Good (Without God): Ten Ideas for Humanist Service


This post is part of our Humanist Perspectives series. In this series, we invite guest contributors to explore active humanism and what it means to be a thoughtful, engaged member of society. This article by James Croft originally appeared on his blog, Temple of the Future. You can read more by James at

See also Good (Without God): Service is a Humanist Priority.

In the first article in this series, Good (Without God), I outlined the moral necessity and benefits to the Humanist movement of focusing more of our energy on service work. Here, I outline ten ideas for service projects which are easy to organize, some of which can be integrated into the regular programming of your Humanist group. These ideas are designed to showcase and promote Humanist values, with special consideration given to service opportunities which highlight values which separate Humanist communities from many religious communities. In this way, we can demonstrate the distinctive value of Humanism.

The Ideas:

  •     Build service into your regular events.
  •     Connect with established service organizations to reduce the planning burden.
  •     Do social justice work.
  •     Work with your local community–with t-shirts!
  •     Represent Humanism on national service days.
  •     Reach out to other groups where there are shared values.
  •     Give awards for service.
  •     Raise money for charities.
  •     Learn how to give first-aid.
  •     Give of your own body, through organ donation drives.

1. Build service into your regular events

The easiest way to make service a regular part of your Humanist community’s offering is to integrate it into the events you already organize. Holding a Darwin Day party? Ask guests to bring a box of cereal, and donate the collection to a local food bank at the end of the night. Celebrating HumanLight? Ask friends to bring toys for kids at the local children’s hospital. Gestures like these are extremely easy to organize (you are holding the event anyway!), make an appreciable difference in people’s lives (showcasing the Humanist commitment to compassion), and give you a great chance to get good press. Local press love stories of do-gooding, and when it’s a bunch of atheists handing out toys, many editors will be unable to resist.

2. Connect with Established Service Organizations

When the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard organized its first Spring Break service trip–a week-long excursion to clean parks, paint fences, and rebuild houses in post-Katrina New Orleans–we didn’t go it alone. We reached out to established organizations in the area (primarily the Center for Ethical Living & Social Justice Renewal) and connected our goals with theirs. This significantly lightened our organizational burden and enabled us to make great connections with people who knew what we could do to help better than we ever could. In every populated area there are likely to be groups who share broadly Humanist values and who would love to help you with your service projects. Reach out!

3. Do Social Justice Work

When deciding what projects to tackle, keep in mind the core commitments of Humanism. Central to the Humanist worldview is the equal dignity and moral worth of every human person. Social justice work, understood broadly, allows you to demonstrate the commitment of your community to this value. For our second Spring Break trip, the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard traveled to the Cheyenne River Youth Project in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, one of the poorest communities in all of the USA, to work with kids who have few educational opportunities (you can read a little about our trip here). Humanists understand that wherever you’re born, you are worthy of respect and the chance to live a full life. Choose service work which reflects this commitment.

4. Work With Your Local Community–With T-Shirts!

Whenever possible, find local partners to do service work which directly impacts the area in which your community makes its home. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard partnered with the Cambridge Energy Alliance, HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team Massachusetts), and the Margaret Fuller House for its “Green Without God” project, in which we helped exchange old light bulbs for more energy-efficient models, absolutely free! The benefit of working locally is that you get to represent your community to your (broader) community. The sight of tens of people, all wearing “Good (Without God)” T-shirts, making a change for good in the community, is the very best way to change attitudes about atheists, as my many discussions with local residents during our service events attest.

5. Represent Humanism on National Service Days

Each year the calendar is filled with mountains of national service days: all opportunities to represent Humanism in general, and your Humanist community in particular, and to put a good face on Humanism. National Secular Service Day (founded by Harvard Humanists!) is one example, which every secular group should seek to participate in. Other options include the AIDS Walk (a great opportunity to point out the difference between Humanist and conservative religious morality regarding sexual ethics and equal access to health care), and the Race for the Cure (which reflects Humanism’s commitment to Feminism and science-based medicine).

6. Reach Out to Other Groups

Seek organizations with shared values who would be willing to partner for service work. These groups might be single-issue groups (prisoners’ rights advocates–inmates are humans too, science-education organizations, environmentalist groups) or values-based communities like your own. There is often much overlap between Humanist and Unitarian Universalist student groups, for instance, and perhaps between Humanist and other liberal religious groups. Of course, it is essential never to compromise our values to make an alliance around one issue. At the same time, it’s foolish to spurn possible compatriots simply because they don’t agree with us on every point. When Chris Stedman was organizing the Chaplaincy’s 9/11 service project, he reached out to a wide constituency of religious and nonreligious groups, and we packaged 10,000 meals for hungry children in Boston. A few weeks later, he did it again, and we packaged 20,000! People can achieve wonders when they work together.

7. Give Awards for Service

A great way to celebrate service within your Humanist community–and to get bigger-name speakers to visit your group!–is to offer an annual service award. I was thrilled when the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard offered its first-ever annual Service to Humanity award to Dan Choi, gay equal-rights activist famous for his work on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Getting to meet Choi was an amazing experience, and our event (which, harnessing idea #6, was a collaboration with the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus) got a lot of attention for promoting the Humanist commitment to the equal dignity and worth of all.

8. Raise Money for Charities

There are a number of secular or explicitly Humanist charities which are worthy of our support. Top of the list is the Foundation Beyond Belief, a fantastic charity which allows you to specify how much of your donation goes to each of a number of categories. This means you can tailor your offering to the particular passions of your members: if you are particularly enthusiastic about developing the potential of every person, you can donate to the Educational charity of the moment, while if Human Rights fires you up, you can donate to that category instead. Other options include Nonbelievers Giving Aid, Skeptics and Humanists Aid Relief Effort from the Center for Inquiry, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which seeks to defend those charged with religious “crimes.”

9. Learn How to Give First Aid

As Steve Ahlquist of the Humanists of Rhode Island pointed out to me once, every Humanist should be certified in first aid. Humanists believe that the only hope we have is each other, and that we must rely on support from our human fellows rather than help from the heavens. First-aid training is the prefect expression of these values: we should prepare to give help when needed by learning critical live-saving skills. There’s no unified structure for first aid training in the USA, but look to the American Red Cross for information on how to set up a training.

10. Give of Yourself–Literally!*

Another distinguishing feature of Humanism is our belief that life is over when it’s over: we have one life to live, and when we’re dead, we’re done. On first glance this doesn’t look like a “value” which might inspire service, but actually, it means we should have few qualms about offering up our organs, after death, to those who could better make use of them. I can think of few acts more Humanist than giving of your own body to save a life or help the scientific research which would cure a disease, and organizing an organ donor card registration event is simple and inexpensive. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a handy page where you can register as a donor–I’ve just done it! You could organize a meeting of your group with a talk on the importance of organ donation, with laptops available to have people sign up right there.  In the future, we could perhaps even investigate making the membership cards of large Humanist organizations donor cards by default! Blood drives can also be a good way of showing your commitment to the welfare of others.

Putting these ten suggestions into practice will benefit your Humanist community in a number of ways: it will bring positive press coverage to your groups, as you’re seen out and about helping others; it will help you forge alliances and build understanding with others, reducing the distrust of atheists in our society; and it will diversify the activities your group offers, drawing new people to the group and keeping existing members interested. But most important, it will show that your community is Humanist in deed as well as word, and lives its principles.

If you hold or have held any service events you want us to know about, or have other ideas, comment below!

*An important note on blood drives and organ donation: in some countries and states, it is not legal for men who have sex with men (MSM) to become donors or give blood. In my view, Humanists should not accept this discriminatory practice, which is based more on prejudice than on good science. If your group does do a donor or blood drive, ensure that 1) you know the laws regarding MSM in your area and 2) you offer either another option for MSM, so they are not excluded from the event, or you find a way to protest the discriminatory law while donating your blood and body. For a discussion of the Humanist virtue of inclusion, see this post.

James Croft is the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and has been working on the Humanist Community Project since its inception. He is a Cambridge and Harvard Graduate, and is currently studying for his doctorate in the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan, and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.