Atheists: Be Good for Goodness Sake

By Valerie Tarico

La O de la discordiaImage by soyignatius via Flickr

For years atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers have been saying that you don’t need a god to be good. Recently, they even tried to say it on the side of an Indiana bus. More and more, they are finding ways to show it. is a matchmaking service. It pairs up desperately poor people who need loans with folks who are willing to take a chance on them. With as little as $25 in your hand, you can go to Kiva and help a farmer in Pakistan who wants a pair of goats, or a single mom in Peru who wants to invest in a new sewing machine for her home embroidery business, or a vendor in Sudan who sells corn flour and wants to increase her inventory. The borrowers request a specific amount through a local microcredit agency, often with a small group of community members who guarantee each others’ loans. When enough lenders choose them, meaning the full amount is available, they get the loan, invest it in their venture, and begin making payments on an eight month schedule.

On Monday, my 13-year-old daughter Marley bounced in the door from school and said, “Are you ready to go to Kiva?” She and her older sister Brynn had emptied their banks—literally-- and bought me a Kiva gift certificate for Mother’s Day. Marley inserted herself between me and my computer. She pulled up the site and began explaining her investment criteria: female (because females more often reinvest earnings in the family) no more than two kids (because they have a better chance to get ahead), and no beauty parlors (because that’s just dumb). She showed me a cooperative in Tajikistan and a grandmother in Mexico. But when I kept returning to Pakistan she assured me that I really could make my own choice. Except—was I going to put the whole $50 into one person?!!! She’d forgotten her final criterion: spread the wealth.

Last but not least, Marley proudly showed me how to credit my gift to a Kiva lending team: Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious. Does my daughter know me or what?

In an article I wrote a couple of months ago, Atheist Arrogance, I encouraged non-believers to counter stereotypes simply by being who they are. “Be out, be yourself.” In example, I mentioned a Seattle Atheists blood drive. So imagine my delight to find that the AASFSHN team –yes, the acronym is pathetic—topped Kiva’s list, with over 16,000 loans made. Not to be outdone, a group called Kiva Christians is hot on their heels. Is it a competition? Sure looks like it. But can you imagine something better to compete over?

Religious communities perform a valuable organizing function. True, it can be used for harm—to organize a “Bibles for Afghanistan” crusade, or worse, a literal crusade. But religious communities also activate people to feed the hungry or protest against nuclear weapons. As nonbelievers are becoming more open, they too are beginning to coalesce into moral communities that talk openly about deep values. My hope is that, freed from the constraints of dogma or the need to proselytize, these communities will be able to invest themselves in the simple process of doing good for goodness sake.

What does that mean? Primum non nocere (First, do no harm). The simple principle of harm avoidance is at the heart of humanity’s shared moral core. But so is proactively nurturing wellbeing. Healing harm. Creating delight and beauty and wonder. Loving. Truth-seeking. Practicing random acts of kindness. Our ancient traditions, both religious and secular converge on a shared set of virtues and moral principles that are probably built into our bodies by our ancestral history. There is a lot we can learn from those traditions about how to be good with or without gods. But as Marley just reminded me, there is also a lot we can learn from our children. We offer them the insights of our ancestors, and our own, but they are the ones who, as Gibran put it, dwell in the house of tomorrow.

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