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Atheists, Humanists Resolve to Give More

By Valerie Tarico ~

As we head into 2011, humanist leaders around the world have resolved to give more and get their fellow freethinkers to do the same.

When research in recent years suggested that churchgoers give more than the rest of us, some freethinkers protested that recruiting costs (aka proselytizing missions) shouldn’t be considered giving, nor should what economists call fees for “club services.” Perhaps. But others simply asked, “Why might that be?” They pointed out that churchgoers talk, explicitly, with each other about giving. They discuss shared values. Everyone knows that giving is a group norm, and then leaders step up to make it easy. The offering plate circulates each Sunday. Church bulletins encourage direct monthly withdrawals from checking accounts. Legacy advisors are brought in from places like Focus on the Family to talk about estate planning. By contrast, nontheists have very few ways to create community around the act of giving.

The response has been a flurry of initiatives, efforts, and institutions aimed at getting nontheists to team up and give, not just to other humanists but to the broader community of life.
  • The New York-based Center for Inquiry created a fund called Skeptics and Humanist Aid and Relief Effort (SHARE). In 2010, it directed funds primarily to Doctors Without Borders to aid in Haitian earthquake relief.
  • Outspoken biologist and anti-theist Richard Dawkins spearheaded an effort called Non-believers Giving Aid, which most recently has emphasized medical services for Pakistanis. It brings together twenty groups whose members self-identify variously as rationalist, humanist, ex-Muslim, skeptic, atheist, secular, and freethinker.
  • Small local groups like the Seattle Atheists began organizing members to donate blood, contribute to homeless shelters, and even wrap Christmas packages to raise money for a regional children’s hospital.

Just as the web has brought freethinkers together for other reasons – mutual support, skeptical inquiry, healing, leisure,--even sex and marriage--it has created opportunities for collaborative giving. Compared to churchgoers, nontheists tend to be non-joiners, and so tapping the social dimension of giving has been a challenge for those who care about the intersection between freethought and generosity. But just as the web has brought nonbelievers together for other reasons – mutual support, skeptical inquiry, healing, leisure,--even sex and marriage--it has created opportunities for collaborative giving. lets anyone with as little as $25 to spare join in microlending. Entrepreneurs in developing countries make their loan requests through established microcredit nonprofits, and the requests are posted online. When enough Kiva members commit to a given loan, it goes. Kiva also lets members sign up for giving teams, which compete to outgive each other. Their number one team is one called: "Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious". As of the last day in 2010, the team had 13,379 members and had made over three million in loans.

One of the most innovative web based giving communities for nontheists is the Foundation Beyond Belief, founded by psychologist Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief. The foundation recruits members who commit monthly donations of $5 and up, which they then allocate across several areas of need including animal protection, peace, poverty, environment, education, health and human rights and child welfare. The foundation encountered technical difficulties on launch, and by mid year had a new kind of growing pains: an argument among members over whether they should include religious charities in their mix. Yes, said some, if they are not proselytizing and are doing good work in the world. No, said others, we want one place to give that doesn’t have religion in the mix. After fierce debate, the fledgling foundation found a solution that satisfied most everyone. They created a new giving category called, “Challenge the Gap -- Different Beliefs, Common Goals,” which encourages cooperation between freethinkers and those with shared values but other worldviews. By the end of the year, the Foundation had built to 700 members who had given over $83,000 to 37 charities.

McGowan resolves to build on these beginnings: “In 2011 we'll be getting more directly involved in charitable work by coordinating local humanist volunteer groups across the U.S. On the charitable giving side, we hope to make an even greater contribution to those in need by tripling our membership and donations.”

McGowan is not alone. Through much of the last century nonbelievers stayed quietly isolated, scattered among believing family members, colleagues and neighbors; but the Web changed that. For the first time a former Pentecostal in Biloxi and a jack-Mormon in Spokane and an exMuslim in London have the means to connect. No sooner did freethinkers become broadly visible to each other, than they started forming groups that are feisty, thoughtful and playful--and also giving. In December, secular members of Reddit organized to “outgive” their Christian and Muslim counterparts in providing medical services in developing countries. The surface competition covered a deeper reality. In fact, all three groups were united in compassionate action. Across the country, freethought organizations large and small are organizing in unprecedented ways to take care of their communities and our world. Do you have a role to play?