I've been writing here about Atheist/Humanist/Secularist efforts to support victims and other relief efforts in the wake of the massive tornadoes in Oklahoma last week.
My intent is to highlight all the positive things that come out of the Atheist/Secular community, for which they do not get enough credit, and as a way for the religious and nonreligious to empathize with one another.
This also provides an opportunity to understand what it's like to be in a maligned minority group, in this case, Atheists.
This morning, Hemant Mehta over at The Friendly Atheist wrote about another example of Secular generosity, where volunteers through the FreeOK Atheist group gathered over the weekend to help residents clean up their properties.
Among this group of 42 volunteers were members of the Atheist Community of Tulsa, Oklahoma Atheists, a few Christians and some unaffiliated, good-hearted people who, through this one day of kindness, connected for a humanist cause and not a word either way regarding God was uttered.
This is a group that should make everyone proud of the human race. All these people came together to help other people in need. They may not all share the same values and backgrounds, but they are able to set aside their differences for a greater cause.
However, an incident occurred when they were working at the same site as members of a Christian group.
At a worksite on Saturday, the FreeOK group worked to clean up what was left of one family’s life in Steelman Estates mobile-home park. Also on site were members of the Freedom Assembly of God. FreeOK volunteer Rhonda Dorle took this account of an interaction between the groups:
“We were working side by side for about an hour with about 5 members of this church, cutting down trees and piling up metal, lumber, and tree branches. The property owner asked for a group photo of all that were cleaning up her property so we walked to where her house once stood. On the way up, one of my friends was asked where he was from, and he replied ‘the Atheist Community of Tulsa,’ to which the member from Freedom Assembly of God got quiet and walked up the hill and into the group of volunteers to take the picture. When the pictures were done, a Christian volunteer with FreeOK, Stephanie Derby, had been working with us all day. She was very aware that we were a group of atheists, but we were there for the one reason she was and that was to help out.
Anyway, one of the members called her aside and told her that she was with a group of atheists, that they were going somewhere else and that she should leave with them. Stephanie replied; ‘No. I've been with this group of people all day, I'm here to help and so are they.” The Assembly member then responded, ‘but you're a Christian,’ indicating the cross she wore around her neck. Stephanie said, ‘Yes I am and I'm staying with them. I'm helping here. We are here to help, not judge.’”
All five of the Assembly members left that area to work elsewhere where they would not be knowingly working alongside atheists.
To be fair, we don't have the church's account of things. They did not appear to do or say anything publicly to condemn the Atheist group except to leave, but from the looks of it, the FreeOK group did nothing wrong to alienate the church volunteers either, other than being Atheist.
From this account, they weren't doing anything objectionable at all. They were doing the same thing the church group was doing: helping out people in need. They weren't wearing gaudy uniforms, passing out pamphlets, or publicly denigrating the religions or beliefs of anyone else. If they had been, I would not blame anyone for taking offense to what they were doing, but here they were being as inoffensive as possible and it was still not enough.
This would not be any more absurd if we were talking about 10 years old boys and girls separating to avoid catching cooties.
In the wake of tragedies such as this, we are often told to set aside our petty differences, to come together as fellow human beings and help one another out. There should be no ulterior motives and no expectation of reward, because such selfish agendas sully the ideals behind such charity.
However, it is also human nature to expect some basic level of common decency when someone does all of these things. Actions like those of the Free Assembly of God send the message that the good deeds of Atheists are not wanted. If there are some religious people sending this message, and there are some Atheists/Secularists getting this message and choosing not to participate as a result, can we really blame them? Damned if they do, damned if they don't (literally). And how does this help anybody?
In all likelihood, the members of the Free Assembly of God continued in helping tornado victims, just at a site away from the Atheists, and they should get credit for their efforts. However, it does not change the fact that they made the conscious decision to treat charity alongside Atheists as less virtuous than charity all by themselves.
Churches and religion have a right to preach whatever they want and accept whoever they choose. It is also true that religious organizations are responsible for a lot of good, and generosity, and charity. However, they do not hold a monopoly over basic human qualities like charity, empathy, or morality.
Atheists are often given a lot of criticism for being angry at religion and religious practitioners. "Why are Atheists so angry all the time?" This is an example of where that anger derives from. Atheist organizations are capable of doing the same types of charity as the religious organizations, but unlike the religious orgs, they are hardly lauded for their deeds.
This is the same thing that happens anytime Secular groups put up billboards, no matter how inoffensive the message is. Without fail, they are vandalized. Meanwhile, almost every religiously-motivated anti-abortion billboard I have ever seen that has some sort of fallacy involved, those are ok. State and federal governments constantly put themselves in danger of lawsuits when religiously-motivated politicians put up objects that clearly violate the Establishment Clause, and when Secular groups try to exercise the same exact rights, there is hell to pay.
Look at the flip side. If a Secularist objected to donating to the Salvation Army, despite all of the good that it does, merely because of its ties to religion, that Secularist would likely be shamed by the religious, probably even some fellow Secularists. However, nobody would bat an eye if a Christian refused to do the same for an outwardly Secular charity. This is the privilege of the majority class. These are the same double standards that the LGBT community face, that ethnic minorities face, that women face. And like African Americans, like feminists, Atheists are portrayed as irrationally angry, when the examples of where that anger derives from are actually quite plentiful. In our current society, there would likely be national outrage if a racist group refused to participate in a charity event with ethnic minorities, or if a men's group refused to participate in a charity event with a women's rights group. But if it happens to Atheists, it is simply not outrageous at all.
Pope Francis recently made news for saying some rather progressive things about Atheists. There has subsequently been much debate on what this means, if anything at all. However, at the very least, I saw it as an admission of the leader of an entire religion acknowledging that people outside of that religion is capable of doing great, wonderful things, that we all are still bound by the same human nature, and that they should be recognized for doing good. These types of admissions are far too rare, and devoid of any action they may be, they are nevertheless always the first steps toward changing the thoughts and minds of the followers to be more accepting of outsiders. When people are so intolerant of outsiders that they can't even stand to be seen doing the same good deeds together, any action or message by a leader, that seems to go against the actions that the adherents have always seen as normal and acceptable, is monumental.
In the end, I hope incidents like this do not discourage these or other Atheists/Secularists from volunteering their time or money or helping their fellow man. However, I also hope it helps show what kind of hostile environments minority groups like Atheists constantly face, whether they are fighting and protesting against a surge against their civil rights, or simply doing their best to lend a hand to fellow humans, something for which they should be praised, but instead, once again being shown that their kind is not welcome.
It wasn’t just the highly religious participants who expressed a distrust of atheists. People identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation held similar opinions.Just another example of what we're up against.