The Giving Atheist

For the last four months I’ve been working at a nonprofit whose exclusive purpose is helping other nonprofits raise money online. It’s been an interesting and illuminating experience, but one of the things that I’ve realized since I took this position is that the atheist world does not have its finger on the pulse of philanthropy and that if it wants to improve the world it needs to make that happen. Case in point: the most recent American Atheists fiasco.

On the flip side, churches are a well-oiled machine when it comes to philanthropy. I can think of more church-related charities and organizations than I could shake a stick at, and I only know Minnesota nonprofits. They address everything from homelessness to women’s rights and everything in between. Some of them proselytize, but many are simply there to improve communities. In contrast, the atheist nonprofits that I can name off the top off my head are Foundation Beyond Belief, CFI and JREF. Nothing local, and primarily aimed at separation of church and state. Atheists need to get better at philanthropy that includes the brand of atheism but is not aimed at primarily atheist causes. Why? Because philanthropy is awesome and good at improving our world, and we need secular channels through which to do it. In addition, because we are good people, and if we wish to improve our image, we need to associate our names with causes like fighting poverty, providing support for our communities, food-shelves, and other important issues that will improve the lives of others.

If we want to illustrate to others that we can be good without God, we have to put our money where our mouth is. One important element of this is that we can’t be so shy about money: many people don’t want to brag. Understood. But everyone sees each other giving in church. Tithing is an incredibly public action. We need to bring giving out into the open as a joyous and community-based event so that we can encourage others to give and illustrate the things that we care about. We need to let our kids see us giving so that they learn to give as we do. We need to let our neighbors and friends see that we give, so that they will be encouraged as well. And we need to do so under the name of atheist.

Why? Because atheists are good people. Because atheists are perceived as evil people. Because there is so much impetus for good work and change in the atheist community that we need to learn how to channel. We have many resources, we have the drive to give: we can see this when members of our community ask us for help and we leap to respond. We are extremely connected as much of our community has grown online. But what we don’t have is a conception of how to organize philanthropically. We don’t tend to have a lot of people with degrees/backgrounds in nonprofit management, people who understand how to reach different communities and provide them with relief or support, people who can write grant proposals or do fundraising. Many of us are working ad hoc to fundraiser, to promote causes, and to create a culture of philanthropy within atheism, but we’re still babies when it comes to giving. Since we’re still defining ourselves as a community, I’d like to suggest “givers” as one of our identities.

A good place to start is Giving Tuesday, which is the day after Cyber Monday. This is a national day of giving and service. Give to any organization. Give your time, your money, your old clothes: anything. And in my mind, the best part of Giving Tuesday is that social media is a massive part of the push for giving. So share your giving stories! Share how wonderful it made you feel to give back. Share which organizations you think are worthwhile. Help our nation build up a spirit of giving so that we not only hear stories of people trampled while buying X-boxes, but also stories of amazing generosity. I challenge you all to give back something and make it known that atheists are givers.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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  1. Always frustrates me. Tackling poverty is such a piecemeal thing among secular orgs, while they criticize the superstition stuff that is only part of the “well-oiled machine” of religious orgs as you put it. Sure, a bible with no food/water/shelter/clothing is almost less than meaningless, but if that other stuff comes along with it, it’s hard to care too much when lives are at stake. Yet, this is the central point of AA’s messaging? I was Roman Catholic too, and despite all the things I have repudiated about it, it doesn’t change the actual size and scope of the church’s material charitable aid.

    If it’s terrible, as AA states, to use a disaster as an excuse to proselytize, it should go the same for marketing your “brand” in this way.

  2. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
    To the credit of some of the local university humanist groups in my area, they have done a better job than the unaffiliated atheist groups at organizing volunteers to work in soup kitchens, clean up neighborhoods, volunteer in schools, and so on, while wearing their “humanist” t-shirts. Of course, it is easier for students already sharing a community to work together in their sub-communities. I hate saying things like “We need to be better at branding,” but we need to be better at branding. People outside of the atheist community(ies) do hear about the infighting and the lapses into idiocy (not pointing fingers, but we have only a handful of public figures so when a High Profile Atheist says that sexual abuse isn’t always a big deal, women aren’t funny, and, well, this is Skepchick so I hardly need to point out that not every major player in atheism is a fragrant rose.). But few of them hear about when we do good. This really has to be grassroots. When we donate through SHARE or any other charitable aggregation group, that’s great, but it is not as visible as establishing a local reputation for being “the people who deliver clothes to the homeless.” We need to be doing both.

    I’m about to go to deliver pies for Community Servings . When I first started volunteering for them a few years ago, I talked to a few people about forming an atheist volunteer team to work there once a month. Now I’m feeling motivated again.

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