Actually, Joe Klein Was Right

June 24, 2013

In a TIME cover story on community service, columnist Joe Klein observed that one never sees secular humanist groups handing out hot meals at disaster sites. Many in the atheosphere, including Hemant Mehta, Amanda Knief, and our own Paul Fidalgo, took umbrage at this “nasty crack,” But you know what? So long as we’re talking strictly about secular humanists, not about atheists/freethinkers generally, Klein was right. And there’s a good reason why.

Here’s what Klein said:

 . . . there was an occupying army of relief workers [in Oklahoma], led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals . . .

Truly secular humanists don’t come together as secular humanists to give out hot meals — or distribute cash — when disaster strikes. That’s because they’ve seen the damage done when religious people let their church memberships spill all through their lives. Insofar as secular humanists are truly, radically secular, they are careful not to give even their own lifestance organizations more than their due. To them, a secular humanist organization is for discussing living without religion, for learning how to do naturalistic ethics, and for learning how to counter common religous claims. After that (warning: radical idea), private life begins. I don’t know for certain (and neither does anybody else), but I strongly suspect that secular people contribute and volunteer just about as frequently as anybody else. What they don’t do is cluster together in a little group of fellow freethinkers to do it. Instead they reach out directly, as individuals, to organizations whose primary mission is delivering relief.

Staunch secularists are repelled when church groups mobilize so boastfully to show up at disaster sites, soup kitchens, and so on, waving the banner of their particular denomination. “Look, we’re Methodists, we’re ever so much holier than those darned Presbyterians” — and what, exactly, does that have to do with helping the victims? This kind of activism smacks of exploiting those wracked by tragedy in order to score a few PR points. Compounding the offense, religious groups almost invariably deliver aid less efficiently than organizations whose primary mission is relief. So whatever resources believers channel toward relief at XYZ disaster would have gone further if they’d just given individually to, say, the Red Cross or (overseas) Doctors without Borders, rather than funneling their money and energy through a church for which relief is often necessarily a sideline.

We’ve all heard of members of megachurches whose faith so circumscribes their lives that they wouldn’t hire an accountant or a plumber whom they didn’t meet at church. That’s the mentality truly secular humanists reject. They turn to their secular humanist organizations to enrich their experiences in secular humanism, and nothing else. When disaster strikes, they don’t squander time or resources pulling on secular humanist T-shirts first. They reach out as individuals and channel their money or time toward some organization whose primary focus is aiding the victims. Granted, when we’re that hard-nosed about our secularity, we sometimes pass up a PR opportunity. But we have the consolation that when we as secular individuals are participating, more or less anonymously, in service work, we’re doing it to help the work get done rather than to score cheap points for our side by making sure the soup bowls we hand out are extra-full when the cameras are rolling.

In recent years some atheist organizations have sprung up to channel overtly atheist giving. Foundation Beyond Belief is one, there are many others, and some atheists and freethinkers think their work is exciting. Truly secular humanists are more skeptical. Yes, the churches do a lot of chest-thumping charitable outreach this way — but if they really had the victims’ welfare at heart, they should stop and let the lifestance-blind specialist organizations that really know what they’re doing do the work more efficiently. Staunch secularists who don’t think today’s churches have a genuine role in, say, disaster response can see no reason why secular humanist organizations should rush to repeat their mistake.