A Modest Proposal: Get Religion Out of the Charity Sector

Tom Flynn

Ambitious goals can energize a movement. Sometimes, even overly ambitious goals can do the trick. The Nine Demands of Liberalism, promulgated in 1873, galvanized successive generations of freethinkers and their organizations over some seventy years, even though most of that document’s lofty goals—among them, an end to tax-funded military chaplaincy and a ban on appropriations of public funds for religious organizations—were never achieved. I looked back on the Nine Demands and their legacy in a 2014 editorial.1

With that in mind, I’d like to propose a new goal for the secular humanist movement. This goal may prove as unattainable as most of the Nine Demands, but I think it’s the right choice nonetheless. I think that regardless of whether it is eventually achieved, the movement will benefit by making this goal a part of its discourse. It’s a goal I’ve touched on before, one that I think flows naturally from the “secular” in secular humanism.

I think it’s time for secular humanists to demand that organized religion get out of the charity sector. I think it’s time to insist that in a truly secular society, the job of mobilizing private-sector relief and social-service work is too important to be left to institutions as (relatively) small and (profoundly) parochial as religious denominations. Moreover, we should be the first to point out that since increasing numbers of Americans claim no denominational affiliation whatever—a phenomenon that seems poised to accelerate in future years—the denominational model for funding and organizing charity work will grow increasingly irrelevant over time.

What might society look like if all charitable effort were organized along secular lines? For a start, charities generally recognized as following best practices would avoid any discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation. That is, well-run charities would not discriminate on the basis of religion in their choice of beneficiaries; in their donors they solicit; or in hiring and volunteer recruitment.

The first of those three goals, nondiscrimination by religion as regards beneficiaries, won’t be a long stretch. Few denominational charities today serve only members of their own sect. Established agencies such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services make a point of stressing that their work reaches beneficiaries of every religious background. While they may not put as much effort in emphasizing that their largesse also extends to beneficiaries of no religious background, in fact it generally does. As the number of nonreligious Americans continues to grow, the best-run denominational charities will likely recognize the benefit of articulating more clearly that they serve believers and unbelievers on an equal footing.

The second and third goals—nondiscrimination among donors and nondiscrimination in hiring and volunteer recruitment—are the areas where the most change will be needed. The second goal will be the hardest, because most denominational charities remain profoundly reliant on members of their own denominations for funding. Where does Catholic Charities do most of its fundraising? In Catholic churches, of course. Where does Lutheran Social Services raise most of its money? In Lutheran churches, of course. Sense a pattern? Ending denominational charities’ religious discrimination among donors may be our greatest challenge.

Yet even here, there is hope. In many metro areas, organizations such as Catholic Charities earn substantial income over and above the donations they raise in church. This income derives from government contracts to administer various social-service programs. When a religious charity administers a publicly funded program, that funding—derived from tax dollars—is obviously nondiscriminatory as to the religious affiliation of its “donors.” Moreover, there are often requirements that such programs be operated in spaces free from sectarian religious symbols, that no proselytizing take place, and that the charity refrain from religious discrimination in hiring and perhaps even in volunteer recruitment in connection with that program. (Such strictures are not always followed, but it’s actually surprising how often the big denominational agencies follow the rules to the letter.)

We’ve arrived at goal number three, nondiscrimination in hiring and volunteer recruitment. As noted, many larger denominational agencies already work this way in their government-contract divisions. Still, some religious charities consider it vital to their missions to hire and draw volunteers only from within their own ranks. Our goal as secular activists should be to discourage that practice whenever possible.

But let’s loop back to goal number two: nondiscrimination among donors. Frankly, I can’t see how most denominational charities can long maintain their identities if they steer fundraising far outside of their own communities.

What would be the point of having a Catholic soup kitchen, a Lutheran soup kitchen, a Baptist soup kitchen, and a Muslim soup kitchen all serving the poor of the same metro area and not discriminating among the beneficiaries they feed, if their respective identities are no longer buttressed by denomination-specific fundraising?

There’d be no point to perpetuating all those agencies. Oh, wait—that is the point.

In a future where well-run charities renounce all religious discrimination, I would expect that in one metro area after another, former denominational charities will collapse into far fewer, larger, truly community-based agencies with no religious identity. (Whether such agencies will continue to stand apart, or whether most will subsequently be absorbed into existing community-wide institutions such as the United Way, remains to be seen.)

At the other extreme, some smaller denominational charities might opt to narrow their focus and become purely denominational. Imagine an Assemblies of God charity that fundraises only in Assemblies of God churches, mobilizes an all–Assemblies of God employee and volunteer force, and aids only Assemblies of God members. From the secular viewpoint, such an agency would drop off the radar of public life. There’s nothing to prevent it from doing so and becoming a factor only in the life of a single sect.

It should be obvious why I think getting religion out of the charity sector is such an attractive goal for the secular humanist movement. Imagine a future where denominational relief agencies slowly vanish, whether by shedding their parochial identities, merging into secular community agencies, or by voluntarily withdrawing from public life. What a victory for secularism that would be! More speculatively, I wonder how much additional capacity for community self-help might be unleashed when major charitable institutions no longer hobble themselves by restricting their fundraising to members of their own denominations—especially in a probable future where fewer and fewer identify with any denomination, or even with religion generally.

Here, of course, we encounter the fly in the ointment. In recent years humanist, atheist, and freethought organizations have been busy launching “denominational” charitable and social-service agencies of their own. The Foundation Beyond Belief is one of the better-known examples. For its part, CFI until very recently operated the Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Network (SHARE). I’ve written previously of my personal reservations about this model.2Here I’ll just suggest that if the secular humanist movement adopts the goal of seeking the end of denominational charities, then the last thing we ought to be doing is operating “denominational charities” of our own. Is it really an improvement that our denominational charities are sectarian with regard to life stance rather than with regard to religion? They’re still sectarian, and it seems to me that sectarianism of any sort is out of keeping with the secularist ideal.

If we want religions out of the charity sector, and if we are at all consistent, I think we must want all life stance–specific institutions, religious or otherwise—humanist institutions included—out of the charity sector. Yes, I understand the attraction of having a “humanist charity” or a “freethought charity.” It feels great to finally have a comeback to that perennial question, “Where are the humanist soup kitchens?” But I think the price we pay in self-contradiction is too great.

What do you think? Please write or e-mail. Should secular humanism embrace an aspirational goal of ejecting religion from the charity sector? If so, does that demand a wall of separation between all life stance organizations and formal charity work? If not, why not? Why isn’t what’s good for the religious goose also good for the secular humanist gander?

Readers, sound off.



  1. Of the nine demands, I reported that “just two demands have arguably been met. Two have been partially met. On two more the situation is ambiguous. One demand unquestionably has not been met, while in two cases the contemporary situation is actively deteriorating.” (Tom Flynn, “How Small Our Wants,” FI, February/March 2014)
  2. See my “Who’s Afraid of Faith-based Charities?” (FI, December 2005/January 2006); “Secularism … Plus” (February/March 2006); and “Are Secularists Less Generous?” (August/September 2010).

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Do church-run charities still have a place in a more secular future? If not, what about humanist charities?

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