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.