Why Interfaith Is Not Enough
by Frank Bellamy, member of the SSA Board of Directors and former president of the Secular Student Alliance groups at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and the University of Delaware.
Nontheists have an image problem. Many view us as immoral, as unamerican, as leeches on society. The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex, but one line of thinking that seems to contribute to it is this: Religious people participate in community service. They contribute to disaster relief, build houses, tutor schoolchildren, and so forth. You never hear about nontheists doing these things, so - according to the line of reasoning - they must be immoral. Countering this line of thinking and the prejudice that results is one argument commonly advanced for nontheist participation in the interfaith movement. If we participate in interfaith community service projects alongside theists, they will see us, and the premise that nontheists do not do community service will be falsified.
There is, however, a generally unstated and undefended premise that is at least as worthy of attack. This whole line of thinking, both by theists and pro-interfaith nontheists, presumes that participation in community service is a valid measure of an individual's or group's "goodness" or morality. At first glance, this may seem like a natural extension of how we interact with others in our daily lives. It is nice to help people in need. And there is no doubt that community service projects often do help the individuals they directly serve. I would never wish to diminish the time and effort that people put into them.
The problem is that what works at an individual level often does not work at a group or societal level. Community service projects require resources, yet leave the larger problems unaddressed. A food drive may feed a few families for a few days or weeks, but it neither addresses the causes of hunger nor provides systematic relief. What happens when the food raised in a food drive runs out, and the people who organized and donated to that food drive have moved on to other projects? What happens when other people go hungry because of the same societal problems? Volunteer efforts almost always lack the time, funding and administrative structure to actually solve problems.
There is another option: taxpayer supported government run programs. The free and reduced-price lunches the public schools offer to children from low-income families address hunger better than food drives. Social security and Medicare improve the lives of the elderly far more than any service project. The government, with full time staff and mandatory donations (otherwise known as taxes) simply has the resources to provide comprehensive and long-term solutions to problems in a way that privately organized community service never can. (This would require our government prioritizing the well-being of its citizens to avoid financial drains, but - contrary to current political rhetoric - it could be done.)
An examination of the historical and sociological data bears this out. Christians have been trying for thousands of years to address societal problems through individuals and small privately organized groups (a.k.a. churches) engaging in community service and donating to charity. And it hasn't worked. Sure some people have been helped, but the overall problems are still as bad as ever. By comparison, when governments do step in to address problems on a large scale, they are often successful. For examples, take a look at Hong Kong's low-cost healthcare program resulting in the healthiest population in the world, the free, high quality education programs available in Scandinavian nations, or the low rates of homelessness in New Zealand and Switzerland.
And what's more, the numbers show that this is where we nontheists are at our best. If community service and donating to charity are valid measures of goodness, then nontheists really aren't good people. We really do volunteer less and donate less. Yet almost every comparison between countries shows that the less religious countries are better off: they have lower rates of violent crime, longer life expectancy, more education, greater economic equality and competitiveness, and better health care. Comparisons between states within the United States show similar patterns.
So what can we do? As SSA affiliates, probably not much. We don't want to get involved in economic issues or partisan politics, and the political makeup of any one affiliate may be rather politically diverse. But as individuals, and as members of progressive organizations, we can do a great deal. We can sign up for action alerts from organizations like the Secular Coalition for America and Moveon.org. We can donate to progressive political organizations. We can volunteer for political candidates who have a progressive vision of America. And when we do participate in the interfaith movement, we can remind those around us that community service is not the only, or even the best, way to address problems, and that those who spend their time and money in the political arena are just as good as those who spend their time and money on interfaith community service.