Why are atheists & humanists still behind religions in caring for the socially excluded?

I have four decades of experience as an evangelical Christian in the UK, followed by one decade as a humanist with no belief in any deity. I've also spent years imprisoned in my country. Highly obvious in British prisons (as elsewhere in society) is the dedication shown by Christians of various denominations towards spending time with and practically helping people that the rest of society reject.

Admittedly, they want their "clients" to convert, but that makes no difference to their genuine care and love, and they keep caring even if the client has no interest in their religion. There are few or no secular groups doing this in prisons and prisoners find it highly attractive, as it provides a rare occasion when they're treated as normal human beings. It is widely felt that state representatives - social workers, psychologists, prison officers, Job Centre workers etc. - treat prisoners and ex-offenders with indifference or contempt, and the warmth shown by religious people is magnetic.

In my town, I see active, successful churches providing social services that the state is withdrawing from. One supplies furniture at low prices to people living on social security benefits, which I'm finding invaluable. This kind of work is what religious people did before the state took over in the 18th-20th centuries.

My point for discussion is: what are non-religious people doing? Why aren't we forming helping groups and ensuring that the churches (this is, so far as I can see, limited mainly to Christians) don't have this field to themselves? With the shrinking of the state becoming a permanent feature of the UK and the USA, we secularists cannot expect to see the churches continuing to decline as they've been doing since the 1950s, because they're actively reaching out to the most needy and showing they have a vital role to play.

What should our response be?

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www.kiva.org is a good secular charity I have contributed to. Here is an example of how it works with Atheist Ireland.

Médecins Sans Frontières are a secular charity.

helping people that the rest of society reject.

Keep in mind that "the rest of society" is largely also christians.

There are few or no secular groups doing this in prisons and prisoners find it highly attractive, as it provides a rare occasion when they're treated as normal human beings.

Maybe secular groups would prefer to lobby for basic human rights and fair treatment for prisoners rather than help them feel that way for a few hours per week. Imo, the punishment shouldn't be "being in prison", the punishment should be being separated from society. As such, prisoners should be treated with empathy and compassion and assisted to rehabilitate into society after their term is ended.

In my town, I see active, successful churches providing social services that the state is withdrawing from.

In my country, I see an epidemic of catholic priests being charged with pedophilia and an active cover-up attempt by the church. What's your point?

what are non-religious people doing?

To my knowledge, there's a secular (if not non-religious) charity for just about everything.

Why aren't we forming helping groups and ensuring that the churches (this is, so far as I can see, limited mainly to Christians) don't have this field to themselves?

Do it, then. You'll see it's not so easy to organise people to do something without a unifying belief that their deity will smile on them doing it.

What should our response be?

Mostly, I just want to live my life without being bothered by the religious about their religion. I would recommend you join your local secularist group and try to organise them to get involved in local charity. Then move on to bigger groups and bigger charities. For me, I'll be voting for sane, evidence based policy aimed at reducing the actual cause of these problems, rather than slapping a bandaid on it like religions do. The bandaid gets people attention, as you've noticed, but I'd rather fix the real issues.

I'm with a Freethinkers group in my area we do a lot of volunteer stuff like home repairs for the working poor and feeding the homeless, etc.
Find a group and get involved.

When people perform charitable work, but not part of an organization, it can create the impression that the organizations do more, due to labeling bias, etc.

Also, you seem to have been convinced that the reason the church based groups showed up in the first place is NOT to convert, because they keep coming if you don't....albeit that is a false impression.

They are there on a mission, as missionaries essentially.

Why do christians NOT part of an organized church group doing nothing, and so forth, could be the flip side of the question, for example.

So, just as prisoners pretend to be be finding Jesus to appear to be reforming, the reformers pretend to care if they "save them", because that makes it look like they are more pious/doing god's work.

So, sure, some DO care, but, they would care just as much whether or not the church they belong to sent them...if that's the case.

And so forth.

So, there are secular organizations that do the same sort of thing, but WITHOUT grandstanding for "credit"....or even initially or later asking you to join them.

Atheist don't have a place to gather once a week. Our social media should increasingly take on this kind of objective, hopefully (imo) without needing to demonize other agencies traditionally filling in the gaps.

I'd hope that in posting this I'd generate some discussion as to why the churches - Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, non-mainstream - are successfully showing secularists their heels when it comes to caring for the socially excluded. The responses have been sadly disappointing.

Non-religious charities, as has been the typical suggestion, are rarely personal and loving in their help. It's usually true that the act of charity itself demeans the recipient. Church groups operate differently: they offer a close relationship and are often composed of people who aren't professional with all the off-putting impersonality such status includes. I've seen the difference myself many times and I know which I prefer.

One response stated "Maybe secular groups would prefer to lobby for basic human rights and fair treatment for prisoners rather than help them feel that way for a few hours per week." Well, to me that's an abdication of responsibility. Of course prisoners need those things, but the many lonely, mentally ill or deeply hurting men in our jails need someone to hug them, someone to write to them every week or listen to their depression on the phone, someone who genuinely cares about them and will stand by them over a long period. I've experienced that; in fact I have a really good Catholic friend who has made my transition from prison far better than it would otherwise have been and his care for me is driven by his faith, foolish as that may be to the rest of us.

Matt Clerke stated that ""the rest of society" is largely also christians." Maybe in the USA; Europe is largely non-religious. A very revealing comment by Matt was "You'll see it's not so easy to organise people to do something without a unifying belief that their deity will smile on them doing it." That tells me that Matt believes religion is useful and necessary for social cohesion. I don't. There are many ways to motivate us humans into behaving well and a deity is unnecessary.

The best response was from Gregg RThomas: "I'm with a Freethinkers group in my area we do a lot of volunteer stuff like home repairs for the working poor and feeding the homeless, etc." That's more like it, don't you think? But such groups are rare.

Rather conveniently for me, I am prohibited from any voluntary work by the conditions of my court order, so it'll never be something I can get involved in.

Ultimately my point is that non-religious people - especially outspoken atheists - need to match or exceed the social care demonstrated by religious people, otherwise how can we criticise them? Of course their supernatural beliefs are stuff and nonsense, but if those beliefs motivate them into sacrificial love for deeply unattractive people (sex offenders, murderers, even ex-bankers) then who are we to say anything? But I don't see much evidence so far, and the responses here show disturbing levels of ignorance toward the growing numbers of poor people in the rich UK and USA who need a helping hand. The typical overt atheist is, I'm pretty sure, white, middle class and well educated; most of the world isn't any of those things.

There's a battle for hearts and minds going on right now. Who do you want to win it?

I've tried to paraphrase several assumptions that have been made in the way you have phrased your question(s) and I've put them in italics and my response is in plain text. I'm sure I've strawmanned you to some extent on one or two of  the assumptions because I can only make so much sense of the general question considering the broad generalizations made and  the vagueries about the claims made.

Since religious people are known to do charity work and donate money in the name of (and vocally promoting) their organised faith...non-believers should also do the same.

Just because the religious openly volunteer to help people with various degrees of agendas (in part to help people, in part to spread their religion, in part to do "specific-church-marketing" and in part to turn them into the kind of good people they think are good people") doesn't mean that non-believers should do the same. We can broaden this claim further:

People should do things in the name of their non-belief.

Why? Why should I do something in the name of my lack of belief in in a bearded man in the sky? Every non-believer I know who does volunteer work...they do it because they want to do volunteer work...not in the name of their atheism and certainly not to counter balance the loud religious people with agendas who also do it. It's certainly impossible to ever do good things with absolutely zero agenda behind it...but the religious people's agenda is so exaggeratedly present in the work they do and frequently sinister (manipulative and disingenuous). If they just wanted to help people then they would shut the fuck up about their Jesus guy already and do their volunteer work (as certainly many religious people do). Why should non-religious people resort to the same kind of game?

Vocal organised religious groups only sort of have a long term agenda

LOL

Volunteering with prisoners is one form of charity volunteering which is representative of the entire field of volunteering and charity work

You are taking a single example of volunteer work limited to particular prisons in a couple English speaking countries and your own non-empirical estimate of how many volunteers are religious or not...and then broadly applying this data to volunteering in general. There is a whole lot more to volunteering than just dealing with prisoners in two countries. That ranges from working with the homeless, criminals, refugees, the disabled, AIDS and cancer patients (the marginalised) as well as beyond the helpless but also "big brothers, saving the planet, free English as a second language courses" and so on. And then of course there is the volunteer work that very very few religious people touch (where the volunteer work is almost entirely limited to the non religious) such as charities dealing with LGTB, abortion, euthanasia, anti-genital mutilation, secularising society and legalisation of drugs. So...perhaps it is true that there are very few non-believers volunteering in the prisons you've been to (are you sure that's the case?) but you cannot possibly then apply your limited experience to non-believers volunteer work in one field of volunteer work in two countries as representative of volunteer work in general.

Since there are few visible and outspoken non-believer groups volunteering at prisons, there are few non-believers volunteering at prisons

Just because you don't openly see non-believer volunteers advertising their non-belief or agenda while they do their work...doesn't mean non-believers aren't volunteering. Atheists quietly do volunteer work every day. They are even known to volunteer with Christian groups so they can have access to a specific forum of volunteering (because their friends (who happen to be religious) do it too or because non-believers are a tiny minority where they live, or the religious are better organised in one field or a particular religious organisation does that volunteer work in a way that is attractive to the atheist).

Since religious groups work with prisoners and are successful at converting prisoners, non-believers should do the same

Again, we don't have to do anything in the name of our lack of belief. If you are one of the "new atheists" (a la hitchens) with a slight anti-theist agenda and actively want to limit the spread of religion...then yes...it would be a good idea to volunteer in prisons to stop easy victims from being converted. But if you are simply a non-believer who wants to help people through volunteer work...then you should do the kind of volunteer work you want to do...where you want to do it...without regard to whether the person you are helping may or may not be converted into having a specific world view.

The religious dominate volunteer work

Apart from the LGTB, abortion, euthanasia groups I mentioned earlier which are almost totally dominated by non-believers, in my own experience with volunteer work I've seen far more non-believers (or at least people who never talk about their faith or lack of faith) in the organizations I've volunteered with...this ranges from volunteers to work with disabled people, the big brothers organisation, volunteers to teach English as a second language and work in animal shelters. But then that's just my own limited experience...I can't use my own non-empirical-data on how many religious and non-believers have volunteered in a few charities in a who countries to generalise about non-believers and their volunteer work (or lack of it) in general.

What should our response be?

This is tribal mentality. Just because you belong to a group of people who have one thing in common (a lack of belief in the Abrahamic God) doesn't mean you should band together and work out a consensus on dealing with any issue at all. Find a group of people who share your distress about the religious converting prisoners and come up with an answer with them. Don't lump all non-believers into a category that are particularly concerned with your view of volunteer work or your own agenda.

There's a battle for hearts and minds going on right now. Who do you want to win it?

I don't want either side of this false dichotomy to win. I want people to do things because they sincerely want to do it...not because of their belief or non-belief in a stupid preposterous obscene sky-dictator.

"Thriving", "making people thrive" is the stock in trade (or one of them at least) of the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, and perhaps Islam, through Jesus.  "Non-belief" is the stock in trade of atheism.  Maybe for humanism it's "abstract human rights". 

You can see who's good at what.  The religions are experts at this kind of work.  Does it have to be a competition, using good works and vulnerable people as bargaining chips?  I don't see why we should be opposed in any way to the humanitarian work that the religions do.  On the contrary, it should be supported. 

I'm not bothered in any way about competing with the religions on their home ground. 

At best, state and church can complement each other in doing the same jobs (e.g. looking after people, regulating society).  Even spiritually speaking, if a formal atheist spirituality and morality can be constructed, it's a complement to the existing religious one. 

"through Jesus

- correction:  of course, their primary motivation comes from their "God of love". 

"Thriving", "making people thrive" is the stock in trade (or one of them at least) of the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, and perhaps Islam, through Jesus. "Non-belief" is the stock in trade of atheism.

No. More rediculous myths. Just about every tenet of those religions take priority over living your life as you need to in order thrive and flourish. Many of these religious Tennant's make it impossible in fact (per their attacks on bodily autonomy, family planing, personal relationships and countless other restrictions. I'm flabbergasted at this point that you buy into the abrahamic myth..

Maybe for humanism it's "abstract human rights.

No. Why don't you read up on humanism and learn what its all about.

Here is the British Humanists association on Humanism. They give a pretty good summary of the three main points:

  • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic)
  • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals
  • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

Religion interferes with just about everything necesary to thrive in a modern western open society. At the very least their rules and guidance limits the decisions you can make, the experiences you can experiment with, bodily autonomy, intellectual autonomy (working out moral principles for yourself and not spoonfed), forming whatever consensual relationship you like and supporting and being supported by others as an end in itself. The abrahamic religions block all of this to one degree or another. In the "new happy smiley age" of the church (now that they dont have power) they may be pretty laxed with a few of these categories compared to how the churches brutally repressed such freedoms...but they still seriously impede the other categories seriously limiting one's ability to flourish on their own terms (which is essential for flourishing). Humanism puts the principle of seeking meaning and happiness at the top of the world view with the only limit being respecting the autonomy and dignity of others. So you have it very wrong:

The church put abstract rights and limitations on people (which supresses their ability to flourish to various degrees depending on where you are in the world) and it is humanism that puts human flourishing as an essential principle.

That may be true, but you don't really see Humanists taking on the role of "society's dustmen", as the religions have done, entering every area of public life in order to take care of the vulnerable and marginalised.  The state does this to a large extent, and the religious help it enormously in this capacity.  Humanists, by contrast, just sit on their hands. 

I think there are two sides to organised monotheistic religion, just as there are necessarily two sides to morality in general:  promoting thriving and cooperation; and keeping people in line to prevent cheating and free-riding.  This means we get the "vengeful God" - conditional love and restrictive laws - as well as "gentle Jesus meek and mild" - unconditional love.  On top of that, there are cultural practices which become enshrined as "objective morality" - "this is the right way to do things, and everyone else does it wrong". 

We see both the conditional and unconditional aspects in full effect, and we complain heartily about the conditional, restrictive side, which seems silly and bogus to us. 

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