Thursday, December 18, 2008

This Season, Give to an Atheist Charity

I was at a Brights meeting in San Francisco a few years ago just after the Indonesia tsunami. Also in attendance was the philosopher Carlos Colombetti, who challenged us to make donations in the name of Brights, or humanism, or whatever term we wanted to use.

This provoked a discussion of why there aren't more atheist charities - this would not only make the world a better place, it would promote the image of atheists and dispel the idea that in order to be moral, you must be religious. There are some established explicitly secular charities, like S.H.A.R.E. But when you drop the requirement of having "secular" or "atheist" right in the name, there are in reality countless atheist charities. The United Way is one. Doctors Without Borders is another. And Second Harvest is yet another. It's a long, long list. Hint: it's the end of the tax year! Did you do all your charitable giving? Here's a longer list and discussion on Dawkins' website.)

Hold on - those aren't atheist, you might say, they're just non-religious. Just "secular". Yes! Exactly! You dont' have to be religious to be moral!

I would go so far as to ask: what's the distinction between a secular or religion-neutral charity and an atheist charity? I guess if you want to be technical, these are all agnostic charities. The problem is one of branding and human psychology; people notice the absence of a characteristic much less than its presence. (It's the Anti-Superbowl Party problem, which I addressed before). The United Way doesn't go around calling itself agnostic because there's no need for it to do so in order to carry out its mission.

I've been told this definition is too broad because it expands to any religion-neutral organization. Yes! Of course it does! It absolutely expands the definition to every secular organization, private and public. Yes, Major League Baseball is a secular organization. As is AARP, Microsoft, and of course the United States government. They are all secular, agnostic organizations. As are many charities.

So if that old cliche comes up in conversation, and a religious person asks "So why aren't there any atheist charities?" You can tell them "Most charities are." And you can also say: "I gave to them, to make the world a better place. What have you done?"

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