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    © Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

    Six things the religious (generally) do (much) better than secularists

    One of the central messages of Parenting Beyond Belief is that there are secular ways to achieve all the benefits of religion. It’s true. I’ve even been so bold as to suggest we do some things better. Also true. It’s time to let that other shoe drop. Here are six things religious believers in the U.S. on the whole do much better than the nonreligious:

    1. Give generously

    Though the nonreligious outpace the religious in volunteerism once “church maintenance” volunteering is eliminated (Yonish and Campbell, “Religion and Volunteering in America“), when it comes to actual giving of actual money, there’s no contest: churchgoers have us licked. Even outside of church-based giving, the average churchgoer in the U.S. gives 2-3 times as much as the average non-churchgoing American. Obviously there will be notable exceptions, as there are on the other side, but the overall picture of giving by secular individuals needs improvement. [Note: Outdated stats removed 6/1/11]

    Part of the solution is the systematizing of giving. That offering plate passing beneath one’s nose has a certain loosening effect on the wallet.

    2. Connect their good works to their beliefs

    As noted above, the nonreligious are very good about rolling up their sleeves and volunteering. But we are abysmal at making it clear that those good works are a reflection of our humanistic values, so the presence of nonbelievers doing good works is often overlooked. That’s why Dinesh D’Souza was able to write the ignorant screed “Where Were the Atheists?” after the Virginia Tech tragedy. Nonbelievers were present and active as counselors, rescuers and EMTs at the scene, but because they were not organized into named and tax-exempt units, their worldview was invisible. We must do a better job of making it clear that we do good works not despite our beliefs, but because of them.

    3. Build community

    I’m at work on an extensive post about this, so for now I’ll just point out what should be obvious—secularists are miserable at forming genuine community. We fret and fuss over the urgent need for more rationality in the world, completely ignoring more basic human needs like unconditional acceptance. Most people do not go to church for theology—they go for acceptance. They go to be surrounded by people who smile at them and are nice to them, who ask how their kids are and whether that back injury is still hurting.

    Most freethought groups are not good at making people feel welcome and unconditionally accepted. Whenever I walk in the door of a new group, either to attend or as a speaker, I mill around and look at the walls for ten minutes before someone says something. It’s a painful ten minutes for anyone, and makes them less likely to return. Get a greeter at the door to welcome new faces in and introduce them around.

    Becca made an observation that I’d never thought of before: This lack of social awareness may be tied in part to the fact that freethought groups are predominantly male, and churchgoers are predominantly female.

    Until we recognize why people gather together—and that it isn’t “to be a force for rationality”—freethought groups will continue to lag light years behind churches in offering community.

    4. Use transcendent language

    There are many transcendent religious words without good secular equivalents. There is no secular equivalent for “blessed.” I want one. And no, “fortunate” doesn’t cut it. I also want a secular word for “sacred.” I want to be able to say something is “holy” without the implication that a God is involved. I want to speak of my “soul,” but do so naturalistically, and not be misunderstood. This list goes on and on.

    5. Support each other in time of need

    Individuals do a lovely job of supporting each other in times of need, regardless of belief system. But when it comes to the loving embrace of a community, religious communities once again tend to do it much, much better than any nonreligious community I’ve seen.

    I once learned that a member of a freethought group I belonged to, a sweet man in his late seventies, had been in the hospital for nine days, and not a single member of the group had been to see him. We all signed a card, someone offered, knowing full well how lame that sounded.

    If the man in the hospital had been a member of a church, you can bet he’d have had a stream of visitors to sit with him, talk to him, see him through it. Volunteers would have brought dinner to his wife. I’ve seen this as well. It is heartwarming, and the worst church I’ve seen does it better than the best secular organization I’ve seen. Much.

    Yes, they have the numbers, and yes, they have the structure — but I’ll also give them credit for recognizing the need and having the desire to fulfill it.

    6. Own their worldview

    Yes, it’s easier for Christians in the U.S. to be “out” about their Christianness, because Christians are everywhere. Guess what—we’re everywhere too. Current estimates put the nonreligious at 15-18 percent of the U.S. population. There are more nonreligious Americans than African Americans. Think of that. Coming out of the closet and owning your worldview makes it easier for the next person to do so. So do it.

    Need more incentive? Think of the children. I want my kids to choose the worldview that suits them best, and yes, I’d like secular humanism to be one they consider. The more visible and normalized it is as a worldview, the better chance that it will appeal to them. But in the meantime, it would also help if we gave more generously, connected our good works to our beliefs, built communities, learned to use transcendent language, and developed a better collective ability to support each other in time of need.

    This is a partial list—I didn’t even touch on inspirational art and music—and I welcome your additions. We are not generally good at these things, and Christians, after millennia of practice, generally are. We could learn a thing or two. Or six.
    ___________________
    A similar post at Friendly Atheist.

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    This was written on Tuesday, 18. December 2007 at 21:45 and was filed under belief and believers, nonbelief and nonbelievers, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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    1. first, i take issue with the overall comparison – non-religious vs. religious – i guess it’s just about as arbitrary as any other classifications – soccer moms vs. softball moms.

      is it really apples-to-apples to compare, say, a Chicago Atheist Meetup with a Chicago Methodist Church congregation? i’d argue ‘no’ for myriad reasons.

      for instance, i’m an atheist and i give lots of money (based on my income/worth) online to all sorts of things, but i don’t think i’ve ever given money to an atheist group, and i’ve probably given money to quite a few religion-based groups based on the work they do with the poor, jailed populations, etc. Also, religious groups get mondo money from the government through all sorts of tax breaks / subsidies / incentives / faith-based initiatives – i suspect the atheist groups have to pay their own way. getting free money from the government allows you to, say, rent out your buildings, buy tv time to coerce money from more believers, etc.

      also, comparing religious organizations to non-religious orgs is a bit like comparing the NFL to Pop Warner football – as you state at the bottom of your post. i guess you could offer a big ‘for shame!’ to the little 50-lb kids running around in circles on the field, but really, is it necessary? a critique is valid, especially during our formative years, which are just beginning, but i don’t buy the whole “That’s simply shameful” routine – that’s just way over the top.

      also, there are lots of Ayn Randian/Objectivist/Republican/Atheist-type atheists. they have nothing to do with me or what I believe in – the _other_ type – the Noam Chomsky/Anarcho-Syndicalist/Democratic/Humanist-type atheists. this, of course, is the main reason there is no strong, unified atheist movement in the U.S., and why there never will be one – atheists have next to nothing in common.

      And that is where Humanism comes in.

      Overall, though, if the religious vs. non-religious comparison helps provide some context, fine.

      1. Give generously

      not sure these numbers are accurate, and even if they are, not sure they’re meaningful.

      2. Connect their good works to their beliefs

      this seems fair enough. i applaud the churches’ efforts, here. it’s the main reason i come to their defense.

      3. Build community

      good point. will be interested to read your extended thoughts. for now, i figure it’s enough to say “Let’s do everything the churches are doing right, and nothing that they are doing wrong.” – but it’d be nice to have some new, clear, non-religious thinking on the matter.

      4. Use transcendent language

      disagree. i think there are plenty of words. just read some of the great writers and you can pull out myriad words that are stunning and uplifting and inspiring.

      that said, i don’t think we need any special words.

      5. Support each other in time of need

      yep – this is absolutely crucial.

      6. Own their worldview

      fair enough, but being ‘out’ without being organized is almost useless. and without a unifying philosophy/life stance to rally around (obviously, ‘atheism’ isn’t cutting it), we will not see atheists getting organized anytime soon.

      As I mentioned, I’m hoping that Humanism is something decent atheists can rally around.

      Comment: shmooth – 18. December 2007 @ 11:01 pm

    2. I had just been wondering the other day what a secular version of “blessed” would be. My mother’s husband uses that word on a regular basis (e.g. “The gift card you sent for Christmas really blessed your mother”), but there’s no way to convey the same sentiment without resorting to religious terminology. Which is too bad, really, because I like the idea of “blessing” someone with something I did.

      I’ve been enjoying your blog after hearing you on The Infidel Guy podcast, by the way. Anything else I could say about your blog would probably be cheesy and unnecessary, so I’ll just leave this as a simple “thank you.” :-)

      Comment: dianaschnuth – 18. December 2007 @ 11:20 pm

    3. [...] Only a few of our ideas overlap, so go check out his list. [...]

      Pingback: Friendly Atheist » What do Christians do Better Than Atheists? – 19. December 2007 @ 1:23 am

    4. There is usually a difference of scale when it comes to the services secular groups can provide. We have a large group here with about 20 sometimes active members (large for a secular group). At that size there isn’t the critical mass to create the ‘bureaucracy’ that a church has (like a ‘Welcoming Committee’, ‘Building Committee’, ‘Stewardship Committee’, ‘Outreach Committee’, ‘Finance Committee’, ‘Hospitality/Social Committee’, ‘Singles Committee’, ‘Benevolence Committee’, ‘Committee on Committees’(yes, some churches have a Committees Committee). It would be nice if we could provide those services, sooner rather then later. It’s obviously an uphill battle when many people are willing to say they are non-believers for a survey, but will not be associated with a secular group. That’s not entirely the groups fault, there are forces that are working hard to keep non-believers ostracized and isolated.

      Comment: Cats Staff – 19. December 2007 @ 2:44 am

    5. I think you should add that this applies to the US.
      In Belgium the churches are not that accepting or that good at community building because they are so small. Most joyous gatherings are non religious (balls, festivals and other community events like street games etc.)
      It is possible to have all those points turned around if the community grows up without religion.
      The history and power of the church remains even in Belgium but the social influence is low and going lower (off course an animal backed into a corner …).
      On the language, I’d like to add that once the majority of the populations is or at least understands non believers then that language can be used by both, as an example, I sometimes hear religious people explain that when they use certain religious words that they mean them in the religious sense, they do this because it has become a word so general that they know it doesn’t hold that anymore, sort of like Christmas.

      Comment: Belgian Atheist – 19. December 2007 @ 4:06 am

    6. I agree with you on most of these points, Dale – particularly about community and publicly connecting our good works with our values. I just thought I’d offer my thoughts on how to solve the apparent lack of non-religious transcendent language. Everyone, please excuse my tendency, when talking linguistics, to slip into sermon mode.

      It seems to me that a lot of the transcendent language used in a religious context (“spiritual”, “sacred”, even “transcendent”) has already been sapped of most of its traditional religious content by the multiplicity of religious and meditative schools of thought out there.

      Let’s see what the Oxford English Dictionary, that great report on how the English language has been used throughout history, says about these words. I have cherry-picked among the meanings given by the OED for brevity and to more clearly demonstrate my point. Remember, all of these meanings are from actual uses in English literature, often pre-20th-century.

      ****
      spiritual (adjective). Of or pertaining to, affecting or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities, esp. as regarded in a religious aspect. (Freq. in express or implied distinction to bodily, corporal, or temporal.)

      Yes, it is often used in a religious context. But the basic meaning – “concerning the spirit or higher moral qualities” – is hardly exclusive to religion.
      ****
      sacred (adjective). Dedicated, set apart, exclusively appropriated to some person or some special purpose. Regarded with or entitled to respect or reverence similar to that which attaches to holy things. Devoted to some purpose, not to be lightly intruded upon or handled.

      These three meanings of “sacred” are applicable to non-religious as easily as to religious matters.
      ****
      blessed (past participle, adjective). Devoted to some purpose, not to be lightly intruded upon or handled. Enjoying supreme felicity; happy, fortunate. Bringing, or accompanied by, blessing or happiness; pleasurable, joyful, blissful.

      Only the most curmudgeonly atheist would deny that these uses are irrelevant to non-religious people.
      ****
      transcendent (adjective). Surpassing or excelling others of its kind; going beyond the ordinary limits; pre-eminent; superior or supreme; extraordinary. Also, loosely, Eminently great or good; cf. ‘excellent’.
      ****

      I submit that it is far easier to get people to accept an existing word, used in a marginally different way to how it is traditionally used, than to accept a completely new word with a new meaning (neologism). The examples above – products of the OED’s great and objective academic undertaking – show that we already have secularized meanings of transcendent terms available to us. How many of you have trouble reconciling this secular post with the historically religious term “sermon” I employed in the first paragraph?

      All we need to do is use these words as other people use them, to describe *human* experiences, *human* longings, *human* values. The vestigial religious connotations may or may not fall away in time, but they need not stop us from using the language that belongs as much to us as it does to religious people.

      Comment: TimMills – 19. December 2007 @ 6:48 am

    7. Thanks for the linguistic input, Tim! One question: How does that theory jibe with the redefinition of the word “God” going on at the thinktoomuch blog?

      Comment: Dale – 19. December 2007 @ 6:57 am

    8. In an small group of active atheists, “Committees” become one person doing the job of many committees. Having been to different freethought or atheist meetings, including informal picnics, I can say that there is much more common ground then just a lack of belief in the supernatural. The atheist groups concern themselves with ethics and morals as the humanist groups do. I have yet to run into a really Ayn Rand type atheist at any get togethers. Though they are out there, I’m not sure they’d be hip to joining an organization.

      One thing I have noticed about informal meetings is the discussions usually revolve around religion. Having gone to Mormon picnics, Christian picnics and other religious events, I can tell you that most of the conversation was small talk. I didn’t hear anyone mention Jesus, unless they were practicing a song. Maybe we are spending too much time looking over the fence with binoculars and reporting to everyone else what the religious are up to, and spending less time acting in our world view.

      Some people give to churches because it’s tradition, some feel guilty, but I think more are compelled because of the services churches offer the community. Mission trips to wheelchair ramps to houses in Slovakia, donating food to food shelves, providing free food on Wednesdays for anyone who wants it, providing a sanctuary where you can talk to someone about your problems or hold small group meetings, providing youth programs where kids can hang out after school. Some of these things are religious, but most of them are not. Camp Quest is an excellent example of the need for programs for children, and one week a year is not enough. Sure, there is a number problem, but there should be a place to start. Give to an atheist organization because of what they offer the community. If all they offer is a meeting once a month where you bitch about religious people, pass it on. If you are a member of a group like that, change it!

      Comment: bjorn – 19. December 2007 @ 7:21 am

    9. first, i take issue with the overall comparison – non-religious vs. religious.

      But why? If there is a meaningful relationship between the variables, why not learn from it?

      is it really apples-to-apples to compare, say, a Chicago Atheist Meetup with a Chicago Methodist Church congregation? i’d argue ‘no’ for myriad reasons.

      That’s why the stat for #1 is not based on groups. It’s individual giving. As for whether the numbers are accurate, I welcome other stats.

      for instance, i’m an atheist and i give lots of money (based on my income/worth) online to all sorts of things, but i don’t think i’ve ever given money to an atheist group, and i’ve probably given money to quite a few religion-based groups based on the work they do with the poor, jailed populations, etc.

      Again, (a) nothing was said about giving to groups. The survey aligns self-identified beliefs with giving and comes up with a solid deficit for our side. (b) If you are an exception to the norm, you are to be congratulated. But it does not change the apparent norm.

      Belgian Atheist, good points. This is a U.S.-based commentary. I’ll add that.

      Cats Staff: Also a good point about relative size and strength.

      Comment: Dale – 19. December 2007 @ 6:46 am

    10. The atheist groups concern themselves with ethics and morals as the humanist groups do.

      Yes. Too much is made of names. I’ve never known an atheist who wasn’t also a secular humanist, and vice versa.

      One thing I have noticed about informal meetings is the discussions usually revolve around religion. Having gone to Mormon picnics, Christian picnics and other religious events, I can tell you that most of the conversation was small talk. I didn’t hear anyone mention Jesus, unless they were practicing a song. Maybe we are spending too much time looking over the fence with binoculars and reporting to everyone else what the religious are up to, and spending less time acting in our world view.

      It’s true! One of the criticisms we deserve most is that we are more obsessed with God than most religious folks are. I’m as guilty of that as anyone.

      If all they offer is a meeting once a month where you bitch about religious people, pass it on. If you are a member of a group like that, change it!

      That’s the kind of response I was hoping for. We need to take a good hard look at our movement and how we can improve. Yes, we got the epistemology right, woohoo. Now it’s time to start giving people what they need beyond the mere truth.

      Comment: Dale – 19. December 2007 @ 7:50 am

    11. “How does that theory jibe with the redefinition of the word “God” going on at the thinktoomuch blog?”

      I knew you’d ask. Quite simply, I’d say the difference is that Hugo at thinktoomuch is trying to fabricate a new meaning that diverges completely from the standard definitions. If you look at OED, not one of the dozens of ways in which “god” is used departs significantly from the idea of a supernatural being. On the other hand, what I propose for words like “sacred”, “spiritual”, “blessed”, etc. is simply to expand on existing usages. The definitions I shared from OED are based on actual usage – all from published writing.

      Just think of how odd this sounds: “I don’t believe in the existence of supernatural beings, but I do believe in God.”

      And compare it with this: “I don’t believe in the existence of supernatural beings, but I do hold some things to be sacred.”

      To me, the first sentence contradicts itself. The second isn’t contradictory at all – even most religious people would understand what I mean by “sacred” in this context. And when I begin to list them – love, freedom, family, etc – most religious people would nod their heads in agreement. This isn’t a separate, atheist-only definition of the word; it’s an inclusive, all-humans-welcome definition.

      It’s a matter of recognising how the language is used. You say in the post that you “want to speak of [your] “soul,” but do so naturalistically, and not be misunderstood.” I propose that your alternatives are (a) to invent new words, give them meanings, and try to persuade the English-speaking world to start using them or (b) to take existing words with appropriate meanings, plus some distracting connotations, and try to persuade the English-speaking world to ignore the distracting connotations. My assertion is that option (a) is virtually impossible, and option (b) is almost achieved already (as demonstrated by my selections from the OED).

      So go ahead, Dale. Talk about your soul. Use the word “soul”. Religious people have no more monopoly on words like this than they have on the word “values” or “family”.

      {PS: I agree with Bjorn about the role of our community. It’s good to be able to vent about idiots, but that can’t be our whole purpose.)

      Comment: TimMills – 19. December 2007 @ 8:57 am

    12. What a great answer! That makes perfect sense.

      Just so you know, by being a linguist, you make me seethe with jealousy. I took one course in linguistics at Berkeley and was blown away. I had no prior idea of the science of it! It thrilled me then and fascinates me to this day.

      Any books to recommend for the lay linguist?

      Comment: Dale – 19. December 2007 @ 10:01 am

    13. Being in the fifth year of a single research project (my PhD), I find it hard to imagine anyone envying me. Thankyou for the sentiment, though.

      If you haven’t already read it, the best popular linguistics book is Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct”. I don’t agree professionally with all of his arguments (including the title one), but it’s well-written, entertaining, and almost informative enough to be an introductory textbook in linguistics.

      I haven’t read it yet, but I’ll bet his new book “The Stuff of Thought” is good too. Judging by an interview I’ve listened to (Point of Inquiry, October 2007), this new book also addresses the fact that metaphor and analogy are not poetic adjuncts but central tools of our day-to-day, sentence-to-sentence use of language.

      (This is relevant to what I state in the above comments, but I’ll have to read the book, or at least listen again to the interview, before I can build that argument.)

      Or you could just read blogs by linguists. Besides my own (http://friendlyhumanist.blogspot.com), two other linguist friends of mine here at Edinburgh have blogs:

      This Humanist (Clare): http://thishumanist.wordpress.com
      NinetySix and Ten (Cath): http://ninetysixandten.wordpress.com

      Clare, like me, mainly writes about humanism (though we’ll both occasionally let slip our true language-geek natures). Cath’s blog contains “a heady mix of Scottish Calvinism and phonological theory” (ie, more linguistics and more religion than me or Clare).

      Enjoy.

      Comment: TimMills – 19. December 2007 @ 1:10 pm

    14. I’ve never read ANY of Pinker, actually. I’ll get right on it. And thanks too for the blogs!

      Comment: Dale – 19. December 2007 @ 2:22 pm

    15. The magic word you are looking for in all cases is … “cookies”.

      Comment: leslie – 19. December 2007 @ 2:33 pm

    16. As always I have enjoyed your blog post very much!! I am new to identifying myself as a secular humanist/athiest and so have never been part of a group. But I grew up Catholic and my Grandfather is an AMAZING example of quiet giving and donation. He had charity in his heart and didn’t shout it from the rooftops. I wonder where his charity came from because it seemed so much a part of him and I find myself so many times wondering what the appropriate thing to do in a lot of situations. It just isn’t natural for me to bring over a dish to someone or offer my services and money. I would love to learn ways to incorporate this more into my life.

      Also the “out yourself” comment was very interesting. I’m surprised how hard it is to be confident in my beliefs. But every time I read your blogs it gets me closer to it! Thanks Dale.

      KristenMary

      Comment: KristenMary – 19. December 2007 @ 6:35 pm

    17. first, i take issue with the overall comparison – non-religious vs. religious.

      But why? If there is a meaningful relationship between the variables, why not learn from it?

      We can study hot vs cold weather too, of course – study everything. I don’t have a problem with a biased study – i have a problem with drawing conclusions from biased studies.

      There is also a meaningful relationship between high school football and high school soccer, but just because they have differing injury rates doesn’t mean the players of each sport have differing levels of artistic ability, and even it turned out to be the case that soccer players were more artistic, it probably would just mean they had more time to paint because they spent less time in hospital. The ‘faith’ vs. ‘no-faith’ is so general that it is meaningless. To suggest that Christians are more generous than non-Christians, without proper context, seems absurd.

      That’s why the stat for #1 is not based on groups. It’s individual giving. As for whether the numbers are accurate, I welcome other stats.

      The study is done by a pro-Christian/pro-faith organization, so is inherently biased. Trusting this report would be the equivalent of trusting a Fox News poll.

      Again, (a) nothing was said about giving to groups. The survey aligns self-identified beliefs with giving and comes up with a solid deficit for our side. That IS shameful. (b) If you are an exception to the norm, you are to be congratulated. But it does not change the apparent norm.

      Using the word ‘shameful’ to describe the behavior of an entire group of people based on a biased report is ‘shameful’.

      As for some of the myriad reasons why the study reports that faith people give more than non-faith people are, I can take a few guesses:

      1) religious people tend to be older, thus have accumulated more wealth (“Perhaps partly due to the younger nature of the audience”)

      2) being part of a church (being religious), can be great for the pocketbook; alternatively, being an atheist can be very bad for business.

      3) non-faith folks are shut out of some of the only community-based institutions in America – churches. as such, they are effectively shut out from communicating with like-minded folks who decide to donate money, as individuals, to particular groups/causes/etc. As secularist groups begin to grow and mature, you will see their numbers go up, and this will not be because they all of a sudden found their generosity gene hiding in themselves, it will be a natural consequence of community.

      The further we dig into that report, the more I suspect its meaninglessness will be revealed.

      And the next time we talk about a ‘study’, I hope it comes from a source that does not openly describe itself in the following way:

      What is The Barna Group, Ltd.?

      Through its five divisions, The Barna Group provides primary research (The Barna Research Group); communications tools (BarnaFilms); printed resources (BarnaBooks); leadership development for young people (The Josiah Corps); and church facilitation and enhancement (Transformation Church Network). The ultimate aim of the firm is to partner with Christian ministries and individuals to be a catalyst in moral and spiritual transformation in the United States. It accomplishes these outcomes by providing vision, information, evaluation and resources through a network of intimate partnerships.

      Comment: shmooth – 19. December 2007 @ 8:13 pm

    18. It just isn’t natural for me to bring over a dish to someone or offer my services and money. I would love to learn ways to incorporate this more into my life.

      Thanks for your honesty, Kristen Mary. It isn’t natural for me either. I have to work at it, and I’m not at all happy with my shortcomings in that area. My wife (also a secular humanist, but raised Baptist) has the service-to-others thing in her bones. I do think growing up with it as a constant value helps inculcate that, and I know that when humanist communities grow in strength and number, we’ll also have that structural benefit in a more consistent way.

      In the meantime, I just try to soak up the influence of my wife and son, two of the most generous people I know.

      And bless you for the shout-out, Diana! :-)
      (Terminology approved by a qualified secular linguist. Use only as directed.)

      Comment: Dale – 19. December 2007 @ 11:29 pm

    19. Yes, George Barna is an evangelical. Many evangelical polling organizations are biased, use shoddy methodology, and cannot be trusted. The Barna Group is not among them. Barna’s stated intention is to use scientifically sound and transparent methodology to tell the church what it needs to hear, not what it wants to hear. As a result, they infuriate the evangelical community all the time with their honest survey results. George Barna’s answer every time: We need to know the truth so we know what we’re up against as a church movement.

      Barna is the source that reported the fact that atheists divorce less often than born-again Christians. Barna is the ONLY Christian source that admitted church attendance is declining rapidly in the U.S. at the same time secular identification is growing. When churches across the board were trumpeting exploding membership rolls, it was Barna who pointed out that it was an illusion — that it amounted to nothing more than ‘shuffling among congregations.’ Barna noted that over half of Protestant ministers don’t believe what they preach. Et cetera, et cetera.

      When I want to know what is really going on in religion in America, I turn to two sources: the American Religious Identification Survey and the Barna Group. Yet time and time again I have seen secularists commit the same ad hominem fallacy about Barna that you just committed. You assumed because of who they are that they must be up to no good. It is telling that you can only “suspect” the meaninglessness will be revealed. Give evidence or contrary stats, then we’ll talk. Don’t you realize how DELIGHTED I’d be to find out this discrepancy is wrong or meaningless? I write books and give talks in which I claim our worldview is just as good as any, and in most ways I can do that with my head held high. Once in awhile, a stat like this bites me on the ass. Kill it for me if you can, but not with mere anger or fallacy. Give me something I can use and I’ll kiss you on the lips for it.

      As for my use of the word ‘shame’: Fine. Even though your assumption about Barna was incorrect, I have changed the word. But the fact remains: A scientifically selected sample of self-described Christian Americans and self-described nonreligious Americans reported their charitable giving and this wide gap between the averages appeared. I see a serious problem in need of address, a call to action, and include myself in the critique. Perhaps you don’t, which is fine. But one of my main critiques of freethought is that we are insufficiently willing to examine our own shortcomings as a movement and are thin-skinned and petulant when someone tries to do it.

      Comment: Dale – 19. December 2007 @ 10:42 pm

    20. Being ‘out’ without being organized is almost useless.

      Oh my goodness, I disagree. This one is so important I wanted to pull it out on its own. Being out as an individual provides an example of a good, decent, ethical nonbeliever to a surprised world. It can shatter preconceptions and makes the stereotype less tenable. I have been that example for countless friends and relatives, and it has made an enormous dent in their assumptions. Don’t for one minute believe that organization is necessary for “outness” to have a profound and lasting impact.

      Comment: Dale – 20. December 2007 @ 12:10 am

    21. Good. Someone took my Barna bait.

      glad i could be of service. not my style of blogging, personally, but feel free to use your readers how you wish.

      Read the following ever-so-carefully:

      if you believe that Barna truly is unbiased, then you should go read his wiki page ever-so-carefully – someone doesn’t agree with your assessment.

      for me, the day i believe the ‘study’ from an organization so dependent for its livelihood on the subjects it covers is unbiased – that’s the day I declare Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior.

      i’m plenty critical of all sorts of things – but that doesn’t make me ‘reputable’ as a pollster, and it certainly doesn’t mean i can’t make a mistake, nor does it indicate that my results are meaningful.

      Barna’s stated intention

      Fox News’s stated intention is to tell the news ‘Fair & Balanced’.

      ad hominem fallacy

      this is a severe conflict of interest. this is the fox guarding the hen house. this is Fox News calling Florida for George W. Bush. this is an organization that depends on its subjects for its continued existence.

      what of this conflict of interest? does it exist? does it matter? or should we just hurry along nothing to see here because one organization was critical of the Christians?

      we are insufficiently willing to examine our own shortcomings as a movement and are thin-skinned and petulant when someone tries to do it.

      that may or may not be true – i have no idea – but i do know that of the myriad organizations i’ve criticized over the years, at least some members of every single one of them has acted very hostile to criticism, but i haven’t seen it in the Humanist arena yet.

      that could be because I haven’t really had a lot of criticism to offer Humanism yet – they’re doing things correctly, more or less. and criticizing the ‘atheist movement’ – if it exists at all – would be like beating up those Pop Warner kids – what would be the point?

      what i do recognize as a surefire trend, though, is for the party being criticized by ‘the establishment’ to roll out the ‘we are insufficiently willing’ line as a rebuttal. in this case, of course, i can’t imagine that it has any validity. i give plenty of props and plenty of constructive criticism to all sorts of orgs. i have no problem with the truth at all. that’s why i don’t dig that ‘study’.

      Comment: shmooth – 20. December 2007 @ 1:41 am

    22. Thanks for the lead! I’ll read that wiki. If you get anything else, I’d be pleased to see it. (*Leaves to read Wikipedia page.*)

      Oh, you mean this one? “The Barna Group conducts opinion polls, which are generally interpreted from an evangelical perspective, and often cited within evangelical circles.” That’s true. They are interpreted from an evangelistic perspective. But Barna puts his data and the exact polling questions out front for examination. The question of methodology is the important one, and I’ve been impressed with his.

      You are obviously free to differ in your assessment — but if we do that, we earn the same in return when a secular poll is dismissed by religious folks because an atheist conducts it. Methodology and transparency are the key factors in assessing the reliability of a poll.

      And I’m sorry for my snotty tone earlier, btw. There’s no excuse for that. I’m just so frequently the target of ad hominem that I lose my manners whenever I see that particular thing in play.

      Comment: Dale – 20. December 2007 @ 11:49 am

    23. Amen Dale! Sing it!
      ;)

      (Seriously, thanks for making these points about building community, and supporting each other. I think all 6 of your points are right on, but those two strike me as especially important.)

      Comment: CampQuestAmanda – 20. December 2007 @ 12:05 pm

    24. Oh thanks! I lose more sleep when I criticize my own than when I go after the opposition, so I appreciate the support.

      Comment: Dale – 20. December 2007 @ 12:09 pm

    25. and sorry for any snottiness/etc. on my part. it’s not easy to conduct a heated debate on the bloggerwebs w/o coming off poorly.

      Comment: shmooth – 21. December 2007 @ 7:06 pm

    26. Shmooth and Dale — good discussion. I really don’t think you’re that far apart from each other. A bit of snottiness is sometimes good to see, if it shows a deep commitment to the issue at hand.

      Some interesting points from the other participants as well, e.g. Bjorn’s binoculars/fence image.

      All part of a healthy discussion. Let’s keep it going!

      Comment: Theo – 27. December 2007 @ 5:27 am

    27. [...] income than the nonreligious. Period. Read it again, and believe it, because it’s one of several things they do better than we do. It’s not a question of character but of the need for a systematic [...]

      Pingback: The Meming of Life » Fighting the fallacies of friends Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 09. June 2009 @ 10:21 am

    28. Pardon the months-late response, I’ve just discovered the blog and am devouring everything I can.

      This struck me as soon as I read the first comment:

      “also, there are lots of Ayn Randian/Objectivist/Republican/Atheist-type atheists. they have nothing to do with me or what I believe in – the _other_ type – the Noam Chomsky/Anarcho-Syndicalist/Democratic/Humanist-type atheists. this, of course, is the main reason there is no strong, unified atheist movement in the U.S., and why there never will be one – atheists have next to nothing in common.”

      Replace that with the hundreds of different denominations that exist in the US alone, and our list seems pretty small. If Christians can do everything they do in churches as small as 25 – 50, we certainly can.

      I’m excited to see a rise of secular communities, it’s the one thing I really miss about church.

      Comment: Valerie – 19. December 2009 @ 5:19 pm

    29. @Valerie: Completely agreed. The key is to form community around the common experience of being human, not around shared metaphysics.

      Comment: Dale – 19. December 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    30. [...] Beyond Belief author Dale McGowan agrees: When it comes to actual giving of actual money, there’s no contest: churchgoers have us licked. [...]

      Pingback: The myth of Christian charity (part 1) « YASHWATA – 25. July 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    31. Another “months late” (or years late this time?) comment, but I just want to say, I have been frustrated by the lack of a secular equivalent to “blessed” as well. SOMETIMES “fortuitous” is enough to get my meaning across, but it’s still worlds away in some situations. Relatedly, I have at times even used the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I” (though only when the listeners are people who would be quite certain not to mistake that as an implied belief) because there just isn’t anything secular that’s even close. “That could have happened to me if just a few things in my life had been different, and I can’t claim any credit for the fact that it didn’t” is not only way more verbose, it just doesn’t pack the same punch. As far as “holy”, I’ve never felt the desire to use it, and I don’t mind using “soul” in a secular sense, as long as it’s fairly clear what I mean. “Blessed”, though, that’s a real tough one…

      It looks like others may have pointed it out, but point #1 is not as cut-and-dried as all that. If you discount all of the religious “charity” which simply goes towards propagating said religion, and if you take into account that a non-trivial amount of even legitimately charitable religious giving is disproportionately directed towards the in-group, the picture becomes much murkier. The religious probably still ARE more generous with charity in the end, but it ain’t no 7 times as much, and it’s difficult to make an honest numerical assessment.

      Agree with the other points though.

      Comment: jay.sweet – 01. June 2011 @ 8:36 am

    32. @Jay: Whether the money is misspent (and I agree that much of it is, in the ways you note) is not relevant to the individual act of giving, which is the point made here. And you’re right, seven times is the highest estimate. Since writing this ages ago, I’ve seen good data from several sources that suggest 2-3x is the right amount. I’m going to change it in the post, thanks for the prod.

      Comment: Dale – 01. June 2011 @ 9:15 am

    33. I’m not sure I fully agree that the way the money is spent can be completely separated from the individual act of giving, assuming the person has some idea of how the money is going to be spent. If I give a bunch of money to a philately club to promote stamp collecting, would you count that as “giving generously”?

      And what about denominations, e.g. Mormonism, where a specific amount is doctrinally mandated? If you are Mormon and you don’t tithe at least 10% of your income (and that’s gross income, not net; they are very explicit about that!) then they won’t let you into temples. And yet I am sure that is counted as “charitable” giving — but why? Shouldn’t a gym membership be “charitable” giving then too? You are paying money to an organization so they will let you in… what’s the difference?

      Comment: jay.sweet – 01. June 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    34. Of course, more charitable giving by secular individuals is a positive goal to work towards regardless. I confess that I am particularly shoddy in that department myself… :/

      So I guess I agree with the thrust of your point, even if I am a bit skeptical about the actual numbers.

      Comment: jay.sweet – 01. June 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    35. Lovely, thanks.

      Comment: Dale – 01. June 2011 @ 1:24 pm

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