Over the past year or so, I’ve become increasingly aware that, for the atheist movement to make a difference, speaking out isn’t enough. Speech is a valuable tool, but it isn’t the only tool. Almost as important is our money and our effort – the way we spend it, and the causes we support. To build the world we want to see, we must be willing to act in concrete ways that advance the goal of creating a secular community.
This concern of mine is bolstered by surveys which show that evangelical Christians and other members of religious groups give more – not a lot more, but more – to charitable causes than atheists. This holds true even if you don’t count donations to a believer’s own church. (NB: I have serious concerns with this study’s methodology, especially the way it lumps committed atheists in with infrequent churchgoers as “secularists”. Nevertheless, I think the larger point has validity.)
Obviously, I don’t think that this is because religious people are more generous or more caring than atheists. I think the explanation is much simpler, as I wrote in a post from 2007 which predicted this finding: religious believers give more because they have more opportunities to give.
If you’re a member of a church that passes the collection plate every week, that regularly organizes blood drives, soup kitchens, after-school programs, and that regularly exhorts its members to volunteer and to participate, then of course you’re more likely to give, simply because the possibility is always before your eyes. Atheists have no comparable social organization, and that makes charitable giving take more time and effort. When you do it yourself, you have to do all the legwork: remembering to make your donation, deciding on a cause, compiling a list of suitable charities, researching their background, and selecting criteria to choose a winner. It’s just easier when all this work is done for you, and the only thing you have to do is sign on the dotted line.
The other advantage religious people have over us is that their donations are highly visible. When a theist gives to, say, Catholic Charities or Lutheran World Relief, there’s no doubt about where that organization’s budget is coming from and who’s supporting them. By contrast, atheists often give to non-sectarian groups like Feeding America or Doctors Without Borders – and there’s nothing wrong with that, but because people of all creeds support those groups, there’s nothing to mark our charitable dollars as coming from atheists. This makes our good works invisible, which often leads ignorant religious apologists to claim that atheists have never done anything for our fellow human beings.
What we need is an option to give to charity in a way that does good for others, while also making it clear that atheists and nonbelievers are underwriting the effort. And there are already ways to do this – as I’ve mentioned before, there’s Kiva, the microfinance site whose largest lender community is made up of atheists. But Kiva is a long-term effort, aimed at the eradication of poverty through capitalism, and there’s still a call for groups that answer urgent needs.Foundation Beyond Belief, a meta-charity helping atheists and freethinkers to do good (and I love that logo!). The Foundation was the brainchild of Dale McGowan, the secular parenting author whom I’ve interviewed before. There are some other familiar faces on the board of directors as well, including fellow blogger Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist.
The Foundation is not itself a charity. Rather, it has a list of major issues it seeks to address – environment, poverty, education, child welfare, and so on. Each quarter, it picks an existing charitable group serving each of those issues, one that has a track record of effectiveness and that doesn’t proselytize. Foundation members’ donations are funneled to those charities, divided among them according to the individual member’s choice. You can choose to split your donation equally among all the charities, or give it all to a few or to one.
The Foundation’s business model answers both of the challenges I posed above. As an explicitly secular organization which only supports non-sectarian charities, it makes our donations visible in the same way that religious charities are visible. As Dale McGowan puts it, through the FBB, our donations become “a positive collective expression of our worldview”. And while the Foundation does accept one-time donations, that’s not its preferred means of giving. Instead, it encourages people to sign up as members, committing to donate a fixed amount per month – as low as $5. This helps give atheists that regular reminder that we’ve been lacking until now.
I’m tremendously excited about the potential of this project! I became a member of the Foundation a few days ago, and I’ve started at $50 per month, but that’s just a beginning. If I’m satisfied with how my money is spent, I plan to ramp up my contribution very soon, and I hope to eventually do the majority of my charitable giving through Foundation Beyond Belief. If the goals of this project are ones that you also share, I encourage you to join me there.
And to sweeten the pot a bit, I’m going to make a special offer. If you join the Foundation as the result of reading this post, and if you leave a comment and tell me about it, I’ll do a front-page interview with you about yourself, your blog if you have one, and your reasons for joining. This offer may not remain open forever, so take advantage of it soon!