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Humanist Foundation Reaches Out to Religious Groups, Testing a Divide

Six months after starting a humanist charity in 2010, Dale McGowan unveiled a philanthropist’s version of a beta test. He already offered donors to his organization, the Foundation Beyond Belief, the opportunity to designate their gifts for groups that worked in fields like refugee aid and environmentalism. Then, in an contrarian brainstorm, he decided to try adding a category for progressive religious bodies.

He thought he had found the perfect test case with Quaker Peace and Social Witness, part of the British branch of the Society of Friends. Here was a nondogmatic denomination with a longstanding commitment to pacifism, racial equality and economic fairness. What, even for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, was there not to like?

Well, Mr. McGowan soon enough found out. “No way am I going to give my money to groups that will use it to hit my kids over the head with a Bible,” wrote one member in an email as he cut off his financial support. A blogger on the site No Forbidden Q uestions put the objections somewhat more elegantly: “While I’m happy to hear when people move away from fundamentalism toward a more liberal understanding of religion, I think it would be best if people became (or stayed) atheist, and that’s the goal I want to support.”

 

As the weeks passed in the summer of 2010, however, few other critics turned up. Many foundation members, who contribute from $5 to $500 a month, praised the new direction and earmarked their money for the Quaker group. In the end, it received $2,125. And at the start of 2011, Mr. McGowan permanently established a donation category he titled Challenge the Gap.

The gap to which Mr. McGowan referred was more perceived than actual, and perhaps even more pernicious for that reason. To his consternation, issues including same-sex marriage, climate change and school prayer were commonly portrayed as secular versus religious. In fact, religious denominations and advocacy groups were themselves divided on all those matters.

“One thing that’s always bothered me about group memberships is that they tend to be polarizing,” Mr. McGowan said recently by phone from his home in suburban Atlanta. “When we’re in like-minded groups, there’s a tendency to pull toward the extremes in our group and minimize common ground across the line. Though it’s moderating, that’s something that’s exasperated me in the atheist and humanist community.”

Challenge the Gap puts money behind that analysis. Since 2011, the initiative has given several thousand dollars each fiscal quarter to a different religious group. The recipients have been Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and interfaith, and their primary issues have included hunger, reproductive rights and medical aid in Afghanistan. The only requirement, Mr. McGowan said, is that the organizations not proselytize.

Appropriately enough, the Foundation Beyond Belief will be releasing its next donation in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision this month in a case from Greece, N.Y., allowing official prayer before a public meeting of the municipal government. And the foundation’s gift of about $10,000 will be going to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, one of a number of religious groups that filed amicus briefs opposing the concept of formal public prayer.

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To the Rev. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist joint committee, the separation of church and state offers a necessary protection for religious liberty rather than an obstacle to it. He describes the First Amendment as a product of both the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening, a safeguard of personal conscience for the secularist and the religious minority alike.

“In the views of these Christians,” stated the joint committee’s amicus briefin Town of Greece v. Galloway, the recent case, “decisions regarding whether to pray — and, if so, when and how — must be made voluntarily by each person based on his or her own conscience, and not by the government. It is because of — not in spite of — the importance of prayer and religion that amici object” to prayer at a governmental meeting.

Such arguments did not sway the Supreme Court. And they are definitely not shared by all Baptists. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, gradually withdrew from the joint committee from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. In the Galloway case, the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission filed a brief supporting Greece’s right to public prayer.

But the joint committee’s sensibility certainly helped draw the attention of Mr. McGowan’s foundation. Indeed, in this instance, the donor rather than the recipient played the suitor. Within a month of being contacted by the foundation early this year, the joint committee had been selected as a recipient by its board.

Materially, a $10,000 donation is relatively modest, considering the joint committee’s annual budget of $1.4 million. Symbolically, it packs a great impact.

“Our receiving the money does not form a lasting partnership,” Mr. Walker said by phone from his office in Washington. “But it is a way we can cooperate for ends we both believe in. It shows there are people who believe in religious liberty even though they don’t participate in religion. We think religious liberty comes from the hand of God. They come at it philosophically, from ideas of personal autonomy, freedom of conscience.”

 Source: New York Times