Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Some Thoughts On Foundation Beyond Belief

A new charitable organization has been created called "Foundation Beyond Belief." It's purpose, when you come right down to it, is to put an atheist stamp on charitable contributions so that 'atheism' can get some credit for some of the good in the world.

(See: Foundation Beyond Belief)

One of the denigrating bigotries commonly imposed on atheists can be expressed in the form of a question: Why are there no atheist hospitals? The idea here is to promote the bigotry that atheists are selfish and self-centered individuals. A belief in God inspires charitable contributions, which means that people who believe in God are better than those who do not.

It is not difficult to note the problems with this line of reasoning. The first and most important is that there are charitable and less charitable theists as well as charitable and less charitable atheists. Atheist business leaders such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett pretty much put all of their considerable wealth into secular and science-guided charitable activities, while a subset of Ayn Rand Objectivists promote selfishness as a virtue and condemn any act of pure charity. An act is not consistent with the pure nature of man-qua-man unless the giver benefits from the giving in some way.

Another problem with this criticism of atheists is that it ignores the fact that atheism is not a church. The major religions have a central hierarchy - a bureaucracy - that, among other things, has the ability to collect contributions in a central location and then hand them out again in the form of charity. They collect hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. Part of what gives a church its power is that it has this vast reservoir of charitable capital to hand out, and the authority to direct its charity in ways that are deemed most beneficial to the church leadership.

Religious charity is not much different from the Ayn Rand Objectivist model - no charity unless there it is something in it for me - except 'me' is the Church itself in the first case, and the specific donor in the second.

I have often seen the suggestion made that atheists need an organization that functions much like a church with respect to charity. It is an organization that collects charitable contributions from atheists, puts an atheist mark on the money, and then hands it out again in the form of charity. Foundation Beyond Belief seems to be the most recent and, at least on first appearance, best organized attempt to date.

One question is: Should I, as an atheist, make my charitable contributions to the Foundation Beyond Belief?

One thing to compare is the value of a contribution given directly to an organization, versus a contribution given to that same organization through the Foundation Beyond Belief. The Foundation is a bureaucracy. As such, there are going to be certain costs involved in going through the Foundation.

The Foundation is attempting to cover its operating expenses with a $9 annual fee. This means that it will cost $109 to get $100 to the charities that the organization picks. It would, of course, be better to give $109 to those organizations directly then to go through a bureaucracy that takes $9 to cover administrative costs.

However, the $9 might be worthwhile, if the Foundation can add value to (or prevent the loss of value from) one's contributions.

I have argued, and I continue to argue, that there is no virtue in being an atheist. If you tell me that one person believes that a God certainly or almost certainly exists, while another believes that a God certainly or almost certainly does not exist, I still know nothing about the moral character of either person.

The former might have been seduced into religion as a child, is a very charitable person, and fully devoting his life to helping others. He simply does not have time to go back and question his childhood beliefs, nor does he need to. It would not affect his charitable work. These people would need his help whether a God existed or not.

While the latter might be an extremist form of an Ayn Rand Objectivist - a business executive who believes in ultimate selfishness, the only time he is concerned about the harmful effects of his actions (or those of his business) is when it might generate bad publicity. He will literally do anything for a buck, including expending money to fill the public with misleading and false information that his product is not altering the climate and threatening the destruction of whole cities.

Atheism is not a virtue, and theism is not a vice. It is the beliefs that one attaches to one's atheism or one's theism that determine one's moral character.

Therefore, I do not see any specific value in placing an atheist or humanist stamp per se on one's charitable contributions, and see no reason to pay $9 per year for such a stamp.

On the other hand, perhaps the Foundation can provide a value-added service.

Those of us who do not believe in a God often risk making contributions to organizations that allow activities that do add a layer of harm to the good they do. One might give to an organization devoted to providing health care in Africa. Yet, this organization providing health care may also be involved in a campaign to condemn the use of condoms as being "against God". Though its agents are involved in charitable activity, they are also performing actions that result in more charity being necessary.

To avoid this risk, one might give nothing at all. However, that does not do any good either.

Donating $100 so that $90 can end up being used to provide health care to the poor in Africa is a better contribution than giving $100 so that $100 can be used to provide health care to the poor in Africa from an organization that is also teaching nonsense ideas that contribute to the spread of disease.

So, the Foundation could provide a value-added service by researching organizations and making sure that the contributions go to organizations that apply science and reason to solving problems, and do not contaminate their assistance with myth and superstition that subtracts from the good being done with a strong dose of superstitious harm.

Here, the Foundation states that it is looking for organizations that "do not engage in proselytizing". That, however, is a vague definition that proselytizing organizations have a great deal of experience getting around in their quest to skirt the law. For example, it raises the question of whether the Foundation will contribute to organizations that proselytize on the virtues of science, or whether it would consider such an activity proselytizing.

And is it not the case that the act of handing out condoms, for example, an act of proselytizing that those organizations that condemn the use of condoms are mistaken?

Isn't it the case that offering college support to gay teenagers disowned by their families for their sexual orientation proselytizing the message that their parents are mistaken?

I are that these are cases of proselytizing in a relevant sense - but that there is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with saying, "This is the way things should be done," when, in fact, one is talking about the way things should be done.

I would like to see the Foundation actively and openly agree to proselytize a particular set of values, such as the value that faith-based reasons are insufficient to justify doing harm to or refusing to aid others, and provide a poor reason not to perform actions that help to protect social life, health, and well-being.

Then, its contributions will take on an added value - and it may well be an added value that justifies adding an extra level of bureaucracy to one's charitable giving.

No individual, and no organization, can even hope not to proselytize a set of values. Nor should they want to. Every decision to act or to refrain from acting betrays the values of the agents making those decisions. One might as well identify a set of values that one can argue are worth promoting and be willing to defend one’s choices.

I believe that the organization has potential and I will make a contribution. I would like to encourage my readers to do the same.


Edcander said...

I'm not sure I quite buy your logic. Isn't proselytising more about trying to promote and enforce your belief system onto somebody, as opposed to empower those in their life choices.

Admittedly, you could argue that by helping the outed gay but not the outed scientologist, your proselytising one over the other. However, that makes as much sense as saying that should you support battered wives, you should equally support abusive spouses who still abuse their partner.

Dale McGowan said...

Thoughtful as always, and thanks for your tentative support of the idea.

You've put your finger on precisely the issues with which we're grappling ourselves. We have created a social network and forums to encourage discussion of these and other issues.

Our stance on proselytizing relates to worldview identification, not to specific values that may be part of one or more worldviews. In short, an organization that spends resources to gain adherents to a belief system will not be considered. Part of the reason for this policy is to potentially lend support to organizations based in a different metaphysical belief system but with shared humanistic goals -- a key step in bridge-building that can encourage the same recognition of shared values in return.

Dale McGowan
Executive Director
Foundation Beyond Belief

Emu Sam said...

NiroZ, I believe Alonzo is asking for a more precise wording. He's saying it's impossible to not support something by your deeds, and this support will fall under some definitions of proselytizing. His recommendation is that Foundation Beyond belief pick something (or things) that they are proselytizing, and be able to explain why these are good things (i.e., why they selected those things).

Edcander said...

Which would be marketing suicide.

Would considering proselytising to be the use of high pressure sales tactic's (or downright abuse) to recruit people to your ideology be a better definition? It seems to fit better what me (and I'd assume, others) consider by this term.

dbonfitto said...

Is it really proselytizing if you're backing up your worldview with evidence and not attempting to convert anyone?

Alonzo, you might want to invest in some traps or a good barn cat. This thread has at least two kinds of vermin in it.