Members of the Humanist Community at Harvard at a city cleanup in 2013. Photo courtesy of HCH.

Members of the Humanist Community at Harvard at a city cleanup in 2013. Photo courtesy of HCH.

When it comes to neighborliness, atheist Americans have some catching up to do—but efforts are underway to change that.

This change is vital because, with greater resources, religious Americans are currently doing more to help others than the nonreligious.

In American Grace Robert Putnam and David Campbell discuss the fact that, overall, religious Americans are more civically engaged than the nonreligious—they volunteer more often and give more money to both religious and secular charities. They are, per Putnam and Campbell, better neighbors.

But Putnam and Campbell also found that nonbelieving spouses of believers are just as civically engaged if involved in their partner’s religious community. So the connection between religion and civic engagement seems to have less to do with belief and more to do with belonging. Communities connect people and inspire them to do more to help others.

With fewer organized communities, atheists have fallen behind in this arena. This doesn’t mean that atheists don’t care about and help their neighbors; it means they have fewer opportunities and venues to do so.

This fact, combined with the reality that many people (including atheists) intuitively associate atheism with immorality, has contributed to the inaccurate image of atheists as unconcerned with the welfare of others. Last year TIME’s Joe Klein exemplified how common this misconception is when he wrote, “funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals.”

It isn’t all that funny, though—because there are in fact organized groups of nontheists giving out hot meals. But that he felt it was so obviously true that he could make a passing comment about it in an otherwise unrelated piece says something about the limited visibility of organized nontheist service groups.

So how can atheists close this civic engagement gap?

You just have to look around to see examples of a shift underway.

A great place to begin is with Foundation Beyond Belief, an amazing organization constantly growing in their work to empower atheists to donate to important causes. But their efforts go beyond giving—their Beyond Belief Network, which helps to support local nontheist service groups, is sponsoring a nationwide Week of Action later this month that encourages nontheists to take time that week to do at least one good deed, organize a service project, or participate in an interfaith event.

Looking ahead, this summer Foundation Beyond Belief will host Humanism at Work, “the first of its kind [conference focused on] on how nontheists can put their compassionate humanism to work for a better world.” And if that weren’t enough, Foundation Beyond Belief is also supporting Pathfinders Project, an initiative aiming to launch a Humanist Service Corps.

Meanwhile Sunday Assembly affiliate groups, billed as “godless congregations,” are expanding all over the world—and many are prioritizing service to humanity as a core component of their communities. And many other nontheistic groups are leading the charge for service in their local communities.

I see evidence of this shift in the communities I participate in. The Yale Humanist Community has prioritized service all year and just wrapped up Humanism at Yale Week, which included a service project as a cornerstone of the week’s events. And the Humanist Community at Harvard has increasingly prioritized civic engagement over the last few years. In addition to our regular monthly service projects, we recently designated April as a month of Humanist service.

Thanks to the excellent organizing of our Values in Action Fellow Zach Cole, part of this month of service includes the upcoming launch of a new permanent meal-packing station in the Humanist Hub, our community center. Building on our previous interfaith meal-packing events, through which we’ve raised the funds for and packed over 120,000 meals for food insecure children, we’ll now have a permanent station where people can pack meals for people in need at any time. We’ve been inspired by houses of worship in our community—many operating homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and clothing closets—to step up our commitment to service and act on our values every week.

These are just a few examples of the many ways that, as nonreligious communities are growing, atheists are working to demonstrate what we already know to be true—that nontheists care deeply about improving the conditions of life for all.

To me, this commitment is central to atheism. If we take seriously our position that it is unlikely any divine or supernatural forces will intervene in human affairs and resolve our problems, then it is truly up to us. Human beings of all beliefs and backgrounds have to work together to make this world better. This conviction is atheism and Humanism’s call to service.

Some Christians believe that faith without works is dead. Perhaps we could say the same of atheism. Fortunately, more and more nontheists are demonstrating that atheism is alive and well.

27 Comments

  1. When I saw the URL, I knew that hitting myself in the face with a hammer would be a more constructive use of my time than reading. But, obviously, I took the bait.

    It’s clear, sir, that you are one of the apologists for whom we can thank for terms like “humanism” and “non-theism”. You want to rebrand atheism so that it sounds friendlier to those who have traditionally not tolerated it. It is made abundantly clear by your lack of recognition of the fact that a person who volunteers one single time, knowing they will never receive a reward, is still a better person than one who volunteers 100 times out of irrational fear or belief in eventual reward. It is further made clear by your believer-like insistence on grouping atheists together. Since you want to do that, lets discuss how people of faith are responsible for more crime and almost every major war in history? Oh, what, that wouldn’t be fair?

    • “It is made abundantly clear by your lack of recognition of the fact that a person who volunteers one single time, knowing they will never receive a reward, is still a better person than one who volunteers 100 times out of irrational fear or belief in eventual reward.”
      Not under utilitarian ethics. The other person has done 100 times more to make the world better, the reasons why are irrelevant. It’s not as the FSM cares why one does good after all.

  2. I don’t believe in an imaginary father figure. I already have a real father who has always been there for me. I also give to regularly to secular charities and volunteer from time to time.

    There are probably more secular charities out there than religious. (All of them filing their IRS Form 990 by the way) Atheists give charitably we just don’t crow about it because it’s not part of the guilt/recruitment factor and we don’t have a holier than thou attitude. :)

  3. Most ATHEISTS are great people, just as most Christians are great people.

    Thanks, Chris Stedman, for pointing out how many ATHEIST charities
    there are. We can change the world for the better when we abandon notions of God and supernatural and embrace humanity for its own sake!

    Thanks for contributing so many great stories about the huge contribution ATHEISTS make every day to better this world in practical ways.

  4. Stephen Minhinnick

    The issue goes much deeper that this shallow tit-for-tat article makes out. Lets look at the bigger picture…

    Why do Americans put such a high value on “service” compared to most other countries? Because there is a massive under-investment in publicly funded social services to deprived sectors of the community. So the giving is necessary because it is sorely needed.

    Why the under-funding? Because right-wing religious dogma demonizes “big government”, and in recent decades it has been hugely scaled back by the Republicans, strongly supported by religious lobby groups.

    So if you take all the religious giving, but then subtract all the programs that have been cut due to religious influence, you get a massive net deficit on the religious side.

    So this article misses the main point. Atheists tend to favor the Democrats and the intelligent use of social programs to close that gap as a fairer and more efficient way of addressing social inequalities. Why should atheists put such a high value of service when the system itself is so broken? “Service” is only the smallest band-aid over a gaping wound. You have only to compare the U.S. to other countries to see this.

    • Yes Stephen, I agree with your sentiment but would go further in stirring up this cosy little consensus about charity giving and voluntary work.
      First of all apart from the inadequacies of charity in bringing a secure future free from anxiety to the needy it has another drawback. It creates an inferior and unequal human relationship between the donor and the recipient. The donor, as well as feeling compassion, is also likely to feel self satisfaction and superiority. While the recipient may feel gratitude but is just as likely to feel resentment against his dependent position.
      As for voluntary work. It would be far more efficient for most people if they spent more time at their own jobs, paid more taxes and the voluntary work was done by paid professionals or by volunteer unemployed released from grinding poverty and willing to earn self respect by contributing to society.
      If everyone has a stake in society then government starts to look more like an enterprise that everyone can contribute to rather than something paid for by the rich to keep the poor in their place.

      • samuel Johnston

        Hi Gorden,
        I do not know what your life experience has been to cause you to have such a ill-informed opinion.
        1″…a secure future free from anxiety…”
        No such thing has ever existed for anyone, much less the unlucky poor.
        2. “It creates an inferior and unequal human relationship between the donor and the recipient.”
        By definition this is unavoidable, unless, the source of the “charity” is hidden or misrepresented.
        3. “It would be far more efficient.. if…the voluntary work was done by paid professionals”.
        As an adult, I have worked for the County (Juvenile Jail), Federal Government (Social Security) and the State (Legal Counsel). None of these delivered efficient services, a few met a competent standard of service, but some were just plain horrid. This was not because the employees were inferior persons, but because of the inherent nature of politics.
        I have lived in an orphanage, then government housing, eaten the surplus commodities (prior to the FoodStamp system) worn second hand clothes, and held down many unpleasant jobs while securing an education. That is why I choose to give directly and personally. How something is given is as important as the service itself. Done well, both parties can benefit- and it is very efficient. But still, as Socrates observed, it is easier for a rich man to be generous, than for a poor man not to be bitter.

  5. samuel Johnston

    Hi Chris,
    “…that nontheists care deeply about improving the conditions of life for all.
    To me, this commitment is central to atheism.”
    No Chris, this is central to community life, political life, and that is important, but not the same as the inner or “spiritual side” of living.
    Causes, activities, and “faith in action” as they say, have their place, but without the balance provided by the “inner light” as the Calvinist might say, the activities seem to me empty and shallow. I have no desire to “worship” myself, mankind, or the human enterprise, but I do wish to take joy and comfort in the experience of life itself. Social work, however worthwhile, just doesn’t fill the inner space for me. Life could be worthwhile even if we accomplished nothing. FWIW, I give advanced seminars on front porch sitting.
    warm regards,
    Sam

  6. Jonathan J. Turner

    FYI, The famous atheist and author Ayn Rand was a major critic of altruism altogether. In a lecture delivered at (ahem) Yale University on February 17, 1960, she argued:

    (N.B. her italics rendered as all upper-case):

    ‘The three values which men had held for centuries and which are now collapsed are: mysticism, collectivism, altruism. … If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject. …

    ‘What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value. …

    ‘Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you DO or do NOT have a right to exist WITHOUT giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “NO.” Altruism says: “YES.”‘

    • Stephen Minhinnick

      I don’t get your point.

      Ayn Rand does not speak for me, or most atheists I imagine, because she was a right wing nut job. Her opinions are merely that – her opinions. Just because she was an atheist does not make her opinions mine.

      By quoting her, do you agree or disagree with what she wrote? And do you think most atheists would agree or disagree with what she wrote?

      • What is really funny is how quick Bible Thumping politicians have made Rand part of their own political philosophies. Politics of selfish egotism are universal, I guess.

        “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

      • Jonathan J. Turner

        To clarify my previous comment: I will concede that, except for this $2.99 paperback (“Philosophy: Who Needs It”, 1982) which I picked up at Goodwill just last week, I have never read any Ayn Rand. However, as a spectator of contemporary and historical atheism, I was curious to see how she expressed her famous atheism (mainly as anti-mysticism, extending to philosophical delusions as well as religious ones). This week, I quoted her to show the diversity of thought existing within atheism–what, not fair?

        One thing I do like about Ayn Rand is that she was no fan of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, even though O’Hair was a clear fan of Ayn Rand.

        But Ayn Rand’s big villain, whom she blamed for the downfall of the Western world, was the philosopher Emanuel Kant and his self-compelled, altruistic “moral imperative,” which concept she considered to be a “mystical” fiction, and source of evil consequences.

        Now, Chris Stedman’s column is suggesting that atheists might be just as generous as believers, but atheists need to organize in order to act on this value. But if not for the negative public perceptions (noted by Gervais et al), would this issue even arise? Would atheists feel the need to demonstrate (or prove to others, or themselves) their generous natures in the first place?

        Stephen Minhinnick has commented above, suggesting that the organization to dispense the most effective philanthropy already exists (the U.S. government), and that all of us (believers and nonbelievers) simply HAVE TO (or MUST or at the very least SHOULD) give up on our personal volunteer work and pony up the extra money so the feds can dole it out again, to do all the work fully and properly.

        So we have three differing concepts of benevolence based on and/or derived from atheism, each group of adherents aspiring to their own power and self-interest. The (necessary) lack of unity in “atheist” thought (regarding charity) is the simple point of my first comment.

    • Yes Ayn Rand was misguided. She did not see what the purpose of morality is in the world. It’s purpose is to oil the wheels of human co-operation. A co-operating group can achieve so much more than any number of rugged individuals following their own agenda. Everybody gains by efficient ways of doing things. Altruism is an extreme form of following important collective goals but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The only societies extant today are those where altruism is alive and well. Presumably any society which rejected altruism or within which it was much less prominent has long ago ceased to exist, unable to compete.

  7. We don’t have any catching up to do, we’re just as neighborly on average as everyone else, and always have been — we just haven’t been acting together while publicly identifying ourselves as atheists. Tsk.

  1. […] Chris Stedman takes the old Christian idea of “works” vs “belief” and tries to use it to compare atheist charity to their religious counterparts. Is atheism without works dead? The shifting landscape of nontheistic service. […]

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