About That Recent Surge in Atheist Charity… December 22, 2011

About That Recent Surge in Atheist Charity…

Kimberly Winston of the Religion News Service has a article making the mainstream media rounds about how atheists (as a group) have been giving a lot more to charity recently.

Between atheists on Reddit giving to Doctors Without Borders, the atheist group outgiving every other group at micro-financing site Kiva, and Foundation Beyond Belief raising over $200,000 for various charities, we’re making *huge* dent in that stereotype that says atheists care only about themselves.

While Christians do a nice job of making charitable giving a habit (that goes beyond tithing), we’re proving that generosity and Christianity are not synonymous.

Winston suggests reasons for this change:

Theories range from the influx of younger nontheists with a focus on global welfare, to images of natural disasters made ubiquitous by the Internet, to the growth in population of people who say they have no religion — 15 percent, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey.

“When I came into the community (in 1999), it was a monthly meeting and a lecture,” [Foundation Beyond Belief executive director Dale] McGowan said. “It was a terribly sterile thing … But the increase of regular folks identifying as nontheists brought with it regular concerns. They want a community, they want to talk about ethics, they want to be doing good works.

“… there is no denying that there is a big gap between what religious people give and what secularists give,” [author/writer Susan Jacoby] said. “And if part of your morality really is about taking care of your fellow man, you are going to start thinking about this.”

“There has been a general awakening to the fact that nontheists of all stripes need to stand up and show the positive values we have,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of AHA. “We realized the benefit of doing this in a public way, in being clear about we are people who want to care about people.”

To be sure, atheists have always given to charity as individuals. But never before have we seen atheists (as a group) giving to charity at the rate and amount we’re seeing today.

That’s something we should all be proud of.

Side note: James Croft, the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, has a nice post explaining ways Humanists can perform service projects. Read it for more detail, but here’s the list:

  1. Build service into your regular events.
  2. Connect with established service organizations to reduce the planning burden.
  3. Do social justice work.
  4. Work with your local community – with t-shirts!
  5. Represent Humanism on national Service Days.
  6. Reach out to other groups where there are shared values.
  7. Give awards for service.
  8. Raise money for charities.
  9. Learn how to give first-aid.
  10. Give of your own body, through organ donation drives.

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  • Anonymous

    Some time ago a survery on charitable giving made the rounds of the media and the blogosphere. Many religious types gloated over it because it appeared to show that being religious correlated with charitable giving, with atheists being less likely to give than the religious.

    A deeper look into the data actually showed that the more closely correlated factor was community. Individuals who felt tied to a community were much more likely to give to charity than those who did not. When you controlled for feeling of belonging to a community, the religious and the nonreligious were just as likely to donate to charity.

    If there is indeed an uptick in charitable giving by atheists, it could well be because atheist communities are flourishing, and people are more likely to give if they feel part of a “team effort”. The examples above are all of atheists getting together and giving. Also in the particular case of atheists, the more of us there are, the safer we may feel and so our efforts can branch out into not just defending ourselves from prejudice (a sadly still quite neccesary task) but also positively influencing the world.

  • Anonymous

    Now THERE’S a Ten Commandments list we can appreciate!

  • Anonymous

    What the hell is a “nontheist”?

  • Atoswald

    “There is no limit to what a man can do so long as he does not care a straw who gets the credit for it.” ~ Charles Edward Montague

    With that quote in mind, I would like to point out that while many atheists give of themselves regularly, they do not get recognition in the name of atheism, because they are giving for good reasons. Simply because it is the right thing to do. Christians on the other hand, have a long and generous reputation for giving. In established christian organizations however, there is often a price for their generosity … proselytization. I often wonder if they would still be so generous if they didn’t have a message to spread.

  • “…we’re making *huge* dent in that stereotype that says atheists care only about themselves.”

    Do you have any evidence that efforts like this are working in the sense that they are changing public perceptions of atheists? And does it bother you – even a little – that promoting charitable giving primarily as a means for changing stereotypes sounds a bit like how we are perceived is somehow our fault?

    Would anybody suggest that other minority groups should should be give more to charity because it might lead others to treat them in a somewhat less bigoted way? I’m all for donating to charities as an individual, but I don’t think we want to take responsibility for the hatred and bigotry we receive from many religious people.

  • I think the media coverage is a testament to how well it’s working. And I don’t think you give to charity to change the stereotype. You give because it’s the right thing to do. And an added bonus is that people might think more highly of us. Would we give if the media attention wasn’t there? I hope so.

  • Anonymous

    Someone who isn’t into theism. Unlike the term “atheist”, that can also include agnostics or irreligious people – those that don’t necessarily believe in gods, but don’t define themselves as atheists. Or apatheists (from “apathy”), who don’t care about religion and whether there are gods or not

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the shout-out! Much appreciated.

  • And then there’s this, from socialist Canada…


    Probably due to the fact that religious people organize charity drives and they meet once a week, but sure, let them think that.

  • I donate to no-kill shelters and  I invest in my local food bank. Why invest? Because I’m just a paychecque away from changing from donor to client myself. I see my money at work in the community.
    I do it because I can, and it’s right, not because I’m trying to buy ride tickets in “heaven”.

  • Matthew Lafferty

    “While Christians do a nice job of making charitable giving a habit (that goes beyond tithing), we’re proving that generosity and Christianity are not synonymous.”That’s some interesting phrasing. (and almost seems like there’s a compliment hiding in there somewhere…)An aside: despite being a Christian, I’m not here to sway anybody, so please read no deeper into this than necessary; I’m just putting off wrapping presents for another few minutes with some good-natured nit-picking. Fair enough? :)Anyway, I don’t see anything here that disproves the correlation between Christian belief and generosity so much as it helps disprove the correlation of atheists and selfishness or stinginess. Just saying. Atheists (and nontheists and apatheists alike) have the same capacity as humans to be as generous as any religious people (Reddit-style one-upmanship aside, even). I’m assuming that’s what you meant, but I do enjoy clarity, so I thought I’d pitch in a bit. And again, I also enjoy not wrapping presents. That’s two birds with one stone, that is.And if I can touch on a related topic that has come up a lot here recently, it really sickens me when organizations of religious persuasion turn down money from atheists. I mean, seriously. Money for a good cause is money for a good cause. Can I get an “amen!”? (Sorry, I’m apparently feeling unnecessarily verbose AND lame.)Ok, now I should probably start wrapping. Or maybe I should make lunch first…

  • Giving, poverty and Christianity are actually the subject of my Master’s thesis and I’ll be compiling a dataset to look into behavioral patterns and attitudes compared with persistent poverty in areas of high evangelical populations/megachurch geography.  Just at first glance of the data I have so far…the type of  Christianity one subscribes to has a lot to say about whether or not “Christians do a nice job of making charitable giving a habit (that goes beyond tithing)”.

    Nice job is pretty subjective, especially in this context.

  • Anonymous

    Atheist, agnostics, freethinkers, skeptics, nones, apatheists, nontheists etc.
    I must admit that i’m starting to get a little confused by all the diffrent definations 
    Regardless, thanks for clearing it up.

  • Anonymous

    Churches prey on poor people. They are desperate and easily exploited. They’ll sit through a sermon or lecture in order to get some “charity”. Religions really have zero interest in actually substantially improving people’s lives. It’s much more lucrative for them to just prevent people from going under completely but still keep them poor

  • Trina

    Unfortunately, this is often the case.   Alana, just a suggestion but you might want to talk to some homeless people if you can.  I’ve had a couple of formerly homeless friends (one is a very close friend of mine) who each, not knowing the other, told of what’s often required by religious-related homeless shelters in order to receive meals, etc.  As of yet, there are few if any secular shelters and so these people sometimes choose to keep some freedom of choice and dignity by not accepting much-needed services at the cost of attending bible studies, etc.  The pressure must have been awfully high – both of my contacts were themselves christians at the time they were homeless, and were still appalled by the ‘choices’ given them.  I hope that as our own community grows, better alternatives will be available.

  • Mairianna

    Agreed.  I participate in several charitable events/organizations and none are aware of my nontheistic bend.  If it ever comes up, I won’t deny it because I hope the shock will show that atheists “don’t eat babies.” 

  • Kitkat

    Since I became aware of my atheism, I’ve been more charitable and given more to non profits (I gave a cash donation to Bread for the City in DC most recently– great great great organization). I think it’s part of realizing my own agency. 

  • Jkhile

    Just to add one more data point: one of my favorite charities is Vittana.com, a well-run, transparent organization that makes micro-finance loans to students around the world. Once you make a loan, they track the repayments, placing them in an account in such a way that you can re-lend the same funds over and over again to new students.
    They allow you to optionally credit your loans to one of several online communities that have self-formed on their site. The group ranked fourth highest in terms of total loans is “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious”.
    Just saying…

  • Hi Matthew,
    Such a good-natured comment deserves a reply in kind, and I’m sorry that one didn’t come before a whole day passed.  Here is a thank-you, and an “Amen!” to your statement about how money for a good cause coming from anyone should be accepted graciously.  Let’s move beyond enmity and keep working for better understanding and better acceptance of everyone’s mutual humanity, as you mentioned.

    I also noticed that sentence about Christianity and generosity not being synonymous, and I agree that that does not follow from the content of this article. As you say, what the information disputes is the idea that atheism is synonymous with stinginess.  I suspect that that sentence is more about poor phrasing than the intended meaning.

    I wish you a merry Christmas, and I hope that you, your family, and your friends all enjoy each others’ company.

  • Matthew Lafferty

    Thanks very much, and I hope your festivities were as excellent as ours were! I very much enjoyed a lot of time with family, although I’m equally dreading the cleanup that awaits me.

    And yes, I very much approve of the idea that we need to move beyond the enmity & animosity that seems to permeate so much of this kind of discussion. One of the only reasons I read this blog is because it often provides excellent examples of ways Christians like me should NOT respond to various situations. Regardless of how strongly I disagree with atheists (or people of other religious beliefs), it seems that a good rule of thumb is this: if my response would find its way onto this blog, then it probably wasn’t loving enough. The shift in perspective I get by reading this blog helps me keep that rule more squarely in my sights, which (I hope) will reduce friction in all my interactions with all people who believe differently than I do, and that’s a good thing.

    So obviously, that was longer than necessary. Again, I’m likely putting off more productive things like cleaning, but I guess our trash isn’t going to take itself out, is it?

    Thanks again for your friendly response!

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