Disaster Relief: Can Humanism Fill the Gap?

Humanists are good at handling abstract philosophical questions, such as responding to the “god of the gaps” argument (that wherever there’s a gap in scientific knowledge, this is where God can become the answer). But humanists aren’t as good at handling the down-to-earth problems that continue to be solved by what has been termed the “church of the gaps,” where religious organizations famously leap into the breach to offer aid in times of natural disaster and other crises.

In a September 10 USA Today article, reposted by the Religion News Service, Washington Correspondent Paul Singer notes that when it comes to collecting, processing, and warehousing donated materials, then distributing them to recent hurricane victims, the Seventh Day Adventists are the experts. When it comes to deploying on-the-ground work crews to clean up, and then bringing in volunteer case workers “to help families navigate the maze of FEMA assistance, state aid programs, and private insurance,” it’s the United Methodist Committee on Relief that comes to the rescue. Food and water are supplied by a nondenominational Christian organization called the Convoy of Hope. Then there is Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, Catholic Charities, and non-Christian organizations from Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist traditions.

The main coordinator for all of this charitable aid, particularly in response to the recent hurricanes, is the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, an alliance of nonprofits and companies that helps the federal government direct volunteer assistance to where it’s most needed. But as Singer reports, roughly “75 percent of the organizations that are part of the alliance are faith-based.” This isn’t surprising. It matches public attitudes. As Time magazine reported on November 26, 2013, “three-quarters of all household charitable giving [in the United States] goes to organizations that have religious ties.”

Of course there are secular charities, the most recognized of which is the American Red Cross. USA Today reported on September 9 that this organization collected $211 million for Hurricane Harvey aid and had so far covered “186,000 overnight stays, served more than 900,000 meals, and had more than 3,000 workers distribute some 200,000 relief items ranging from diapers to toothbrushes.” But the charity has come under severe criticism of late from media organizations and a congressional report, the findings of which suggest that the Red Cross is less than efficient in its disaster relief work and spends as much as a quarter of its contributions on overhead, administration, and fundraising. The Red Cross has responded to these criticisms with answers that sound reasonable, but more and more people are directing their donations elsewhere.

Beyond secular charities there are specifically secularist efforts. The leader in this field is the Foundation Beyond Belief, a forthrightly humanist nonprofit with which the American Humanist Association in 2014 merged its Humanist Charities program. Today the FBB not only puts boots on the ground with its Beyond Belief Network teams but also works closely with local secularist groups in disaster zones. In Texas, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, this has included the Atheist Community of Austin, Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless, Corpus Christi Atheists, Humanists of Houston, South East Texas Atheists Helping the Homeless, and South Texas Atheists for Reason. Moreover, the FBB has raised as much as $100,000 that it is distributing in grants to worthy secular charities that are experienced in bringing needed aid.

As much as humanists can be proud of this activity, it is all tiny in comparison to what government, mainstream secular charities, and religious charities do routinely. Hence traditional religious groups continue to ask in critique where one can find the humanist hospitals, humanist orphanages, and humanist soup kitchens. Singer in his USA Today article notes that, across the country, the United Methodists alone have 20,000 disaster relief volunteers they can call up who have been background checked and trained. And Greg Forrester, CEO of the aforementioned National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, states, “About 80 percent of all recovery happens because of non-profits, and the majority of them are faith-based.”

There are a number of humanist responses to this:

1. Humanists aren’t presently as numerous in the United States as are traditionally religious people and most humanists aren’t organized into the sorts of robust congregations that foster charitable activities.

2. Humanists prefer to leverage their influence through advocacy of more comprehensive governmental systems that would render the “church of the gaps” less necessary.

3. Humanists prefer to focus on the largest issues, such as addressing climate change and other environmental concerns which lie behind many of today’s disasters.

4. Humanists are more oriented toward the power of ideas because good ideas, like international human rights, continue to make the world better, and bad ideas, like religious extremism, continue to do massive harm.

All of these responses are reasonable as far as they go. They include the broader issues that need to be explored as we experience and react to natural disasters and other crises. We find this level of awareness in the comprehensive approach to the recent hurricanes offered by Samantha Montano in her September 15 Humanist.com article.

But in recent years, some alarm has been expressed at how religious identity in the United States has been decreasing, with a consequent shrinking and disappearance of religious congregations. This has led, as Time reports, to “a growing debate over whether the secularization of society will lead to a decrease in charitable giving.” After all, with organized humanists not recruiting religious defectors as quickly as they depart and not creating humanist congregations to replace religious ones, it’s reasonable to wonder what will become of the charitable giving and community disaster aid generated by such ideological and organizational factors.

A number of researchers have contributed to this debate by asking pointed questions and finding sometimes surprising answers.

For example, it has been asked if religious teachings work to make people more generous. Perhaps not, according to a 2015 global study which found that “family religious identification decreases children’s altruistic behaviors” partly because “children from religious households are harsher in their punitive tendencies.”

Do ethnic and religious homogeneity foster more charitable giving? Yes, they seem to. So much so that, as found in a 2016 study, “an increase in ethnic diversity decreases donations” and there is “a similar relationship between religious diversity and donation.” But to enjoy more generosity do we want to go back to fostering less diverse communities?

Does leaving the church make people less generous, or are the less generous simply the first ones to leave? A 2015 German study found evidence for the latter, that “non-donors have a twofold increased probability of leaving church compared to donors.” But perhaps those who leave are non-donors because they don’t want to financially support a faith they are coming to disbelieve. After all, the same study found that these non-donors can become favorably influenced toward generosity by appropriate tax incentives.

Do extended social networks inspire generosity or does being part of such a network just more easily get one on charity mailing lists? The evidence seems to go both ways according to a few studies itemized in The Society Pages.

And if the secularization of the United States is so dire to contemplate, why hasn’t the secularization of Europe been destructive of generosity? Questions continue. The important thing for humanists is to be aware of this concern and conversant with the debate—because it cuts to the core of the legitimacy and social value of the humanist philosophy itself.