The Good Atheist

I can remember it like it was yesterday.

Standing at a microphone in the back room of his large Southern Baptist church, a young guy with an short but athletic build and close-cropped red hair stared blankly at the three atheists who were being interviewed for an adult Sunday School class. One of their number, a thin middle-aged man with glasses and a limp brown ponytail, had just asked the redhead what he would do if he discovered that God, in fact, did not exist.

“I suppose,” he began with some trepidation, “I’d go out and rape and steal and murder.”

The atheist replied, “Then I think we’ve all learned something about your character, no matter whether or not there’s a God.”

That moment stuck with me, hard. The entire experience did, in fact. I spent the next couple years with feet in both worlds; on most Sundays, I could be found right back at that Southern Baptist church, listening and discussing issues of theology and apologetics with the others in that Sunday School class. And once a month, I made my home with the atheists who’d come out that day, learning with them and discussing issues of philosophy, ethics, and the human experience.

I was attracted to both groups for a number of reasons. For one, I had only recently apostatized from orthodox Christianity, and I was exploring the idea of retaining my Christian identity while realigning my beliefs as a freethinker. For another, I was frankly disturbed to read about the terrible experiences my fellow apostates posted with relentless regularity online; I had grown up with only good experiences in churches, and with fellow believers, and I was hoping to reassure myself that houses of worship were still home to many, many good people. And finally, although spending time with the freethinking atheists was a tremendous joy for me intellectually, it did little to exercise my charitable impulses.

For that, I had to spend time with the Christians.

My favorite activity was something the church called their “Evening Stars” program. One Friday a month, members and other volunteers show up at the church’s children’s center at 6:00PM where families can drop off their special-needs children (and siblings) for an evening of respite. For my wife and I, it was a bit out of our comfort zone (having no children of our own, and precious little experience with them either), but at only a few hours a month it was an easy thing to do. And not, unfortunately, an activity that we could find among our local atheist organizations.

But that began to change. As our band of heathens began to expand and mature, those of us with experience in community outreach began to suggest activities that were less cerebral, and more charitable. Soon, I found myself doing as much good in my neighborhood in the company of infidels as I had previously with the faithful. And then when I heard that Dale McGowan, already considered by many to be the man who beat the humanist heart of the New Atheist movement, was starting a new foundation to encourage and empower charitable expression among the growing demographic of nonbelievers, I latched on immediately.

The Foundation Beyond Belief started in 2010 with little more than Dale’s good intentions and hard work, entering a landscape already dominated with some of secular humanism’s heaviest hitters. Both the American Humanist Association and the Center For Inquiry had charitable initiatives that had been in place for several years, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation had also recently started its very own. However, these existing charities all focused primarily on disaster relief, whereas the Foundation Beyond Belief sought to encourage regular giving patterns among atheists and humanists. As if that wasn’t enough of an uphill battle, Dale also felt strongly that the Foundation Beyond Belief should be able to work together with non-proselytizing religious charities who share our humanist values, despite their deep and profound theological disagreements with the atheists he hoped to recruit as members.

And yet, somehow it worked.

Today, the Foundation Beyond Belief has announced that their effort to herd the cats of the atheist community around the banner of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has resulted in a total donation of $430,000, the largest-ever amount raised by a non-corporate team for the Society’s “Light the Night Walk.” Co-sponsored by the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, who matched every individual donation dollar for dollar, this achievement brought together 150 teams of atheists all over the country, all over North America even, with contributions and support by local and national groups like American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance of America, Camp Quest, the Center for Inquiry, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Secular Student Alliance, and the United Coalition of Reason.

But that’s only part of the story. The Foundation Beyond Belief also has over 1300 members who in just a few short years have donated enough to bring the grand total of humanist giving through the Foundation to nearly $900,000. And the Foundation Beyond Belief isn’t just all about the money. There is a network of grassroots organizations, just like my own in Dallas, which participates in volunteer outreach activities like bringing meals to lonely veterans, spending time with animals in shelters, and donating gallons of blood to patients in desperate need. Nearly three thousand atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists participate in the Volunteers Beyond Belief program, each of whom give of themselves, give of their time, give of their talents, not because a book tells them to, not because a god tells them to, but because their conscience, their empathy, their basic human decency propels them into it.

I’m not worried about how I would respond to a world without gods. I have no inclination to rape, murder, and steal; my previous beliefs did not bind my worst instincts, but neither did they give flight to the better angels of my nature. As my fellow freethinkers begin to experience the thrill of secular charity, or the humanist compassion that is embodied by organizations like the Foundation Beyond Belief, then I think that people like my redheaded friend will find that life’s most perplexing questions have answers they didn’t quite expect.