Yes, Salon, Atheists Do Help the Poor

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 chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.


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