Yes, Salon, Atheists Do Help the Poor

***Update (10/20/14)***: There have been several accusations of plagiarism leveled at Werleman. I’m not sure if this piece was affected but just wanted to point that out.

CJ Werleman wrote a piece for Alternet about how atheists should learn a lesson from Pope Francis when it comes to dealing with poverty — and since it slams atheists, Salon was eager to reprint it:

When the Pope washes the feet of convicts while calling for greater efforts to lift up the world’s poor, he makes it possible to establish meaningful partnerships with other moral communities, secular and religious. Of course, when Francis speaks about the “idolatry of money” and “growing income inequality,” you know, the things Jesus spoke about, you can set your watch in waiting for someone on the Right to accuse him of being a Marxist. Hello, Rush Limbaugh.

Atheists like to talk about building a better world, one that is absent of religiosity in the public square, but where is the atheist movement, as defined by the some 2,000 atheist groups and organizations in the U.S., when it comes to dealing with our third-world levels of poverty? Not only is the atheist movement absent on this issue, it is spending thousands of dollars on billboards that make atheists look like assholes, at the same time Catholicism is looking hip again. The Pope has changed the perception of the Church in the minds of millions while the atheist movement has been sucked into the Right’s fictitious “war on christmas.”

I’ll give him that Pope Francis walks the walk on poverty, saying no to the Papal palace and making outreach to the poor and criticism of capitalism run amok an important part of his legacy.

But what’s with trashing atheist groups for not dealing with the same issues?

Why accuse atheists of spending money on billboards instead of the poor when most of those billboards were funded by the organizations, their donors, or billboard-specific groups to further their stated missions? Why not just accuse anyone who spends money on anything that’s not charity of the same thing? (By the way, the Catholic Church spent more money to fight marriage equality than most of those atheist billboard campaigns combined. Just sayin’.)

And while the Pope has done a lot of good shining a spotlight on poverty, what exactly have other Catholics done to advance the cause? Maybe if they weren’t giving out so much money to victims of sexual abuse, they could be giving millions of dollars to the neediest among us instead.

Still, I’ll play Werleman’s game. Why don’t atheists do more for the poor? Well, to get the excuses out of the way, we don’t have the infrastructure, numbers, or outreach ability of the Catholic Church, nor do we have some sort of doctrine that demands we pay attention to one particular social issue over another.

But we haven’t ignored the poor altogether, as Werleman wants people to believe.

  • On the microlending site Kiva, the atheist team has loaned out over $13,000,000 to the poor — more than any other group in the world.
  • Members of Foundation Beyond Belief, which I’m on the board of, have donated more than $1,400,000 to causes that have nothing to do with promoting atheism, many of which benefit the poor. We’ve ever sponsored the Pathfinders Project, a yearlong international service trip to help those less fortunate.
  • Atheist groups have collected tens of thousands of dollars to support relief efforts in countries devastated by natural disasters, most recently raising more than $100,000 for people affected by Typhoon Haiyan.
  • Atheists have offered to volunteer at soup kitchens, too, though the Christians running those places wanted nothing to do with us.
  • Most importantly, individual atheists give to the poor on their own, even if it’s not as easily quantifiable as it is with churches.

Werleman mentions none of those things, though. He’s too busy complaining about random billboards to notice when atheists do precisely the sort of outreach he wants us to be doing.

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.

  • Neko

    Oh. Thank you.

  • Artor

    I donate about 100 hours of my time every summer to help raise thousands for local food banks. I don’t do it for faith, or because I’m an atheist. But because my friends are doing it, and we are all happy to help people out, and have fun doing it.

  • Neko

    If you want to agree with that assessment, go ahead. But I’m calling bullshit.

    Actually I expressed my disagreement with that assessment right off the bat, so straw.

    Neither did I advise anyone to “roll over,” so more straw.

    Also since when is pointing out Christian privilege making atheism fade into irrelevancy.

    That was Werleman’s point, not mine. I don’t expect the movement to fade, despite its obnoxious temperament at the moment. But I do agree with him that the atheist Christmas campaigns are a disaster that play right into the War on Christmas hysteria.

    I certainly do believe in fighting for equality, which is why I’m here. (I couldn’t care less about atheism as “identity.”) That’s the good fight. We strongly disagree on tactics, however. You say AA, I say Satanic Temple, but let’s not call the whole thing off.

  • Neko

    It’s still the finish line as far as I’m concerned.

  • $925105

    Is that the third or fourth anti-Atheist article to appear in Salon? They really hate Atheists for some reason and have no problem throwing out any journalistic integrity to do so. Apparently they hire the same fact checker as Fox News.

  • WalterWhite007

    The religious donate mostly to their churches. A recent pew study stated that.

  • Carlos Alexandre

    CJ Werleman is a noted atheist and has written books on the topic, like God Hates You Hate Him Back.

    The article isn’t anti-atheist. The article is pro-let’s-find-common-ground-and-address-wealth-disparity.

  • Carlos Alexandre

    He’s aware. His response on Facebook (which he posted along with this article) is as follows:

    “The popular Happy Atheist blog is critical of my piece on the Pope. The purpose of my piece was to give credit where credit is due, that Pope Francis had broadened the appeal of the Church by speaking to the most pressing crisis of our time (wanton capitalism and income inequality), and how this could serve as a lesson for atheist organizations/groups.”

  • John Gills

    Thank you Carlos.

  • David McNerney

    I’m all fine with the Catholic church promoting abstinence – and as a policy of personal behaviour abstinence is probably the best method for avoiding an STI.

    However, as a matter of public policy abstinence is nearly a guaranteed method to spread diseases. The best public policy for the prevention of AIDS etc is the promotion of barrier contraceptives such as condoms.

    The Catholic church, however, interferes directly with public policy – which is none of their business – and that has led directly to the deaths of many people who would normally be low risk.

    It is perfectly acceptable for them to promote abstinence and faithfulness – but until they actively encourage the public health services to promote condom use – which they can easily do without compromising their position – then their hands are soaked in the blood of the innocent.

  • Matt D

    I’m not suprised anyone would fail to understand my point, even politicans have less experience than the Catholic church does at manipulation.