Atheist Charity Drive

Over at Framing Science, Matthew Nisbet notes a survey about poverty which finds, among other things, that atheists are less likely to take part in anti-poverty efforts. There are a number of good reasons to be skeptical of this survey, which I'll mention at the end of this post, but Nisbet seems to take it seriously, and speculates about why atheists might be less charitable than believers, giving three possible interpretations of the result. In the very first comment to the post, commenter "Roy" offers a fourth: bone-deep cynicism.

Most of the religious 'charity' aimed at poverty actually maintains poverty. (Casting spells on them is neutral, I suppose, although it certainly isn't helpful.)

How many religious people will back programs for the poor that include sex education, birth control, access to low-cost abortions, health education, job training, home economics, how to eat better when money is tight, and so on?

The actual survey is dubious enough that I wouldn't comment on it, but this annoys me completely independent of whether the survey findings are legitimate or not. "Religious charities suck" isn't a useful response to the question, and trying to change the question doesn't help either. The question isn't whether religious people would support anti-poverty measures that you find reasonable, the question is whether you support them.

And I find it hard to believe that there aren't non-religious charities out there that do exactly the sort of things that Roy is after. I don't know who they are, because I'm not up on the activities of different charities, but there are a dizzying variety of charitable organizations out there, and I'd be absolutely stunned if you couldn't find a range of different groups that provide those services. Rather than bitching on the Internet about how religious charities are designed to keep the poor down, how about doing something productive, like giving them money, or volunteering time to help them out?

And lest I be accused of rank hypocrisy in lecturing Roy about what he ought to do while doing nothing myself, I'll put my money where my keyboard is: Leave a comment pointing me toward a charity or charities providing the sort of services Roy mentions (which I agree are good and valuable services to provide to the poor), and I will contribute money to one or more of them-- let's say $200. (Subject to terms and conditions that I will explain beow the fold.)

If everyone who clicks through to ScienceBlogs on a random Tuesday for the visceral thrill of seeing Michael Behe called an idiot for the ten thousandth time sent a dollar to one of these organizations (or one in a hundred coughed up a hundred bucks) that ought to be enough money to do a lot of good. So how about it? I'll put some of my cash up-- where should I send it?

Terms and Conditions: I will donate up to $200 to a charity or charities selected from those suggested in comments. Suggested charities should focus on providing one or more of the services on Roy's list: "sex education, birth control, access to low-cost abortions, health education, job training, home economics, how to eat better when money is tight," and must not be affiliated with any religious denomination or organization. I'll accept suggestions of charities to donate to up until midnight next Wednesday, July 4th, and the decision of who gets the money will be announced on the blog by next Friday. The final decision about who gets the donation is mine and mine alone, but feel free to leave impassioned arguments for your favorite charity in the comments.

Survey Disclaimer: I said I'd comment on the reasons to be dubious about the survey results. Start with the fact that the same organization is selling a book titled Think Like Jesus. More than that, though, it's striking that the paragraph extolling the virtues of religious people contains lots of numbers-- the percentage participating in nine different anti-poverty actions is given for both "born again" Christians and non-born again Christians-- but they get all vague when they get to the paragraph about atheists. They were "less likely" to engage in the different responses, but there's no quantitative information. Was the difference significant? Was the sample large enough to mean anything? There's no way to tell.

That suggests to me that they're trying to make hay out of a small effect, which makes me much less interested in any sweeping conclusions drawn from the data. Now, Matthew Nisbet is a smart guy, and he seems to trust this group for whatever reason. He also says he plans to check their findings using some more general dataset, though, and I think I'll wait to see those numbers before I try to make anything of this.


More like this

So, you may or may not recall that last week, Matt Nisbet posted about a study purporting to show that religious people were more generous in their charitable giving than atheists. One of his commenters opted to go for the "sour grapes" response, claiming that religious charities were all stupid,…
As many of you know, I am raising money and volunteer time for charity by shaving my head. Yes, I'm nervous about it, and yes, I'm definitely going to do it once we get 100 donors. If you'd like to donate, some fantastic charities that I can recommend are: Heifer International: providing livestock…
I'm a bit disappointed with Al Franken. Ben Stein has donated to the Franken campaign, and he has accepted the money — come on, Al, let's see some principles. Stein is a dishonest fraud who is peddling Intelligent Design creationism in his upcoming movie, Expelled; he's a former Nixon speechwriter…
I hate to break the news to him, but he's just so Johnny Snow. I've grated against ol' Wayne a few times before to mock his awful polls, and now I think he has finally snapped, babbling out incoherent mush about how atheists are just like believers, only worse…and he really doesn't like me. I don't…

Presumably, Unitarian Universalists would be a religious organization that would have no qualms about supporting such a charitable endeavor...though UUs are certainly not what one thinks of as "religious" in the traditional sense.

Christian: Dominus et magister noster Iesus Christus dicendo "Poenitentiam agite adpropinquavit enim regnum caelorum" omnem vitam fidelium penitentiam esse voluit.

Atheist: Only a fool believes in post-mortem escrow closing. Live your own life, for you will die your own death.

Save the drama for your mama. Get down and PUSH. March or die.

I'll offer up one of my own: Planned Parenthood. I got to see firsthand the effects of their mission in a small conservative town in Michigan during my college years. If not for their hard work many young women I knew wouldn't have had anywhere else to go for health checks, advice, and contraceptives during a time of their life when they needed it most. And for the actual poor, not temporarily college poor, I hate to think what might have happened to some of the women I saw when I volunteered if PP didn't exist.

I would be interested to see the "job training, home economics, how to eat better when money is tight" suggestions - my personal charity is mostly directly toward women's and political issues, and I should probably broaden my caring a bit. Unicef is a good thought.

The 'atheists aren't charitable' line irritates the crap out of me as well.

Ditto on Planned Parenthood- they offer inexpensive birth control, abortion, pelvic exams, etc. on a sliding scale based on income and whether or not you have health insurance.

As I mentioned in my post, Barna has a pretty strong track record in producing survey findings that are consistent with other poll data, that's why I noted their survey in the first place. They've also developed some pretty strong measurement techniques for differentiating among various religious traditions.

Again, with any survey result, whether Barna or CBS News, you want to check its consistency with other poll indicators. So I will be reporting back in coming weeks.

--Matt I did a bunch of 'gift donations' there this past Christmas. They seem completely non-denominational/non-religious (at least there is *NO* mention of religion on their website). I was quite pleased to find them after doing some searching around for a non-religious charity to give to They work around the world helping people get fresh water, plant gardens, improve health care knowledge etc. They give micro loans to women to start their own businesses. They helped people in New Orleans (and probably still do), etc. etc. Once my finances get a bit more stable I'm gonna start doing a monthly donation. They're also highly rated by organizations that monitor charities.

I give to Second Harvest Food Bank (domestic), and Technoserve, the International Rescue Committee, Pathfinder, Partners in Health, and FINCA International (International). You can look these all up at There are plenty of non-religious charities for helping the poor domestically and overseas.

By Deborah G. (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

I second the vote Planned Parenthood. They probably cover most your critera.

Personally, I support Oxfam for international aid (the British branch), Southern Poverty Law Center for it's antihate and teaching tolerance work and Amnesty International for their work on human rights. Additionally, many environmental groups are non-religious.

These types of surveys seem to be biased towards religious groups. I remember after Katrina a British journalist saying that religious groups were more generous of both time and money. What was not realized that it was easier for a church to give to a sister church and harder to volunteer if you didn't have that direct link.

I'll add another endorsement for Planned Parenthood. And along the lines Deborah G. suggested, Alternative Gifts International partners with several different organizations (in the U.S. and elsewhere) that provide training, small-business loans, and other support to help people get through crises and improve their prospects.

Anne asked for suggestions on "job training, home economics, how to eat better when money is tight" organizations, and I've just learned of a group like that in DC called Brainfood. Here's DCist's description:

"Brainfood is a local youth development organization that uses food and cooking as tools to teach teenagers about healthy living and the proper way to use a mandoline. Plus, it gets kids off the streets in the afternoons and teaches them how to cook good food on a thin budget."

The charities listed above are all good ones, in my opinion. Of course, I have problems narrowing the field down to a number I can actually afford to donate to.

What you said about ScienceBlog readers donating a dollar is true. John Scalzi challenged his Whatever ( readers to make donations and he got over a $5000 in one week. Granted we weren't just giving out of the goodness of their hearts, we're making John go to Creation Museum.

By marciepooh (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

Personally I donate to WHO, UNICEF, Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, but if I lived in the US, I would certainly donate to Planned Parenthood.

Nesbit's attacks on Hitchens and Dawkins annoys me.

I live in a country with a welfare system, so the poor in my country are not dependent on charity. Dawkins also lives in a country with a certain level of safety net, though it's lower than the Scandinavian level. Yet, it would seem quite likely that Dawkins pays as much through his taxes to charity as Nesbit ever had. Hitchens is a socialist (though certain of his political views are rather neo-conservative), so he is for a social welfare state.

Our support of a welfare state is independent of the fact that we are atheists, so why would we try to link those two things together?

Nesbit's attacks on Hitchens and Dawkins annoys me.

I really don't have much use for either Dawkins or Hitchens, but I think they're pretty much irrelevant to this particular issue.

Assuming this is a real effect, I would guess that Nesbit's second explanation is the most important factor: churches have a built-in network for mobilizing and coordinating community activity of all sorts, including charity work.

As I've said before, I think this is the weakest point of the militant atheist attack on religion: they really don't say anything about the community aspects, and without that, you're just not going to get a lot of people to abandon their churches.

I understand why it works this way-- insulting people's beliefs is fun and easy, while community organizing is difficult and resource-intensive-- but I really wish there was more effort put into that end of things.

Without derailing this into a debate about what atheists should or shouldn't do, I want to say that I agree that it would not be bad to focus on community organizing. However, at this stage, it's also important to make atheists more visible in the US, and Dawkins and especially Hitchens certainly ensures this.
Different atheists can work on the other aspects.

As to the build-in network of churches, I actually think that depends very much on your geographica position and particular faith. In Denmark the majority of Christians are members of the state church, and in most cases there is very little social activity going on there. Instead, social activities usually happen in non-religious settings.

Philabundance in the Delaware valley ( for hunger relief.

Or how about, Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth?

While we educate and advocate on behalf of children across all issues, we undertake specific focused efforts to improve the health of our children by maximizing access and availability of health care; improve child welfare by targeting efforts to strengthen families; improve the quality and quantity of child care programs; act earlier rather than later in developing, monitoring and disseminating information about in-home programs that work; improve the chances for troubled and troubling adolescents by seeking out the causes and responses to truancy or delinquency by building alternative programming in communities and develop more and better after-school programs in neighborhoods... In addition to these activities, PCCY looks at the City, State and School District budgets and analyzes their effect on children. We testify regularly in front of government officials on the impact of proposed legislative decisions that involve children; act as a resource center for the media on children and family issues and develop reports on juvenile justice, education, child care, child welfare and budget issues.

I'll bet people can find organizations like these two in any urban area of a certain size. There are also rural service organizations. What about your local hospice care provider? Or Meals on Wheels? The elderly are very dependent on services like these, especially in rural areas.

I'm also a Planned Parenthood fan.

Chad, your problem will be to pick among many worthy candidates. Good luck!

Just as a note, something I'm considering doing at the end of the year apart from normal charitable donations, is giving to a microlending outfit. In my copious free time, I've been reading up on this one:

because it's one of the first ones that caught my eye toward the end of last year. It plays to my own economic biases and my notion is that, if the payback rate is as high as the org claims it is, then as soon as the repayment is made I can put it back into another microloan, and then keep making an equal "donation" myself every year. This is the concept (but not the outfit) that won Muhammad Yunus the Nobel Peace Prize for 2006, and I think (but do not know for certain) that there might be similar organizations being tailored for the poor here at home.

I am curious if anyone else reading has anything good or bad to say about these programs.

By John Novak (not verified) on 27 Jun 2007 #permalink

I'll second the nominations for Planned Parenthood and for Oxfam. American Friend's Service Committee is Quaker, but does great work without proselytizing (which makes them good guys in my book). Habitat for Humanity leaves a Bible in every home they build, which is a fairly innocuous sort of proselytizing, but one I'm still uncomfortable with, but not so uncomfortable that I'd want to reinvent the wheel.

Other than the defense of Dawkins and Snitchens, I think Kristjan has a point. I tend to give to political groups that would reform the systemic problems that cause poverty. Teach a man to fish ...

n-thing Planned Parenthood. This administration has shunted lots of money from secular programs into faith-based programs. If you're hungry, they'll still give you food (as long as you're willing to listen to a little preaching), but I guarantee that none of those faith-based programs will help you with reproductive issues.

I didn't read Nisbet's post, and this may be covered over there, but the source is worth mentioning. The group that published the study has the mission:

To provide leadership and unique, strategic information and resources that help facilitate spiritual transformation in America.

Also, its founder's profile mentions finding Jesus Christ in the second sentence. That's enough to make me skeptical...

When you say you wish there was more effort put into the community end of things, is that somehow supposed to be predicated by, or founded on, lack of belief? If so, I doubt it would work. Generally, folks are attracted to a community by common interest, not common _lack_ of interest. If I tried to start a club made up of people who've never been abducted by aliens, or never seen bigfoot, and have confidence in the existence of neither, we'd run out of things to talk about pretty quickly, I think.

So what could atheists do to build community? Well, I tend to think the very sorts of things they already do, like hang out with family and friends, join outdoor clubs, talk about sports, volunteer to a local soup kitchen, get together for Pinochle games, whatever it is normal people do to be social. It never occurred to me we might be deficient somehow in that regard. And since worship in a religious community is something quite apart from and additional to these secular interests, I'm not sure how athiests are supposed to fill that void, if some people feel they need it, or even why they should feel obliged to. One might figure that, hey, maybe there isn't a God or other agent out there that wants us to sing and genuflect on schedule so we all can chat over coffee afterward. Maybe there's no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny either. That may come as a big disappointment, but some might say that life is full of disappointments, sadly, and perhaps it's better to suck it up and deal with that than indulge in fantasies to pretend things are better than they are.

By Low Math, Meek… (not verified) on 28 Jun 2007 #permalink

Check out Heifer International if you're interested in fighting hunger worldwide. They operate on the "give a man a fish/teach a man to fish" principle, except they give cows, behives, ducks, geese, goats, and other renewable resources to communities and individuals to give them a source of food and income. I'm pretty sure they're a secular organization, even though they've got a couple of "faith partners."

I personally give blood every 8 weeks. What sort of monetary value should be placed on that?

If you're into the food/feeding thing, Oxfam and Heifer International are good bets.

Moving slightly away from the core donation target, the whole idea of micro loans is pretty awesome and seems to improve the plight of very poor people in very useful ways - give a woman a business loan and watch the birth rate drop (not being flip here, the stats seem to indicate the secret to a better world is more rights for women).

Most of my charity goes to The Nature Conservancy - no world, no need for I like their approach; skip the legislation and just buy the damn land!

Suggested charities should focus on providing one or more of the services on Roy's list: "sex education, birth control, access to low-cost abortions."

I would suggest FFRF; the founder, Anne Nicol Gaylor started it to support women with sex education, etc.

Followup to #2:

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

About UUSC

With more than 47,000 members and supporters, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is a nonsectarian organization that advances human rights and social justice in the United States and around the world. Our programs are based on Unitarian Universalist principles that affirm the worth, dignity, and human rights of every person -- but one need not be a Unitarian Universalist to join UUSC.

Through a potent combination of advocacy, education, and partnerships with grassroots organizations, UUSC supports programs and policies that promote workers' rights, advance the human right to water, defend civil liberties, and preserve the rights of those affected by humanitarian crises.

There are a lot of non-religious charities out there. Try Planned Parenthood for family planning. Try City Harvest, or your city's equivalent, for getting food to the hungry. (In NYC they get a lot of unused food from restaurants). Try Tapestry in Utah. They specialize in helping women escaping polygamous marriages, many of whom are illiterate and have no modern living skills. There are also all sorts of local, non-religious charities that focus on helping people with medical problems and no money. I know there is one at our local hospital. Our local library has a literacy program, partly funded by the friends of the library charity.

I've never noticed religious people being more charitable than non-religious people. Any "charity" that imposes religious requirements on the recipients of said "charity" is doing missionary work, not charitable work. Charity implies that there is no quid pro quo.

As a liberal, I like to work against the causes of poverty, rather than merely fighting the symptoms. That's why I've never voted against a school funding issue. (The voters have to waste their time approving school budgets out here). I've also voted for raising the minimum wage, more police and better policing because poor people can't afford to move out of high crime neighborhoods, economic development in various forms, and even higher taxes, which generally spur economic growth.