The invisible secular humanists: A response to Joe Klein

In the wake of the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, Dinesh D’Souza wrote an opinion piece asking why atheists … Continued

In the wake of the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, Dinesh D’Souza wrote an opinion piece asking why atheists are “nowhere to be found” in the response to a tragedy. “Where is Atheism When Bad Things Happen?” was the usual D’Souza fare.

But something beautiful came out of it. A Virginia Tech professor and atheist writing as “Mapantsula” offered an elegant and moving reply at Daily Kos, describing in detail his own involvement in the collective healing that followed that day. He also noted that there were certainly atheists and secular humanists among the first responders, the counselors, the surgeons, and the generous givers who rose to the challenge of that tragedy, helping to put that violated community back together as best they could.

But these atheists and secular humanists didn’t wear their worldview visibly, so both casual observers and willful opportunists like D’Souza often failed to see them.

It is possible to see how someone, especially a person with D’Souza’s agenda, could take the absence of an atheist flag as the absence of atheists. Though never absent, atheists and secular humanists are often invisible. Their bodies and skills are easy to see, but their convictions—that this is our one and only life, that its loss is something to fight hard against, that we have no one but each other to rely on when bad things happen—often go unnoticed. Prayers and songs and religious group names announce themselves. Quiet conviction often goes unseen—especially to someone who’s not trying very hard to see it.

Fast-forward to 2013 and Joe Klein, writing a TIME magazine cover story titled “Can Service Save Us?” In the course of an otherwise interesting piece, Klein made this claim: “There was an occupying army of relief workers 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 “

I’d say it’s funny how you don’t see what you don’t look for.

Joe Klein is not Dinesh D’Souza. He’s a professional journalist, so it seems reasonable to expect him—or barring that, his editors—to check his facts before he tosses off a claim like this. It’s not that he didn’t specifically name these efforts. It’s worse—he went out of his way to say that our organizations were not there.

A very quick search online would have told him otherwise. In the last several years, some powerful charitable initiatives have been launched with specifically atheist or humanist identities, including several disaster relief programs. It’s not that individual nonbelievers are discovering compassionate action for the first time. As Mapantsula’s response to D’Souza attested in 2007, we’ve always been present and active in response to tragedy and suffering. But these new organizations are focusing that individual humanistic response to human need into collective action, increasing the impact of their generosity in the process.

The response to the tornadoes from the secular humanist and atheist community was organized and overwhelming. The members and supporters of Foundation Beyond Belief, the secular humanist charitable organization I direct, provided 100,000 meals to victims in the wake of the Oklahoma tornadoes through the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and raised an additional $22,000 for Operation USA. Perhaps the greatest irony of the Klein piece is that Team Rubicon, the outstanding organization he praises in the same sentence that bashes humanists, was the primary beneficiary of Foundation Beyond Belief’s fund drive after Superstorm Sandy.

In addition to FBB, groups including Atheists Giving Aid, Oklahoma Atheists, the Atheist Community of Tulsa, the Lawton Area Secular Society, the Norman Naturalism Group, FreeOK, and the Oklahoma State Secular Organization lent their considerable energies to the effort in Oklahoma. Some raised funds—nearly a quarter million dollars in 10 days—while others gave untold time and energy on the ground. They organized volunteers, resources, and blood drives, teamed with local businesses to feed relief volunteers, and drove bulk donations around the city to distribution centers. They helped clear the rubble of homes, comforted survivors, took people into their own homes, fed them, and clothed them.

But Klein didn’t spend those few seconds checking his facts. He checked only his assumptions and biases, and in so doing reinforced the assumption and biases of his readers. Even the time-honored test of substituting another subgroup—”Funny how you don’t see any organized groups of gays/Muslims/Jews/Hungarians/etc. handing out meals”—should have been enough to wake the sleeping journalist in Klein’s head, pushing his cursor the scant few inches needed to open the browser of his choice and see whether that thing he assumed was actually true.

Humanists and atheists aren’t developing our charitable efforts for recognition or applause. Empathy and compassion are a natural fit for a naturalistic worldview, and it’s incredibly rewarding to put that into action. But it would be nice if we could do this work without the constant, buzzing insistence from people like Klein that we aren’t actually doing it.

Dale McGowan is executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief.

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  • E.

    I was shocked at the casual way author Joe Klein falsely suggested that Secular Humanists were nowhere to be seen providing aid for Oklahoma tornado victims. And then, to make matters worse, he issued a classic not-pology in which he identifies himself as a Secular Humanist, as if that made it fine to insult the rest of us. I’m aware that some people view atheists with suspicion. They find it difficult or impossible to imagine that it’s possible for those without faith to have morals and values. I’m just surprised and disappointed such an ignorant view made its way into a Time cover story. I personally donated to the Red Cross, but not as “an atheist”. I think I’ll reconsider my future charitable giving, and limit it exclusively to atheist/secular charity foundations. I’m more than happy to give to charity, and I certainly don’t need or want any personal recognition, but I don’t appreciate being insulted for being a non-believer when I do it.

  • Rongoklunk

    Atheists are just as compassionate as believers. Why on earth would believing in a skygod make a person more caring? I think I can answer that. Because Christians are made to believe that if they are kind, caring and generous they’ll spend eternity up in Paradise with God and everything they love. BUT. If they’re not then they’ll go to Hell for all eternity instead. And that is why they’re decent to others, and sometimes generous.Religious people are so hung-up on that concept that they can’t for one minute believe that a non-religious person can be kind and caring without the carrot of religion being dangled in their faces. They ask “How can anyone possibly be nice when there’s NO Heavenly REWARD?” They just cannot believe it.
    Can you imagine how nasty and violent and selfish religious folks would be if they didn’t believe the claptrap of heaven and hell? They’d be monsters, obviously. So please all you religious people, keep on believing there’s a God up there watching everything you do, because I’m certain you’re right. And I just know there’s a Heaven too. See you in the Kingdom.

  • edbyronadams

    Human beings are not naturally good. We are a species in which altruism comes naturally but also conducting war to the point of genocide. We are a tribal species and the feeling of brotherhood in times of trouble comes naturally to those we see as our own. We also scapegoat and blame “the other” for our troubles, all quite naturally. Without spiritual beliefs, where does an individual find the traction to raise one’s life condition to the good side of natural and leave the dark side behind, especially in times of stress.

    Acting naturally ain’t what its cracked up to be.

  • DKeane

    Genocides were actually much more common in the past – when the human race was actually quite a bit more religious. So your thesis that spiritual beliefs are necessary to raise people to the “good side of natural” does not stand up that well.

  • edbyronadams

    There are spiritual practices that do not require a “skygod”.

  • edbyronadams

    The only reason that the American people supported the invasion of Iraq was because of scapegoating “the other”. While it is admirable that it didn’t rise to the level of genocide, the impulse to take armed reprisal for apparent insult is not.

  • rx7ward

    None that do without mythology and fantasy, though …

  • rx7ward

    “Without spiritual beliefs, where does an individual find the traction to raise one’s life condition to the good side of natural and leave the dark side behind, especially in times of stress.”

    Reason, rationality, science, empathy.

  • Tender Hooligan

    I was really shocked when I read the Joe Klein piece. I knew atheists had a bad name in the States, but that sort of bad-mouthing is really out of order. Amongst other things, I am a Child Bereavement counsellor in the UK. When I did my training we were told never to bring any talk of religion into our work. There is feeling that telling a child that their loved one has gone to live in heaven, or is with God/Jesus only exacerbates the feeling of loss. Why would they leave to go and live somewhere else? ( I was bereaved as a child, and can definitely vouch for that). I don’t know how many of my colleagues are atheist, or religious. It just isn’t relevant. We don’t advertise it. Maybe in the UK we have the assumed starting point that people may have a different religion to you, or most probably none, and it would be insulting to enforce your own religious viewpoint on to someone in their hour of trauma. It seems from reading about various tragic events in the USA that people assume a belief in the Christian God when offering solace. I am a generally tolerant person, but if someone offered to pray for me when I had suffered a loss, I would probably smack them in the mouth.

  • gladerunner

    “Without spiritual beliefs, where does an individual find the traction to raise one’s life condition to the good side of natural and leave the dark side behind, especially in times of stress”
    Doing good things, i.e. helping a neighbor, contributing to causes, even a simple ‘good morning’ to strangers most often reaps a tangible reward. If I help my neighbor, he may return the favor in my time of need. The same if I share food/money/labor with others, etc. The benefit is not always immediate, nor is it always equal, but doing otherwise, hurting neighbors, taking from or denying food/money/labor reaps very little.
    Yes there are bad people and even just regular people that occasionally and opportunistically do bad things. This does not mean all people are naturally good or bad, though we all have the capacity for either. We learn the rules and boundaries as we mature, from those around us.
    It doesn’t take an archaic mythology’s threats of eternal damnation to frighten many of us into behaving. It doesn’t take a golden carrot of eternal harps and halos dangling from a stick to encourage us to play nice either. Behaving, getting along, being friendly just works better for us and returns greater reward in a society of any size.

  • grinstall

    I’m not sure how believing in the supernatural makes humanity any better. At the very least, a quick glance at history should point out that coddling unjustified belief doesn’t exactly turn people into saints – the opposite appears true from my vantage point.

  • edbyronadams

    “Reason, rationality, science, empathy.”

    Reason lacks power when faced with real emotion and science is limited and contradictory. For example, Darwinian principle is undercut by altruism on the fist analysis. Certainly risking your life for someone else makes little sense if you are the ultimate rationalist.

  • edbyronadams

    Buddhism is just cause and effect writ large, so large that we cannot see all the connections.

  • E.

    edbyronadamns wrote: “Certainly risking your life for someone else makes little sense if you are the ultimate rationalist.”

    No, because altruism is innate to humans. Altruistic behavior toddlers has been observed and well documented. Humans are hardwired to protect and nurture each other. So, risking your life for someone makes perfect sense as a rationalist.

  • tonykdarcy

    It’s all very well Klein having a go at non-believers not helping in clearing up the damage caused by the tornadoes, but from the believers’ point of view, who caused the bloody tornadoes in the first place ?

    It seems God always gets the credit for the good stuff, but never gets the blame for the bad stuff. Or am I not understanding His mysterious ways?

  • Eric Oehler

    “science is limited and contradictory. For example, Darwinian principle is undercut by altruism ”

    I suggest you go back and study a little bit more about science, and current evolutionary theory. You’ll find that the exact opposite is true.