If you’ve been reading Friendly Atheist (and who doesn’t?), then you’re aware of the clusterf’k that has resulted from a recent article by Joe Klein in Time magazine. Klein’s article on the volunteerism and service in America, focusing on the rebuilding of areas in Oklahoma recently hit by tornadoes, included a throw-away line about how there were no secular humanist organizations giving out meals. Hemant responded by listing some of the secular organizations that did indeed help out in Oklahoma.
Klein and Time don’t seem to have gotten the point. Klein responded by saying that the secular humanists weren’t organized, which makes me think he didn’t actually read any of the responses, which clearly list the organizations involved.
This whole thing has a Bowling Alone feel. Klein has obviously been drinking from Robert Putnam’s well. One of the implications that I see conservatives drawing from that book is that the decline in American religiosity and church involvement has meant a decline in American social capital. Klein states it explicitly in a blog post:
As a society, we’ve lost a good deal of our sense of communitarian commitment. That’s not a novel observation, of course. It was best made by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, twenty years ago. But the churches–disdained and sometimes ridiculed in my part of the world, Acela world–still have it. Many of their teachings are improbably literal and sometimes close-minded to the point of ugliness; but the church groups are always out there, in droves, when a disaster happens.
Problem is, Klein is not more rigorous than his source. Putnam has been criticized for ignoring data that didn’t fit his thesis. For example, he laments the decline in PTA attendance while ignoring the fact that other groups have sprung up to act as alternatives. To tackle his title, does the decline in bowling leagues mean anything when soccer leagues are on the rise?
Like Putnam, I think Klein is seeing things through the lens of his thesis. Even beyond our ire at being backhanded, this needs to be corrected. Time needs to step up and correct the record. Above all, Klein and Time need to recognize that it does not require a belief in the transcendent in order to feel a responsibility to one’s fellow human, and that the growing number of secular organizations are filing the hollow that Klein believes that he sees.
Ed Brayton, over at that other atheist portal, has a post calling for Time to do just that:
Time has an opportunity here to tell an important story. As more and more Americans identify as non-religious, the story of how we live our lives and contribute to society needs to be told. Time can be the first major publication to do a serious and comprehensive look at the enormous growth in secular service organizations and the important work that they do. And if Time starts, others may well follow and the pervasive myth of the selfish atheist will begin to crumble. Let’s urge them — again, politely — to do just that.
Given that Klein is talking about the decline in non-sectarian service organizations as part of an atomization of American culture does not give me great hope that he’ll step forward and write this piece. I think he’s on a completely different wavelength than we are. If we’re cranky with him for sectarian reasons, we’ve proven his point, even if he doesn’t know how to express it. We can expect nothing but nostalgia for a by-gone era of American unity from this source.
But there’s a rumor that Time has had another reporter on the ground, and that they might actually do a real story on secular charity. Brayton asks us to put the screws on the magazine:
On behalf of Foundation Beyond Belief, which has been so successful in channeling the compassion of the humanist community that it is about to go over the $1 million mark in funds raised and distributed in less than four years of operation, I’d like to ask you to email the editors of Time magazine at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please be polite rather than angry when you do so. Don’t curse at them or call them names, just remind them of a few facts that should be acknowledged
Brayton gives a summary of some of the organizations involved in Oklahoma. A quick note to the editors at Time listing these groups and your commitment to secular charity might push Time into acknowledging what is right in front of them.