Why Humanists Serve Others

Last week, Foundation Beyond Belief launched the Pathfinders project, the precursor to a Humanist Service Corps that will work to alleviate pressing problems in communities with few resources around the world. As the media relations coordinator for FBB, I sent out a press release that was mostly ignored. One outlet that did pick up on the story was Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, where Billy Hallowell wrote a mostly fair article about it.

Hallowell has actually covered FBB and the atheist movement quite a bit and has typically done a good job of it. Some of our leaders know and like him and he seems to return the favor, and I give him credit for covering us and the work we do. But I do want to quibble with one bit of framing at the end of his article:

It will be interesting to see if a secular form of proselytizing unfolds on these trips or if the effort in launching the Humanist Service Corps has a more existential and internal rooting (i.e. simply showing that atheists are good people too).

This is what we call a false dichotomy because those are not the only two possible reasons we might have for doing what we do. More importantly, it seems to presume that there must be some ulterior motive, a less-than-sincere purpose for engaging in not only this particular project but in all that FBB does. So let me offer up some better reasons why FBB does what it does, starting with the organization’s mission statement:

To demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life; to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility.

This is hardly a new idea. Go back to the leading figures of Enlightenment humanism and you will find a good deal of focus on the ideals of compassion, empathy and service to others. Thomas Paine famously said “my country is the world, and my religion is to do good” and that our duty is to display “justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.” You will find similar sentiments in both Humanist Manifestos I and II.

To be a humanist is to recognize that there is no solution to our problems other than ourselves. No deity is going to come down and provide us with clean water or sustainable agriculture, or make ignorance and illiteracy disappear, or mediate our conflicts with one another. We are the only ones capable of addressing those problems and, quite frankly, it’s time we got on with it and got it done. That’s why Dale McGowan founded FBB in 2010. When Dale spoke to the Triangle Freethought Society in 2011, this is how his talk was described:

Secular volunteers work to improve the world not despite but because of what we hold true. In the absence of a supernatural protector, we are all we have. That’s the humanistic imperative—empathy and compassion, followed by an urgent sense of responsibility to help those who share my fate but not my fortune. I simply must do what I can.

Hallowell’s concern about secular proselytizing fails to recognize one of FBB’s core values. FBB raises money not only for secular charities but for religious ones as well through our Challenge the Gap grants, as long as they use those funds to do something good rather than to proselytize. That caused some controversy only a few months after the group formed, when it awarded a grant to Quaker Peace and Social Witness. Some in the atheist community were upset about that, but Dale defended it and explained why FBB continues to support selected religious charities in the good work that they do.

So the first reason to do it is to show that it is indeed possible for nontheists to see good work being done in a religious context and to support and encourage it. Far from a contradiction, some of us think that’s humanism at its best…

Not all religious expressions are benign, of course. The more a religious tradition insists on conformity to a received set of ideas, the more harm it does. The more it allows people to challenge ideas and think independently, the more good it does. Religion will always be with us in some form. It’s too hand-in-glove with human aspirations and failings to ever vanish at the touch of argument or example. So I think one of the best ways for humanists to confront the malignant is to support and encourage the benign, the non-dogmatic, the progressive.

So I would argue that concerns about secular proselytizing are misplaced. In one sense, FBB is mirroring Francis of Assisi, who told his followers that they should always be witnesses for Christ and that sometimes they should even use words. Our goal is not to turn the people we help into atheists or humanists, but it is done in the hope that those we help will be moved, and have the ability, to pay it forward and help others to whatever extent they can.

We do not do what we do in order to be told how wonderful we are or to convince people to reject religion or become atheists. We do it because it’s the right thing to do, because no one else is going to do it. And because a world with less starvation and disease, more education and more concern for human rights, justice and fairness is a better world for all of us to live in.

There’s a sense in which this is progress. A few weeks ago, Joe Klein and Time magazine were telling the world that atheists and humanists don’t do anything to help others at all. Hallowell recognizes that we do good and has even helped promote those efforts, for which we thank him. But we hope that in the future he will do that without questioning our motives and goals in the process.

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  • Randomfactor

    “…it’s a cookbook!”

  • Bad Random!



    (I was gonna make that joke)

  • machintelligence

    Along the same lines: Vegetarians eat vegetables, so what do humanitarians eat?

  • Maybe I’m being dense, but I have no idea what the cookbook thing is a reference to.

  • “To Serve Man” From the old Twilight Zone


  • frankb

    This is what the Quakers would say. “That which is in each person that seeks to do good is what we respond to and is what connects us all. It doesn’t matter what you call it.”

  • DonDueed

    “To Serve Man” From the old Twilight Zone

    And long before that, CS Lewis used the same idea in one of the Narnia books (The Silver Chair). The Gentle Giants of Harfang also loved to serve man… marsh-wiggle, not so much.

  • Sastra

    We do not do what we do in order to be told how wonderful we are or to convince people to reject religion or become atheists. We do it because it’s the right thing to do, because no one else is going to do it.

    Technically, though, if there was no other agenda than to do the “right” thing, then humanists would gladly have participated in religious charities groups which would have them, joined preexisting secular groups, or formed a new charity organization which made no mention of humanism and paid no attention to the religious beliefs or non-beliefs of its members. The very fact that FBB explicitly references humanism and freethought does tie it to an agenda roughly similar to that of religious groups in that there is philosophical motivation and desire to get others to adopt it.

    So what? Not all agendas are bad by definition. I’m getting tired of the fear that trying to change people’s minds about an important factual matter — by example or by argument — is automatically tantamount to the kind of slimy and sloppy emotional blackmail techniques of faith -recruitment. It’s not. “Form of secular proselytizing” equals what, in their minds? “Good without God.” The horrors.

  • jefferylanam

    DonDueed, Damon Knight wrote the short story “To Serve Man” in 1950. The Narnia books were written between 1949 and 1954, but only the first one appeared in 1950. That’s not to say that Lewis got the idea from Knight, but certainly Knight didn’t get the idea from Lewis.

  • I told myself not to read the comments…then I read the comments…the ignorance and hate infuriates me…fuck you blaze.com…fuck you.

  • fyreflye
  • martinc

    A thoughtful piece of writing. Thanks, Ed.

  • Randomfactor

    I have a religious reason as well. To atheists, THIS is heaven. Or as close to it as I’ll ever get. Why wouldn’t I try to make it as good a place as I can, for as many as I can?

  • John Phillips, FCD

    Randomfactor #13, QFT

  • Why did I take a look at the comments underneath on that link?

    One guy says, sarcastically, “Because nothing says compassion like secular humanism.” Meanwhile, several of the compassionate Christians leave posts to the effect of: “Yes, they should go, so they can get attacked and killed by the natives, ha ha”.

  • kalkin

    I thought I was jerk for thinking of cookbooks, cannibalism and The Outer Limits upon reading the title of this article. Then I read the comments….. 😉

  • matty1

    While I agree the focus should not be on ‘proselytism’ I do think there are some areas where the FBB might be particularly qualified to help such as providing resources to local groups fighting discrimination against non-theists or campaigning for education to be separate from religious indoctrination.

  • Karen Locke

    I got turned into a humanist by a bunch of subversive nuns in Catholic high school, who were very, very big on social justice and community service. Later I ditched the religious part of the education, but the humanism stuck.