THE BLOG

Hey Atheist -- Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are you an atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker or some such who cringes at the thought of people being given the Four Spiritual Laws along with disaster relief? Do you think that promoting "eternal salvation" to five-year-olds is exploitative? Do you hate it that poor parents send their kids to Muslim or Christian madrassas because that's the only way they can get them pencils and paper? Does it irritate you when fancy creationist museums are better funded than real natural history museums?

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Religious people tend to put their money where their mouths are -- more so, it would appear, than the rest of us, and evangelical fundamentalists even more so than open inquiring people of faith. Yes, I understand the cult recruiting aspect of the whole thing, but the bottom line is that they get things done. In order to advance their tribal truth claims, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and other fundamentalists ante up for food and doctors and schools and cool animatronic dinosaurs. They also sign up as docents and tutors and camp counselors -- and they teach their kids to do the same. Having a community where you think and talk together about what matters -- matters.

At least that is the hope of Dale McGowan, author of "Parenting Beyond Belief", and as of the New Year, the Executive Director of a giving hub for freethinkers: Foundation Beyond Belief. In religious settings people take the time to focus on how they want to change the world. They may not use the words, "Be the Change," but they encourage each other to do just that. Smart mega-churches offer up a whole menu of volunteer opportunities. Leaders tell followers what needs doing, but they let each member think about what role best fits his or her passion and abilities. They also make it known, front and center, that lots of good things can't happen without money.

McGowan hopes to do the same thing for people who don't go to church every Sunday.

He has assembled a board of free thought leaders who are convinced that those of us who have moved beyond belief have something important to give to the world. The team includes ethicist Wayne Huey, Ethical Society leader Trish Cowen, Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist, and Kate Miller, founder of Charlie's Playhouse. They think that without the promise of an afterlife it's all the more important to do good for goodness sake -- and add compassion and beauty to our monthly budget. As McGowan puts it, "There's no better fit for philanthropy than a secular worldview. If there's no god to make the world a better place, it's up to us. That's what the Foundation is all about. And we can do it without evangelism and church maintenance taking a bite out of every dollar."

You join the Foundation Beyond Belief by signing up for a monthly automatic donation, and then creating a profile saying how you would like your money divided among their ten focus areas: environment, education, health, human rights, peace, poverty, children, animals, "big bang" (small charity, big impact) -- and the operations of the foundation itself. For those of us who are living pool-ball lives, bouncing from thing to thing, one of the great things about the Foundation Beyond Belief model is that their team does research for you, evaluating the impact and efficiency of the organizations that are featured each quarter.

Equally important, Foundation Beyond Belief provides confidence that your dollars aren't pushing religious indoctrination along with social services. Before solstice, my friend Darcy asked in a tone of desperation, "Do you know anything about Mercy Corps? I want to give a gift sponsorship, but it's so hard for me to figure out which of these charities are really trying to convert people." Another non-religious friend sponsored a child through evangelistic aid organization World Vision, not knowing that their mission and hers didn't align. On the surface, well-run religious charities provide excellent services to desperately poor people in disaster zones or here at home. But buried in the honey of generosity may be a capsule full of exclusive truth claims that can bind aid recipients to ignorance, tribalism, and further desperation.

We see this in Muslim charities that provide food and medical assistance in Pakistan and Palestine, stepping in to do what government does not, while simultaneously building loyalty to radical Islam. We see it also in Africa, where Pentecostal missionary activities have revived local fears of witchcraft causing thousands of children to be abandoned, tortured, or even killed. But even under better conditions, the mix of harm and good can be quite complicated. Mother Teresa is a great example: in hindsight it seems likely that her lifetime of loving labor among Calcutta's poor caused more suffering than it alleviated, simply because she promoted antiquated dogmas about birth control and about pain itself.

I myself am convinced that much of the harm done in this world is done by decent people seeking to do good. When we go to the movies, almost all of us identify with the good guys. But if you want to actually do good in the world and avoid harm, it isn't enough to be well intentioned; you also have to be right about the real world contingencies that govern people's lives. And your best shot at that is to call upon reason and evidence, do your research and -- here is where religion often trips up -- ask the questions that could show you wrong.

For nontheists who want to make the world better, asking those questions is getting a little easier. In April I wrote: "Maybe, now that freethinkers are coming out of the closet it is time for us to begin thinking about how to create our own communities and structures that empower personal generosity." Somebody must have heard me.

P.S. There is a third piece to the equation about good intentions and being right. It isn't enough to be well-intentioned and right if you don't do anything about it. I plan to sign up tomorrow to be in that first wave of $20/month members -- a wave that hopefully will be big enough to send a powerful message to those madrassas and missionaries: We don't need religion to bring about a better world to come. We've got what we need in each other.