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

    He didn’t just touch the boils guy, he hugged him. Would you hug that guy? I can’t say I would.

  • Spuddie

    To which the response is, where are such teachings EVER effective.

    They can’t even get their priests to give up sex, they expect everyone else to do the same?

  • Oranje

    Reference the running Joe Klein jokes in other comment sections around here.

  • quasibaka

    You make a good point about women and poverty .
    I have not come across a single religion which uniformly promotes gender equality and empowers women . My experiences with Hinduism(my religion of birth) even in the 21st century leave me depressed .

    Educated women are one of the greatest threats to these stupid cults!

  • Holytape

    I did forget to mention that the notion that atheist don’t already confront the pressing issues of the day was built on a bunch of disprovable lies?

    Also that complaining about thousands of dollars on billboards, while ignoring the billions of dollars, that RCC alone, much less the christian community in general, spend on self promotion is blatantly hypocritical.

    Did I forget to mention that criticizing a political organization for not being a humanitarian organization is incredibly dishonest.

  • Rationalist1

    Alas it in not my point. It belongs to Christopher Hitchens, whose books I am not worthy to quote.

  • quasibaka

    In my place , we have a saying :
    “What one hand give in charity , show not even to the other hand”
    ( sounds better in my language – Tamil)

    Braying over the internets that I(or my cult) gives so much to charity is BS .
    This is more of the same ‘I am holier than you’ crap from religious bigots.

  • LesterBallard

    Yeah, I’ll help the poor as soon as I get my ass off my golden throne and put down my golden scepter and finish paying hush money to child rape victims and their families.

  • Valoniel

    “Hindus say that there’s no point giving charity because it’s all karma”

    Okay, since I’m just a white Canadian with a Hindu wife, all I’m going to say right now is that either you’ve met some incredibly dishonest and disingenuous Hindus (every group has its assholes, after all), or you’re just talking out your ass.

    Perhaps quasibaka, or someone else with a bit more Hindu scriptural authority than I have, would be kind enough to give you correct information.

  • Matt D

    “Would you hug that guy? I can’t say I would.”

    So? You aren’t almost eighty years old and the head of a wealthy organization (one that is certain to give you the best healthcare).

    Any risk he takes (minor or major) has a safety net to catch his fall, and should that fail, his beliefs do not make death something to fear (barring a lack of confidence), but embrace.