The Humanist Dilemma: How Much Religion Should One Stomach for a Good Cause?

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Shall I Volunteer with a Religious Organization? I live in a very small town in the midwest, in a very conservative, Christian-dominated area. A coalition of churches and concerned citizens has set up a youth center for sixth- through twelfth-grade students in our area, to provide after-school and weekend activities to divert kids from unhealthy activities and people (and probably to enhance their Christian commitment).

Our area is plagued by drugs and petty crime among young people as well as adults, so this is a great and welcome effort. I am eager to volunteer as a mentor and tutor, to offer help with school work or lessons in skills like sewing, but I am worried that I might feel very conflicted while doing so if I have to hide my antipathy to the heavy Christian messages continually spouted by everyone else involved. Two of my best friends are on the board and will no doubt support my application to volunteer. There aren’t enough of us non-believers to start up our own youth center and it would no doubt not be accepted anyway, so I don’t contemplate trying that. Is this too much of a compromise, supporting and joining with religious people to accomplish a worthy goal?

–Mentor in Sheep’s Clothing


Dear Mentor,

By all means, offer your help through this program. Would you have any doubts if the children were starving to death and you were debating whether or not you should feed them, given your discomfort with the religious trappings?

But I have a few questions for you. Why do you think you would you have to hide your non-belief? You say this is a coalition of churches and citizens, so they are undoubtedly not all on the same page about beliefs. You also say the goal is “probably” to enhance the children’s Christian commitment. And two of your best friends are on the board, so they must accept you as a non-believer whether or not they are believers (and vice versa). I read all this to mean a number of groups, including unaffiliated individuals, is trying to address a community problem. Whether any or all of them is trying to instill religious values is just something you’re wondering. Very likely the church groups view this as an opportunity to build bonds with the young people and the community, but that may not be a major or explicit goal.

Is this program in any way restricting volunteers (or beneficiaries) to avowed members of a faith? Are they willing and eager to include volunteers who are competent to help these kids, even if they will not proselytize? Will questions about your faith be asked during the application process, and will answering honestly disqualifying you?

It could be a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation, in which you’d be free not to say anything. It could be they will ask, but if you tell, they will still welcome you. And even if you know in advance that you are expected to affirm a faith, apply anyway. They may decide to overlook that one “flaw.” And if they do reject you, tell them why you think they are doing a disservice to the children and community they claim to want to help.

From your letter, it appears you co-exist within your town as a non-believer among energetic believers. Unless you’re sure you will be rejected if you don’t profess belief, just be yourself when you put in your hours. I’m not saying walk in and announce that you’re an atheist, or counter every expression of faith with a rebuttal, or tell the kids religion is hogwash as you explain evolution. But if you must go along with the religiosity to participate, it’s fine to do so—passively, not by actively praising the lord—as long as you feel you’re doing more good than harm. Once involved, you may find ways to communicate your humanist values to your charges and colleagues, and everyone might learn something. And once these youngsters develop life skills such as reading, they’ll be able to read anything–whether it’s the Bible, Marvel comics, or Richard Dawkins.