Time magazine, though their response has been pretty appalling. It’s about how ignorant statements like the one Klein made are perfectly in sync with the larger culture, which tends to treat the entire secular community with indifference, at best, or outright hostility. And as long as the mainstream media continues to view us with either dismissal or derision, the situation is not going to change.

This is where you come in. On behalf of Foundation Beyond Belief, which has been so successful in channeling the compassion of the humanist community that it is about to go over the $1 million mark in funds raised and distributed in less than four years of operation, I’d like to ask you to email the editors of Time magazine at Please be polite rather than angry when you do so. Don’t curse at them or call them names, just remind them of a few facts that should be acknowledged:

* Team Rubicon, the organization that Klein was quite rightly praising for their very important work, is itself a secular organization.

* Team Rubicon was funded by Foundation Beyond Belief for that work last year after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

* There were, in fact, many secular groups lending their money, time and effort to help the victims of the tornado in Oklahoma, including Atheists Giving Aid, Oklahoma Atheists, the Atheist Community of Tulsa, the Lawton Area Secular Society, the Norman Naturalism Group, FreeOK, and the Oklahoma State Secular Organization. More than a quarter million dollars was raised in a matter of days.

* Foundation Beyond Belief’s Light the Night teams raised more than $400,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in 2012 and are working to beat that record in 2013.

* FBB’s Beyond Belief Network includes dozens of teams like FreeOK who have held hundreds of volunteer and fundraising events to improve conditions in communities all over the country.

*FBB provided 100,000 meals to the tornado victims through the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and raised more than $22,000 for Operation USA, which provided medical supplies and much more to those who were suffering after that terrible disaster.

Kai Tancredi of FreeOK and Red Dirt Report has been doing an amazing job of documenting the work done by the secular community in Oklahoma. There’s much more information there that you could include in your emails.

The truth is that the secular community has been quietly doing this work for years, not because we want attention, but because compassion and service are important humanist values. But the constant repetition of the myth that non-believers don’t help their fellow human beings is a slander of one of the fastest growing groups in the country. It’s time that the media got around to telling that story rather than deliberately trying to bury it. And it’s time that we stood up and said “enough.”

Time has an opportunity here to tell an important story. As more and more Americans identify as non-religious, the story of how we live our lives and contribute to society needs to be told. Time can be the first major publication to do a serious and comprehensive look at the enormous growth in secular service organizations and the important work that they do. And if Time starts, others may well follow and the pervasive myth of the selfish atheist will begin to crumble. Let’s urge them — again, politely — to do just that.

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About Ed Brayton

After spending several years touring the country as a stand up comedian, Ed Brayton tired of explaining his jokes to small groups of dazed illiterates and turned to writing as the most common outlet for the voices in his head. He has appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Thom Hartmann Show, and is almost certain that he is the only person ever to make fun of Chuck Norris on C-SPAN.

  • Childermass

    I have seen this basic claim nonbelievers not doing charity for years. I believe I saw it in the 1990s when largest “secular humanist” groups in America had only a few tens of thousands of members and in practice most “members” were mere magazine subscribers. And the apologists had the gall to ask why those groups could not found hospitals like the Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics with their millions of followers and billions of dollars.

  • neonsequitur

    That does it. I’m never, ever gonna read that pathetic piece of… oh wait. I quit reading Time over over 20 years ago. It’s been pretty much useless drivel forever.

  • TCC

    I not only sent a message to Time telling them how displeased I was, I finally decided to cancel my subscription. Not worth it, frankly.

  • Avicenna

    Something I have to point out is that some of the biggest charities on the planet are based on “Secular Humanist” principles and while they “don’t explicitly push an atheist viewpoint” don’t bring religion into the way they treat people.


    The WHO, Medicin Sans Frontier, Red Cross and Gates Foundations are all based on secular humanist principles. None of them discriminate on the basis of religion.

    Oxfam are another secular charity.

    The WHO, MSF and Red Cross probably have saved close to a billion lives since their conception and helped elliminate some of the deadliest diseases out there.

  • haitied

    How it works. . .

    A Church group shows up to help: “All churches do so much for their respective communities”

    A Secular group shows up to help: “You should have done more”

  • Tony! The Virtual Queer Shoop

    Letter sent. Just realized it was the first letter I’ve written to a magazine.


    Members of Time editorial,

    One of the fastest growing minority groups in the United States are the religious Nones. These are people who regard themselves as atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist, and anti-theist:


    ” According to the American Religious Identification Survey, the percentage of Americans affiliating with no religion has climbed from 8% in 1990, to 15% to 2008. In part, this growth is no doubt due to increased organizational efforts among the religiously unaffiliated. Although factions like atheists, agnostics, and secularists can sometimes differ in their emphases, they have adopted similar strategies in harnessing the media and introducing their aims to the public. Still, nonbelievers face a major challenge: they are one of the most widely distrusted and politically powerless groups in American society.” [1]


    Overcoming the distrust, disdain, and quite often, hatred directed at us for the “crime” of using science, logic, and evidence to reach conclusions about the universe–rather than untestable claims treated as universal truths– is difficult enough a task without the media making false or inaccurate claims about us. A recent article in your magazine had the opportunity to showcase the Nones as having the compassion, empathy, and desire to help their fellow humans in the wake of tragedy. Instead, the article by Joe Klein presented the following falsehood:

    “…-funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals.”


    Leaving aside the need to make such a gratuitous comment in an article about helping returning troops find purpose in community service groups, the falsehood could have easily been corrected with a simple Internet search.


    ” FreeOK has also been active in other ways. They teamed with Panera Bread and Krispy Kreme to get breakfast to cemetery clean-up volunteers with Frontline Church in Moore, and to volunteers working through the Moore Community Center in the first week of response. They will continue to host volunteer drives in the outlying areas needing assistance in the coming weeks, like many local church organizations. The Red Dirt Party Bus, also owned by a secularist, has been used to run bulk donations around OKC and to distribution centers like the famously generous Grandad’s Bar on NW 23rd in OKC and out to Shawnee and Bethel Acres.”[2]


    The specific point Klein brought up-secular orgs not giving out hot meals-is flat out wrong. Several readers caught this and corrected him. His response:

    ” …it is certainly true, as my critics point out, that secular humanists, including atheists, can be incredibly generous. I never meant to imply they weren’t. But they are not organized.”


    This is baffling. Having been corrected on his falsehood, Klein opts to double down (and the undercurrent of disdain for the non-religious is hard to miss). On a technical level, no, FreeOK is not an organization (although Klein had not given a definition of the word in his original piece. It does not take a huge stretch of the imagination to consider FreeOK an organization):


    ” What is FreeOK?

    FreeOK is Oklahoma’s only freethought convention. This fun and educational day features a series of lectures on topics related to freethought and its community from known freethinkers of various backgrounds.” [3]


    It is a convention held each year by likeminded individuals who share a common interest in Freethought. Several of those individuals chose to assist in the relief efforts following the devastating tornadoes. Klein’s follow up comments place more emphasis on relief efforts being organized, leading one to the conclusion that his emphasis is on relief _organizations_ who provide hot meals. That appears to be a valid point until one remembers that his original article was about returning troops finding a sense of purpose by community activism. His article is decidely _not_ about returning troops finding a sense of purpose by joining organizations that deliver hot food.

    Moreover, his follow up comments made no mention of secular organizations delivering hot food. Rather, he seems to grudgingly accept that secular humanists can be generous, but we are not organized.

    This is another falsehood which can be dispelled with a simple Internet search.


    -Team Rubicon, the organization he applauded for their wonderful efforts is secular.

    -Foundation Beyond Belief funded Team Rubicons relief efforts and has raised more than $400,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphona Society in 2012.

    -Money, time, and effort [following the deadly tornadoes] was also given by Atheists Giving Aid, the Atheist Community of Tulsa, Oklahoma Atheists, and more.


    It is patently untrue that secular humanist and atheist organizations do not offer aid to communities in need. In an article discussing ways for returning troops to find purpose in life, the least Klein should have done is omit his ignorant jab at a minority group that does the very thing he denies. Especially since the absence or presence of religion in service groups for returning troops was not what Klein was discussing.


    At this point, Klein’s shifted the goalposts several times, which is aggravating in its dishonesty. His most recent comments about writing an article on the _decline_ of secular service organizations betrays his ignorance yet again. He couldn’t be bothered to doublecheck his first falsehoods, how can he be certain secular service organizations are declining? After all, a growing number of Americans are nonbelievers. Many of them are highly interested and active in community service.


    Another point of contention in all of this has been the response of the editorial staff of Time:


    ” Service can and will save us if it becomes a way of life,” wrote reader Stephen Holt about Time’s July 1 cover story by Joe Klein, which examines organizations that use service projects as a way to help veterans recover from trauma. Many readers were upset by Klein’s comment about secular humanists, who he said are less likely than members of religious groups to organize for disaster relief.”


    The above response not only dishonestly rewrites Klein’s statements (he never made that comment), it does so and treats the secular readership with contempt. We are capable of re-reading Klein’s comments. They are easy to see. We know he never made that statement. You may dislike the conclusions we have reached about the world around us, but you display a lack of journalistic integrity by warping the statements made by one of your writers to make another jab at the Secular Community. This is unacceptable from a news source many readers trust to be truthful. The magazine has a long history and is respected by many for its journalistic integrity. The criticism before Klein and Time editorial is not controversial. It is a matter of approaching this topic with the least amount of bias and engaging the Secular Community with honesty. For such a long standing cultural icon, honesty in journalism should be an ever present core value.



    (one in a growing number of non-believers in the United States)




  • Randomfactor

    Funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists handing out falsehoods to advance their case. It’s always the organized religious types and their apologists.

  • Raging Bee

    Frankly, Klein has been a tired hack for most of my adult life…

    …which makes him a perfect match for Time magazine, which has had absolutely nothing worthwhile to offer for at least as long as I’ve been reading. Even by doctors’-waiting-room standards, it’s useless crap. Even with an edotorial staff who don’t read their own magazine and can’t bear to admit how extreme and deranged the American right have become, The Economist is a far better weekly read — if you have time to read it all in a week, that is.

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  • ArtK

    It all comes down to the belief that one can’t be good without religion. Atheists have no religion and are, by definition, not good. Therefore they can never do good deeds. Therefore they weren’t there. Observed reality be damned!

  • iknklast

    ArtK – you know that must be true, because the bible says so. A fool has said in his heart there is no god…there are none that do good.

    There. Aren’t you convinced now? THE source. Forget Time – go to the top. Ask god. You’ll be glad you did.

    I’ll stop now. My brain just exploded.

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  • Zugswang

    I sent my letter. We may not advertise our goodwill as prominently as other organizations, but we certainly don’t deserve Joe Klein’s uncharitable obloquies.

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  • caekslice

    Wait they put *words* in Time magazine now as well as pictures? When did this start?

  • jaybee

    Since comments have widened the discussion from boots on the ground charity work to charity in general, I’ll bring this up. The all time top contributing group at Kiva, the microfinancing charity, is the “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious” team.