My recent post encouraging readers to join the atheists' group on Kiva stirred some controversy in a comment thread on Reddit. One commenter, whose sentiments were echoed by several others, writes:
You should give because you believe in something - not just to prove a point and rig this like it's some kind of game.
With respect, I say that these are not mutually exclusive options. I believe that Kiva is an excellent idea; I wouldn't have recommended it if I didn't. But at the same time, our giving through Kiva does prove a point, and I see nothing wrong with that.
As a strategy, targeted microfinance is a brilliant idea. It can't replace charities that provide necessities like vaccinations, food or clean water for those in urgent need, but those types of charitable giving can at most sustain life. Kiva, meanwhile, is a way for people to improve their lives and add to the wealth of their community and their nation. In the long run, this is the only way to lift people up out of poverty and help developing nations join the industrialized world. And Kiva adds an additional innovation - the ability to see, on a personal level, the people whom your loan is helping - which gives donors a more personal connection to the recipient of their loan, and that can only make them more likely to participate again.
At the same time, lending through Kiva benefits us in a different way. As I wrote in my previous post, atheists are often accused of being selfish or lacking in charity, and our status as the largest group there provides strong evidence that this is not the case. This isn't just a matter of scoring points in a debate. Anything that we can do to push back against the false stereotypes that are spread about atheists will improve our public image and make people more likely to give our position more consideration. And that's not a small thing, not when the world is beset by warring fundamentalisms and badly needs a dose of cool reason. The more people listen to the atheist message and abandon the religions that cause them to tyrannize their neighbors, the better off we will all be. If our involvement on Kiva, or any other charity, is an opening that we can use, then it is all to the good.
Regardless of what motive moves you, I don't think giving money in support of a worthy cause is ever a bad thing. I didn't join Kiva, or recommend that my readers do likewise, because I want to "beat the Christians" - but if other people do feel that tinge of competitive envy, and if it spurs them to join and contribute when pure-minded appeals to altruism wouldn't have worked, then so much the better. I'd even be happy if a Christian site saw this post and urged their readers to join so that they could beat the atheists! Regardless of who "wins", the result of this competition is more money flowing through a worthy secular charity to help lift people up out of poverty.
This is another of those situations where atheists can't win. If we don't organize and give to charity in a visible way, we're accused of lacking generosity and compassion. If we do organize and make a show of being charitable, however, we'll be accused of being holier-than-thou, or doing it just because we want to impress people or show off. Clearly this isn't an argument we can win, so there's no reason even to try. My attitude is that we should ignore the perpetually disgruntled and do what we know is right. Donating our time and effort to charity, whether through Kiva or any other organization, and doing so as atheists, is a win-win situation: help for the needy and good publicity for our cause.