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Wednesday, October 24, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Action Item: California Wildfires & Secular Charity

Reposted from: Freethought Café by J.C. Samuelson

According to the Incident Information System tracking the California wildfires, 12 of 25 tracked fires are 100% contained. The fires, ranging from the Simi Valley to the Mexican border, are responsible for about 5 deaths at the time of this writing. They have also displaced nearly 1 million people, with well over 1,000 homes consumed and nearly 70,000 still threatened. More than 400 square miles in seven counties have been ravaged by fire which, being fed by desert winds, has proven itself highly resistant to air attacks, hoses, and (of course) prayer.

The American Red Cross has mobilized, sending shelter workers, feeding vans, and other supplies to provide relief to those affected. Direct Relief International has also responded by sending emergency medical supplies and offering assistance to hospitals in the region. Another aid organization, AmeriCares, is also shipping emergency aid items such as water, hygiene products and other health related items.

If you are in a position to help, either by volunteering or by making a monetary contribution, please consider doing so. Through the above links, each aid organization provides instructions on how you can help. If you'd like to go straight to their donation pages, click one (or more) of the following:

  1. American Red Cross Donation page

  2. Direct Relief International Donation page

  3. AmeriCares U.S. Disaster Relief Fund

Last month, Michael Shermer shared the following insights from the 2006 book, Who Really Cares by Arthur Brooks:

"[Brooks' data shows] that religious conservatives donate 30 percent more money than liberals and nonreligious people (even when controlled for income), they give more blood and log more volunteer hours; religious people are four times more generous than secularists to all charities, 10 percent more munificent to non-religious charities, and 57 percent more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person. Those raised in intact and religious families are more charitable than those who are not. In terms of societal health, charitable givers are 43 percent more likely to say they are 'very happy' than nongivers, and 25 percent more likely than nongivers to say their health is 'excellent' or 'very good.'"

In a 2006 interview for the National Review Online, Mr. Brooks explains that his book explores four areas of culture that lead people to give or not, including attitudes about the government's role in people's lives, sources of income, family, and religious faith.

These are the big drivers of giving in America today, and the biggest is religion. Religious folks give far more than secularists in every way I’ve been able to measure. For example, people who attend a house of worship every week are 25 percentage points more likely to give to charity each year than people who never go to church, and give away about four times as much money. And this is not just a question of religious people giving to their churches, as meritorious as that might be: They also give and volunteer significantly more to explicitly nonreligious causes and charities.

Mr. Brooks goes on to say that the private charitable giving of conservatives in 2000 surpassed those of liberals even while earning 6% less income, apparently mythologizing the popular belief that "bleeding hearts" are more giving. Even more surprising, Brooks says, is that the least charitable group tends to be secular conservatives. In other words, the perception that conservatives are stingy when it comes to charity seemingly holds true only on the secular side of the theological fence.

Having not read the book and lacking the training to properly evaluate his claims, I'm forced to wonder if he may be right. The religious among us often hold forth on the superiority of their moral drive toward charity, a claim which many secularists reject. Of course, charitable giving is only one aspect of morality, and it may be argued that, in spite of the apparent charitable proclivities of the faithful, religious ideas are used to promote ethically dubious policies that may ironically contribute to at least some of the very problems they donate money to fix. Still, perhaps this is too abstract. While there's no doubt that many secularists do offer assistance to aid organizations, many more might want to consider putting their money where their mouth is, as it were.

So today, if you'll forgive my presumption I'd like to challenge you. If you haven't already, consider donating and/or offering your assistance in other ways to organizations that focus on humanitarian aid, not just those that support secular aims (e.g., Americans United, the Secular Coalition, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, etc.). In a more immediate context, again please consider directing a gift of time or money toward the California wildfire relief efforts.

There are, of course, some who have concerns that their donations might be used to inappropriately fund religious activities. Yet there are a host of secular aid organizations available (defined as those without explicit or implicit religious aims or bias), including not only those linked to above, but many more. You can find charities (and their ratings) by visiting Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and Charity Watch.

For the record, I've put my money where my mouth is before, and today have also made a one-time donation of $25 to each of the above aid organizations, specifically to support relief efforts in California when possible. If you also decide to make a donation to one or more charities, I'd love to hear about it. The aim is to compile a personalized list of trustworthy charities and to quantify the numbers (e.g., how many donated, how much, and how often). By the way, that still includes if you decide to donate to an organization that has goals other than those explicitly humanitarian. Send a note with details about your charitable activities by clicking here.

Stay tuned and keep in touch.