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A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man. — Jebediah Springfield

I’m alternately enjoying and “D’oh!”-ing my way through a controversy of my own creation at Foundation Beyond Belief. The following are my personal thoughts on the matter, btw, not an official statement of the Foundation (which is why they are found here, on my blog, not there, on its).

After repeatedly noting that this secular humanist foundation would consider supporting charities based in any worldview so long as they do not proselytize, we’ve put our commitment to the test. This quarter, FBB is featuring a religiously-based charity as one of our ten options for member support.

QPSWThe category is Peace, the religion is Quakerism, and the organization is Quaker Peace and Social Witness. And the reaction is pretty much what I expected — a mix of bravos, surprise, outrage, enthusiasm, and revealed (shall we say, and gently) knowledge gaps in some of my beloved fellow nontheists. More on the “gaps” later.

Some blogs ask why on Earth we would do such a thing. “I’m an atheist. I don’t support religious groups,” said one, as if the second sentence follows obviously and necessarily from the first.

So the first reason to do it is to show that it is indeed possible for nontheists to see good work being done in a religious context and to support and encourage it. Far from a contradiction, some of us think that’s humanism at its best.

The second reason is that many of our members want to express their humanism in that way. And since the Foundation exists to allow individual humanists a means of expressing their worldview positively and doing good in the name of that worldview, it seems fitting to occasionally feature a carefully-screened, non-dogmatic, non-proselytizing, effective organization based in a sane and progressive denomination as one of our choices.

“Well,” one commenter said, “if you HAVE TO support a religious group, I mean absolutely HAVE to, I suppose the Quakers would be the ones.”

A glimmer of light there. But we didn’t have to do this. My word, it would have been much easier not to. We wanted to do it. We see value in doing it.

In a way, this should be a non-issue. Individual members have full control over the distribution of their donations and can zero out any category any time. Some members, disinterested in supporting a religiously-based organization no matter how progressive, have made perfect and appropriate use of this flexible system by shifting their funds elsewhere this quarter. Others — including such strong atheist voices as Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism — have actually increased their Peace donation in support of this idea. That’s freethought in action.

Not all religious expressions are benign, of course. The more a religious tradition insists on conformity to a received set of ideas, the more harm it does. The more it allows people to challenge ideas and think independently, the more good it does. Religion will always be with us in some form. It’s too hand-in-glove with human aspirations and failings to ever vanish at the touch of argument or example. So I think one of the best ways for humanists to confront the malignant is to support and encourage the benign, the non-dogmatic, the progressive.

Speaking of whom.

Liberal Quakers are utterly non-dogmatic, include many nontheists in their ranks, and hold that no individual can tell any other what to believe. That’s a religious organization embracing the essence of freethought. It’s no coincidence that they also have a brilliant history of social justice work. While Southern Baptists fronted biblical arguments in support of slavery, Quakers were among the most courageous abolitionists (along with Northern Baptists). While the Catholic Church vigorously opposed women’s voting rights, Quakers were often leading the movement and getting themselves arrested and imprisoned in the process (along with many Catholic individuals who recognized bad dogma when they saw it). And while multiple denominations rend themselves in twain over gay rights, Liberal Quakers were among the first to openly support gay rights and gay marriage. (This last is not so much the case with Orthodox Quakers, who differ from the Liberals in several respects.)

In the area of peace and nonviolence advocacy, Quakers are second to none. Continuing a centuries-old tradition, Quaker Peace & Social Witness is at work in the Ugandan conflict, supporting and training groups working on peacemaking and peacebuilding; facilitating truth and reconciliation work to deal with the past in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia; managing teams of human rights observers in Palestine and Israel; working to strengthen nonviolent movements in South Asia; and advocating at the UN for refugees and for disarmament policies. In 1947, QPSW shared the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Maybe you can see why we’re proud to support them.

Making discernments is difficult, but it’s worth doing. That’s why the (don’t say ignorance, don’t say ignorance) misinformedness of some atheists about the spectrum of religion has troubled me.

bluefooted booby“I am NOT giving money to somebody who’s going to hit me over the head with a bible or say my kids are going to hell,” said one. Fair enough. Of course there’s as much chance of a bluefooted booby doing either of those as a Liberal Quaker.

Others who probably recognize a slippery slope fallacy if someone else uses it (“You can’t let gays marry. Next thing you know, farmers will be marrying their tractors!”) went ahead and employed one themselves. “It’s a slippery slope,” said one email. “A year from now, you’ll be paying for Catholic missionaries!” (I especially enjoy it when someone calls a fallacy by name, then pulls the ripcord anyhow.)

And on it goes. This is what siloing will do to good and smart people. It makes them sloppy, myself included. And we talk nonsense, and end up looking silly to anyone outside of our silo.

One atheist friend predicted we would lose a third of our members overnight. In the two weeks since we announced the decision, two members have closed their accounts (neither mentioning the Quaker choice) and 24 have joined.

The weakness of the arguments against our choice has reassured me, and the majority of responses I’ve heard have been strongly supportive of the idea of providing members with this option. “I’m so proud to be a part of this,” said one member. “Honestly, it’s like the free thought movement is growing up all at once. Thank you for showing vision beyond the usual sounding of alarms and building of barricades.”

Can’t you just feel the embiggening?

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.