As P.Z. has noted, none of us are boorish enough to preach atheism to our dying religious grandmothers. Indeed, religion does bring some hope and meaning: that’s why it is strongest in those societies that are most dysfunctional (e.g., the work of Gregory Paul and others). But religion is also a potent source of poverty, misery and disease (look at AIDS in Africa, for instance, or the effect of Islam on the suppression of women, or of Catholicism on the abuse of children), and by and large it’s an excuse to do nothing. Without faith, we have only ourselves to look to, and, rather than blaming God, we must realize that we have to roll up our sleeves and fix those problems ourselves.Many problems here. Religion is strongest both in dysfunctional societies and in highly functional societies--like ours. Some religions seem to increase prosperity (Protestantism, Judaism), some seem to decrease it (Islam, Catholicism).
Worse problem: his assertion that religion is "an excuse to do nothing." Apparently not, since some of our most vibrant philanthropists are religious. Tracy Kidder's biography of Paul Farmer is a must read in this regard. It's also true that many of the largest philanthropic organizations are religion-based--like World Vision.
Worst problem: the bit about how, "without faith, we have only ourselves to look to, and, rather than blaming God, we must realize we have to roll up our sleeves and fix those problems ourselves." It seems it doesn't work that way. Today a New York Times article reports that secular households "give less on average than do religious households." Why is that? An atheist by the name of Dale McGowan has an interesting theory, as the article reports.
From a practical standpoint, atheists almost entirely lack the communal infrastructure of religious people--the system of congregations, the pattern of weekly meetings--that enables philanthropy.It's easier to get involved in good works and give regularly if the opportunities present themselves regularly, and doing good is intertwined with other pleasant activities.
So what's an atheist to do? A. Become a non-believing participant in a religious congregation. That makes varying amounts of sense depending on the religion. B. Get the communal aspect of giving in another way. For example, join your local chapter of Amnesty International and go to the monthly meetings. C. Overcome stasis without anyone's help. Go on, write that check to Oxfam. You know you should. D. Link arms with other non-believers and give to an organization like Foundation Beyond Belief, run by McGowan.
I like what McGowan says here--
One of the things I'm trying to get past is a dismissive attitude about why religious people give--that it's out of fear, a fear of God or a fear of damnation. It's out of a human need. And we secular humanists have to have enough self-confidence to look at what they're doing right as well as wrong.Indeed. Religious folk don't sit around blaming God. That's nonsense. Quite possibly for sheer reasons of being better organized, they're the ones more likely to fix problems. It doesn't hurt to give credit where credit is due.