I’m sure all of you humanists out there are members by now of the Foundation Beyond Belief – the umbrella charity designed to “focus, encourage, and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists in the interest of a better world.” And I’m sure you all know that the FBB is set up so that each quarter, a new slate of charities is chosen in different categories, such as Peace, Education, and Animal Protection.
And of course, who could forget that members are able to divvy up their contributions in any way they want – all to one charity, evenly between the ten, or any other way. And they can do it differently for every new slate of charities. And all their money goes to the named charities. (One of the charities each quarter is the FBB itself, in case you’re wondering how it funds its operations.)
Two quarters have come and passed, and seen donations of $35000. The third set of charities has been chosen, and one of them has become the focus of a (so far tiny) controversy.
You see, it’s a religious organization: Quaker Peace and Social Witness.
So far, I’ve only seen five discussions of it – at Daylight Atheism, No Forbidden Questions, the FBB’s own blog, Atheist Revolution, and the Meming of Life (by Dale McGowan, brainfather of FBB). So, to the extent that it is a controversy, it’s a fairly limited one.
The objections come in different flavours: that this amounts to promoting religion, that it (perhaps covertly) undermines humanist principles, even that it may be the start of a slippery slope (toward what is not made clear).
Now, I quite like the idea of reaching out like this. The liberal Quakers have a long and proud history of pacifism, so I think they have earned some credentials in the promotion of peace. And they are not proselytizing (that’s a prerequisite for consideration by the FBB). In all, they seem to demonstrate quite well the positive humanist values that the FBB and its members stand for, without slipping in any contradictory religious dogma. So it would be very easy for me to snark back at these naysayers.
I might facetiously agree, “That’s right: what could humanists and Quakers possibly have in common?”
And then, tongue still in cheek, add a few caveats. “You know, besides an aversion to unnecessary violence. And a love of religious liberty. And strong support for women’s equality, gay rights, and civil action. And, a distrust of religious authority – in the form of hierarchies, or simply of ‘sacred’ books. And, you know, a significant number of nontheists in their ranks.”
But, on reflection, I think such snarkiness might be counterproductive.
On the other hand, I could try to respond to every little point made by the detractors. But, aside from being exhausting and uninteresting to read, I think that would miss the point too.
The fact is that, depending on what you feel is most important about your humanism/atheism/[insert nontheistic label of preference], there actually can be different right answers here. Is a lack of religious belief more important to you than a lack of overt proselytizing? Then you may want to avoid donating to Quakers. Do you find pacifists to be too idealistic for your taste? Then you might want to avoid the FBB’s Peace category altogether, and definitely stay away from Quakers.
On the other hand, maybe you feel that a person’s actions are far more important than their beliefs. Maybe you really value peace, and would like to support an organization with a track record of effective promotion of peace. Or maybe you want to support those religious believers who don’t step on our freedom to disbelieve, who don’t try to push their beliefs into our laws, into our homes, into our bedrooms. Who actually understand that true religious freedom necessarily includes the freedom to withhold belief. In that case, this may be a charity worth donating to.
Now, it seems to me that the positions on both sides are both perfectly legitimate expressions of nontheistic worldviews. And, as an organization that wants to represent and empower all of us, the Foundation Beyond Belief really ought to be giving us all the opportunity to express our charitable values. I think that, by occasionally including charities like Quaker Peace and Social Witness, while always giving clear information to members and making it easy to opt out of any one (or two or more) charities in a given quarter, they are living up to their stated aims.
At any rate, I’m not overly worried. Some ideologues in the discussions have vowed to stay away from FBB. But most people seem willing to simply include or exclude the Quaker charity according to their own conscience, and let others do the same.
I hope that we as a community can continue to take this high road – neither compromising our values nor schisming along unnecessary fracture lines. We shall see.