Should we support SHARE?

May 22, 2010

The Center for Inquiry sponsors coordinated charitable giving through SHARE (the Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort). SHARE publicizes the need for money to assist those in distress (typically as the result of a natural disaster), collects the money, and then donates it to a nonreligious relief agency that it believes will be effective in delivering required assistance. For example, money raised for Haitian relief went to Doctors Without Borders. SHARE does not deliver the services itself. CFI branches also engage in charity drives, but in addition, some of them sponsor group projects that either raise money for charity (for example, a charity run) or provide services, such as park or river clean-ups, tutoring for children, and so forth.

Some other secular advocacy groups have similar programs. Non-Believers Giving Aid is a program sponsored by a coalition of secular groups, including the Richard Dawkins Foundation. And Foundation Beyond Belief was organized for the express purpose of coordinating donations from the nonreligious, with the donated money being transmitted to a select group of secular charities. They all seem like worthwhile programs, no? At the very least, they are harmless.

Some secularists would strongly disagree. There has been, off and on, a debate in the secular community about whether secular advocacy groups should organize charitable relief. (Tom Flynn may be writing on this topic in a forthcoming issue of Free Inquiry .) Those opposed to these efforts not only see them as silly or pointless, but also inconsistent with the principles of secularism. Their argument goes something like this: Secular advocacy organizations do not (usually) deliver needed services themselves. That is, secular advocacy organizations do not provide food, medical assistance, housing, etc. All they are doing is aggregating donations based on the lifestance of the donor. Such an endeavor does not reflect a secular perspective, but rather a religious one. It is inherently sectarian. Why should we encourage secular people to self-segregate and funnel their donations through a secular advocacy organization when they can just skip this intermediary step and give directly to the charity that is actually providing services? There are plenty of nonreligious charities that provide relief services. Those truly committed to secularism should give to these relief agencies as individuals, not as members of an identifiable "sect."

With respect to the claim that coordinated charitable giving by humanists or atheists improves the image of the nonreligious, the hard-core secularist will contend that such a motive is a venal one. We should not be giving to charities just so we can boast about our giving.

I believe this argument is entitled to be seriously considered, but at the end of the day, it is not persuasive.

To begin, there is some evidence to suggest that people are more motivated to give when they do so as part of a group. If we believe encouraging contributions to a worthy cause is a desirable goal, then funneling gifts through a secular organization with which some secular donors may identify seems, on balance, a good thing. The objecting secularist may protest that this effectively endorses "peer pressure," and this somehow makes the donation less worthy. But peer pressure is not necessarily a bad thing. To a large extent, the institution of morality is based on peer pressure. We might like to think we'd all be wonderfully generous, agreeable, honest and helpful even if no one was ever aware of our behavior and there was no risk of criticism from others for moral failings, but I'm doubtful that would be the case.

Moreover, coordinated giving can help dispel some of the negative myths about the nonreligious. The nonreligious are often accused of being uncaring. If coordinated contributions to a secular charity can help eliminate some of the stigma attached to being a nonbeliever, I see that as a good thing.

Of course, this implies that secular advocacy groups will seek some publicity for their efforts. I fail to see how this is unseemly or a bad thing. The notion that it is improper to seek appropriate recognition for one's charitable giving strikes me as a reflection of, dare I say it, a Christian viewpoint. (Jesus supposedly said, in his Sermon on the Mount, that when one gives alms, one should not "sound a trumpet.") Undue modesty and meekness are not secular virtues. (I note in passing that the hard-core secularist's view that it is wrong to seek recognition for one's charitable giving indicates how the Christian ethos still unconsciously shapes many of our views.)

Finally, the hard-core secularist's argument against coordinated charitable efforts by secular groups doesn't really touch the situation where the secular group is actually providing the services, as when a group of nonreligious volunteers gets together to clean up a park. The reality is this task probably wouldn't get done (or get done as promptly) if the nonreligious volunteers weren't motivated to band together and use secular muscle to put secular ethics into action. I just don't see how such efforts violate some fundamental principle of secularism.

I believe SHARE is a worthwhile program, as are the various charitable initiatives of our branches. But if you have a view on this issue, let us know. Occasionally (insert smiley face here), CFI management is accused of taking action without bothering to listen to what our supporters have to say. If you think SHARE is misguided, now is your opportunity to sound off.