Humanists Doing Good

Humanists Doing Good is an official Chapter of the American Humanist Association. We operate as a nonprofit corporation (501c3) composed of nonreligious people who work hard to promote the doing of good deeds coupled in harmony with rational thinking. The organization coordinates volunteers who go into the community to perform good deeds for people and…

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Why humanists serve others

Ed BraytonBy Ed Brayton, FBB Media Relations Coordinator

Last week, Foundation Beyond Belief launched Pathfinders Project, the precursor to a Humanist Action: Ghana that will work to alleviate pressing problems in communities with few resources around the world. As the media relations coordinator for FBB, I sent out a press release that was mostly ignored. One outlet that did pick up on the story was Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, where Billy Hallowell wrote a mostly fair article about it.

Hallowell has actually covered FBB and the atheist movement quite a bit and has typically done a good job of it. Some of our leaders know and like him, and he seems to return the favor. I give him credit for covering us and the work we do. But I do want to quibble with one bit of framing at the end of his article:

It will be interesting to see if a secular form of proselytizing unfolds on these trips or if the effort in launching the Humanist Action: Ghana has a more existential and internal rooting (i.e. simply showing that atheists are good people too).

This is what we call a false dichotomy because those are not the only two possible reasons we might have for doing what we do. More importantly, it seems to presume that there must be some ulterior motive, a less-than-sincere purpose for engaging in not only this particular project but in all that FBB does. So let me offer up some better reasons why FBB does what it does, starting with the organization’s mission statement:

To demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life; to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility.

This is hardly a new idea. Go back to the leading figures of Enlightenment humanism and you will find a good deal of focus on the ideals of compassion, empathy, and service to others. Thomas Paine famously said “my country is the world, and my religion is to do good,” and that our duty is to display “justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.” You will find similar sentiments in both Humanist Manifestos I and II.

To be a humanist is to recognize that there is no solution to our problems other than ourselves. No deity is going to come down and provide us with clean water or sustainable agriculture, or make ignorance and illiteracy disappear, or mediate our conflicts with one another. We are the only ones capable of addressing those problems and, quite frankly, it’s time we got on with it and got it done. That’s why Dale McGowan founded FBB in 2010. When Dale spoke to the Triangle Freethought Society in 2011, this is how his talk was described:

Secular volunteers work to improve the world not despite but because of what we hold true. In the absence of a supernatural protector, we are all we have. That’s the humanistic imperative—empathy and compassion, followed by an urgent sense of responsibility to help those who share my fate but not my fortune. I simply must do what I can.

Hallowell’s concern about secular proselytizing fails to recognize one of FBB’s core values. FBB raises money not only for secular charities but for religious ones as well through our Challenge the Gap grants, as long as they use those funds to do something good rather than to proselytize. That caused some controversy only a few months after the group formed, when it awarded a grant to Quaker Peace and Social Witness. Some in the atheist community were upset about that, but Dale defended it and explained why FBB continues to support selected religious charities in the good work that they do.

So the first reason to do it is to show that it is indeed possible for nontheists to see good work being done in a religious context and to support and encourage it. Far from a contradiction, some of us think that’s humanism at its best…

Not all religious expressions are benign, of course. The more a religious tradition insists on conformity to a received set of ideas, the more harm it does. The more it allows people to challenge ideas and think independently, the more good it does. Religion will always be with us in some form. It’s too hand-in-glove with human aspirations and failings to ever vanish at the touch of argument or example. So I think one of the best ways for humanists to confront the malignant is to support and encourage the benign, the non-dogmatic, the progressive.

So I would argue that concerns about secular proselytizing are misplaced. In one sense, FBB is mirroring Francis of Assisi, who told his followers that they should always be witnesses for Christ and that sometimes they should even use words. Our goal is not to turn the people we help into atheists or humanists, but it is done in the hope that those we help will be moved, and have the ability, to pay it forward and help others to whatever extent they can.

We do not do what we do in order to be told how wonderful we are or to convince people to reject religion or become atheists. We do it because it’s the right thing to do, because no one else is going to do it. And because a world with less starvation and disease, more education, and more concern for human rights, justice, and fairness is a better world for all of us to live in.

There’s a sense in which this is progress. A few weeks ago, Joe Klein and TIME magazine were telling the world that atheists and humanists don’t do anything to help others at all. Hallowell recognizes that we do good and has even helped promote those efforts, for which we thank him. But we hope that in the future he will do that without questioning our motives and goals in the process.

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Pathfinders Diary: Los Angeles gets the Pathfinders off to a good start

Pathfinders ProjectPathfinders Project is a yearlong international service trip (July 2013–July 2014) sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief. As they carry out their service work, the Pathfinders send us occasional reports about the projects, the places, and the people they meet along the way. Pathfinders Project Director Conor Robinson shared this inaugural report after the team’s launch in Los Angeles.

As I write to you, I am sitting on a plane to Cambodia. To the right of me are Wendy, Ben, and Michelle. Ahead of us, Bridge of Life School, Angkor Wat, intercultural exchange, challenge, and growth. Behind us, two fantastic weeks of service and training in Los Angeles.

Ben and Wendy arrived on the 16th of July, just in time for a screening of God Loves Uganda at LA’s LGBTQ film festival, Outfest. The film documents the aggressive actions of missionaries from American conservative Christian organizations such as IHOP, the International House of Prayer. Efforts by these organizations were among the factors that led to the drafting of legislation that seeks to criminalize homosexuality in Uganda. This legislation has not passed yet, and likely will not because of international pressure, but the homophobia behind it remains. Fortunately, there are organizations in Uganda that are promoting reason and compassion, organizations like Saint Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Centre, led by Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, which provides a safe environment, contraception, and basic medical treatment to Ugandans with HIV and AIDS regardless of sexual orientation. The schools where the Pathfinders will be volunteering are also of critical importance in raising the next generation of Ugandan children. Schools such as the Kasese Humanist Primary School and the Mustard Seed Secondary School help children understand that all humans, regardless of race, culture, religion, or sexual orientation, are interdependent and valuable.

Wendy, Conor, and Ben after volunteering with Heal the BayThe very next night, Wendy, Ben, and I had the opportunity to see another important documentary at the Topanga Film Festival. There we watched Elemental, a documentary that follows the stories of an inventor who makes more efficient machines by observing efficient structures in the natural world, an environmental scientist on a pilgrimage to clean the Ganges, and an activist fighting to preserve the rights of indigenous Canadians living on land being destroyed by tar sands drilling. All in all, the documentary underscored the importance of the clean water work we will be doing in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Over the course of the following two weeks, Ben, Wendy, and I volunteered with the Westside Food Bank and TreePeople. Our work with the Westside Food Bank was a matter of sorting good fruit from bad and separating non-perishable food items by type, so that the items may be distributed to local social service organizations. In our work with TreePeople, we first tended to trees planted at Washington Elementary School to provide shade in the otherwise urban desert of Compton, and then helped to weed invasive species and water native ones as part of a habitat restoration project in the Santa Monica Mountains. 

The three of us also participated in one of Heal the Bay’s beach cleanups, an experience that illustrated the consequences of our consumption habits. When we first arrived at the beach alongside dozens of other volunteers, we didn’t think there would be anything for us to do. The beach appeared pristine. But when we got on our hands and knees and looked closely, we discovered millions of individual Styrofoam beads, all that is left of cups and plates after they make their journey from the gutter to the sea. Above the tideline, we also found fragments of plastic bags trapped under the leaves of the succulents that grow there. No matter how gently we tried to pick them up, they would often disintegrate between our fingers. Not your typical day at the beach.

The volunteering we did with each of the three Los Angeles organizations was simple but meaningful. The advantage of such uncomplicated volunteering tasks is that they allow for conversation. Incidentally, so does Los Angeles traffic. We bonded.

When we weren’t volunteering around Los Angeles, discussing cultural sensitivity, hiking around Topanga State Park, or cursing traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, the 10, or the 405, we were spreading the word about Pathfinders Project on Internet panels and in interviews. I encourage you to check out our “Meet the Pathfinders” panel that was part of FTBConscience, or our interviews on The Pink Atheist and Sgt. Skeptic podcasts. We also chatted with the folks at A-News, but that podcast isn’t up yet.   

The Pathfinders arrive in CambodiaMichelle arrived the morning of the 28th, just in time for a round of video interviews with Foundation Beyond Belief’s videographer, The Secular Human, and the Pathfinders Project launch party at Center for Inquiry–West’s Steve Allen Theater. The event featured hilarious and rousing performances by Gary Stockdale and Eric Schwartz, beautiful a cappella singing from Voices of Reason, and a Pathfinders Project panel moderated by our very own Dale McGowan. Major thanks to Bob Ladendorf and Jim Underdown of Center for Inquiry–West for letting us use the space, and to all of the supporters who came to join us in celebration! We will be posting pictures and video soon.

I have to sign off now or face the ire of the flight attendants. But before I do, I’d like you to consider this: On our flight there is a large Korean-American Christian missionary group from Orange County, California. I’ve spoken with the pastor and the pastor’s son about their work and the work of Pathfinders Project. In having such a conversation, the comparison between missionary work and our work cannot be avoided, and it shouldn’t be. Although initially put off by what I told them, ultimately the pastor and his son were impressed and even slightly chagrined about the lack of secular service involved in their itinerary, and the absence of ulterior motive in ours. Perhaps on their next trip they will incorporate more service alongside their proselytizing. Either way, I know they have an altered view of atheists and humanists as a result of our conversation.

We are making progress already, and we haven’t even begun our work in earnest. Please support us in this work by donating to Foundation Beyond Belief or directly to one of the Pathfinders, each of whom is fundraising $10,000 individually. We cannot do it without you.

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BBN teams show love for their communities

By Elizabeth Minutello, Beyond Belief Network intern

Foundation Beyond Belief’s Beyond Belief Network is a network of secular humanist groups volunteering in their communities and raising money for FBB’s featured charities and programs. Any group with a public secular humanist or atheist identity is welcome to join, regardless of experience or group size. In February, BBN’s community service theme is Social Justice and Race. 

Members of Humanists Doing Good organized to cheer for athletes and teams participating in a Special Olympics basketball tournament in Grand Junction, Colorado. Although previous tournaments had sufficient volunteers, they often lacked crowd support and were previously described as feeling lonely. Members created large signs of support and cheered for underdog teams. They even cheered for athletes and teams during an awards ceremony. Humanists Doing Good considered the event to be a rewarding experience, and members were thanked by several parents and participating volunteers.


Humanists of Houston worked in the carousel room of the Houston Food Bank’s main warehouse. They sorted non-perishable food donations and packed them, by weight, into boxes for distribution in the Emergency Pantry. The total room production for the three-hour shift was 3,096 lbs. or approximately 2,580 meals. By BBN’s approximate calculations, Humanists of Houston have packed more than 10 tons of food in the past year! 

Our newest BBN team, Corpus Christi Atheists is already showing great promise. They unloaded glass from vehicles and sorted them for recycling. 

Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless continues to run their monthly service event. They collected basic living supplies, such as toiletries and clothing, and distributed them to approximately one hundred of Austin’s homeless population. 

Eight adults and ten kids representing Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry folded and sorted donated clothing at the Lowcountry Orphan Relief, a charity that distributes new underwear, socks, and gently used clothing to kids entering foster care. Donated clothing is inspected and sorted by size and gender. 


If you are a member of a secular humanist or atheist group and would like to participate in community service projects under the national umbrella of Foundation Beyond Belief, join Beyond Belief Network. We welcome all atheist groups interested in service, from groups with extensive volunteer experience to newly formed groups new to secular service. By aggregating our efforts, we demonstrate that all we really need is charity and goodness to make the world a better place.

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February Beyond Belief Network Roundup & Recognitions!

We just finished rounding up what teams in the Beyond Belief Network (BBN) did as Valentines for their communities in February! Before we get into the details, please welcome new BBN team Camp Quest Kansas City! We’re also welcoming back two prior teams: Central Florida Freethought Community and Humanists Doing Good! The last two groups hit the…

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September BBN roundup

Autumn has begun, and you're gonna "fall" for what our BBN teams have been up to! The Atheist Community of Polk County, in Polk County, Florida held their biweekly cleanups of their adopted stretch of highway this month. At the second cleanup, the deep ditches along the roadway finally dried out and the team was…

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August BBN roundup

At the end of summer, our teams are still bringing the heat! Let’s see what they’ve been up to! First, we have a new team this month, Houston Freethought Oasis! Welcome to BBN! Central Ohio United Non-Theists (COUNT) participated in several events with the Adaptive Sports Connection, which helps Central Ohio veterans, children, and adults…

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June Winners! Beyond Belief Network Team of the Month & Photo of the Month

June’s Beyond Belief Network Team of the Month, Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation Community Service Committee members volunteered to prepare food at St. James, a Catholic soup kitchen, in Highwood, IL. For their event Kol Hadash provided food, prepared it, served it, and cleaned up after. Great event Kol Hadash! The Picture of the Month comes from Grand Junction, CO …

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June BBN roundup

Foundation Beyond Belief’s Beyond Belief Network is a network of secular humanist groups volunteering in their communities and raising money for FBB’s featured charities and programs. Any group with a public secular humanist or atheist identity is welcome to join, regardless of experience or group size. What were our BBN Teams up to in June? Let’s find…

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Spring BBN Roundup

Foundation Beyond Belief’s Beyond Belief Network is a network of secular humanist groups volunteering in their communities and raising money for FBB’s featured charities and programs. Any group with a public secular humanist or atheist identity is welcome to join, regardless of experience or group size. A warm welcome to three new BBN teams which formed this…

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