21 March 2013

Are non-believers doing good in the world?

Long-time readers of this blog may recall my occasional offhand mention that my older brother is a devout Christian. I've had several discussions/debates with him over the years, and today I was thinking about one comment he made in particular. The discussion was way back in the days of MySpace blogs, so it's long gone -- I'll have to settle for a paraphrase. It went something like this:
Even the average fundamentalist, by virtue of their charity works, is doing more good in the world than atheists -- who seem to spend most of their time decrying religion. Until they do good works themselves in equal or greater measure, they aren't in a place to criticize believers.
I ought to mention that my bro is a pretty theologically liberal believer, definitely more along the lines of Francis Collins or Kenneth Miller than some total loon like Ray Comfort or even a loon in respectable clothing like Michael Behe. But I don't think this attitude is all that rare to find among defenders of the faith; even if religion isn't true, it at least motivates people to help others. What are atheists doing to help others? Where do they get off just attacking people's beliefs if they aren't actually a force for good themselves?

My first thought is that it seems peculiar to single out charitable works as the lone measure of how one does good in the world. Surely money and time given to charity is a measure of doing good, but there are many other ways to do so. If we ponder for only a few moments how science has transformed medicine, communication, transportation, and standards of living in just the last century, I'd argue that supporting science education and/or just being a scientist can contribute greatly to a better world. Scientists develop treatments and/or cures for diseases, pioneer ways to grow more nutritious crops to wipe out famine in third-world countries, improve the efficiency of agriculture... the list is practically endless. There are surely many, many, many other ways to do good in the world than science and charity – whether by vocation or by simple acts of kindness. But even if we were to take that rather arbitrary concept of charity, is there really any basis to say that atheists, agnostics and/or the religiously unaffiliated are less charitable than anyone else?

It's worth noting that there is no shortage of charities that are secular. These aren't necessarily "atheist charities" (atheism isn't normative, so I don't know why one would exist) or "humanist charities" (humanism is normative, and there are some great humanist charities), and I'm sure that religious and non-religious people alike donate to secular charities such as the Red Cross.

But what about explicitly humanist charities? You've got the Foundation Beyond Belief, which acts as a liaison to secular charities worldwide. Last year, they raised over $42,000 in just a few months. The Foundation also sponsors Volunteers Beyond Belief and the Humanist Crisis Response. You have the aptly named Humanist Charities, which is an arm of the American Humanist Association. There's also the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Sam Harris' Reason Project, and many more.

Now, consider that non-believers make up less than 10% of the American population and I think it's inarguable that religion is very far from having some sort of monopoly on charity or good works. They do seem to have monopoly on homophobia and creationism though (among many other despicable things), which brings me to my point: we don't need religion. It's antiquated and useless. We don't need it for moral guidance or to be kind and charitable. Time and again it's ridden the coattails of science as naturalism has illuminated our understanding of the world while religion has done nothing but either deny science or continuously amend its theology to accommodate our evolving knowledge. The tide is turning as more and more people in the industrialized world – especially young people – are turning away from religion. It's about time.

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