A Catholic, a Baptist, and a Secular Humanist Walk Into a Soup Kitchen ...

Why it's important to examine the agendas and assumptions behind the idea that secularists aren't committed to relief efforts.

Therapy dogs and their handlers from Therapy Dogs International walk down a ravaged street in Moore, Oklahoma. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

In his Time Magazine cover story last week on veterans and public service, journalist Joe Klein stepped outside the line of his narrative to take a swipe at secular humanists. Describing his personal experience in the aftermath of the Oklahoma tornado working alongside an "army of relief workers" including "church groups from all over the country," he remarked, "funny how you don't see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals..."

It turns out that Klein was wrong on the facts. There were plenty of humanist groups involved in relief efforts - clearing wreckage, raising aid for local relief organizations, donating money to survivors, and supporting food banks. As Dale McGowan pointed out in The Washington Post on June 27, perhaps the greatest irony is that in the very same sentence that Klein took a potshot at humanists, he extolled Team Rubicon, a veterans organization that happened to be the primary beneficiary of a post-superstorm Sandy fund drive organized by the secular charity, Foundation Beyond Belief.

It's also worth pointing out the obvious: many secular humanists, atheists, and freethinkers contributed to disaster-relief efforts even if they did not do so while wearing hats and T-shirts that advertised their belief system. Had Klein made the same point about any other group--such as, "funny how you don't see any organized groups of Hindus, Korean-Americans, or gay activists giving out hot meals"--his aside would have been so obviously offensive that it would never have made it past his editor.

Klein's waffling response when called out by peeved secularists didn't help too much. He took the criticism of his reporting as an opportunity to express some personal opinions on religious questions.

Now, it may be true, as Klein notes in his rejoinder, that "organized" secular groups are sparser on the ground than organized religious groups. But that may have more to do with resources than with beliefs. Currently, groups that organize themselves around a professed belief in the supernatural are entitled to a slew of benefits and preferences to which groups that organize themselves around nonbelief are not entitled. Unlike secular nonprofits, for example, houses of worship are assumed to be tax-exempt as soon as they form. This exemption is rarely examined, and is free from the mandatory reporting obligations that are imposed on secular non-profit groups. Religious entities are not required to report their wealth, salaries, or value of their land to any government agency. Houses of worship also obtain exemptions from civil law governing health and safety inspection and workers' rights -- and, not to be forgotten, they derive substantial benefits from the gravy train of "faith-based partnerships." So when Klein called it "funny" that you "don't see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals," it wasn't just demonstrably false--it also, to the extent it described an actual difference, wasn't "funny," in the sense of being particularly mysterious.

Such swipes at secularists are worth attention because they often express a certain assumption that confuses a false sociological observation with a questionable political agenda. The unstated premise is that religion is the most reliable way to organize people to help others. The breakdown of virtue and community feeling in modern America, according to this line of thought, can be attributed to the loss of belief in the supernatural. And the cure to what ails us is to get government out of the way and let religion take over the task of rebuilding our communities.

Although this probably isn't the position of Klein--himself more of a secular centrist--it is the conclusion bound up in much similar rhetoric from political conservativesThe result can sometimes be that public services provided by secular authorities suffer while those provided by religious groups prosper.

Consider the case of Orange County, Florida, for instance, where public schools have suffered $105,443,304 in budget cuts since 2007. Superintendent Barbara Jenkins recently announced the expansion of its outreach to faith organizations, to help with after-school programs, academic tutoring, and more. "Our missions to better our community dovetail when churches, synagogues, mosques, and all faith-based organizations harness the power of volunteerism and servant leadership to benefit the region's youth in schools," she wrote. In many other districts across the nation, the pattern is the same: take money away from public education and then open the door for churches to come in and fill the gap.

Some conservatives go so far as to argue that it is somehow "unbiblical" for the government to provide assistance. Congressman Stephen Fincher, for instance, armed himself with an array of Bible verses in his fight to dramatically curb the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps.

Of course, religious groups can and do contribute to community-building in many ways. But if you insist that religion is the best way, and offer it financial incentives while defunding nonreligious alternatives, you deprive your community of many other means of assistance.

Relying on generally religious private charities instead of a government safety net, or secular aid organizations, may help localize the services being offered. But it also can create problems when the twin goals of religion and aid collide. What happens when the children of Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, and Unitarians, for example, wind up in after-school programs run by Evangelicals, or being taught "character education" or abstinence-only sex education classes by them? What happens when aid to the needy is made conditional upon their acceptance of religious doctrine or the religious group's wishes (a scenario outlined in a much-discussed book excerpt in Vanity Fair last year, where a woman recounted being pressured to give up her baby by the Mormon Church)?

To the extent that society relies on faith-based groups to carry out essential relief functions, society should ask that aid organizations conform to certain basic policies - for instance, demanding that they comply with civil rights law, hire outside their faith, and treat women's health care as a matter of law, rather than a question of the values of a particular religious sect.

The irony is that many of the so-called "religious" people who do charitable work are motivated by sentiments and ideas that have little or nothing to do with the religion with which they profess to align themselves. Such people regularly attend houses of worship, sit in the pews, even preach in the pulpits. They would never personally identify themselves as secularists or humanists. And yet if their true beliefs were put to the test, they would have to count as question marks. Their desire to help is grounded not just in their conviction of the existence of a deity or deities, but because they possess the human attributes of empathy and common sense. That reality presents a conundrum, even a threat, to some religious leaders, whose power depends on the notion that morality hinges on religious doctrine, rather than on the innately human concern for the welfare of others. Professed nonbelievers are singled out for special abuse not because they represent so few Americans, but because they speak for so many.