Stedman on ‘Atheism Without Works’

Chris Stedman’s latest column expresses a position I have come to hold more and more strongly over the last year or so, which is that atheists and humanists need to build communities and engage in service projects that help better the human condition locally, nationally and globally. He makes the argument that Dale McGowan has been making for years:

In American Grace Robert Putnam and David Campbell discuss the fact that, overall, religious Americans are more civically engaged than the nonreligious—they volunteer more often and give more money to both religious and secular charities. They are, per Putnam and Campbell, better neighbors.

But Putnam and Campbell also found that nonbelieving spouses of believers are just as civically engaged if involved in their partner’s religious community. So the connection between religion and civic engagement seems to have less to do with belief and more to do with belonging. Communities connect people and inspire them to do more to help others.

With fewer organized communities, atheists have fallen behind in this arena. This doesn’t mean that atheists don’t care about and help their neighbors; it means they have fewer opportunities and venues to do so.

Precisely right. That was the whole purpose of creating the Foundation Beyond Belief, about which he has some very kind words:

You just have to look around to see examples of a shift underway.

A great place to begin is with Foundation Beyond Belief, an amazing organization constantly growing in their work to empower atheists to donate to important causes. But their efforts go beyond giving—their Beyond Belief Network, which helps to support local nontheist service groups, is sponsoring a nationwide Week of Action later this month that encourages nontheists to take time that week to do at least one good deed, organize a service project, or participate in an interfaith event.

Looking ahead, this summer Foundation Beyond Belief will host Humanism at Work, “the first of its kind [conference focused on] on how nontheists can put their compassionate humanism to work for a better world.” And if that weren’t enough, Foundation Beyond Belief is also supporting Pathfinders Project, an initiative aiming to launch a Humanist Service Corps.

There are many other examples of this new focus on serving others in the broader atheist and humanist community as well and he references many of them. His conclusion:

These are just a few examples of the many ways that, as nonreligious communities are growing, atheists are working to demonstrate what we already know to be true—that nontheists care deeply about improving the conditions of life for all.

To me, this commitment is central to atheism. If we take seriously our position that it is unlikely any divine or supernatural forces will intervene in human affairs and resolve our problems, then it is truly up to us. Human beings of all beliefs and backgrounds have to work together to make this world better. This conviction is atheism and Humanism’s call to service.

Some Christians believe that faith without works is dead. Perhaps we could say the same of atheism. Fortunately, more and more nontheists are demonstrating that atheism is alive and well.

This is a powerful argument. Because we understand that no deity, no supernatural force, is going to come down and solve the endemic problems that exist in all human societies, we know that we are the only ones who can do it. We have a moral obligation, I believe, to do what we can to help those in need. I’m so encouraged by what I see happening in atheist and humanist communities all around the country and feel so fortunate to be a part of it.

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  • benjdm

    All true, but the numerous church-state separation violations that exist tend to make non-religious people feel excluded from their communities. Why help out a community that labels one an alien, non-patriotic outsider?

    It’s not an easy battle.

  • pocketnerd

    I’ve been saying much the same thing for years. I don’t care what people believe, except to the extent it affects what they do. Merely being an atheist does not instantly make you one of the enlightened and benevolent intelligentsia. Skeptics and rationalists who are indifferent to misogyny, racism, or other forms of inequality aren’t doing “freethinking” any favors; freethinking should not become just another excuse for tolerating injustice.

  • nemistenem

    I guess I’m with you on this one, Ed. I’ve been a dentist for (yikes!) nearly 27 years. I was a BINO (believer in name only – patented – BEFORE Colbert gets it!) but am more honest with myself about my atheism/non-belief now. But, I have always felt it was important to give back to society/those in need, and the needs for dental treatment among those that cannot afford my services in-office are frankly staggering. Most of us dentists do a fair amount of free treatment in our offices (at our own discretion), but I have for all my years of practice worked with a local NW religious charity that owns several mobile dental vans. So, I volunteer with them glady but there is a mission statement in the entryway that states something like “We are here to fulfill Christ’s loving mission on earth” or some similar drivel. I look past that and try to graciously accept the god bless yous, etc., but it would be so nice to have a similar setup that had a mission statement without the religious overtones. But until there is, I’ll keep helping others for goodness sake and to celebrate our shared humanity.

    So, benjdm, that is why I think we should help out in spite of the religious fabric that surrounds our efforts. Perhaps someday we in the humanist community can create and develop the network that is necessary to fund and support such efforts, but they are not there now, not for my circumstance.

  • Pen

    I’m glad we still have enough government and secular structures that this doesn’t feel necessary. The obvious way to dispense help is geographically. Geographical areas include people of many beliefs. Why on earth should help be linked to belief? I wouldn’t donate to or work with a religious organisation and I don’t want an atheist/humanist one either. I want inclusive! We wouldn’t accept these attitudes in paid work or government, why in this branch of activity?

    Answer: because dispicable religious practitioners have used help to promote their unrelated belief systems and emotionally blackmail people so we should get in on it too???

  • royandale

    If nonreligious people have less tendency to “be good neighbors,” you have to ask yourself why. Some of it, surely, is feeling excluded, and forming your own Tribe of the Nonbelievers is one way to accomplish a better feeling of community. But honestly, that’s more an excuse for past bad behavior. Yes, we certainly do have a moral obligation to do what we can to help those in need, and letting your feelings of exclusion stop you is kind of lazy.

    I’ve volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, a religiously based organization, because it was an effective way to accomplish something that needed doing. They didn’t know I was an atheist, and I busied myself with something else come time for the prayers. I also helped build a couple of big community playgrounds in town, sponsored by some coalition of churches. In part wanted to support them doing something other than the harping about abortion and SSM all the damn time.

    I’ve done a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with religion in any way, and there was no reason for anyone to ask, or want to know, or care at all what I thought about things theological. Many of those were arts groups which, by the way, have a remarkable history of diversity and inclusiveness racially, culturally, religiously, sexually and all other ways. Mostly because the artists themselves come in all those variations.

    My point is, go volunteer somewhere. Go help those in need, however it is you can and want to do that. Go start a tribe of your own if it helps, but don’t make that the focus, make the helping others part the thing.

  • Thorne

    @nemistenem #3

    While i applaud your dedication and generosity, I wonder how many of those patients would even let you near them if they new you were an atheist. There have been several instances within the past year where donations or assitance from secular groups have been refused because of their origin.

  • John Horstman

    We absolutely do have community enterprises and institutions to help people in need: it’s called the welfare state. I prefer to try to build public-sector institutions that will care for people as needed, irrespective of any identity affiliations and fairly compensating those who do such work. Insisting that we need to engage in unpaid labor to pick up the slack left by a bunch of plutocrats extracting profits from the system is downright offensive. Fuck charity – it should never be necessary in the first place. Fuck neoliberal responses to the failure of market capitalism. And, as always, fuck Chris Stedman’s infatuation with religion-minus-god. (Yes, I participate in charitable enterprises when I think it’s strategic, when I think the benefit outweighs the cost of enabling a broken, exploitative socioeconomic system, but I’m never happy about it.)

    To me, this commitment is central to atheism. If we take seriously our position that it is unlikely any divine or supernatural forces will intervene in human affairs and resolve our problems, then it is truly up to us. Human beings of all beliefs and backgrounds have to work together to make this world better. This conviction is atheism and Humanism’s call to service.

    Right. Again, we call that “government”. Call back if he ever says anything even remotely worthwhile.

  • benjdm

    So, benjdm, that is why I think we should help out in spite of the religious fabric that surrounds our efforts.

    Oh, I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t. I’m just observing that it’s an obstacle. (Or, at least, I think it is. I suppose it is possible I would be just as much of a misanthrope as a religious person. I’ll probably never know.)

  • Aaron Logan

    Hear hear, John Horstman. Rather it is we the people who need to build communities and egage in service projects albeit atheistically and humanistically and, I hope, irreligiously.

  • nemistenem


    Good point, well taken. I avoid such conversations especially in my private practice to avoid losing pts, which I surely would. And I admit that sucks and does tick me off that I don’t feel like I can be myself and keep my business healthy.

    I suspect many of the folks seeking free treatment would have it done regardless, though. Desperate times call for desperate measures!

  • Thorne

    @nemistenem #10

    I avoid such conversations especially in my private practice to avoid losing pts, which I surely would.

    I can understand your discretion in your private practice. People pay for your services, after all. They are free to go somewhere else if they don’t agree with your opinions. Of course, you cannot refuse a patient with a different opinion than yours.

    What intrigues me is the potentially large number of free clinic patients who might refuse your service because you are atheist, despite their need of such services and the fact that it’s free! It’s another case of people being trained to work against their own best interests, whether by a religious doctrine, a political doctrine, or a corporate doctrine.