Are secularists slackers when it comes to relief efforts?

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.


  1. Posted July 4, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Many religious “charities” are partially propaganda machines, aimed at the recruition of new members in their faith. Whilst secular charities do not emphasize their secular nature, religious charities has to do so.

    • Posted July 5, 2013 at 1:18 am | Permalink

      This is correct, there is a great incentive for a religious organisation to organise themselves as a named unit for such purposes. Thus they are more visible during any crisis requiring help. I have noticed, having been involved in a couple of such religious charities, that they will pick and choose who they will help based on the degree of publicity they can receive in return, including gaining financial donors. I will admit that not everyone in the charities concerned were particularly pleased with this sort of game, but it did happen.

  2. Posted July 4, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Understanding the relationship with morality and religiosity becomes evident with some simple research into prison statistics and divorce rates.

  3. gbjames
    Posted July 4, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink


  4. Posted July 4, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    It’s about as much of an asshole dick move as it gets to claim — or even suggest — that only through some primitive superstition is good possible.

    If nothing else, it should be clear that only the asshole’s own person favorite primitive superstition holds the keys to goodness. You know it’s for damned sure that a Christian doesn’t think that some Hindu monkey god is why somebody does good things; no, only Jesus can fill that dain-brammaged-shaped hole in somebody’s head.

    It’s really no different than blaming the Soviet Purges on Stalin’s disbelief. Oh, but if only he had abandoned his evil atheism and embraced the loving wrath of Quetzalcoatl, those millions of people would not have been sacrificed on the altar of Nationalism. Wait, what?



  5. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 4, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Funny how the editors let this one slip – a comment about any other group would never have made it to print.

    I wrote an indignant note to Time when this came out as did many others and the nonpology the article’s author issued was pretty insulting as well.

  6. Posted July 4, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I always remind my Christian friends that secularists do good things because they know it’s the right thing to do, not because they are threatened with hell if they don’t, or bribed with heaven if they do.

  7. Posted July 4, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Another case in point, from Canada: our local CFI and Humanist groups want to do a joint project of a humanitarian nature (I don’t think I’m at liberty to share details on the open net at this point). For which we would need to solicit donations — for which we cannot issue tax receipts. CFI Canada is registered as an *educational* charity, and can only issue receipts for donations in line with that mission. Religious groups, however, can do both educational and humanitarian work, on the charity dime — however, you must have a deity to call yourself a religious group.

    That’s just begging for a Charter of Rights challenge (by someone with deeper pockets than me).

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 4, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      …and churches in Canada, as in the US, get automatic tax exemptions.

      • HM
        Posted July 4, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        I wish they didn’t. I’m not christian (grew up as a Sikh, but am agnostic now). And the shenanigans that go on with the money in Sikh temples is crazy.. I wish that CRA would audit/tax the crap out all churches/temples/synagogues, etc.

        • Mary Canada
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink


  8. Alex Shuffell
    Posted July 4, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    “Funny” how you don’t see secularists becoming millionaires by begging from the sick and desperate, putting on shows kicking crutches and smacking elderly people at the command of voices in their heads.

  9. Posted July 4, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya and commented:
    It should also be noted that not everyone who does good deeds — especially if they’re secular — feels the need to advertise their religion or ideology. We all do what we can regardless.

  10. Hempenstein
    Posted July 4, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I have an 81y/o friend who goes out every spring with his wife’s church group (“she’s not religious, she’s churchy”) on a relief effort somewhere. He grits his teeth with them at times but finds he’s usually able to do something that they seem incapable of doing, and he’s happy to do that, so there’s one example of an atheist who gets counted as religious in such tabulations.

    Otherwise, I’ve been on the board of the local library board in a rustbelt town for some 20yrs. This library was saved from demolition ~1979 by a nonsectarian grassroots group that rose up to save it. I regard it as a relief effort, and by a number of indicators it is succeeding.

    I’m now president of the board. Over the years, there have been those who have joined the board (to my considerable irritation) first and foremost as good Rotarians, but nobody has ever identified themself as having been sent by Hypothetical Jesus. Periodically, such types want to use the building for this or that, but AFAIK they’ve never shown up individually or as a group to pitch in on the effort, which has been considerable.

    The only exception when the local Lutheran church went out of business and left a few $thousand of their dwindling treasury to us, and that was touching, but up till that time I don’t think any of that group had ever pitched in on the effort. Well over $1M has now gone into just the building, and it is now a National Historic Landmark, but with the above exception I think all of those funds have come from nonsectarian sources.

  11. Posted July 4, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    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. . . “.I like this.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Just in case you haven’t heard the quote before it continues from there with . . .

      “. . . but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

  12. Graham Lyons
    Posted July 4, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I’ve been a member of my local Rotary for six years and never once heard religion mentioned. Rotary International raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for good works. Rotarians are often to be found on the spot helping out physically and using their administrative skill to ensure that the money raised is used effectively.

  13. Posted July 4, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I don’t know about Oklahoma, but there are many large churches in Alabama cities with far more money, resources, and manpower to spend on tornado relief than non-religious organizations such as the Red Cross (who also were tremendous during the 2011 tragedy).

    And as far as “everyday” outreach efforts, such as visiting poor communities and neighborhoods, churches tend to blend aid with bribery. For example, a woman can take home a bag of food or look through clothing for her family, but only if she attends the worship service first. This tactic (which was explicitly taught to me when I was involved in community outreach) may be confined to evangelical churches, I don’t know, but it’s standard procedure at least in the circle I grew up in.

    • Posted July 4, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Methinks the tactic is standard operating procedure for the local Hare Krishnas in the front range. I hear horror stories from the Salvation Army as well. Get ’em while they’re vulnerable and feeling like giving something back.

      • darrelle
        Posted July 4, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        I have developed an especially strong dislike for the Salvation Army over the past few years. Wouldn’t give them a dime.

  14. Grania Spingies
    Posted July 4, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Here’s the comprehensive bottom line from Buzzfeed

    P.S. Don’t read the comments. Some people don’t get sarcasm…

  15. gluonspring
    Posted July 4, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    “Where are the secularists?” You could say that about any activity in the U.S., could you not? And doubly so in Oklahoma. Where are the secularist auto mechanics, lawyers, cops, grocery clerks, and prisoners? The religious outnumber the non-religious almost 9 to 1 in Oklahoma. They outnumber the atheists even more. So anywhere you look the religious will dominate. Well, almost anywhere. There is one human activity where they won’t, but I’ll leave that for the reader to fill in.

    It is true that this is funny. Funny that Klein can be that bad at math and still have a job as a supposed journalist (though, in fairness to Klein, my impression is that being perversely, and even proudly, bad at math is almost a prerequisite for the profession he is in. Apologies to the exceptions out there).

  16. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 4, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I find the claims of the apologists highly suspect.

    Adding to the reasons already given, religious gives the bulk of their donations to their own group, not to be charitable but for social insurance:

    “According to Daniel Chen, an economist at Duke University, some 90 percent of the money that Mormons give to charity goes to other Mormons, while 80 percent of evangelical Christian charity goes to other evangelical Christians. At the other end of the scale are Catholics (at 50 percent), but even Jews, who are the least discriminating in their charity, reserve 40 percent of it for their fellow Jews.

    Chen found that this roughly mirrors the differing expectations of support that people expect from their co-religionists if they are ill. Giving money in these cases is less charity and more a kind of social insurance. By way of contrast, blood donations involve making a sacrifice for an anonymous stranger—an act that seems not to be stimulated by religion.”

    Consistent with this, experiments show that the more religious you are, the less you are motivated by compassion:

    “”Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study. “The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.””

    And again, atheist Scandinavia has a reputation for giving out hot meals, or rather a high degree of social security for all. Because we care about everyone.

    • Posted July 4, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      But, don’t you see? Only the faithful (of the proper faith) are truly people truly worthy of assistance. All the rest are just Satan’s agents looking for free handouts they don’t really deserve, the leeches.

      Besides, the poor have clearly done something to deserve Jesus’s wrath, anyway. When they get right with the Lord, he’ll lavish riches upon them, just as he has upon his most beloved of servants, the head of our denomination.



      • Matt D
        Posted July 5, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        Man, I need to update my resume with the moniker “Satan’s Agent”.

        • Posted July 5, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

          So you’ve got the gig? Sweet!

          Any chance you can get him to return my calls? I swear, the dude’s been ignoring me, though I’m hoping it’s just his answering service.


  17. reinet
    Posted July 4, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    The recent, devastating floods in Southern Alberta put paid to the notion that only religious groups engage in relief efforts. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated, many with no where to go. Thousands and thousands of people volunteered their time, energy, food, clothing, lodging, money–you name it–to help family, friends, and complete strangers. Very few were associated with a religious group. Perhaps secularists don’t need to be part of a group to help their fellow man.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 4, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      Or perhaps they perceive a bigger more inclusive “group.”

  18. MikeN
    Posted July 4, 2013 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    I have a French friend who worked in Medecin Sans Frontieres camps for Cambodian refugees in Thailand in the late 1970s; he was fully into Eastern mysticism at the time and was quite disgruntled with the hard-edged skepticism that permeated MSF.

    He had been working on mystical healing concepts in Sri Lanka, and found his woo was scorned by the doctors on the front lines- “they were all damn atheists”.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 4, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      ….and that’s why I give $$ to MSF 🙂

%d bloggers like this: