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Archive for the category “Atheism”

Please Give Us Your Identity Back: Teresa MacBain Redux

Two days ago the Harvard Humanist Community Project (HCH) let go of their recently hired director, Teresa MacBain, because she misrepresented her credentials (in regards to a supposed MDiv from Duke Divinity). When the news broke I wasn’t sure exactly how people would react, but I did consider that she might be criticized by believers and atheists alike. Since then the reaction from the online atheist community has been mixed. Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, published a very supportive take on the situation, despite the fact that “the hard truth appears to be that MacBain has no theological degree.”  According to Mehta there is also a “softer truth…that it doesn’t really matter,” because MacBain was sincerely religious, had a genuine deconversion experience and really did work to help others transition from faith to faithlessness. However,the well over 200 comments on his post have not all followed his reasoning. Richard Wade, for instance, wrote a lengthy comment suggesting that the HCH’s decision to fire MacBain was correct and that  “[i]ntentionally or not, she has harmed others.”  While the harm Wade described comes in the form of bad PR for organized atheism, his adjudication of the firing decision was much more universal in nature:

Regardless of whether or not a Master’s in Divinity was necessary for the good work she was doing for HCH, and regardless of whether or not that is a degree in nonsense anyway, lying about your education to get a job or just for general credibility should never be acceptable.

Some commentators agreed with Wade’s sentiment though at times with less outrage, while others echoedHemant’s. It is important to note that despite differences in the levels out outrage and empathy two major factors hold Wade and Mehta (and the rest of the commentators) together–1) the idea that lying is wrong, and MacBain’s misrepresentation is no exception (which she has admitted herself) but that regardless 2) she remains a member of the atheist community. Atheists may have more or less empathy and understanding for what MacBain did, but for better or worse she’s one of them. But what of the reaction from believers?

While it’s hard to generalize about the sentiments of all Christians, or even Methodists specifically, those who have reacted publicly appear to be much more outraged than their atheist counterparts. When the original,  New York Times story ran with the incorrect credentials (which has since been amended), a handful of people took to twitter with comments like these” “@nytimes not impressed with @SamuelGFreedman ‘s fraudulent reporting on Teresa MacBain. Pls correct @DukeDivinity ‘s involvement!!” Of course the word “fraud” denotes intentional deception for personal gain, but the idea of Duke’s “involvement” is perhaps even more interesting. Involved in what? Something heinous no doubt, in the eyes of the tweeter.

After the NYT ran it’s corrections and the editorial outlining the nature of the misrepresentation the reaction became more pronounced. It is important to know here that MacBain had been a member of the United Methodist Church (UMC) before she outed herself as an atheist, and that Duke Divinity School has a special relationship with the UMC in training it’s ministers. It is perhaps not a surprise therefore that one of MacBain’s most vocal critics after the story broke has been an Methodist theologian, Andrew C. Thompson, who is also an elder in the church. At the end of a post on his blog Thompson pin pointed three reasons for wanting to bring the story of MacBain’s “outright fabrications” even further into the light:

  1. Ms. MacBain made false claims about her academic credentials to advance her career. She claimed to hold a Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School—an institution that, in addition to being one of the finest theological schools in the country, is also an official United Methodist seminary. The whole narrative of Ms. MacBain’s escape from the Christian faith that she so publicly trumpeted for 18 months implicitly indicts those communities and institutions of which she was a part. Since she was blatantly lying about much of it, the record should be set straight.

  2. Ms. MacBain also made false claims about ordination as a United Methodist minister [...] She was lying about her ecclesiastical credentials just like she was about her academic credentials. Her claims allowed her (and the press) to put other institutions in a negative light and the facts deserve to be set straight.

  3. The media often depict the traditional Christian faith (and those who practice it) as backwards, hypocritical, unsophisticated, and unenlightened. [...] Those organizations can do what they want to do, obviously. But when they use a charlatan to advance that kind of perspective and the truth comes to light, it deserves to be pointed out broadly.

The overarching point Thompson seems to be making was summed up nicely in a tweet by someone sharing Thompson”s post after it was published: “Minister turned atheist lacks credibility.” In other words for these commentators the issue isn’t just that lying is wrong (as it also is for the atheists mentioned above), but that the act of lying marks MacBain’s very being. To most atheists, MacBain is a person who has erred by lying, but to those following Thompson’s view MacBain is a liar. It’s clear from his three points why Methodists like Thompson might prefer to see MacBain as someone who intrinsically cannot be trusted, because it means everything else she has said about the Methodist Church can be tossed out the door with her false credentials. In fact Thompson suggests that rather emphatically. Yet isn’t there more at stake here than just neutralizing bad PR?

A commentator on Thompson’s blog chimed in with a deeper reflection: “It occurs to me that it’s likely that neither I nor many of the commenters here believe in the God Ms MacBain does not believe in.” According to this line of reasoning even MacBain’s former identity is fraudulent, because she never truly believed in the real God (of Methodism) in the first place. Thompson agreed with the commentator: “The sense that you have becomes more and more clear when you hear Ms. MacBain speak at length about her understanding of God. Here’s a good example: Thanks for your comment.” In his post Thompson pointed out, in a similar vein, that MacBain frequently misquoted John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Is it possible that MacBain never embraced God exactly in the way that Methodists are supposed to or that she misunderstood John Wesley?

It is quite likely that Thompson, who is after all a church elder, a trained theologian and Wesley scholar, is correct on both accounts, but what would that mean? It seems like these critics want it to mean, as I’ve been implying, that MacBain was therefore never a Methodist. In other words they want to correct (for the record) the nature of the UMC’s  “involvement” with her, to in effect erase her former identity altogether. In fact one could read the tweet that Thompson directed to the Harvard Humanist group with the link to his post, as an appeal asking for atheists to do the same: “My story on MacBain‘s deceit, @HarvardHumanist. She made false claims to your group (and unfairly slandered the UMC).” Why else emphasize that which supposedly binds the UMC and the HCH together–suffering from MacBain’s “false claims?”

Yet such appeals most likely fall on deaf ears however, because atheists like Hemant Mehta are happy to believe that MacBain was sincere about her former identity and her subsequent unbelief. In fact these atheists have just as much reason to accept her sincerity as United Methodists like Thompson have to deny it. While this is clearly not the only reason why atheists might chose to believe MacBain’s story, doing so does provide further evidence for the efficacy of deconversion. In the end (whatever the reason) that’s good news for MacBain, since it also means that atheists will continue to accept her as one of their own, despite the fact that some Methodists appear to want her former identity back.

Addendum: As I pointed out in a response to a comment below, this form of identity erasure is by no means only found in Methodism, Christianity or religion. While the situation was quite different on many levels, there is a comparison to be made here with an event from a couple of years ago involving an atheist blogger (Leah Libresco) announcing her conversion to Catholicism. The similarity is only in terms of in-group/out-group identity politics mind you–not in terms of anything unethical. When Libresco converted one of the prominent reactions to her conversion within the atheist community was to claim that she was never really an atheist in the first place. Some of these reactions were subtle but they still suggested that there was no way she could have become the believer she now is if she had truly fit within the parameters of the atheist identity checklist (whatever that may be). Others were blunt and involved evidence that supposedly proved that she wasn’t a true atheist.

More erasure?

Since posting this I stumbled upon another blog post that suggests that MacBain might never have been a true Christian before her deconversion. Fr. Alfonse writes: “MacBain may very well have “overstated her credentials” well before her conversion to atheism, which would have made her ill-equipped to properly direct and shepherd souls.  Finally, she may actually have rejected a faith that was never really the Christian faith.  Enough!”

Preacher Turned Atheist Leader Loses Her Job

In the very first post I made to this blog, I ruminated on an NPR segment about Teresa MacBain, a southern pastor who left her church behind when she decided she no longer believed in God. After spending a year in the Clergy Project MacBain made the news by announcing her deconversion at an American Atheists convention in Bethesda Maryland. After her declaration she often appeared in public as an example of the work the Clergy Project does in providing a support group for ministers in “their transition from believer to unbeliever.” At the time of the NPR story, and my blog post, however MacBain had only just begun her journey as a public figure and I wondered out loud about the path that she and others like her would take:

What happens to people who were not only devoutly religious prior to becoming atheists, but were also leaders of religious communities? Do they simply become lay atheists or are they more likely to seek out new leadership roles within the atheist community? And if they gain such roles how much of those religious leaders they used to be come along for the ride? Do they unlearn the rhetorical strategies they utilized to gain converts when they were a preacher or do they adapt them to their new calling?

It appeared that my hunch was correct, because just six days ago the New York Times reported that MacBain had become the director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. According to the article MacBain was particularly suited for the job because of her experience with church planting and her new found zeal for the “secular mission” of the Community Project. For those who aren’t familiar with the Project it aims to build a network of Humanist communities across the United States and that was the task that MacBain was meant to take charge of.

Yet as the New York Times reports today, MacBain’s efforts were short lived, but not because she wasn’t a capable atheist leader, but because like so many other human beings caught up in the rat race of personal success she presented the world with embellished credentials. When the Times ran it’s original story they reported that she had earned an MDiv from Duke Divinity School, a claim she had also made on her resume when she hired by Harvard. As it turns out she had no such degree, and the Humanist Community had to let her go.

It’s hard to know how people will interpret this event. It is easy to imagine religious critics blaming the dishonesty on her loss of faith and it is just as easy to imagine the atheists who criticize “atheist congregations” blaming those elements of organized religion that MacBain brought with her. But how much evidence would support either position? After all the ethics of Humanism, which MacBain embraced, do not leave room for dishonesty any more so than religious ethics do, and those climbing the ladder of success within religious organizations are no more prone to lying about their achievements than their counterparts in the secular contexts of business, academia, government and so on. In fact, if there is a lesson to be learned from this event it may be precisely that no one community has final purchase on righteousness. Here’s hoping that those ready to cast stones take that lesson to heart.

The New Politics of Unbelief: The Atheist PAC

For more and more Americans unbelief has shifted from the mere lack of belief in the existence of deities, to something encapsulated by one or more social identities–Humanist, Skeptic, (New?) Atheist, etc. Surveys show that self-identifying atheists are still a very small percent of the total population, but it is nevertheless a growing segment, and one that now has a new pathway into American politics; it’s very own political action committee (PAC). As the Huffington Post reports, today “the Center for Humanist Activism launched the Freethought Equality Fund PAC, which it’s billing as the first nontheist political action committee with a full-time paid staff.”* Here is how the Freethought Equality Fund describes it’s mission on it’s own website:

The mission of the Freethought Equality Fund (FEF) PAC is to change the face of American politics and to achieve equality by increasing the number of open humanists and atheists in public office at all levels of government. The FEF PAC is affiliated with the Center for Humanist Activism, which is the advocacy and political arm of the American Humanist Association.

The FEF PAC will provide nontheist Americans the opportunity to make their voices heard in the political process by supporting candidates who identify as humanist, atheist, agnostic, and who share our goals of protecting the separation of church and state and defending the civil liberties of secular Americans.

When people see respected ethical humanists and atheists serve in public office, this will begin to dispel many myths about nonbelievers. The FEF PAC will also support a number of candidates who identify as religious but who are leaders in supporting the rights of nonbelievers.

It will be interesting to see if the PAC focuses it’s resources on more than just church-state separation and (secular) civil liberty issues which are often, but not always, tied together anyway. Of course, no matter what it’s very existence indicates that the process mentioned above–of making identities formed around unbelief more publicly salient–continues to push forward.

ADDENDUM (*): There have been other nontheist PACs.

I did a bit of Googling this morning because I realized that I had simply taken an important claim about the Freethought Equality PAC on face value. It turns out that they are not the “first nontheist political action committee.” As long ago as 2004 the American Atheists had a PAC up and running called Godless Americans PAC, and it appears the PAC had similar aims. Since the PAC is now defunct the best I can do is a quote captured by a blogger back when the pack formed (I see no reason not to trust it):

GAMPAC endorses candidates for public office who support the First Amendment separation of church and state; defend equal rights and protections for our nation’s godless Americans; inform our community of the voting records of their elected representatives on issues of concern; and support our goal of having “a place at the table” in formulating public policy.

The Goodless Americans seems to have been functioning as late as 2008, when it appears that Elizabeth Dole used the PAC to smear her senatorial opponent. Dole ran negative ads associating Kay Hagan with the PAC, but had to take them down when Hagan denied the connection. It Makes one wonder if the same is in store for the Freethought Equality PAC. Will politicians welcome it’s help, or will they try to keep their distance for political reasons?


The Godless Americans PAC is not defunct even, it just changed it’s name to Enlighten the Vote, and is possibly under new leadership (the former president of American Atheists runs the PAC according to sources).

Theistic Atheists?

Pew God Belief

Because of a tweet by Pew Research’s Conrad Hackett (and a puzzled response by David Creech) I was reminded of the fact that surveys often show a very small percentage of self-identifying “atheists” also claiming various beliefs in god(s). Conrad was tweeting a result of the Religious Landscape survey, that 21% of “atheists” also profess some manner of belief,  which on it’s face sounds like a strange contradiction. The table pictures appears in Pew’s report #2 from the Religious Landscape survey.  It breaks down three levels of belief based on religious self-identification. Much of what it shows isn’t particularly head turning. That some Christians don’t believe in a personal God, or any god at all is to be expected because people do identity with Christianity culturally. The same is true for Judaism, which in fact has a long tradition of “secular” (that is non-believing) sub-culture(s). But what are we to make of the believing atheists?

I would argue that the “atheists” who believe in an “impersonal force” are not that strange, after all the Christian church has in the past labelled anyone who didn’t believe in their one true, personal God an atheist. The point being that there is a tradition of using atheism as non-belief in the personal God of the Abrahamic faiths alone, or perhaps more specifically Christianity. But what about those 6% of “atheists” who believe in a “personal God?” I have to admit that I’m completely stumped on this one. Essentially these people are theistic atheists (whereas the “impersonal force” folk are deistic atheists). So how does one explain this conceptual contradiction? Pure error in the survey taking or something more interesting?

Attending to the Secular at AAR 2013

Last year I started putting together conference guides for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network aimed at scholars interested in topics covered by concepts like nonreligion, secularism, and secularity. The guides are meant to call out relevant panels, sessions and individual papers at large conferences like the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. They are a navigation tool in other words. So with no further ado I give you the conference guide for this year’s AAR meeting in Baltimore:

Take special note of the sessions sponsored by the Secularism and Secularity Group, which we successfully founded last year to do more sustained and concentrated work on the relationship between religion and the secular. There was enough demand for such work that we ended up with four seperate sessions this year:

  1. Is the School a Secular Site?: The Study of American Education, Religion, and Secularity - Saturday, 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
  2. Religious “Nones”: Understanding the Unaffiliated - Sunday, 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
  3. Producing Secularism in Public Spaces - Monday, 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
  4. Memorializing the Secular: Martyrs, Mourners and Saints on the (Non)religious Borderland - Tuesday, 9:00 AM-11:30 AM

If you are interested in the long term efforts of the Secularism and Secularity group be sure to attend the 3rd session, “Producing Secularism in Public Spaces,” because our business meeting will follow the paper presentations. If you have any questions, comments or criticisms of this conference guide please feel free to contact me directly. Enjoy.

Wait, There Is a War on Religion?

During the last American presidential election conservatives like Rick Perry, aided by FOX News and friends, pushed a meme that Obama had declared a “war on religion.” Reasonable people scoffed at them, because after all, even if the administration backed policies that some religious people or groups were not in favor of, it’s ludicrous to think that everything religious, or religion itself as a category, were under attack. So then what do we make of the Guardian today as they suggest that not only is there a “war against religion,” but it’s being waged by atheists? Here is what they had to say in “Are atheists winning the war on religion?

Richard Dawkins has said that he feels more and more that religion is being left behind. In an interview with the Times (paywalled link), the famous atheist explained that while he has some sympathy for the Anglican church, he feels that we are all moving away from religion. Do you agree?

Following this blurb is an option to vote yes or no on the question: “Do you think atheists are winning the war against religion?” In order to see the results (as of 9:50AM Eastern Standard Time) I clicked no and found myself in the minority. A full 68% of Guardian readers voted yes, which might say more about who reads the Guardian than anything else. Even so what does that mean? Does it mean that these people think religion is losing influence in the world? That less people are identifying with religion(s)? That less people believe in deities (as the atheist juxtaposition might suggest)? Or literally that atheists, under the leadership of people like Richard Dawkins, are waging and winning some kind of discursive war against an army of religionists?

I have a feeling that if a third option was available the results would be drastically different. The option I would have liked to select wasn’t “no” but “Neither,” because there is no meaningful “war against religion,” and framing discussions about secularization or religious decline in those terms is exceedingly unhelpful. While there is plenty of evidence that religious institutions are slowly losing influence and adherents in the West there is little to no evidence that the New Atheists have had anything to do with it.

Instead of clarifying anything meaningful about the changing face of religion in the modern West the war metaphor simply validates the conservative religious position that there is indeed a war against religion. According to them this supposed war is of course not only waged by the New Atheists, but also by the secular state (e.g. Obama) and/or any other persons/institutions not aligned with certain religiously based value systems. Is that what the Guardian was trying to accomplish? I doubt it, but if it isn’t they should consider thinking before publishing.

Re: Ritual. Why Be a Hater?

In the West we are for the most part ritual haters. Faithful Protestants hate ritual because that’s what Papists or pagans do, or maybe both (wink, wink). Faithful skeptics hate ritual because they fear the emotional responses it can evoke will override their rational faculties. But a vast majority of “enlightened” Westerners (religious and non-religious alike) hate ritual for a much more mundane reason–because they believe it is meaningless.

Just now I read a piece in Salon about the on-going court case in Massachusetts challenging the inclusion of “under God,” in the pledge of allegiance.  Two atheist parents are arguing that it excludes atheist children, many of whom are of course forced or pressured to recite it in school everyday. That’s a fair objection of course, and as the article points out the “under God” bit wasn’t even part of the original pledge. It was added at the dawn of the Cold War, to help reinforce American civil religion no doubt. The author of the article then questions why we have kids recite the pledge at all anymore:

Rote recitation, day in and day out, is ultimately meaningless. Ask any second-grader if she knows the meaning of “indivisible.” Ask a random adult, while you’re at it. The question shouldn’t be whether the phrase “under God” belongs in the Pledge; it should be whether the Pledge itself belongs. Does it really speak to or reassure the numerous non-believer kids out there, or the immigrant or dual citizenship kids? Does it teach any of them anything about loyalty or duty?

The rhetorical questions she asks about the actual pledging of allegiance, the daily civic ritual that many children are forced to undergo across the nation probably sound spot on to most. Do children actually understand the so called “meaning” of the activity, or even of all the words they recite? No they don’t, but I would propose that the very question only makes sense to the mundane sort of post-Enlightenment ritual haters mentioned above, and I think it’s quite telling that the author is one of them, despite being Catholic!

You see ritual isn’t really about “meaning,” but about action. It’s about doing things a certain way and usually along side of others. People thinking about ritual–those who want to move beyond the hater stage–would be much better off re-centering their understanding of ritual around efficacy as opposed to meaning. Was having children across the nation recite the pledge for the last 50 years efficacious in some way? Yes. It initiated and reinforced a basic sense of national belonging among many of our nation’s youth–a sense of national belonging that some of us don’t think was necessarily healthy, but nonetheless it did so effectively. After considering efficacy the non-hater might start to wonder why and so on. There is a rich literature on ritual, built up over centuries by anthropologists, psychologists, historians of religion, etc. which offers insight into these types of questions, but it requires getting over the hating first.* Ritual may seem (or even be) “meaningless” but that doesn’t make it powerless or ineffective, or unimportant to understand.

*For a holistic yet novel approach to the “work of ritual” I would suggest Seligman et. al’s Ritual and it’s Consequences.

Marriage in America: From “Civil” to “Secular?”

As I’ve pointed out in the past, marriage historians are quick to note that the American wedding was an ostensibly “civil” affair until well into the Victorian era. It is perhaps not surprising that the Puritans, who were strict Reformation anti-ritualists left wedding ceremonies to civil authorities. Protestants also did not believe that marriage was a sacrament; though of course that did not preclude the religious importance they placed on family arrangements formed around a legally married couple. As wedding historian Elizabeth Pleck points out even Catholics, for whom marriage was still a sacrament, usually had a civil ceremony to satisfy state authorities as well as a private religious ceremony in front of a priest. But why did Catholics need to perform both ceremonies?

It is my understanding that religious officials have had the power to solemnize marriages for quite some time. In fact the British Crown opened the field up to religious officials even prior to the Revolution. So why not just go to the priest? Perhaps because of what I quoted Tracy Fessenden about yesterday–the pervasiveness of an “unmarked Christianity” in American civil life. As we know it was de rigueur for the Protestant establishment to favor civil weddings, but to favor them for religious reasons. The civil wedding, in other words, was not “secular” in any contemporary sense of the term, but instead an extension of (and later survival of) the Puritan religious ethos that in Fessenden’s words not only required that the “difference of the religious per se be dissolved in the conduct of day to day life, but also that religious difference itself be constituted as a threat to that life.” The Catholic marriage rite would have been just such a threat and I suspect that this is why it was sectioned off from appropriate American civil life.

This means, I believe, that wedding historians are doing their readers a disservice by simply harping on the “civil” nature of early American marriage, as if those marriages stand in contrast to religious ones the way that civil marriages often do today. I would propose instead that the meaningful distinction between religious and “secular” weddings does not happen until the 19th century and even so does not come into wide application until the last few decades. Last year I found a news clipping from 1911 that ties the nonreligious values expressed by a civil wedding to secular identities, and as I’ve written elsewhere organized irreligious communities, like Secular Culture were practicing secular ceremonies, expressing nontheistic values, since their inception in the late 19th century. But these communities were small and rare, and for a vast majority of the nation the culturally normative practice of lavish church weddings took over the civil ceremony as consumerism motored on in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Flash forward to the last few decades and the notion of secular ceremonies being expressively and self-consciously nonreligious appears to be in full bloom. Today’s secular and religious marriage ceremonies are of course not usually very different in form and in fact they often express many of the same values about love, individuality, commitment, etc. Despite these similarities the self-conscious expression of difference in terms of religious content and nonreligious identity maintenance make today’s secular ceremonies starkly different from the “civil” ceremonies of pre-Victorian America.


Of course Fessenden would most likely put yesteryear’s civil and today’s secular ceremonies on the same trajectory since she sees our very version of “secularism” as an extension of American Protestantism. I want to be clear that I don’t disagree with this general assessment but I also think we can’t leave the story there. Contemporary nonreligious identities, and the practices that constitute and rejuvenate them, are more than just the inevitable telos of American Protestantism. Yes, these practices are heavily indebted to the trajectory Fessenden maps out, but they are also working against and/or away from it. In fact my dissertation navigates one of the many ways in which that very tension is playing out among disaffiliated Americans. Stay tuned to find out!

Atheists: Pope Francis Wants (to Work with) You!

As the Catholic News Service reports, Pope Francis delivered a homily this morning that went beyond ecumenism in affirming what appears to be a radical preference for works over faith.

“The Lord has redeemed us all with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone,” he said. Some may ask, “‘Father, even the atheists?’ Them, too. Everyone.”

The commandment to do good and avoid evil is something that binds all human beings, he said, and it is “a beautiful path to peace.”

Noticing the good others do, affirming them and working with them promotes an encounter that is good for individuals and societies, he said. “Little by little we build that culture of encounter that we need so much.”

Someone can object, “‘But I don’t believe, Father, I’m an atheist.’ But do good and we’ll meet there,” he said.

While it was always clear that Francis, a Jesuit, was a proponent of the social gospel, reaching out directly to unbelievers like this in order to find common ground in good deeds is rare to say the least. Where will it lead? Is the Church ready for a sustained interfaith dialogue with groups that share it’s justice aims no matter how sincere those individuals may be in their unbelief? I’m willing to wait and see…

(Non)religion and Charity


The photo above was taken by a Reddit user who tells us that when he passed this homeless man, the man proclaimed: “The atheists are winning!” Since being posted on Reddit the photo has made modest rounds across various social media platforms even landing in a handful of blog posts. Some atheists, like Taslima Nasreen of Freethought Blogs, have been quick to use the photo as exemplary evidence of the supposedly unbiased nature of non-religious generosity. While she acknowledges the studies that show rather emphatically how religious people self-report more charitable giving that the non-religious do she also has a theory about why:

They do not help to really help others, they help others to help themselves. Mostly they donate money to build churches, mosques, temples, gurudwaras, pagodas, synagogues. They do not give a damn to the eradication of poverty programs. When atheists help, they help out of sympathy and solidarity, love and compassion. They do it to make the world a better place. They do not do it to go to heaven.

Now while it is true that studies have also shown a higher association between giving and compassion among the non-religious the reasons for this are far from clear, and certainly do not always or even usually come down to different understandings of otherworldly compensation. And in fact as James McGrath asserts the photo isn’t a particularly good measure of anything at all. It is actually a “Data Collection Fail:”

Is the photo a set up or something a homeless man really did? Did atheists and agnostics give more because they normally would or because of a desire to “win” in this competition? Did money move between baskets? Did the proportions change at different points during the day? How many people in each category passed by there? We simply don’t know what we would need to know in order to interpret the significance of the picture.

McGrath is right to point out that the photo is not a good source of data for a variety of reasons, some of which his questions clearly elucidate. But does that mean that the photo is useless to scholars who are interested in the intersection between religion and charity? I would argue that it  isn’t useless, and that it in fact points to a variety of unanswered questions.

By depicting hard currency in a context of actual giving the photo raises the question of how closely self-reported giving is reflected in actual practice. We know that (religious) Americans have a propensity to greatly exaggerate some activities that reflect outwardly upon how faithfully they are practicing religion, like going to church. Could religious Americans who are taught that charity is a virtue also be over-reporting their giving practices? Scholars were able to solve the church attendance puzzle by counting bodies and cars on Sunday morning, but actual giving is nearly impossible to measure. One would have to convince a blind sample of Americans to answer a battery of religion questions and then to release their tax-records. That doing so is unlikely is a understatement, but that doesn’t mean that keeping the question in mind is unproductive. While we should take the “data” provided by the photo with multiple grains of salt, we should also save some of those grains for times when we consume “data” that reflects self-reported measures of socially desirable behaviors, like giving to charity.

There are, of course, a variety of other questions that we could be asking ourselves in relation to religion and charitable giving. As I wrote last year, recent data from the Portraits of American Life Study (PALS) have shown that people who encounter personal financial hardships are increasingly likely to leave their religious communities. While personal stressors like a recent breakup or the death of a loved one actually bring people closer to those communities, financial hardships push individuals out. Why is that? Could this be partly because charitable giving is seen as a virtue; a virtue that those experiencing hardships can no longer even feign a connection to as such? What does this say about the culture of charity in some religious communities? Might there be a relationship between the Great Recession and the recent uptick in religious dissafiliation? These are the types of questions that remain unanswered and in my book this photo, despite being a shoddy piece of data, is a great reminder of how little we know and how much work is left to be done.

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