The Reason Rally and Generosity

The Reason Rally, hosted by “many of the country’s largest and most influential secular organizations, will feature “music, comedy, speakers, and so much more.” As “the largest secular event in world history” the goal is “to advance secularism” and focus “on all non-theists have achieved in the past several years.”

As you look at it, The Reason Rally, in its structure, actually seems to have a surprising amount in common with a megachurch service or a Christian festival. You have celebrity speakers, famous bands, comedians, poets, authors, and and activists. Overall, it looks like it will be a fun gathering.

It has obviously taken a lot of hard work, planning, and careful reflection to put this together. So, what do the organizers hope to achieve? The plan is “to unify, energize, and embolden secular people nationwide, while dispelling the negative opinions held by so much of American society… and having a damn good time doing it!”

For The Reason Rally to be effective, it needs to be asked: What are some of the negative opinions regarding atheists? According to The Atheist Revolution, a website committed “to improving the position of atheists in a world dominated by religious belief,” the atheist stereotype is quite a long list. To be fair, I’ll avoid repeating such negative views! The relevant parts of “the atheist stereotype” for this post are points number 5, 6, and 13. Those points, summarized, are that atheists are often seen as ‘immoral, moral relativists, who are stingy.’

Here’s the question: is this an unfair stereotype? Perhaps surprisingly, this item is actually supported by some sociological research. According to Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, when you compare generosity between the most and least religious in America:

  • The most religious 20% of Americans give an average of more than $3,000 a year to charity, the least religious 20% give about $1,000.
  • In terms of percentage income, the most religious Americans are four times as generous as the least religious, giving about 7.5% of their income compared to about 1.5%.
  • The most religious Americans give more money to religious causes (obviously) and to secular causes. In particular, they favor organizations that benefit the needy and young people.
  • The most religious volunteer more often, to both religious and non-religious causes.

In other words, there’s a very significant generosity gap between the most and the least religious in America.

Richard Dawkins, a central leader of The Reason Rally (an organized gathering for secular people), has recently stated that he is looking forward to witnessing the “complete death of organized religion.” He’s also said, “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” As it stands, these two goals are contradictory.

This a serious issue worth addressing, because total charitable giving in the U.S. in 2010 was around 290 billion dollars. If Americans become more secular but give away 70-80% less of their income, a lot of people are going to have a harder time in life.

One way to resolve these tensions is for The Reason Rally to make a major push for donations to some selected charities. (To consider a specific example from organized religion: according to CNN, a recent gathering of 42,000 Christian college students gave away more than 2.6 million dollars to help end slavery).

Currently the website for The Reason Rally allows you to donate to their cause, highlights fundraisers, and has an online store with “Reason Rally” gear for sale. So the infrastructure is already in place to solicit donations for a good cause.

From my outsider perspective, if the organizers of The Reason Rally simply select a charity that primarily promotes atheism, it won’t be as effective in changing the stereotype than if they select a more ‘neutral’ charity that clearly serves an underserved constituency. They could sponsor innovations in science education for U.S. public schools. Or give to developmental aid programs that provide economic empowerment for those living on less than $1/day.

Whatever they choose, I hope the Reason Rally will make the change and strongly promote a cause that secular people can donate to. Doing so will be a step forward in demonstrating that the least religious in our society can be as generous and compassionate as the most religious. Making this change will be good for secular people, good for those who will benefit from the help, and good for our society and world as a whole.