Here’s a scenario I’d like you to imagine. Say you saw something that bothered you; a charitable need that could be filled. So you, with a community of like-minded folks, raise some money for this need. Good deed done, and the world is a better place, right? What would you do if money you donated was returned because those you donated it to didn’t want to associate with you? How would that feel? Even worse, imagine on top of your charity being refused, you were accused of being selfish and uncaring about others because you never give to charity. This seems absurd, but it’s an alarming trend the atheist community has faced in recent years.
For example, in 2011 Todd Stiefel wanted to set up a partnership with the Foundation Beyond Belief (FBB). The plan was to organize a national team of atheists and freethinkers to raise money for the American Cancer Society (ACS) through their Relay For Life program. Stiefel and his family offered a matching donation up to $250,000 for any money raised nationally by the FBB. It seemed like a great deal for everyone. Half a million bucks for cancer research and a great bit of PR for the atheist community. The ACS, however, didn’t quite agree. They put up roadblock after roadblock to keep the atheists from donating as a group. ACS insisted that they weren’t turning down the donation. Instead they wanted to take it piecemeal at the local level in a way that didn’t give national recognition. While it can’t be said for certain why they didn’t want the donations, ACS’s actions didn’t leave a lot of explanations besides a reluctance to be associated with atheists.
Steifel spoke about his bewilderment and frustration with the entire situation in an interview for Ask an Atheist.
More recently, a similar situation happened on a much smaller scale. Hemant Mehta, founder of the Friendly Atheist blog, wrote a story about a local park district that lost a yearly donation from a local American Legion chapter because one of its board members refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Mehta was making the point that while the American Legion has the right to donate their money to whomever they wish, it’s absurd to stop donating to a group for expressing their freedom of speech (particularly since the American Legion is filled with members who fought to protect those very freedoms).
Mehta came up with the idea of asking for donations from his readers to replace the lost donation funds to the park district. It wasn’t a lot of money, just $2600, but his readers came through. When Mehta first contacted the park district about the donation, they seemed perfectly willing to accept the money. However, after Mehta sent the check, the board returned it, claiming they had, “no intention of becoming embroiled in a First Amendment dispute,” and that they wanted to avoid seeming, “any particular political or religious cause.” In short, the park district would rather lose money than be seen accepting funds from atheists.
Not to be discouraged, Mehta then told his readers that he would find another worthy group in the same town to donate the money. He eventually settled on the local library. None of the original donors objected, since they gave to help a small community, and that’s still where the funds were headed. The library, however, also rejected the money.
Unlike the park district, however, the library was quite clear on why they were unwilling to accept the donation. In a video of the library’s board meeting posted on YouTube, boardmember Catherine Peters called the Friendly Atheist a hate group. She asked the rest of the board,
“Would you take money from the Klan? Would you take money from Holocaust deniers?”
Sometimes it’s not even money that’s turned down. Last month, a soup kitchen in South Carolina was asking for volunteers to help out during the busy holiday season. The previous two years, a local freethinker group called Upstate Atheists came to lend a hand. This year however, the director of the soup kitchen, Lou Landrum, refused their help, and wasn’t shy about explaining why. She told the press:
“This is a ministry to serve God… We stand on the principles of God. Do they (atheists) think that our guests are so ignorant that they don’t know what an atheist is? Why are they targeting us? They don’t give any money. I wouldn’t want their money.”
“They can set up across the street from the Soup Kitchen. They can have the devil there with them, but they better not come across the street,”
According to Landrum and Peters, atheists are no different than Neo-Nazis or any other hate group. Fine, they’re welcome to their opinions, and they can turn down charity if they want. But I imagine most reasonable people would seriously question giving to an organization that refused donations out of personal spite or ignorance.
What’s most appalling about this whole situation is that altruistic atheists are often stonewalled while simultaneously being accused of not being charitable. It’s a baffling catch-22 of that leaves atheists incapable of disproving the stereotype that they’re narcissistic and ungenerous. It’s just another example of the damaging and insulting misconceptions that atheists have to deal with regularly.
A couple months ago Joe Klein wrote an article for Time magazine about returning veterans finding purpose at home doing community work, especially disaster relief. In an otherwise brilliant and interesting article, he inexplicably dropped a backhanded insult at atheists claiming they’re never seen helping their communities. It was a pointless jab that interrupted his narrative, and bore no relation to the story he was writing. I don’t understand why he even wrote it, or why his editor didn’t cut it. Not only was it unnecessary, but it was also completely wrong.
Joe Klein’s assumption that atheists aren’t charitable is disturbingly common despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. He was writing about the aftermath of the tornado that wiped out Moore, OK. While plenty of church groups gathered to lend a hand, numerous atheists groups also showed up or donated money to help the relief effort. Just the briefest of research would’ve showed him that there were plenty of non-theistic groups helping. Klein instead decided to take the easy route and encourage the falsehood that atheists don’t care.
I first heard about this a few years ago. In the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, there was an outpouring of support from the international community. In the midst of this torrent of charity, our local paper, The News Tribune, ran a letter entitled “Christians stepping up; Where are atheists?” (Note: I tried to find a link to the letter, but the News Tribune has not kept it in their archives.) The letter writer listed all the ways Christian charities were helping out, but claimed that atheists weren’t doing the same. When Sam Mulvey of Ask an Atheist wrote to the paper to respond with numerous examples of atheist group’s generosity, the paper refused to print it. Seattle Atheists also responded, but had to post their retort on their own website.
The tendency for people to believe that atheists aren’t charitable is reinforced by every one of these stories. One of the criticisms is that atheists don’t give nearly as much as the religious, and I would wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. In general, atheists are not only massively outnumbered by believers, but they also don’t have the infrastructure to divert energy and funds where they’re most needed. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t give at all or don’t care.
Another objection is that atheists don’t publicize their charity, which is only partially true and wholly unfair. In situations like disaster relief, atheist groups usually won’t wear matching t-shirts to announce who they are, partially because to do so would cut into their already limited resources. Also, most atheists consider the work itself important, not being seen doing the work. But since they’re getting no recognition at all, and are sometimes even accused of the opposite is making some nonbelievers change their opinion about publicizing their charitable works.
I don’t want to make the opposite mistake of painting all charities as prejudiced against atheists either. On the contrary, most charitable organizations treat atheists very well, when they even notice that they’re working with nonbelievers. The vast majority of charities are focused on helping people, and don’t care at all where support comes from.
However, the frustration I feel every time I read a story about atheists’ money or time being turned away or refused has to go away. Everyone needs to learn that atheists are a part of the world community, and should be treated as such.
I’ve been provided with the original letter written to the Tacoma News Tribune referred to earlier in this article. Thanks to Becky – producer and co-host of Ask an Atheist – for finding the original text. Here it is in its entirety:
“My prayers go out to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti, and I will help by donating through a Christian charity. I am thankful that the United States, as always, takes the lead in helping when disaster strikes As I read The News Tribune, I am struck by the fact that the Christian organizations are mobilizing and sending aid and aid workers without any thought as to the religion of the people of Haiti. Just as when the tsunami struck Indonesia, and tens of thousands of Muslims were killed, the United States and Christian charities took the lead. So where are the atheist organizations? Are they sending aid workers, money or prayers? No. But they do have money to devote to a display in the Capitol building in Olympia, to tell us there is no God, there is no heaven or hell. If there are atheists interested in helping the people of Haiti, I ask them to give to World Vision or one of the other fine Christian organizations. Or they can do nothing.” -Brad Elkin