Good (Without God) – Part One: What Are Our Priorities?

This post was inspired by a presentation I gave at the Center for Inquiry’s 2011 Leadership Conference. You can find extensive coverage of that conference here.

In England, it’s reasonable to assume someone is an atheist until proven otherwise. The influence of religion on public life is minimal, even given our established church. So when I came to America I was excited to join the local atheist and skeptical groups – I wanted to join in the fight against religious privilege and promote secular values in this very religious country.

Everything was going well, with a steady stream of meetups, discussions, debates and debunking sessions. Then, something terrible happened.

A menorah appeared on Cambridge Common.

Suddenly, the email lists were aflame with denunciations of this outrageous infringement of the separation between church and state. Excited missives shot back and forth, and a campaign of letter writing mounted to eradicate this stain on secular America.

In the midst of the firestorm, I began to wonder about our priorities. It struck me that each and every day I walked past Cambridge Common on the way to class. And each time I walked through the Common, I passed a number of people who live there.

Not once had any of these atheist groups expressed an iota of concern for these people – these human beings - who sleep on park benches and carry their belongings in plastic bags.

But the little white wooden menorah really made us angry.

A disclaimer: I am not arguing here that the secular concerns of Humanism are unimportant or should be abandoned. On the contrary, I consider the separation between church and state to be of signal importance and vital to defend, and I salute those who do this important work. I have myself promoted the campaign of Damon Fowler on this blog.

At the same time, it strikes me that this response reflects a larger set of priorities within the movement which require critical scrutiny. While we frequently voice our commitment to a set of humanitarian values, often our most high profile movement efforts are related to defending the barrier between church and state: lawsuits against the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, or against the National Day of Prayer, for instance. I can’t help but wonder, laudable though these efforts are, if the resources we devote to them might do more good – for humanity and our cause - if they were temporarily diverted to humanitarian work which directly improved the lives of our fellows.

Often, if Humanism is to be “Good Without God”, we seem to be more concerned with “Without God” than with being “Good”.

There is good empirical evidence to support this. In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell present a compelling case that religious individuals give more to charities (both secular and religious) than the nonreligious, are more engaged in their local community, and are more likely to be active in politics and volunteering. So the religious are, by and large, “winning at service”.

Significantly, though, the researchers stress that this difference in civic engagement is not about the intensity of a person’s religious belief, but rather due to their involvement with a religious community. If a non-religious individual happens to be engaged with a religious community to a similar degree to a very religious person, they found, they would display the same level of civic commitment. Therefore, they hypothesized, close, morally intense non-religious communities might encourage the nonreligious to get more engaged in civic and service work.

My conviction is that our movement will be stronger and more morally compelling if we listen to Putnam and Campbell and shift our  attention more toward being “good” than being “without god”. Despite the clear moral necessity of such a shift, I see a number of benefits which might accrue were we to do so:

  1. We would be less susceptible to charges of hypocrisy, since we will be enacting our values instead of simply espousing them.
  2. We will build a bigger movement, drawing in new members who are alienated by or indifferent to a focus on being not-religious. The Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard has seen a significant increase in attendance by women since refocusing our agenda toward service and humanitarian work.
  3. We will build a stronger movement, developing our organizational capacity. Since performing service work requires group organization, this will develop useful skills we can use to further our other goals.
  4. The improved public perception of our movement will enable us to pursue our secular goals with a greater chance of success. It’s harder to dismiss the arguments of those you respect and who you see as a positive force in the world.
  5. Service can be fun and enlightening, expanding our horizons, taking us to places we might never see and doing things we might never do due to our social class and level of education.

Given the strong moral case for service, and the five benefits just outlined, I feel there is good reason to shift our priorities.

Instead of crafting a movement which is (Good) Without God, let’s endeavor to be Good (Without God).

In Part 2 I will give 10 ideas for how your Humanist group can engage in service work

Atheism's Lack of Values is a Bug, Not a Feature
We Must Criticize Islam - Responsibly
Why I Do What I Do
Boy Scouts of America: Still Bigoted
About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.