Freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists – whatever name non-believers go under, are not America’s most popular minority. They are also, not a small minority. According to Gallup, in 2011, and Pew in 2012, they comfortably outnumber Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists all put together. One reason for our unpopularity is the widespread belief that you need God in order to be good. Going along with that misconception is further belief that atheists are less generous than religious people, less philanthropic, less likely to donate to charity. Even if that were the case it would, of course, have no bearing on the truth of religious beliefs.
I would hypothesize that the difference in giving between the religion and nonreligious is negligible if you only count donations to pure charity and discount donations to atheist advocacy organizations, or to churches (including tithes) and “charities” that unscrupulously use their resources to proselytize rather than bestow real charitable benefits.
Incidentally, because churches are automatically classified as charities for taxation purposes is a disgrace. Nobody denies that some churches do charitable work. But that doesn’t mean that any organization should automatically qualify for tax-free status simply by calling itself a church. Each church organization separately should make the case that it does charitable work, just as anybody else has to when seeking tax exemption.
Examples of charitable relief efforts set up by non-believers in recent years include the Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort, organized by the Center for Inquiry, and the Humanist Charities operated by the American Humanist Association. At the time of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science set up Non-Believers Giving Aid (NBGA). Entirely through RichardDawkins.net, NBGA raised more than $500,000 (for Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross) in less than a month, almost all of it in the form of small donations from thousands of individual subscribers, and passed it all on, without deductions for expenses, handling changes etc.
A recent ambitious example of such an initiative for non-believers to give was launched by atheist activist and philanthropist Todd Stiefel. The Stiefel family has pledged to match up to half a million dollars, which would bring in a target total of $1 million in aid to cancer research through the Foundation Beyond Belief.
The family initially sought to work with the American Cancer Society, which did not accept the offer. It was unclear why and Stiefel has been too polite to draw an inference about the situation chronicled twice by Greta Christina on AlterNet. If her thesis is even half right, the fact that non-believers are generous is even more remarkable. Could it be that they achieve their generosity in the teeth of difficulties put in their way by organizations that ought to welcome their money with open arms? Or that instead of earning a reputation for lack of charity, atheists have that reputation thrust upon them in a way that is almost comically ironic?
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society accepted Stiefel’s offer. In addition to ordinary donations, Stiefel has set up Foundation Beyond Belief as the rallying point for local freethought, atheist and secular humanist groups to create teams to participate in “Light the Night” walks. I am proud to say that the U.S. branch of Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is an official supporter of the project, and I am also delighted to learn that FBB has decided that their 2012 effort will be dedicated to the memory of my friend Christopher Hitchens. I encourage all non-believers to go to donate, or better yet, join the team as a fundraiser to multiply the power of our efforts.
You can contribute to the Freethought Beyond Belief team, secure in the knowledge that the Stiefel family will double your gift to a very good cause – a charity which is happy to accept that atheists and freethinkers are full human beings whose generous impulses are at least as sincere as those of the religious.
Richard Dawkins is a biologist and professor and an author whose books include “The Magic of Reality: How Do We Know What’s Really True,” “The God Delusion” and “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.”