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Article in New York Times, April 3, 2010

Atheists’ Collection Plate, With Religious Inspiration


Four or five Sundays in 2005, his own atheism notwithstanding, Dale McGowan took his family into the neo-Gothic grandeur of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis on a kind of skeptic’s field trip.

Mr. McGowan went because he wanted his three young children to have “religious literacy.” He went because his mother-in-law, Barbara Maples, belonged to the congregation. He went because, as a college professor with a fondness for weekend sweatpants, church gave him the rare chance to wear the ties she invariably gave him for his birthday.

Something else began to strike Mr. McGowan on those visits. He listened to the vicar preach about ministering to the poor, and he learned that the cathedral helped to sponsor a weekly dinner for the homeless. Most importantly, he watched as the collection plate moved through the pews and as his mother-in-law, who volunteered at those dinners, dropped in her offering.

All those details added up to a nonbeliever’s revelation. The theology and the voluntarism and the philanthropy, Mr. McGowan came to realize, were part of a greater whole, a commitment to charity as part of religious practice. And on that practice, this atheist felt lacking. To put it in church slang, he was convicted.

Rather than adopt faith, however, Mr. McGowan set out to emulate it, or at least its culture of giving. He set out to, in effect, create the atheist’s collection plate. By now, five years later, that impulse has taken the form of a nonprofit foundation that solicits donations from atheists and bundles them into contributions to organizations in fields like public health, environmentalism, gay rights and refugee aid.

Within the next week or so, Mr. McGowan expects to cut checks for a total of $12,025, the first benefits collected and disbursed by the Foundation Beyond Belief. The foundation has 316 donors who each have committed to contributing $5 to $250 per month — a system of regular giving that is modeled on the Christian tradition of paying weekly tithes.

“I don’t want to just be about negating somebody else,” Mr. McGowan, 47, said in a recent interview at his current home in suburban Atlanta. “And there are a lot of atheists who don’t want to be always fighting the culture wars. We need a positive expression of our values and a sense of community.”

The message has already found followers. Ingo Soeding, a 43-year-old management consultant in Chicago, first discovered Mr. McGowan on as the author of several books on raising [children without religion]. Mr. Soeding now is donating $50 a month to the Foundation Beyond Belief.

“I like the regularity of it,” Mr. Soeding said in a recent telephone interview. “My wife and I get several requests a year from friends doing marathons or walks for charities. Or something like Haiti happens. And, of course, we support them. But that’s reactive. We wanted something more conscious, more deliberative.”

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