You might be aware, from discussions on the internet, about Joe Klein’s slur on secular humanists in his recent Time magazine piece on returning veterans performing public service. Klein mentioned, after seeing church groups helping out after the Oklahoma tornado disaster, “funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals. . . “
That kind of canard is bruited about all the time, and a needed palliative for it has just been published in the Atlantic, in a piece by Katherine Stewart called, “A Catholic, a Baptist, and a secular humanist walk into a soup kitchen. . . “ It’s a good critique of the notion that only the religious help out in disasters—a notion that carries with it the idea that religion but not secular humanism promotes morality.
Stewart points out several facts. First, people in relief organizations like the Red Cross or Team Rubicon, which do help out, include secularists who don’t identify themselves as such. Indeed, Team Rubicon, a veterans’ organization, was largely financed by the secularist charity Foundation Beyond Belief.
Second, religious groups get benefits from the government that secular groups don’t, and thus have more resources:
Unlike secular nonprofits, for example, houses of worship are assumed to be tax-exempt as soon as they form. This exemption is rarely examined, and is free from the mandatory reporting obligations that are imposed on secular non-profit groups. Religious entities are not required to report their wealth, salaries, or value of their land to any government agency. Houses of worship also obtain exemptions from civil law governing health and safety inspection and workers’ rights — and, not to be forgotten, they derive substantial benefits from the gravy train of “faith-based partnerships.” So when Klein called it “funny” that you “don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals,” it wasn’t just demonstrably false–it also, to the extent it described an actual difference, wasn’t “funny,” in the sense of being particularly mysterious.
Third, when budget cuts reduce things like school programs and tutoring, local governments often reach out preferentially to religious or “faith-based” organizations. Stewart gives some examples. She also calls for the elimination of government aid to faith-based organizations that make help conditional on the recipients’ accepting religious doctrine, or to organizations that violate civil rights or reproductive law, or hire people of only a certain faith.
Finally, we need more writing like this in popular magazines:
The irony is that many of the so-called “religious” people who do charitable work are motivated by sentiments and ideas that have little or nothing to do with the religion with which they profess to align themselves. Such people regularly attend houses of worship, sit in the pews, even preach in the pulpits. They would never personally identify themselves as secularists or humanists. And yet if their true beliefs were put to the test, they would have to count as question marks. Their desire to help is grounded not just in their conviction of the existence of a deity or deities, but because they possess the human attributes of empathy and common sense. That reality presents a conundrum, even a threat, to some religious leaders, whose power depends on the notion that morality hinges on religious doctrine, rather than on the innately human concern for the welfare of others. Professed nonbelievers are singled out for special abuse not because they represent so few Americans, but because they speak for so many.
That reminds me of the famous Steven Weinberg quote that begins, “With or without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. . . “. You know the rest, which isn’t relevant here anyway.