The Secular Tithe

The Secular Tithe August 19, 2009

How much money do you give away each year?

For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll start by answering my own question: I try to give at least $200 a month to nonprofit educational and charitable causes. I think it’s a reasonable amount, although I know I could (and should) be doing more.

Speaking out as nonbelievers is well and good. There will always be a need for forceful, effective advocacy for atheism. But I’ve come to realize that, if we really want to build a secular and enlightened society, speech is not enough. It’s even more important that we offer material support – our money and our time – to organizations that do good by advancing the values that atheists hold dear. We don’t have to copy the example of the churches that demand an astonishing 10% of their members’ income, but I think every atheist who can afford it should donate at least a few percent to groups working to uphold the causes that make this world better. Call it a secular tithe.

In this post, I want to suggest a few worthy candidates for those donations. I won’t mention secular, non-controversial causes like Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF or Feeding America, all of which I also donate to, but to groups that specifically advance atheist goals, in one way or another, even as they do good in the wider world. This isn’t a comprehensive list, of course. If you know of other worthy causes, post a comment and tell us about them!

Kiva: A microcredit organization that I’ve written about before, Kiva connects donors with entrepreneurs in the developing world who want to take out small loans to start or expand a business. By spurring economic growth, microfinance groups like this are one of the most effective means of reducing global poverty. Bonus: The vast majority of Kiva’s loans are paid back, and your seed money is returned to you in time – which multiplies your donation’s effectiveness by enabling you to lend the same money out over and over again.

Added bonus: Kiva’s lenders can organize into communities, and right now, far and away the largest lender community on the site is made up of atheists! If you join this group, not only will you be doing good for humanity, you’ll be contributing in a very visible way to dispelling the stereotype that atheists lack generosity or charitable impulses. (If you do join, tell them I sent you!)

Planned Parenthood: Founded by Margaret Sanger (whose motto was “No Gods, No Masters”), Planned Parenthood is on the front lines of the battle to protect the reproductive rights of women, providing medically accurate information about pregnancy and access to safe, effective birth control and abortion. This, of course, makes them absolutely loathed by the religious fanatics who think that women’s bodies should be made the property of their church and the elderly, male clerics who run it.

In addition to the endless protests, threats, harassment, and burdensome laws from right-wing legislators, Planned Parenthood has often been the target of terrorist violence from militant Christianists. They haven’t buckled, and they deserve our support to help them carry on the fight. In few other areas is your giving so effective in pushing back against the religious right. Even if you can’t donate money, you can always volunteer a few hours escorting patients at your local clinic.

The American Civil Liberties Union: The fact that Christian conservatives so despise the ACLU ought to be reason number one for politically aware atheists to support it. But if you need more persuasion, consider how many groundbreaking civil-rights victories the ACLU has been involved in – including some that are very valuable to atheists, such as Abington v. Schempp (striking down teacher-led prayers in public school), U.S. v. Seeger (a ruling that the nonreligious can be conscientious objectors), and Epperson v. Arkansas (bans on evolution violate the First Amendment).

Even today, the ACLU is hard at work challenging unconstitutional entanglements of religion and government, as well as battling excessive government secrecy, intrusive police power, laws that restrict free speech, and generally defending the principles that benefit all citizens in a free society. Every American ought to be thankful that they exist, because they’re not afraid to defend unpopular causes in the name of protecting the Constitution, and in the long run that benefits all of us.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation: If you want to support an explicitly atheist organization, you couldn’t do better than the Freedom from Religion Foundation. An educational and advocacy organization based out of Madison, Wisconsin, the FFRF represents the views of the rapidly-growing segment of the American population that is nonreligious. Like many other groups, they wage legal battles across the country to protect the constitutional principle of separation of church and state; but possibly even more importantly, they work to educate the public about the views of nontheists.

Through atheist billboards, bus ads, and speaking engagements and TV appearances by co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, the FFRF brings the message of freethought to a public that needs to hear far more of it. They also have an annual convention; a radio program, Freethought Radio, that’s broadcast weekly on Air America; and a monthly newsletter, Freethought Today, that publishes essays from members, reports on the FFRF’s legal work, and lists arrests and convictions of clergy in a section called the “Black Collar Crime Blotter” (a full-page spread, in small type). I know of no other group that does more to speak out on behalf of atheists and publicize our viewpoint. If you’re an atheist and an American, and you’re not already a member, what could possibly be keeping you?

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