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Sunday, December 16, 2012


No, I am not talking about things like TAM, the Secular Student Alliance, or the Rational Response Squad.  This point is not about atheist communities.  The term ‘Community’ here refers to atheists’ interactions with other communities, and the way they are viewed by those communities.  In particular, I’m going to talk about atheist charities and social action campaigns, and the role they serve in improving the image of atheists worldwide.

I’m going to start out by saying that human beings are generally really wrongheaded when it comes to charities.  But rather than give you a whole bunch of abstract concepts and scientific terminology, I’m going to demonstrate the wrongheadedness with a very concrete example.  The example of Charlie, the Charitable Consultant.

Charlie is a free-lance consultant, and a very good one at that.  The exact details of his consulting work are unimportant.  What’s important is that mega corporations are routinely willing to pay Charlie sixty dollars an hour (plus expenses) to help them negotiate contracts, cut costs, and improve productivity.  In fact, Charlie is such an amazing consultant that every corporation wants to hire him.  He gets so many offers that he can’t possibly handle them all, and he finds himself regularly turning down work.

Charlie also possesses a very charitable nature.  He wants to help people.  And not just for the sake of helping them, Charlie actually enjoys helping people.  So one day each week, Charlie heads down to the soup kitchen and volunteers his time, serving food to the city’s homeless.  It’s something he’s been doing for many years.  His way of giving back to the community.

Now when someone hears about a person like Charlie, their initial reaction is to think of him as a very upstanding person.  He’s making a ton of money, enough to enjoy the finer parts of life.  Yet he still takes time out of his day to help those less fortunate than himself.  Could you ask for anything more?

Well, yes.

Consider Larry the Logical Liaison.  Larry is an excellent corporate liaison who also works free-lance for sixty dollars an hour.  He too is swamped with offers.  He is also concerned about his community, and would like to help the local soup kitchen.  However, his primary concern is helping the kitchen, so he decides to work an extra hour a instead of volunteering at the soup kitchen.  Then, he can take that extra sixty dollars he makes and use it to hire ten high school students to go serve soup for an hour.  In this way, Larry is able to provide far more actual help than Charlie, even though the two have essentially the same income.

Now ask yourself, which of our two citizens will the community honor more?  Which will receive greater honor, praise, and thanks from the city as a whole, the rich guy who volunteers at the soup kitchen, or the rich guy who pays six high-schoolers to go and volunteer for him?  Even though Larry is providing a greater benefit to the community (you know, that thing charity is supposed to be about), he is seen as a selfish man who hires people to interact with the city’s homeless because he can’t be bothered to.  Charlie, the inefficient contributor, is the one the city will praise.  Because when it comes to charity, humans are very wrongheaded.

When you look at it closely, there are three key effects that charities provide:

Helps is the term I’ll use to refer to the actual helping of people.  In the above example, Larry is providing more helps than Charlie because Larry ends up contributing six times the man-hours.  This is true despite the fact that both Larry and Charlie put in the same amount of time (which Larry uses to earn money to donate, instead of volunteering directly).

Hearts is the term I’ll use to refer to the extent to which your charitable actions improve your image in the community.  In the above example, Charlie is receiving all the hearts.  In fact, Larry is likely to lose hearts with his strategy, even though it provides more helps.

Fuzzies is the term I’ll use to refer to the extent to which your charitable actions make you feel better.  In the example above both Larry and Charlie can potentially get fuzzies out of their strategies.

Now the stated goal of charities is almost always to provide helps.  Yet hearts are the measure of how a charity is judged, and you will often find that these two things are not at all equal.  I’m not going to get into why this discrepancy arises.  I just need to point out that it does in fact exist, and that we need to take it into consideration.

In order to overcome the stigma attached to atheism, atheist charitable organizations need to do two things.  First, they need to be abundantly and obviously atheistic.  If you call yourself a ‘humanist’ society, then you might get more donors and thus provide more helps, but you’re not doing anything to reduce society’s prejudiced attitude towards atheists.  So while disguising your organization’s stance on religion may provide more helps, being abundantly atheistic will provide more hearts, and it is the hearts that determine (or rather measure) people’s attitudes toward atheists.  Which brings us to the second thing atheist charitable organizations need to do in order to improve atheism’s image – get hearts. 

Now I know what you’re probably thinking.  Isn’t it terrible of us to knowingly and intentionally organize our charities in a way that helps fewer people so that we can look good?  Well, that depends in large part on just how many helps the deterioration of religion will supply.  If eliminating the social stigma against atheism allows us to drastically undercut various large-scale religious atrocities (like the Catholic Church’s resistance to widespread condom use in aids-ridden parts of Africa), then in the very long term this strategy may actually provide more helps than strategies that are designed to maximize the immediate production of helps.  This holds more generally to all charities.  Any charity needs to devote at least some resources to earning hearts, or they will find themselves without donors.

But it’s also important to realize that we don’t have to go all the way in one direction or the other.  I expect that the best readily available strategy for many charities is to use most of the money to maximize helps, while using the rest of the money to maximize hearts.  That way they will provide a lot of genuine benefit while still raking in donations.  But it seems to me that the degree to which a charity can shift resources towards maximizing helps depends very much on how established that charity is.  Hearts rake in the donors, so until you have a sufficiently large donor base, you need to concentrate on hearts. 

This is where many atheist organizations stand.  Some major ones, like the Foundation Beyond Belief, are more established and thus more capable of optimizing helps over hearts.  But for smaller organizations, and especially for local organizations, the starting point must be the generation of hearts.  First the organization needs to generate widespread acceptance and praise from the community.  Then it can start doing the less flashy things that focus on helps instead of hearts. 

So to all you atheist meetups, student organizations, and internet groups, I want to you to get together and discuss how best to break into the business of charity in a way that shatters the ‘atheists can’t be moral’ attitude of your average human.  Now is not the time for a group of high school atheists to run a donation drive that raises funds to purchase mosquito nets to protect African children from malaria.  I know that’s a very efficient way to help people, but you’re going to have a very hard time getting any large segment of the community behind your cause.  What you need to do first is something flashy.  Something that has a large and highly visible impact in your immediate community.  In doing so, you will build up your organization’s image within the community, which means that later on, when you finally do get around to raising money for mosquito nets so you can actually make a big difference, you’ll get a larger response from the community. 

For starters, here’s a list of suggestions on how to generate large numbers of hearts.  The goal here is to make your atheist group look good.  Keep in mind that you need to make sure that everyone knows you’re an atheist organization, so that the hearts you generate will contribute to the global pool of atheist hearts, thereby reducing the anti-atheist stigma, which in turn will allow atheist organizations to devote more of their resources to providing helps.

-Host a food drive, and make sure everyone knows that the donated food is going straight to the local soup kitchen/food cupboard/etc.  (Then make sure it actually goes there.  Remember that getting caught lying turns all your hearts into anti-hearts).

-Raise money for a local museum or park.

-Volunteer at a hospital or a school.

-Form a Relay for Life team, or volunteer to help run the event.

-Help organize a blood drive for the Red Cross.

-Host a book drive, donating the books to the local library or a school library.

-Volunteer time to clean a park, roadway, playground, or other public area.  You may need to coordinate with local authorities on this.  Make sure to take any safety precautions necessary.

-Volunteer with a DARE event, a science fair, or some other educational event. 

In terms of maximizing the hearts gained from any individual activity as well as their effectiveness at removing anti-atheist stigmas:

 -Make sure that the name of your organization is readily visible to everyone in your vicinity.  Getting t-shirts made is a great start.  If it’s not already obvious in the name, make sure whatever is identifying your organization also makes it clear that you are all atheists.

-Make sure your activity’s proceeds go either to local people or to a widely recognized charitable organization that people trust (such as the Red Cross). 

-Activities that help small, orphaned, and/or sick children earn double hearts.  They will also have a more lasting impact, as said children eventually become the leaders of our society.

-Don’t discriminate, and make sure your proceeds don’t go to organizations that discriminate.

-Don’t preach.  It’s enough to just tell people that you’re atheists.  Debating religions is a separate activity, and should not be mixed in with your charitable efforts.

-Be very public.  Host your activities in readily accessible areas with lots of walk-by traffic, and make sure to advertise them as much as you can.

Even very small, highly localized organizations can make a good impact through this kind of strategy.  If dozens of communities suddenly start seeing young atheists doing all the things they think of when they think ‘upstanding member of the community,’ then I think we’ll find a lot more communities who think much more positively about the atheist movement, and that is a key step towards defeating religion.
PS: I didn't have much time to go into fuzzies, so I'll just leave a short note here.  The generation of fuzzies varies a lot from person to person.  Typically, the best way to generate fuzzies is to deliver the goods yourself.  Take the food to the local homeless shelter so you can see the reactions of the people who are going to eat the food.  Fuzzies are important because they help keep you motivated to continue the charitable work.  If members of your organization seem less motivated about the charity aspect, see if you can get them to interact more directly with the people you're helping, so they can get more fuzzies that will serve as motivation and positive reinforcement.

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