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Food for Thought: Who’s More Charitable, Believers or Atheists?

atheist philanthropy
Promo photo for Anthony Beyer Charities, an American Christian philanthropic organization based in Pennsylvania. (Anthony Beyer, Flikr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

BY RICK SNEDEKER

As the Christian Church Crumbles, is Humanism Ready to Step Up?

Statistically, churchgoing religious people personally give far more to charity than atheists — two to three times more — according to this new article in The Humanistmagazine by Patheos Nonreligious Channel coordinator and blogger Dale McGowan.

But it’s not necessarily because atheists are inherently more selfish than true believers. McGowan points out the difference is that churches have historically “created an effective giving culture, one that is systematic, personally aspirational, and tied to a community of shared values.” Atheists, on the other hand, just aren’t that organized.

McGowan admits that he attended church services as an atheist for 20 years, dutifully contributing to the church coffer each week, but when he stopped going to church “my charitable giving dropped off a cliff.”

He’s not trying to diss atheists, of which he is one, but to warn people that as America and the wider world grow more religiously apathetic by the second, we risk eventually throwing out the baby (the positive contributions of religion to societies, like charitable endeavors) with the bathwater (the sometimes terrible effects of supernatural religion on societies, such as war and bigotry).

His important question is, how can we keep the charitable part of religious faith while jettisoning its horrors and poisons? “As the temple falls,” he writes, nontheistic outsiders must swiftly figure out how to do replicate its beneficial successes.

It’s a timely question as the secularization of the world proceeds briskly. McGowan writes in the Humanist piece:

“Three million fewer Americans are attending church each year, driving the religiously unaffiliated from 8 percent to 23 percent in a generation. For millennials, that number jumps to 35 percent. Twice as many millennials are religiously unaffiliated as their parents’ generation, and three times as many as their grandparents’ generation. And early reports of Generation Z, those currently in high school and younger, show that traditional religious identity is on the demographic cusp of vanishing as a significant cultural presence.”

McGowan fears a coming humanitarian crisis as climate change decimates mankind’s ability to feed and support itself. “And all of this will happen right after one of the main engines of philanthropy [religious organizations] for one of the richest countries in the world has fallen apart,” he writes.

He believes that humanism, the redoubt of atheism, and its “commitment to the principle of mutual care and responsibility” can help relieve the human suffering that is sure to come. But it will require cohesion and effective organization among heretofore disparate nonbelievers.

Goodbye, God: A Final Letter to the God I Used to Believe in

Another article, a blog post in Patheos’ Progressive Christian Channel, speaks to this relentless erosion of faith in the industrialized West, and particularly in America, but it also reveals why this may prove to be a very long end to the human affair with deities.

In this piece, Freethinking Fundamentalism blogger Kimberly Stover writes about her ostensible fall from faith, but it also exposes the reality that she may have just traded one insubstantial enthrallment for another.

A sense of her spiritual denouement is palpable in her first paragraph:

“Hello old ‘friend,’ it’s me again. Today, I come to you for the last time. Today, I say goodbye because I don’t know you anymore. I never really did. Since the beginning of our relationship, you’ve been fading out in my mind. I tried to hold on to you with every breath I had, and yet still, I have watched you slowly dissolve like fog into the sun. I realized, today, that I don’t love you anymore.”

She lays out a litany of excellent, rational reasons why she no longer believes, such as, “Honestly, I’ve always been stuck on the part that you needed to kill your own son so that your other children can escape a hell that you created,” and “No one would survive three days in the stomach of a whale.”

She scolds God for causing the families of apostates — but thankfully not hers — to shun them out of devotion to his divinity: “I hate that you’ve accomplished this, all because of their naive, co-dependent, fear-driven attachment to you.”

Still, she can’t seem to let go of the mythology on some level.

Characterizing Jesus as just “a loving, caring, radical man … another soft heart exploited for your purposes,” Stover paints the “prophet” as a mortal who “tried to tell us to love your neighbor, and treat others the way you would want to be treated. He told us that we are all guilty and no one has the upper hand on anyone else. He spoke of forgiveness and grace that never runs out.”

But what happened, she writes, is “Jesus preached non-violence and laying down your swords, and your followers hold onto their guns like they’re saving their own souls with them.”

In the end, Stover sees the “love” Jesus preached as humanity’s only saving grace. She imagines this person, whose existence has yet to be convincingly verified, as a prophet sans divinity.

Better to see love as a natural human endowment bestowed on our DNA by passionless evolution for reasons of species survival. And to maximize its transformative powers in the real world.

BLOGGER’S NOTE: Since I posted this article, I received this comment I’d like to share from “Spaceghoti” at the Reddit news aggregator site:

“Charity is not and never has been sufficient to meet the scope of need. I’m less interested in individual charity and more interested in societies and public policy that make individual charity redundant. Most of Western Europe isn’t very charitable because they don’t need to be; their citizens are looked after regardless of their class or circumstance and consequently they have less interest in organizations that promote it.”