The Humanist Dilemma: Should Humanists Donate to Notre-Dame?

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Donation Consternation: I was heartbroken to witness the burning of Paris’s iconic Notre-Dame cathedral, and at first I was glad to hear that huge donations to rebuild were pouring in from all over the world. But then I got to thinking about how there are more worthy causes, such as helping people in poverty, in distress, or affected by disasters, who might be saved if such donations flowed to them instead.

I was also thinking about the ongoing French yellow vest movement, which is happening because the French people feel they’re being overtaxed and the rich aren’t paying their fair share. To now have French (and other) billionaires giving huge amounts to rebuild Notre-Dame, while not seeming to give a damn about the people’s plight, is being met with heavy criticism. And I’ve heard people in the US say, “donate to Puerto Ricans, not Notre Dame” and the like.

Would it be appropriate for humanists who admire the cathedral to donate toward its renovation, or should we direct our donations to humans in need?

—Flying Buttresses or Yellow Vests?


Dear Vests,

I don’t think there’s much argument that Notre-Dame is valuable as a beautiful, architecturally unique structure with a rich, romantic history. It’s also a mega tourist attraction that brings in hordes of visitors who then dine, shop, and lodge in the area, creating perhaps thousands of jobs and helping to maintain the local economy. So it’s certainly a laudable goal to rebuild as quickly as possible.

But Notre-Dame is also an active Catholic church, and it’s debatable whether individual humanists—or secular governments or organizations—should be giving money to religious institutions, no matter how special. As a rule, I say no. On the other hand, I made modest donations to Sagrada Família in Barcelona decades ago when it was just a shell and architectural drawing, and again a few years ago when it was still under construction but complete enough to be one of the most breathtaking buildings (not just churches) I’ve ever seen. I believe without such donations, the project would stall rather than attain its full glory (glory not to God, but to Antoni Gaudí’s astonishingly inventive vision). And like Notre-Dame in France, the fabulous Sagrada Família brings tourists to Spain, which ripples economic benefits to its population.

Many of us visit religious edifices not for religious reasons but to admire their art, culture, and history, and there’s usually a donation or admission fee involved. This helps to keep the place clean, secure, and in good repair, and it is paid by the people who choose to visit—or worship—there. As long as the general population isn’t taxed to support these causes, I think it’s fine for anyone who wishes to contribute to do so (although I prefer that the funds are earmarked specifically for maintaining the structure rather than for the religious institution to use however it chooses).

By that logic, I don’t think secular governments or organizations should establish a precedent of aiding religious organizations in any way (an exception might be for the provision of humanitarian aid, such as churches running hospitals, shelters and food banks in areas without other resources to meet these urgent needs). In this regard I agree with the recent decision against using taxpayer money to fix up a church in Morristown, New Jersey.

For organizations like the American Humanist Association that are committed to loosening the grip of religion on societies, donating to religious institutions—especially to bolster collapsing houses of worship—would be totally inappropriate. But that doesn’t mean individual members of AHA should not. It’s really not an either/or question for humanists, or anyone else. Some people make huge donations to the arts, or animals, while others focus on humans—for food, shelter, education, healthcare, rights, etc. And many people donate to an array of causes. Without charitable support for all of these, whether in single dollars from many or billions from a few, the world would be a much worse place. Historic structures—religious and secular—would fall into disrepair, museums would close, pyramids would crumble, endangered wildlife would go extinct, parks would be unsafe and filled with trash, more people would become sick or die. None of us can do all of it, but if many of us do what we can for what we care about, a great deal can be achieved.

Charitable giving is a personal choice, as well as a matter of means. Whatever we feel moved to support (or not) is up to each of us, as is the decision of how much to give. There’s no reason why a person can’t donate to both the restoration of Notre-Dame and hurricane relief for Puerto Rico if they’re so inclined. I prefer to focus my own charitable dollars on causes that aren’t associated with religious organizations, and toward saving lives and lifting people out of desperate situations. But if we’re talking about spreading the wealth, wouldn’t it be lovely if those billionaires funding the cathedral repairs also pledged an equal amount to repairing human suffering?