Secular aid and charity

The most prominent US humanist organizations, the Council for Secular Humanism and the American Humanist Association, have appeals for donations to help Haiti, through secular channels. (CSH site; AHA site.)

In the interests of equal opportunity cynicism, though, I have to wonder how much of this is motivated by a need to demonstrate that the nonreligious can also be charitable. (“Look, we can do this too!”) I would expect it’s part of the picture. Christians often point out the social benefits of their beliefs by saying they organize all sorts of aid to the unfortunate. Some go further, accusing nonbelievers of being less interested in helping their fellow humans. There is, in fact, some (though controversial) social science supporting this accusation. So secular humanists promoting the social respectability of nonbelief have some incentive to visibly support secular means of aid and charity.

I don’t think that means too much, one way or the other. Our motivations are complicated. I guess one might ask if secular impulses to aid would be sustainable in the absence of a need to compete with religion. That’s a very difficult question to answer. My guess is that yes, secular aid and charity has its independent motivations. But secular charity and mutual aid also has a different character than the more traditional religious variety. I imagine those of us who are religious or nonreligious generally prefer our own way of doing things, regardless of comparisons of dollar amounts and so forth.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05868095335395368227 vjack

    I think the idea here is that if you are going to give anyway, do so through a secular organization to dispel the myth that we are heartless and avoid sponsoring proselytizing. Makes sense to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12943496038946080455 Brian

    I agree with the late author Robert Heinlein that charity is almost always self-serving. Whether it's for public appearances or simply because we feel good for helping others, I think that true selfless giving is very rare. That said, the motivation doesn't really matter as long as the people are getting some help with a truly catastrophic event. I also agree that if you're going to give, you might as well give through a humanist organization to make it clear that not all charitable beings are Christians.


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