The Ethical Dilemma: My Company Supports Religious Charities for the Holidays. What Should I Do?

Joan Reisman-Brill offers advice to an atheist who opposes her company’s practice of supporting religious groups during the holidays.

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Religious Company Charities: My company is dedicated to supporting the community. Our global headquarters is in the midst of a struggling town. Everyone here earns much more than the average folks in our community, so we know it’s important to help out, not only for the right reasons but admittedly also for our image.

We have a very large United Way campaign, many people mentor kids at the local schools, and we do all sorts of other community service projects such as renovating playgrounds and cleaning up nonprofit buildings. I’m one of the volunteers who deliver meals every day to a group of seniors living near our campus.

We do a lot for the community and I very much appreciate working for a company that encourages charity. But this year, two things are being done that I have an issue with.

The first thing was a community project to renovate a Catholic private school building. I went to the volunteer board meeting and expressed my concern over supporting a school that belongs to a wealthy religious organization while there are truly needy schools in our community. Some on the board were dumbfounded that I would have this concern, and when I pointed out our work would be used to indoctrinate innocent children, I knew I wasn’t making any friends. Needless to say I did not participate.

The latest event has me wondering what more I can do to educate the nearly all-Catholic members of our volunteer board. They have decided to have a food drive for the local Christian food bank, which is not the only option and requires people to pray before they can get a meal. The board seemed quite proud of itself in finding a non-denominational Christian food bank, thinking that would make it ok. It does not. Think about the poor non-Christian family already embarrassed at needing a handout, having to endure a Christian prayer just to get a free meal.

I have voiced my concern to a board member who had no idea why it was an issue, but agreed to bring it up. Two weeks later the big bins showed up in our lobby, with the word “Christian” all over. I should add that my company is based in the Middle East and most of our leadership is Muslim!

Should I keep quiet and make a donation of food to a secular bank? Go back to the board and try to force them to live by their charter (which says no religion, politics etc. will be supported)? Bring in my own bins, labeled “Secular Food Drive, alternative to the Brainwashing Food Drive” (for which I would likely be fired)? Talk to all my coworkers, which would piss them off and remind them I am the rabble-rousing atheist who has annoyed them for the last 25 years?

–Choking On Attached Strings

Dear Choking,

Unless you’re ready to retire or have another job in your pocket and want to exit this one with a bang, steer clear of any responses that would make you the workplace pariah or get you sacked.

I strongly encourage avoiding charities with religious strings attached and, whenever possible, to seek out organizations with an explicitly secular identity. Like your company, we humanists also want to project a positive image through our charitable activities. But sometimes there are extenuating circumstances. In those cases, doing good–even if it goes to schools that require dogma lessons or meals that insist on blessing before fressing—is still better than not doing good. Just ask the kids shivering in the broken down Catholic school, or the non-Christian family who is willing to eat crow in order to eat. Accepting a meal after a Christian prayer or a Catholic school education does not guarantee accepting the accompanying religious message.

But that doesn’t mean that, after you were ignored in your efforts to direct your company’s giving to a secular recipient, you should capitulate and contribute against your conscience to the chosen religious beneficiaries. As you suggest, you can personally donate to a local secular food bank, and you can encourage receptive co-workers to do the same. You could also petition the volunteer board to include bins bearing the secular bank’s identity (but no snarky embellishment) in the lobby alongside the Christian bins this year, or if it’s too late, next year.

You could also take action now to steer the volunteer board back on a more appropriate course in the future. According to the American Humanist Association legal team, since your company is private, it can choose to donate to whatever charities and on whatever basis it likes, and the non-denominational food bank doesn’t appear to be any kind of violation. But the work with the private Catholic school does seem to violate your company’s charter. So you might want to bring that up now in the interest of finding a more suitable project going forward. Maybe you could even become a volunteer board member yourself, and work on making it a more diverse group. Please feel free to contact the AHA’s legal department for counsel on how you might approach the volunteer board to assert your views without asserting yourself out of a job.

As you note, your company does a lot of service for the community all year round, for secular as well as religious beneficiaries. Your goal should be to amplify the overall good being done, even if it includes a few holy donees. A rising tide raises all boats, regardless of what flag (or cross) they’re flying.


Offensive Season’s Greetings: I’m really uncomfortable when people wish me a Merry Christmas, and I sincerely mean it when I wish others a happy holiday or new year—which I do even when I know they want me to say Christmas. What’s the deal with people suddenly feeling secular good wishes are insulting?

—Wishing Generic Joy to the World


Dear Joy,

I, too, find it hard not to bristle a bit when someone who knows darn well I really am not in the market for a Merry Christmas, or a Happy Hanukah, insists on wishing me one just the same. I don’t see why people feel the need to slip a dig in under the cover of an allegedly benevolent expression. But when it’s people who don’t know me or my beliefs, I welcome the underlying sentiment instead of dwelling on the specific words.

On the other hand, if I know for sure that someone celebrates a particular holiday, I don’t feel it costs me anything to specifically wish them a good whatever, if that’s what they crave—but I do try to stick with neutral holiday or new year greetings when I don’t know the backstory.

Nowadays, season’s greetings have become one of the battlegrounds in the ostensible “war on Christmas.” Please check out this clip from the December 3rd The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—it really crystallizes all the absurdity (and hilarity).

When you come right down to it, we must all (believers and non-) ask ourselves what’s more important: Sincerely wishing someone what they wish for themselves, in words that make them feel good—or scoring ideological points? It’s more generous—I daresay “in the holiday spirit”—to accept friendly phrases graciously and with gratitude, whatever form they take, and to choose terms that make your associates feel stroked, not dissed. A gazillion misdirected Christmas or Hanukah greetings aren’t going to convert anyone, any more than omitting Christ from a pleasantry is going to hasten the end of days (or delay it—whichever is worse). A little human(ist) kindness is a gift we can all afford to give at least once a year.