A bit of background:

I'm an atheist mum from New Zealand, who has on going mental health problems (depression, social phobia, generalised anxiety disorder). We don't have a lot of money.

Where I live, there aren't a lot of secular services that someone like me might need. Churches tend to have the market on free or low cost counselling, support groups, or other community outreach programmes.

Now, I know that *most* of these services are provided sans religious overtones. No preaching or praying- the religion or lack thereof of the user isn't a factor. But they ARE provided by churches.

I worry that by using these services I'm supporting religion in it's hold over good folks. And it makes me feel like a hypocrite, and worse, like I'm contributing to something wrong.

At times when I'm unwell, I tend to get a lot of pressure from friends and family to use these services. They think I should put my needs before my higher ideals and just avail myself of what's being offered. Afterall, they say, there's no religion even involved.

Recently, I gave in and took my daughter to a music and movement group at the Salvation Army. As I expected, there was no preaching or praying. No-one even mentions god. The kids and parents just dance around to some fairly innocuous music, and it's a chance for the kids to play and have fun together, while the parents can be around other adults. Mental illness has kept me almost housebound for months, so I have to to say I appreciated the chance to meet other people in a very low pressure way.

But I've stopped going in the last few weeks, because I feel so conflicted. Not surprisingly, the reaction from my husband and others has been frustration. They don't want to see me slip backwards because of an ideal they see as petty in comparison to my mental wellbeing.

I'd like to point out that I don't believe there is any particular insidious hidden motive in these people running these programmes. At best they just think helping people a good thing to do, and at worst they think helping people is the *christian* thing to do. That doesn't affect me too much, and in fact I'm terribly grateful to the INDIVIDUALS involved for giving something positive out to the community. It's more the worry that it contributes to the greater religious machine, as such. It gives something for people to point to and say, "See? We DO need religion. What would we ever do without it?"

So I'd love to canvas your opinions on the subject. Right? Wrong? Subjective?


Thank you!

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Therese, that is a tough one. I certainly see your position, and the quandary that by accepting these services, you are somehow putting your stamp of approval on the church and its religion. 

Here's my take. If I was stranded on the road, in a driving rainstorm, and a church bus offered me a ride, I'd take it. The same as if I was driving and saw a stranded church bus, I'd stop to offer help. I don't think by accepting what limited assistance there is, especially in a rural area where not much is available, is compromising your principles if it really is done without the proselytizing. I empathize with the problem, since I too live in a very rural area where there is not much available, either.

In one sense, I disagree with your family, in that I don't think your principles are petty.  To the contrary, I think they are rather high minded. However, I do think that accepting the assistance and services available, which admittedly help, does not compromise those principles in your situation. Take care of yourself and your family. Who knows. You may then be in a position to be the one to stop and help the church bus as a decent and caring atheist.

Good luck.

Thank you Pat- I'll definitely give that some thought. It helps to hear that from a fellow atheist- I feel that we're starting from the same base in our reasoning on the matter.

I'll just correct and say I don't live in a rural area- we've actually just moved back to the city from a tiny country town not long ago. But the problem remains the same- a real lack of secular providers of these kinds of services. I actually bought this up at a conference I was asked to attend several years ago in Wellington. The conference was an opportunity for those with mental health issues or their family members to address discrimination in mental health services. As a result of the conference, many changes have been made. But my suggestion of more secular help services was not one that was persued. Much to my frustration, no one at the (quite large) conference understood what I was on about. Most were of the view I talked about above, seeing no problem with the status quo of churches providing these services so long as religion was kept out of it. Why double up on services? Others were offended that I should suggest there was something wrong with the very good services churches were providing. How ungrateful of me!

I feel that until these attitudes change, religion will have a tight hold on the *needy*, as such. Sad.

I think that many of the people that offer these services, volunteer their time, whatnot, don't do it because it is a religious organization, but rather because they want to help and these are the "best" places to help out. If there are not religious overtones or expectations of you, I don't really see it as being any different than receiving services from a more secular organization. If you were to receive help from someone from a secular organization, but the person helping you was a religious person, would you feel this same way? Believe it or not, in areas where there are not more secular social services agencies, but more things like catholic services or salvation army or whatnot, there are non religious people that are volunteering their services through those organizations, simply because they want to help, and it is the only venue for them to do it.

I used to volunteer with the Salvation Army myself, so I do understand that. They knew I was an atheist, and they didn't care- they were just glad of the help.

I guess what it boils down to is that

A: I don't want society to NEED religious organisations. But the truth is, if secular organisations aren't arising to help with these social services, maybe I'll have to admit that we do NEED religions for something. And that stings a little. Feel free to picture me as a 2 year old having a tanty. Harummph.

and B: If I'm going to be an atheist who goes about thinking/saying that there is no god, and the religious belief is for nought, aren't I being a bit of a dick if I then accept help from them? I'm sure there is a word that describes exactly this behaviour, but it's elluding me. So here's an analogy: "I think you're beliefs are ridiculous, and you hold back society in so many ways, but sure, I'll happily eat your candy, Jesus" Isn't that just rude? I don't want to be a douchbag.

Thanks for sharing your views everyone- I'm very depressed right now, and tend to get muddled thinking, so hearing from others helps. :-)

Under your point A:, I think that daily life is a mix of compromises.  There are many things that we as a society wind up needing that I don't agree with totally.  There are many jobs that exist and allow people to earn a living wage, where they may not be able to elsewhere, but they are jobs in industries that I find repulsive, but if the industry wasn't there, these people wouldn't have a job.  It sounds oxymoron-ish, but I think that in a lot of ways religious organizations are a necessary evil.  Unfortunately, I have other issues with the Salvation Army than just their religious connection (especially after the guy in Australia spoke on the radio about homosexuality and the SA's stance on it).

I may be in the minority here, but I don't really have a problem with religious organizations per se, just ones that actively hurt people or try to spread their dogma to those that don't want it.

Your point B:, I don't think you are being a dick accepting help from them.  If they are saying they are providing services for humankind, then they are doing that, and it should be offered no matter what your belief system is.  I think that the person that is giving the services, if they are not acting as if you are taking something you shouldn't from them, then it isn't a problem for them, so why should it be a problem for you? 

That said, I note that you said you used to volunteer for them.  Look at it this way, you gave of yourself to them and the people they serve.  You put that into the bank and it earned interest and now you are withdrawing some of that and using it for yourself.  You are not "taking", you are just using what you put in earlier.

You make some good points. I can follow them logically, but emotionally they're a hard pill to swallow. If I concede that we need religion, because they provide social services where secular organisations do not, and then I accept those services, then I FEEL as though I have alligned myself with an organisation which does bad things- like maligning homosexuals on radio, for example. I FEEL like it puts them in a position of power: Because we need them to preform a service we can't or won't, they have implied permission to behave badly in other areas.

Well if you are in need of the help and there are no Atheist charities there to help you - then I would just accept what they have to offer. You don't have to agree to their beliefs to accept the help do you?

It is unfortunately in this case you will have to accept what is.

I wish I had more of a magic bullet answer for you :(

That's ok- thanks everyone for your great input. It was great to just have a sounding board :-) At the end of the day, it's a personal decision for me, and I'm sure I'll figure it out.

The term in charity works (in the USA) of a church that attaches its good works to a requirement to listen to sermons or support the church in some way is "rice Christians" (from when churches used to do that in exchange for food in starving Africa).

I would relate to this by citing a secular example from the USA (of a different sort, but the ethics are identical).


A disabled military member, being put out of the service for disability, can apply to the Veterans Administration for disability pay/care. The VA rates things differently than the military, and if one applies for VA benefits, one must sign a waiver foregoing any further military (disability and retirement pay) benefits.

One can do this on one's own, or one can ask for help from one of the Veterans service organisations (the Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, &c). One does not need to be a member of these organisations to ask for their services, including assigning them as one's legal representative in a claim before the Veterans Administration.

Joining such an organisation is entirely voluntary, as is donating time or money. By law they are required to work with all veterans to maintain their legal status with the Veterans Administration. They do not pressure a veteran to join or support them, they are glad to do the service.

In my own case, I joined the Disabled American Veterans ten months before I was medically retired from the US Navy. (I knew they were going to do it, and I knew the DAV has certain benefits for those that are members.)

My best friend, who was disabled in a motorcycle accident about a decade before I left the service, also used the DAV's services to apply for a disability claim. They put no pressure on him whatsoever to do anything for the DAV.

How this applies to church community services: the word is "community" here. If the church is interested in helping the community (instead of its parishoners), then the church will not apply pressures of any sort or conditions for their help. The idea is the church's actions speak for itself.

Any church (at least in the USA) that applies such pressures can lose tax-exempt status for a charitable organisation.

However, not all churches are created equal. The Salvation Army for example featured guest speaker Dinesh D’Souza, the man responsible for the anti-Obama propaganda book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, and film, Obama’s America for its annual fundraiser just before the national elections. The Salvation Army was tacitly taking sides in politics, even if not overtly so.

Mr D'Sousa is an extremist Evangelical and conservative commentator associated with the Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family, and other such religious right-wing organisations trying to influence the government in violation of tax laws.

Like any organisation, even if you need its help with something, the question is whether you can stomach what the organisation does besides its out-in-the-open public face of goodness.

In 2003, my home (and many others) was destroyed in a tornado in Liberty, Missouri. The Salvation Army was one of the first organisations to send volunteers into our blighted neighbourhood to offer hot meals and assistance. I refused its help, because I understand what they do behind the scenes. I would not (to steal a phrase from the Christians) do a deal with the Devil.

On the other hand, after I left Liberty and moved to Omaha, I volunteered to work with the Metropolitan Community Church up the street from my house to distribute breakfast to the homeless, because the MC Church does not attach strings to its help and is not discriminatory in its practices (though at the time I was still a Wiccan).

I do not support the Salvation Army in any way because of what they -actually- stand for, not the public face of its bell ringers at Christmas.

Likewise with the church you are receiving aid from. You need to do the checking. Whilst we know a church's main programme is spreading the Gospel, the way in which they do it is just as important. Are you dealing with an organisation that truly wants to help the community because as they see it, they are doing good works as the Bible commands Christians to do (by their works you shall know them), or are they doing good works to gain converts?

The nuance can be subtle, but important. The MC Church does good works because they believe that is what a good Christian should do, the Salvation Army does good works because they are trying to gain converts and are associated with forces trying to impose religious dogma on the USA.

Thanks James. I'm just trying to understand your views correctly, because I think you've mentioned two allowances for accepting help from a religion. Firstly, a deciding factor in choosing whether to accept help from a religious organisation should be THEIR view on why they're offering the help. If they are offering the help in hope of ultimately gaining converts, then you should avoid them, but if they are offering help because they believe god wants them to help people, that's ok? Secondly, a deciding factor should be whether the church does other harmful works.

To the first point: If two churches gain converts through good works, but one of them was hoping to, and the other wasn't, does it really matter? The actions were the same, just the rationalisation behind what they were doing was different. They still both gained converts, and all churches are ultimately happy with that.


To the second point: This is where it gets a bit tougher. Are some churches good and some bad? How do you choose?  I guess it comes down to whether you believe religious belief is harmful or not.

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