(RNS) A new foundation in Georgia is urging atheists and secularists to donate more to charity in order to show that their generosity equals that of churchgoers — even if their checkbooks haven't shown it thus far.
''The nonreligious are generous and compassionate, but our giving lags behind the religious," said Dale McGowan, executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief. "It's time for those of us who are otherwise engaged on Sunday mornings to have our own easy and regular means of giving."
The recently formed foundation seeks to "focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists" and also provide "a comprehensive education and support program" for nonbelieving parents, according to its Web site.
The foundation has good reason to be concerned — a 2000 survey by the charitable giving group Independent Sector showed that 87.5 percent of all charitable contributions come from religious donors.
That doesn't mean atheists aren't giving; it just means believers give more, most often to their religious congregations. In 2007, Americans gave a total of $129 billion, and nearly two-thirds of that went to some kind of religious organization, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey.
Chicago-based Cygnus Applied Research surveyed more than 17,000 U.S. charitable donors, and found that in 2008, religious donors gave an average of 16 percent more than other donors.
That's because religious institutions — almost more than any other — teach altruism as a central tenet, said Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb, a research firm in Champaign, Ill. that tracks church giving.
McGowan, a self-described secular humanist, said the nonreligious don't lack the desire to give, just the opportunity.
''Churchgoers are passed the plate and asked to donate 52 times a year while their neighbors watch," McGowan said. "But atheists don't really congregate, so we're not nudging each other in public to give to charity week after week. We don't have systematic opportunities for generosity."
McGowan isn't alone in feeling nonbelievers could do better.
''Churches and other religious groups have a centuries-old institutional advantage in that they can rally the faithful to causes at will," said Paul Fidalgo, a spokesman for the Secular Coalition for America. "We in the secular community are building our own charity-minded communities as we speak, working to help people in need."
Through its Web site, Foundation Beyond Belief is hoping to harness the power of social media to create a virtual congregation that encourages non-churchgoers to give. Members can sign up for a monthly automated donation, and can also decide how to distribute their money among various charities.
The foundation chooses charities specializing in health, education, poverty, environment, child welfare, human rights, animal protection, peace and support for nonreligious parents. Charities are selected based on their impact and efficiency, and must not proselytize to their recipients.
Members can indicate how they want their donations spent, as well as nominate new charities to receive the funds. If members don't like where the money is going, they can shift their donation toward a different recipient.
So far, the foundation has raised $6,500 since its January launch, with a goal of $500,000 by the end of 2010. It also hopes to grow its membership from the current 250 members to 4,000 members.
KRE/dsb END HAUSS