My Take on the The Muskogee Atheist – Children’s Charity Dispute

After reading several stories about the recent dust up between the Muskogee Atheist Community and the Murrow Indian Children’s Home  it has become clear the popular narrative is misinformation.   The popular narrative, repeated in many stories and the comments section of those stories, is that the children’s charity refused a donation simply because it came from atheists.  But that was not the sticking point.  The problem was that the donation was tied to having the children’s charity publicly recognize the donation “in memory of” the Muskogee Atheist Community (which, as it turned out, is a small secret FaceBook group).

Now, assuming the stories were accurate in their description, I would seem to me the Murrow Indian Children’s Home could have been more diplomatic/tactful when returning the money.  They could have approached the donor something like this: “Mr. Wilbourn, I think we have a little problem here.  While we greatly appreciate your donation, are you aware that you are asking us to publicly honor your group in a section of a future publication that we like to keep as apolitical and non-controversial as possible?”  And proceed from there.  That said, I am having a very hard time empathizing or sympathizing with Matt Wilbourn’s position.  Let me explain why as I attempt to put myself in Matt Wilbourn’s shoes.

I imagine myself working at a printing shop and a staffer from Camp Quest comes in hoping to have us print some free flyers for their upcoming summer season since we have done this in the past.  My boss then tells me we are no longer doing that and when I see the disappointed face of the staffer, I decide to donate $100 (actually, if it was me, I would have offered to pay $100 toward the printing fee; I’m not sure why Matt did not think of that).

The staffer is appreciative and hands me a form.  At the bottom of the form, I read:

“is any person or organization you want to put it in memory of”

Here’s where it becomes hard for me to empathize/sympathize with Wilbourn.  In my world, “in memory of” donations are meant for loved ones who recently passed away.  You are paying tribute to someone that was special to you and/or who loved the charity and long valued their work.  It’s a public gesture of kindness, recognition,  and appreciation and the charity itself is offering to facilitate and share in it because of the supportive nature of the donation.  It would never occur to me to list the donation in memory of some FaceBook group I was part of.  For me, that’s, well, “no class.”

Anyway, let’s say that, like Matt, I do fill out this part – “in memory of Ex-Camp Questers Who Now Praise Jesus.”  For Ex-Camp Questers Who Now Praise Jesus is a secret FB group I run that has about a dozen members, most who once attended a Camp Quest and since growing up, have become Christians.

Now, an hour later, I get a call from someone at Camp Quest.  They tell me they are not going to accept my donation because their organization values reason and science and they prefer not to have to “Praise Jesus” in a future newsletter.

It’s at this very point where I now have a choice.

1.) If I was truly focused on trying to help kids, I would happily agree they could remove the honorarium, as it was no big deal. Money gets to kids.  End of story.

2.) If I was focused on myself and my tribe, I would be offended and refuse to remove the honorarium.

Speaking again for myself, the choice is a no brainer – Option 1.  If I was serious about wanting to help out the kids, the need for some honorarium to my FB group is easily dismissed.  Yet Matt Wilbourn chose option 2.

So now there is a chasm between us.

But even if I was all offended, Wilbourn and I continue to drift apart.

I would not occur to me to set up a GoFundMe page to prove “everyone has a price” (as Matt told Hemant Mehta).  I’d have to be more than offended – I would have to feel the need for “payback.”  The GoFundMe campaign comes across as an attempt to stick it to the children’s charity.  To humiliate them and rub their faces in it.  All because they didn’t want to honor my secret Ex- Camp Quester FB group.  This is alien thinking to me.

But then the distance between us just keeps expanding.  Say I help shape a narrative with a popular fundamentalist blogger that paints Camp Quest as an organization that doesn’t want to take donations from us mentally ill, child-abusing religious people.  It’s as if our money is infected with some faith virus!  Say this angers various religious people all over the internet and they show up, in mass, on Camp Quest’s FB page.  There is so much mocking, hostility, and vile commentary that Camp Quest decides to shut down their FB page (a place where they solicit donations).

At this point, I would be horrified and feel partly responsible, since it was the false narrative fueling all this anger.  I would feel the need to issue a public condemnation of the behavior of my fellow religionists and publicly apologize to Camp Quest.   I would not be using all this controversy as a platform for setting up new twitter and web pages to help promote my no-longer-so-secret FB group.

Look, I am not arguing whether I am right or wrong.  I’m just explaining why I simply can’t empathize/sympathize with Matt Wilbourn and his atheist FB group.  At each step along the way, I would have chose differently, even if I was in his shoes.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am not an activist.  In fact, as you probably know, activists rub me the wrong way.  For them, every choice has to be a political statement as they find the smallest of mole hills and spin them into huge mountains.

I never thought I would see the day where the “in memory of” portion of a donation sheet for a children’s charity would become such an heated issue.  I guess now even that small part of life is no longer safe from the manipulative hands of the preening activists.  And I don’t have to like it.

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23 Responses to My Take on the The Muskogee Atheist – Children’s Charity Dispute

  1. SteveK says:

    At this point, I would be horrified and feel partly responsible, since it was the false narrative fueling all this anger. I would feel the need to issue a public condemnation of the behavior of my fellow religionists and publicly apologize to Camp Quest

    Spot. On.

  2. Doug says:

    I believe that the original wording was:
    “In Honor of the Muskogee Atheist Community.”
    and not:
    “In Memory of the Muskogee Atheist Community.”

  3. Michael says:

    Doug,

    I’m just going by the orginal news report:

    “I filed out the paperwork and I put my wife and I’s name on the paperwork,” he said. “At the bottom, it asks if there is any person or organization you want to put it in memory of and I put the Muskogee Atheist Community.”

  4. TFBW says:

    @Michael:

    … assuming the stories were accurate in their description … the Murrow Indian Children’s Home could have been more diplomatic/tactful when returning the money.

    Based on which report of their actions? The one offered by MAC, or the statement actually made by Murrow?

    For the record, I think your description of events here is the most likely one. While it’s still within the realms of possibility that MAC is an outright hoax, the tiny bit of circumstantial evidence we have that its existence pre-dates 22 Aug tips the balance in favour of the story you offer. From my perspective, the only remaining issue still in need of an explanation is the post-fact registration of a domain name. It probably suffices to say that when the whole thing successfully went viral, they suddenly thought, “hey, we should really have a Twitter account and a website.” Not that either of those things can expect much actual use, now that MAC’s had their 15 minutes of Internet fame.

  5. Doug says:

    @Michael,
    Ah – missed that, thanks. I was going with the wording in the Christian Examiner story. Interesting that they were being charitable: “in honor…” is a whole lot more sensible than “in memory…”

  6. pennywit says:

    I think the children’s charity could have handled it better. Maybe with a wink and a statement to the effect of “We thank God for these atheists’ generosity.”

  7. TFBW says:

    Winking is a great alternative to maintaining integrity, isn’t it?

  8. Billy Squibs says:

    @pennywit, by ‘better’ it looks like you mean ‘play the game’. Maybe they could have done as you suggested but do we know that this would not have been the equivalent of poking the bear?

    Anyway, I think it’s odd that we’ve had a few people have offered a very lightweight and general defence of MAC but not one of them have taken the time to stick around and engage with the criticisms we have levelled against MAC and people like Metha. This is telling.

    I had a quick look over on Metha’s blog and I see he is still promoting that line that this was really just about the evil Christians. He is. For example, in the last post I could find on this topic (based on a quick search) he summarises that the whole event was the fault of “Christians who refuse donations from people who don’t share their specific religious beliefs”. I relistened to his debate with Randal Rauser on Unbelievable recently and I occasionally read his blog and it’s clear to me that matters of integrity and charitable reading come second to his weird and wearisome anti-theist agenda.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2016/09/03/how-camp-quest-oklahoma-will-be-using-the-money-that-a-christian-charity-refused/

  9. Billy Squibs says:

    Ah, slight mistake above. I rewrote the comment slightly but neglected to delete “He is” .

  10. pennywit says:

    Hi, Squibs and TFBW.

    First thing, I’m not here to defend Hemant Mehta. I generally enjoy his blog. I also think it’s a good source on information about persecution of atheists. I’ve followed the sagas of Raif Badawi, Sanal Edamaruku, and the Bangladeshi atheist bloggers on his blog. But I also think he often goes overboard in his eagerness to criticize theists. Beyond that statement, I’m really not going to support or defend Mehta here. If you’d like to have that discussion with somebody, email Hemant and get him to comment.

    As far as the wink and nod, I think it would have been very good for the charity to “play the game,” as you put it. In these sorts of conflicts, it’s best never to give the other guy what he wants. The atheist what’s-his-face clearly wanted to draw attention to himself and provoke the charity into acting a certain way. And in this case, the charity reacted PRECISELY how the atheist wanted it too. Thanks to the Home’s actions, the atheist gets to prattle on to his fellow atheists about how virtuous he is, and the Home’s leaders look like small-minded meanies.

    Play the game a little bit, though, and you can turn it around. Make a good-natured statement as you accept the donation, and you leave the atheist with two choices: He can either admit that he’s been outplayed, or he can snipe about the “Thank god for atheists”-style comment. If he’s outplayed, then everybody can forget about it next week. On the other hand, if he responds negatively (i.e., the bear has been poked), then the atheist comes out looking like the twit.

  11. stcordova says:

    “We thank God for these atheists’ generosity.”

    or

    “We thank God for the atheist support of our Christian work.”

  12. TFBW says:

    Feel free to play the game your way with your own charity, pennywit.

  13. pennywit says:

    Wow, TFBW, you’re a real Mister GrumpyPants.

  14. Billy Squibs says:

    I understand what you are saying, pennywit. And I suppose we can argue the toss over what alternative actions could have been taken early on. However, I happen to think that the real issue here is larger than the initial dispute and how it was handled. The real issue is about the subsequent reactions from those on the attack.

    Firstly, we see how quickly this event was politicised by MAC.
    Secondly, we have a respected figure in the anti-theist movement, Metha, reinforcing a narrative that was as best an uncharitable account and at worst a fabrication.
    Thirdly, we have ill-informed followers of people like Metha coming out of the woodwork to express their outrage – in some cases this was apparently quite nasty in nature.
    Lastly, some in the atheist community seem to think that this is a victory because they exposed ‘Christian bigotry’ and a lot of money was donated to a charity. But I wonder at what cost to Murrow Indian Children’s home and their operational effectiveness? I don’t hear much about this charity now from MAC and Metha now. I hate to get all Helen Lovejoy here but instead of trying to get one over on the opposition ‘won’t somebody please think of the children’?

    If I was aware of something like this within Christianity – specifically a community that I had some fellowship with – then by God I’d make it clear that this was unacceptable and harmful behaviour.

  15. Doug says:

    @pennywit,
    I agree with you (at least concerning your preferred charity action – not so much with your characterization of TFBW 😉 ). But in the spectrum of “how it should have been played”, the charity’s shortcomings are relatively small compared to those of “atheist what’s-his-face”, no?

  16. pennywit says:

    Couple reasons on my view there.

    First, I majored in communications (although I do something else now). When I see a situation like the Home’s where they didn’t handle a PR situation as well as they could have, I immediately start thinking of better responses from a PR/communications standpoint.

    Second, I approach life with the notion that people like Atheist What’s-His-Face are always going to do their thing. I’ve had people like that in my life, and I know you can’t really control them. But you can control how you react to them, and you can control whether you let them manipulate you, or whether you play their little game with you. Home’s biggest problem here, I think, is that its leaders allowed themselves to be manipulated.

  17. pennywit says:

    And for the record, no, I don’t think much of Atheist What’s-His-Face. If he really wanted to make a difference in the children’s lives, he would have given anonymous, or at least quietly, and left it at that, rather than turning the whole his “donation” into a spectacle.

  18. TFBW says:

    GrumpyPants isn’t an altogether inaccurate description, but I think it was a hasty conclusion based on available evidence.

    Look, I appreciate that you’re being a clever PR spin-doctor, pennywit, but sometimes people have principles, and they just want to stand on them. The clever spin-doctoring isn’t going to be acceptable if it’s seen to be compromising those principles, and while you may have a grasp of the PR issues, I’m not convinced that you understand the principled constraints surrounding the case. As such, your advice comes across as shallow.

  19. pennywit says:

    The principle, unfortunately, strikes me as a rather petty hill to die on. To take on the OP’s metaphor, I’d tell the Camp Quest people to shut up, take the theists’ money, and finesse their way around it a little.

  20. TFBW says:

    And you’re entitled to consider other people’s principles petty, but it casts you in the light of “arrogant ass”. You might not be as good at PR as you think you are.

  21. TFBW says:

    And now you have enough evidence for the GrumpyPants thing.

  22. pennywit says:

    Well, I’m not being a PR person when I call him petty. I’m just being judgmental.

  23. Doug says:

    You guys are too cute. Just stop.

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