Humanism Isn’t Just About Being Right, It’s About Doing Right

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This week, NPR’s Scott Simon spoke with evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins about religion, terrorism, and nontheism. While the interview is compelling overall, Simon makes some insulting statements about nontheists that deserve to be addressed.

The first of these points is Simon’s recollection that while he has covered many wars, conflicts, and natural disasters, in every one of these situations “there is a dauntless nun, priest, clergy or religious person who was working very selflessly and bravely there for the good of human beings. And I don’t run into organized groups of atheists who do this.”

Dawkins rightly disagrees with this assertion, and points to an effort by his own organization, Secular Rescue, which is “designed to provide emergency assistance to writers, bloggers, publishers, and activists who face threats due to their beliefs or expressions regarding religion.” What’s more, humanists, atheists, and other nontheists have decades of experience in fighting some of the worst disasters on this planet, both man-made and natural.

Of course, plenty of humanitarian work is done without any reference to religion or irreligion, and Secular Rescue isn’t the only specifically nontheistic organization doing good for the world. The Foundation Beyond Belief is about to launch a humanist disaster relief drive for the severe ongoing famine in several African countries, and will be donating all funds raised to local charities that will administer the program. This group is just one of the many humanistic charity organizations working for change on a global scale. The humanist Responsible Charity in India focuses on improving education, planned parenthood and self-employment. Groups like the Uganda Humanist Association support multiple humanist schools that do not discriminate on grounds of religion or social or ethnic background.

Of course, humanists also do good work in the United States. Nontheistic organizations like Smart Recovery help people recover from all types of addiction and addictive behaviors, including drug and alcohol abuse and gambling and prescription drug addictions, all without relying upon a twelve-step program that emphasizes a belief in a higher power. And humanists have been vital in protecting the civil rights of all Americans from the days of humanist Asa Philip Randolph and James Framer, to current approaches led by the likes of Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem.

So while it is important to properly thank religious individuals and communities for their hard work in helping their fellow human beings, it is important that we don’t falsely tie altruism with religiosity.

At one point in the interview Scott seems to approach something resembling a recognition of this: “I do wonder, am I just not seeing the world correctly to see large numbers of well-motivated atheists lending their lives to trying to better the world? Or … if I might put it this way, are they more concerned about just being right intellectually?”

Nontheists certainly are interested in talking and thinking in an intellectually honest manner about ideas and philosophies that impact the world. We respectfully challenge ideas that are evidently false or harmful. But to claim that nontheists care more about scriptural debates than actions meant to protect the human rights of marginalized communities is to insult a community bent on doing as much good in the world as they can.

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