An Atheist Donates to a Catholic Group Because They Have the Infrastructure in Place to Help Others

I got an email from reader Keith that’s worth sharing:

I live in Austin, Texas. We are currently within 30 miles of several major wildfires fueled by months of severe drought and a day or two of high winds (mercifully subsided). The last estimate I saw predicted 500 homes destroyed in Bastrop County alone.

I went to the Internet, where I found a couple of good pages suggesting ways to help. The Red Cross can always use cash, of course, but, being nearby, I could see an opportunity to put clothes and other necessities in the hands of people right now. The places listed to accept donations included the Austin Area Food Bank (a good, local, secular charity which I support). But for donations of clothes, disposable plates and cups, towels, and other need-it-now items, I chose to go to a local Catholic center. Not without reservations, mind you. I considered leaving a note saying, “Please do not proselytize to the people who receive these items.”

In the end, I trusted my neighbors to get these needed items to people who, in some cases, had minutes to prepare for evacuation, and didn’t worry about how they might choose to deliver them. Criticize churches all day ( I know I do), but they had the organization in place, they were close to me, and they were available for a dropoff at an hour convenient to a working man. I have a reasonable amount of faith that the items will reach people who really need them and who probably won’t complain much even if they don’t like whatever message may be attached.

I don’t blame him for what he did. Churches have the infrastructure in place to do a lot of amazing things for people in need — unfortunately, that help is often conditional on the recipients accepting (or pretending to accept) superstition in their lives.

This is something Humanists must change if we want to live out our values. We don’t have the amount of money so many religious groups do, but we have the goodwill and manpower needed to make something like this happen.

This is one of the goals of Foundation Beyond Belief (a group I work with). We just launched a program called Volunteers Beyond Belief which mobilizes atheists locally, both in and out of times of crisis, but I hope we can eventually expand the program to the point where we can provide secular alternatives for the things normally offered by the Church. We have a long way to go before that happens, but if we can get enough volunteers in one city, and enough funding to move forward, we can be the place people go to when they want to help others without guilt-tripping them into believing exactly as we do.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • John Michael Strubhart

    Well, good for Keith.  I agree with his choice.  I’ll donate to secular causes when they can foot the bill, but if they can’t, or if a religious organization can do it better, I’ll donate to them.  

    There’s a dead link on Volunteers Beyond Belief.  

    • http://twitter.com/volunteersbb VolsBeyondBelief!

      Not sure what you mean.  I tried the link and it’s fine.  If you’re still having trouble, you can visit http://www.foundationbeyondbelief.org/vbb.  

  • Lisa Blair

    link to vbb isn’t working for me :(

  • Pickle

    I live in Austin, too, and also came across this dilemma. The only drop off points that I could find at the time were churches. So, that’s where I left my donation. I figured it was better to donate through a church than not at all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/keithacollyer Keith Collyer

    I did similar with the Indian Ocean tsunami a few years ago. The local Hindu temple was working with worldwide Hindu groups to get clothing out to people in need.

  • Todd Robinson

    Well done Keith!!  This past Christmas my girlfriend and I volunteered at My Sister’s Place Women’s Charity here in Baltimore which is a program for Catholic Charities.  We helped serve dinner to a number of homeless women and their families.  I really wanted to volunteer and this was the best run available option.  I was never asked what my beliefs were and nothing was forced on the patrons.

  • http://thegodlessmonster.com/ The Godless Monster

    I agree with Keith’s choice as well, but he needn’t worry about Catholics pushing their religion on others.
    They just want to push their religious based VALUES on others, but that
    does not involve any sort of proselytizing. Yep, that stopped doing
    that in most parts of the Western world long ago. that’s mostly a
    Protestant role now.

  • http://twitter.com/deanrobertsnet Dean Roberts

    I’m glad you said ‘often’ because a lot of churches don’t require the people receiving aid to check all the statement of faith boxes a lot of the time.

    http://deanroberts.net

    • SJH

      I do not agree that using the word ‘often’ makes the statement acceptable. Should I say  “Atheists are often cold and egotistical”. The statement implies that I believe it to be generally true and is divisive. I am associating a characteristic with a group of people that may or may not be true. If I am making an inaccurate assessment then I apologize.

  • SJH

    You state that “unfortunately, that help is often conditional on the recipients accepting (or pretending to accept) superstition in their lives.” Why do you make this assumption? Have you tried to seek out help from these organizations? Were you poor or homeless recently and requested help from your local Catholic Charities organization? What evidence do you point to that reflects this accusation? I have acted on behalf of charities and have never even discussed religion or values with those seeking help. Mother Theresa never had strings attached when helping anyone. I can think of many other examples if you would like. Can you think of any specific examples to back up your assumption.

    • http://rosalarian.com Rosalarian

      There have been several cases where religious charities voluntarily shut down rather than be made to help certain groups of people (mainly gays and trans people). I know it’s a bit different than giving out help with a side of attempted conversion, but it’s also similar in that many religious charities seem to make helping the misfortunate conditional upon agreement with their views.
      And I know anecdotes don’t prove larger trends, but as far as my experience, I have had many times where I needed to seek charity from a religious source and was made to hide my atheism in order to receive it. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to be forced to compromise my beliefs in order to get aid.

      • SJH

        And you should never be made to compromise your beliefs for aid.  Help should be freely given. If Christians are to follow the example of Jesus who helped all regardless of their beliefs or actions then they should do the same.

        Unfortunately to many Christians out there do not have a proper understanding of Love and have filtered it by their actions. I obviously am not perfect and often times filter my love as so do many atheists but all we can do is do our best.
        People want to know that they are loved for who they are not for what religion they can be a member of.

    • Anonymous

      The Catholic Church is maybe the least guilty of this (though there were a couple of childish temper tantrums of opening up adoption agencies to gay couples while taking tax money). That’s because the sect isn’t evangelical. It certainly tries to force its values on society, but that’s more through the political process than through proselytizing.

      Some Protestant sects however have a nasty reputation for aggressive faith peddling in relation to charity. Like with the Salvation Army. It’s almost as if they only like access to poor, desperate people they can easily preach to.

      • SJH

        I don’t view it as forcing its values on society as much as trying to live as part of a society and trying to create a society conducive to peace, love and social justice. If certain values are represented as values to be avoided it is because the church believes that they are ultimately harmful to society and the individuals that live within it.

        • Heidi

          That is pretty much the same thing as forcing its values on society.

          • SJH

            How is that forcing? Are you telling me that you would not protect your children from something that you thought might harm them. We are not trying to push our views onto anyone. We are trying to protect those that we love. I believe that all of our actions effect others for good or for bad. Even those actions that we do in the privacy of our homes. if this is true then the responsible thing to do is to help people understand this so that they try to improve their lives in a way that will advance all of society.

            • Anonymous

              Again that strange concept of “Christian love” that involves coercion and getting others to conform to your views.

              Christians (and the Catholic Church in particular, which is really the problem here) are constantly trying to influence politicians and legislation to have things go their way. And that’s forcing their values on everyone. You can’t just be happy to live the way you do. You have to get everyone else to do the same. That’s not acceptable

              We also don’t think that you are advancing society, but holding it back. And that some of your values and religious indoctrination are harmful to children

              • SJH

                You cannot be saying that we cannot have laws that protect our society. This would be absurd. I don’t think the difference in our opinion is whether or not the government can legislate. I think the difference derives from our opinion of what actions negatively effect society. 

                As an example, lets take homosexual marriage. There are those that say homosexual marriage shall be allowed because no one has a right to inhibit what a couple does in the privacy of their homes. Another position believes that homosexuality is harmful to society and should therefor be inhibited. Are the second group of people not allowed to try and pass laws that would protect society from what they view as harmful. In the end no one on either side is trying to force others to believe in anything but they are trying to protect society. The discussion should be an attempt to determine what is harmful to society. Instead, both sides resort to judging others and assuming that the other side is out to destroy us.

      • PJB863

        Two “Protestant” organizations (the term Protestant being loosely applied here) that do not prosthelytize are the Unitarian Relief Committee and the Friends Service Organization (they do a lot of things jointly).  They may not operate in all geographic area though.

  • SJH

    I am very interested to see if atheist groups can organize at the level of you average religious group.  What is the binding agent which will cause them to organize? Is this binding agent simply the idea that we should do good for the sake of advancing the species? 
    Will people organize even though the fruits of their work may only be reciprocated after the giver dies and cannot experience that reciprocation?
     If the common understanding is that there is no purpose then will people be still willing to give? If so then why? Are people just naturally good? Is it because we have evolved into creatures that are blind to our pointless reality and therefor actually care whether our neighbor lives or dies? 
    Will we ever evolve past this defective view of reality? 
    Sorry for the nagging questions but they are just thoughts.

    • Anonymous

      How about doing good because it’s the right thing to do? Or because it can feel good to help other people?

      Only doing charity because you expect some reward is downright immoral. If anything it’s your view of the world that’s bleak and hopeless

    • Say what?

      Why should atheists be any less able to organize than churches? Corporations do it. Sports programs do it. Is it just that you don’t believe people will join together expressly for the purpose of helping each other? That a god has to be holding a sword over our heads to coerce us into caring about each other?
      That reward in heaven sounds good, but if you don’t believe in heaven, there’s still a reward. I could get all Pollyanna and say doing good is its own reward, but maybe you don’t believe that. On a more pragmatic level, when I develop a support network, no matter how altruistic I may be feeling, I know there’s a chance I will be the one needing help someday, so I serve my own selfish ends, as well. Why wouldn’t I / we want to do that? Why wouldn’t we be able to do so successfully?

      • SJH

        I was not saying that atheist organizations could not organize. I am wondering if they can do so at the same extent that religious groups do.  I am also trying to understand the chain of logic that would be required in a scenario where there is no god, people act with love towards strangers and have the free will to help those that they have no relation to.

        Your Pollyanna argument suggests that we have some chemical reaction that makes us feel good therefor we want to give. Your other argument states that you give as a means of insurance just in case you need help one day. How is that different then the Christian who falsely believes that they will be rewarded in heaven for their works. It seems that you are both doing good in order to seek reward. Also, your view of Christianity seems to be of some stereotype that seems to be a consistent view among atheists but not based in the reality of most Christians. God does not have to do anything with any sword to motivate us. Most Christians I know give because they want to. We give because we understand the innate dignity of human life, because we love others even though we do not know them, because we care.

        • Anonymous

          We are social animals. We live in groups. Helping each other out benefits the group. That’s all there is to it. And not even on a conscious level. It’s innate. That’s where morality comes from in the first place. Not from invisible sky men.

          Most Christians I know give because they want to.

          Then why bring up rewards and the afterlife? It was your own argument. You mentioned it first

          And sorry to say, but you [i]are[/i] the stereotypical Christian who thinks life couldn’t possibly have any meaning without god. That without god we only think of ourselves and don’t care for anyone else (the typical misunderstanding of “survival of the fittest”). If you don’t want to be stereotyped, don’t act like it.

          • SJH

            I do not think that I was bringing up the afterlife. The afterlife has nothing to do with charity. Most Christian religions teach that it is not our works that earn us a position in heaven and we are not rewarded for charity.

            I also do not believe that we need God in order to care for one another. As I responded to a post above, this feeling is something ingrained in us (see posting above).
            What I am trying to understand with my original posting is the chain of logic that would have to exist for us to have evolved this way without a god. 

            To say that we innately take care of each other in order to sustain our lives is not adequate because we often care for our enemies and distant people who have no relation to us and will have no effect on our lives. 

            Perhaps the answer is as simple as that, through random permutations, we have become illogical creatures. Or,  through random permutations we have grown to care. I guess since the permutations are random there is no chain of logic nor reason for the permutation.

        • Say what?

          Actually, I try to help my neighbors because I believe it is the right thing to do, period. The selfish reward aspect was a acknowledgment that all of us do nice things to be rewarded, even if it’s only a smile from someone we love (anyway, that’s what I was taught in psych classes). My arguments can be supported by many sources, but they are primarily to address your post directly. Personally, I admit there is some truth there, but when I see a person in need, I do not think, “hey, if I help this guy, maybe he’ll return the favor someday.”

          In short, I give for the same reason you claim Christians do. I care. I’m no biblical scholar, but i seem to remember a passage to the effect of “what you do to the least of men, you do to [god].” i dismiss the god part, but agree with the sentiment—if i ignore someone who’s suffering, i feel embarrassed for myself. It’s not who i want to be.

          Your mistake, I believe, is that you think one must believe in gods to love one’s fellow humans. It’s a ridiculous notion and I can’t imagine where you came up with it.

          • SJH

            I do not believe that you must believe in God in order to love your neighbor. I believe it is ingrained in us to do so. Perhaps this is by design from a creator or perhaps it is by evolution but it is true nonetheless.

  • http://rosalarian.com Rosalarian

     I’m so glad to see more and more atheists talking about creating a support system similar to what the church gives. That is something we absolutely can and should do! It boosts our image as not-demonic baby-eaters and helps out people around us. So many people are in the church merely because they need a support network, and belief in the supernatural is secondary, or even not at all.

    But since we don’t have anything like that infrastructure in place yet, I see no problem with using the networks already set up through the church for the time being. Good for Keith!

  • Keith

    Thanks to all for the support and to Hemant particularly for raising the issue and also presenting a possible solution. My apologies to any Catholics who may feel I misrepresented them when i suggested they might proselytize as they distribute donations.

    Writing now because I thought I should clarify a minor point from my original email. Capital Area Food Bank is run by Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT). I think it is safe to say they are not promoting any particular religion, but there may be room to debate whether or not this is, strictly speaking, a secular charity.

  • Anonymous

    You should be able to check out Volunteers Beyond Belief here. I’m the intern working on the program right now, and we’re doing some really cool things. We’re also taking applications for new Teams right now if you’re interested.

  • http://madfishmarket.etsy.com Madfishmonger

    There has been a great deal of controversy here in Winnipeg over the “Youth for Christ” drop-in centre. It’s being built in a low-income area and is aimed at youth in gangs or who could potentially go down that road. Great idea, but it’s not in the slightest bit secular.
    I heard a priest being interviewed on the radio about it, and his comment? “No one else is doing it.”
    I was pretty annoyed at that. I’d love to run a secular youth group, but I’m not a church. I don’t have ready-made access to volunteers, a location, a reputation, privilege of being an established organization, etc. Two groups approach the government with a similar idea, I suspect the church group is automatically going toi be favoured. Not really sure what to do about it. I’m glad I found Foundation Beyond Belief, what a great organization.

    • Say what?

      Two groups approach the govt. and I suspect they’re going with the one that has volunteers, location, reputation, etc. The fact that this will often be a church is not relevant (notwithstanding separation of church and state, but I don’t know if Canada has such limits).

      I’m not really sure why you are annoyed. You seem to acknowledge that nobody else is doing this. You would love to do it, but you haven’t. I don’t mean to criticize you, but you can’t blame the government for going with the organization that is prepared to complete the job rather than the person who thinks s/he’d like to.

      Of course, this highlights the whole gist of the post. Join VBB, start a local chapter, develop a network of volunteers and resources, and then go after those big projects. If you build a strong foundation and the church still gets preferential treatment, then I will join you in being annoyed. Downright pissed off, even.

  • http://evolutionguide.blogspot.com/ William

    In my area we have no secular charities, we have the salvation army, christian soup kitchens, and other groups, we do have the secular Terry Fox run if you can count that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Natalie-A-Sera/743004321 Natalie A. Sera

    I do have mixed feelings about this. Just because Catholics don’t proselytize doesn’t mean that the person accepting the relief won’t conclude that Catholics and the Catholic religion must be good, because they’re doing good work. That’s not the message I want to impart. One of the problems of being a “religious” minority is that you DON’T have the numbers or the money to let people know that YOUR group does good as well. It’s a dilemma that I don’t have an easy answer for, but Volunteers Beyond Belief is a good start. Count me in!

  • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

    I’ve recently been in Keith’s shoes, though not with fire, but with devastating floods here in Pennsylvania.  As soon as our town saw that this flood was going to be bigger than the flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, I got on facebook and started a central hub for people to coordinate information.  When the initial horror and fear were over, I created a sister group to coordinate donations.  Money to the town’s disaster relief fund, various firehouses were handling food donations, and for everything else: A local church that was unaffected by the waters. 

    I’m very familiar with this church, they were one of the churches I “tried out” when I was a teenager.  They are VERY into their religion and generally preachy as all get out, but I was pleasantly surprised.  For all the offers of prayers and bless you’s going on, everyone stayed very focused on the job at hand.  That job wasn’t preaching, it was helping our community.  I have to give credit where due and say that these people have been fantastic to our town.

    They don’t even mind that a foul-mouthed atheist helped organize people.  In fact, their pastor sent me a private message telling me what a great job I’ve been doing keeping people calm, informed, and organized.  Sure, she ended her message with “blessings,” but I’m not the sort to quibble over something so trivial when people are homeless and need help.  I’ve even made some new Christian friends out of this experience. 

    I think it was a positive thing for both sides in the end.  I got to see a side to the church that didn’t involve blatant preaching and they got to see an atheist with a heart taking action for the good of the community.  It’s not always a bad thing to donate in midst of disaster to a church, the key is making sure that they’re doing what they say they’re going to.


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