Dawkins: Don’t need God to be good … or generous

AFP/GETTY IMAGES British author and scientist Richard Dawkins attending the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007. Freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists … Continued


British author and scientist Richard Dawkins attending the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007.

Freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists – whatever name non-believers go under, are not America’s most popular minority. They are also, not a small minority. According to Gallup, in 2011, and Pew in 2012, they comfortably outnumber Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists all put together. One reason for our unpopularity is the widespread belief that you need God in order to be good. Going along with that misconception is further belief that atheists are less generous than religious people, less philanthropic, less likely to donate to charity. Even if that were the case it would, of course, have no bearing on the truth of religious beliefs.

I would hypothesize that the difference in giving between the religion and nonreligious is negligible if you only count donations to pure charity and discount donations to atheist advocacy organizations, or to churches (including tithes) and “charities” that unscrupulously use their resources to proselytize rather than bestow real charitable benefits.

Incidentally, because churches are automatically classified as charities for taxation purposes is a disgrace. Nobody denies that some churches do charitable work. But that doesn’t mean that any organization should automatically qualify for tax-free status simply by calling itself a church. Each church organization separately should make the case that it does charitable work, just as anybody else has to when seeking tax exemption.

View Photo Gallery: Despite their negative reputations among many Americans, atheists tend to be very ethical and high-achieving, argue Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in an opinion piece in The Washington Post.

Examples of charitable relief efforts set up by non-believers in recent years include the Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort, organized by the Center for Inquiry, and the Humanist Charities operated by the American Humanist Association. At the time of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science set up Non-Believers Giving Aid (NBGA). Entirely through RichardDawkins.net, NBGA raised more than $500,000 (for Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross) in less than a month, almost all of it in the form of small donations from thousands of individual subscribers, and passed it all on, without deductions for expenses, handling changes etc.

A recent ambitious example of such an initiative for non-believers to give was launched by atheist activist and philanthropist Todd Stiefel. The Stiefel family has pledged to match up to half a million dollars, which would bring in a target total of $1 million in aid to cancer research through the Foundation Beyond Belief.

The family initially sought to work with the American Cancer Society, which did not accept the offer. It was unclear why and Stiefel has been too polite to draw an inference about the situation chronicled twice by Greta Christina on AlterNet. If her thesis is even half right, the fact that non-believers are generous is even more remarkable. Could it be that they achieve their generosity in the teeth of difficulties put in their way by organizations that ought to welcome their money with open arms? Or that instead of earning a reputation for lack of charity, atheists have that reputation thrust upon them in a way that is almost comically ironic?

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society accepted Stiefel’s offer. In addition to ordinary donations, Stiefel has set up Foundation Beyond Belief as the rallying point for local freethought, atheist and secular humanist groups to create teams to participate in “Light the Night” walks. I am proud to say that the U.S. branch of Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is an official supporter of the project, and I am also delighted to learn that FBB has decided that their 2012 effort will be dedicated to the memory of my friend Christopher Hitchens. I encourage all non-believers to go to donate, or better yet, join the team as a fundraiser to multiply the power of our efforts.

You can contribute to the Freethought Beyond Belief team, secure in the knowledge that the Stiefel family will double your gift to a very good cause – a charity which is happy to accept that atheists and freethinkers are full human beings whose generous impulses are at least as sincere as those of the religious.

Richard Dawkins is a biologist and professor and an author whose books include “The Magic of Reality: How Do We Know What’s Really True,” “The God Delusion” and “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.”

Richard Dawkins
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  • Sara121

    The point is that belief that any particular god or gods exist is neither a prerequisite for, not even remotely related to, being a decent human being. That doesn’t mean a believer can’t be a good person. It means the two concepts have no inherent connection. It is a non-sequitor.

  • ccnl1

    A prayer for the cause:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011 (updated based on the studies of historians and theologians during the past 200 years)

    I might believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven.

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


    (References used are available upon request)

  • dcrswm

    Frankly I don’t need your spooky ghost story to tell me to be a decent human being, why do you?

  • RickWatcher

    If folks would look at true history they would find that it was the churches that started most of our hospitals, it was the churches that started most of our schools, it was the church missionaries that brought civilization to tribes of people that would behead for trophies and cannibalistic tribes. And if you’ll look at the stats you”ll find that most of the giving is by the Godly people of the world. One other this about the Christian religion is that no other religion or no religion would have started such a country as the United States of America because only where the Spirit of the Lord is is there liberty.
    Yes there are many good athiests and non believers and they are not to be condemned by anyone for their unbelief. However when they stand before the God they don’t believe in they will be condemned to everlasting torment by their own chosing.
    Their is more evidence for the existence of God than for His none existance, in any area you want to study, it’s just that the god of this world have blinded the spiritual eyes and ears of so many.

  • itsthedax

    It was the church that wiped out the Carribean natives… And brought the inquisition to the Americas… And slaughtered the Albigensians… And the crusades, let’s not forget those… And justified slavery for centuries… And the pogroms…

  • itsthedax

    “However when they stand before the God they don’t believe in they will be condemned to everlasting torment by their own chosing.”

    Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say to God after he died. The question was something along the lines of, “Why didn’t you believe in me?”

    And Bertrand Russell responded:

    “Not enough evidence, God. Not enough evidence.”

  • edbyronadams

    “Not only are America’s three most generous philanthropists non-believers, there is good evidence that subscribers to atheistic group fundraising efforts are at least as generous as religious donors.”

    Nice hand waving argument, Mr. Dawkins. What evidence? Anecdotes do not cancel the abundant statistical evidence that the greatest percentage of income donated to charity in this country comes from people in the Bible Belt.

    Furthermore, it ignores the legitimate question to ultra rationalists, why donate to charity?

  • Catken1

    “However when they stand before the God they don’t believe in they will be condemned to everlasting torment by their own chosing. ”

    Yep, my God will burn good and decent people – the majority of my brothers and sisters – in eternal, unimaginable torment because they didn’t choose to believe in him. And God will say to me, “Good boy! You picked the RIGHT chamber in the religious Russian roulette game! You win! Maybe that person was more kind and generous than you, maybe that person saved many more lives than you did, maybe that person’s life changed the world immeasurably more for the better than yours did – but you believed the right dogma, so they get tortured and you get pampered!” And you will kiss the rear of that torturer, and sing his praises while your sisters and brothers – good and decent people – burn in agony because they were taught the wrong thing, or were mistaken in their logic, or didn’t trust in blind faith over the evidence of their eyes and their reason.

    Ah, Christian morality and humanity. What you do, who you are – who cares? Just believe the right thing, and you get heaven – but pick the wrong set of beliefs, and no matter how good you are, you get torture.

    Besides which, what happens if you’re wrong and, say, the Muslims are right? What if you’re told, “Sorry, you picked/were taught the wrong set of dogma – you should have followed the Koran. Sorry I never made that unmistakeably clear to you, and let you continue in your delusion – too bad, so sad, go to hell now and burn forever and ever.” Will you say, “Oh, shoot, it’s a fair cop, I lost my religious gamble and now I merit hell for picking wrong?”

  • AnotherContrarian

    From a theological perspective, any goodness a non-believer has at all comes from God whether the person recognizes that or not.

  • JuneauAlaska

    I wasn’t aware theology produced any meaningful knowledge about the nature of reality. Isn’t it little more than discussing the number of strings in heavenly harps?

  • JuneauAlaska

    Greatest percentage from the Bible Belt? No. The secular US government is the largest contributor to charity by far. But the point remains, charitable giving is not evidence for the supernatural, as is one of Prof. Dawkins’ points. I happen to agree.

    And I’m not sure what you mean by “ultra-rational.” Is that someone who really, really, really, REALLY accepts that 2+2 =4 ?

    I think your misunderstanding stems from thinking atheism is some kind of coordinated worldview. I can’t be sure as you aren’t clear. But regardless, it isn’t. It’s got definition. When you read it, try not to add anything to it and that should help.

    Finally, modern evolutionary understanding helps explain why humans feel empathy and exhibit altruism. One can ask any of the organizations, with atheists in their support network, exactly which marketing strategies work better than others to draw attention to humanitarian causes.

  • larryclyons

    For those who worship pascal’s wager as to why you need to worship your sky daddy,, here’s the real rejoinder, from over a 1000 years before:

    “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.’”
    Marcus Aurelius

  • itsthedax

    That belief always struck me as a combination of misanthropy and self-loathing. I mean do you really believe that everyone you know; your parents, your spouse, your children, are inherently vile and any good qualities come from an external source?

    Why is it hard to believe that people are just capable of sympathy, empathy, or even a sense of fairness? Why tie religion into basic kindness and decency?

  • faulkwood

    “…they comfortably outnumber Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists all put together” – That shouldn’t be surprising since the bible actually says more people will not choose God than those who will, and thus suffer the consequences. It says more will go to hell than to heaven. A realistic, although not positive, outlook. Of course, atheists don’t believe that anyway.

  • warking7

    God Almighty has created all things, and all things are sustained by Him.
    If He wants to have the inevitable face to face meeting today, there is no escape.
    For those who trust in Jesus Christ sincerely, this is the greatest event and hope.
    For those that reject Jesus Christ in this life, this is as good as it gets.

  • kovu42

    As an atheist, I believe all good comes from the psychology of being raised within a group setting with the fundamental goal of creating stable, happy lives to be lived to our fullest. Don’t need God, but it’s nice that you’re all vain enough to pretend you have all the answers. Leave your God out of my science and my life.

  • kovu42

    I like how the “omnibenevolent” God choses to punish people for an eternity. If it’s not by choice, than he’s not omnipotent.

  • kovu42

    I notice you didn’t respond to the intial point, which was how an All Good/Loving God could ever send people to damnation for eternity. And the ‘sinner’ doesn’t choose to go to hell, the ‘sinner’ decides not to blindly follow a book.

  • SapereAude

    Many people suggest “behave well” and either there is a god or not, you will do the right thing. The main issue is: which “well”. Islam orders to punish apostasy with death. They think it is a good deed to kill someone who has given up his/her faith. So what? Shall you kill apostates or not? I would be a very bad muslim, therefore a good person, since I respect the free choice of people of changing religion or to become atheist.
    What really makes the difference is that you cannot dream that religions stay on other planet and you can live in total freedom of choice. They are here to stay and they want YOU to bow to their dogmas. Look at Egypt: islamists are organizing gangs and go around to beat and stab people who do not behave in accordance to their primitive code of conduct.

  • persiflage

    ‘Hence God doesn’t send the sinner to Hell, the sinner does so by his own choosing.’

    I guess that makes God the ultimate artful dodger………..crafty old bugger, isn’t He??


    You don’t need any gods to be a good person.

    And many of the vilest, most criminal people in human history have been devout believers.

  • NewtonBelieved

    Fact: Google trends indicate that the percentage of people searching for the word “God” has risen faster in the past 10 years than people searching for the word “science”.

    Dawkins’ efforts to bring religious rationality to the world have made little impact. People believe what they WANT to believe.

    Dawkins, you like to call people “uneducated fools”. Here is a short path to the beginning of your “educated” awakening.

    1. Google starlove.
    2. Install it and test it.
    3. Realize that your “uneducated” viewpoint on astrology is false.
    4. Understand that most astrologers believe in a creative impetus driving the universe.
    5. Humble yourself and be silent for a while.


  • persiflage

    ‘People believe what they WANT to believe.’

    Or what they’re taught to believe at a very early age – when learning is all but irreversible later on. In either case, this all leads to many false conclusions based on erroneous beliefs.

    When wrong or incomplete ideas are uncovered through the scientific method of proofs, the science is changed (as with Newton’s ideas – which were incomplete based on ‘new’ physics in the last 100 years).

    Everything changes, except apparently for ancient religious myths – this should be the cause of great suspician in any rational person.

    What would Newton or Copernicus have to say about astrology today??

  • persiflage

    “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Amen.

  • persiflage

    ‘Thus, Einstein’s awe is mentioned in his incomprehensibly breathtaking encounter with God, in his inexplicable connection through the inscrutable and enigmatic Devine laws of nature, and it gives him a sense of reality.’

    Totally delusional………call the paramedics.

  • kuato

    There is a wonderful peace that comes along with the acceptance that there are things that human beings simply do not know.

    Or, you can just make stuff up and pretend its true. Whatever works for you, I guess.

  • kennethjkranz

    Man’s capacity for empathy is a product of evolution. The homo genus has always cared for others of the tribe. It is how we survived natural selection. Brain evolution created the subjective mind and the ability to Dance, Music, Drawing and mythology. With this mythology came the concept of God. Man was charitable and ”family” oriented long before the creation of a God.