Doing Good without God

How a secularist practices altruism without fear of hellish punishment or promise of heavenly reward

Citation Information

McLaughlin, Heather 2015. Doing Good without God, URL = <>.

Why I Love Kiva

Kiva Entrepreneur Tara Capsuto

My name is Heather. I am an almost-retired teacher in Melbourne, Australia, and have always donated to causes such as Oxfam and UNICEF. In recent years, I have more consciously aimed to do my bit to alleviate poverty, with a deeper understanding of the impact donations can have depending on the organization. (See the Effective Altruism movement, inspired by philosopher/writer Peter Singer.) My aim now is 'doing good better'! I had also been looking for a way to contribute to microfinance and eventually found my way to Kiva. It's a web site that allows people anywhere in the world to lend $25 amounts to borrowers (the working poor) in dozens of countries, then have it repaid back into the lender's account. Connections to the world and giving people a hand up, all from your home computer!

This interest has become a large part of my life in the last few years. Some years back, I joined FairShare International, which advocated sharing wealth, supporting the environment, and so on, with a plan that included donating 5 per cent to those less fortunate. Then I read Jeffrey Sachs' book, The End of Poverty, which I found quite inspiring. Its central message is that we have it within our means to eliminate extreme poverty within a few decades. (Already, it has been halved in the last 20 years.) The Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations are a really impressive way to measure how the world is doing. Once I'd read Peter Singer's book, The Life You Can Save, I decided to donate 10 per cent of my income to poverty alleviation and the defeat of hunger around the world, and also to let others know what I was doing rather than just doing it privately. In Australia, the 'tall poppy syndrome' and natural reticence about appearing to boast prevents many people doing this, but I know it stimulates my activity to hear what others are doing. So, I have started telling people. As an atheist, doing good without God has now become a big part of my life.

Lending Passion

Book cover: The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs

Since I found the Kiva microfinance web site in 2009, it has become an increasingly major part of my life, financially and socially. And with Kiva, you don't even have to give your money away! There's a nearly 99 per cent repayment rate. One of my early loans was to an older woman in Kenya to buy dried fish for re-sale. She needed just $125 and was funded by me and four other lenders from around the world. I love that you get to lend to Mongolian cobblers, women who grow peaches in Tajikistan, Bolivian coffee growers, someone in the Philippines who needs a better fishing boat, villages in Kenya who need solar lighting and impressive big groups of women farmers in Senegal. The many loans to cheerful, colourfully-dressed groups of healthy-looking women in Guatemala and Ghana are a great antidote to the grim news about Africa and poorer countries that we regularly see on our TV news. There is clearly a lot of good stuff going on, and Kiva loans give many people new possibilities in their lives.

Loans vary in their repayment times, which are spelt out in the information that comes with each loan photograph—from five months to ten years for some very long terms for tree planting or university fees. The information about loans, about Kiva in general and about your own personal 'Portfolio' of loans is extremely detailed. So, I can expect, through the chart of Estimated Repayments in my own account, to be receiving repayments for many years. In fact, one loan will still owe me $1 in 2024! Each month on the same day (currently the 17th), repayments come into the lender's account, and most people then lend them out again. It feels like Christmas every month—a surprising thrill to get funds back in and get to choose more people to lend it out again! Of course, you can choose to take the repaid funds out again if you need to. But many of us are 'Kivaholics', addicted to lending, and try to avoid that.

I decided a couple of years ago to use Kiva as my default for any spare money/retirement savings. After all, there is a very good chance of getting it back, and, in the meantime, rather than sitting in a bank or superannuation account, it can be lent over and over again till I need it. I am at almost $20,000 in my Kiva account now, but I've lent $86,000 in loans through re-lending. I may not get any actual bank interest on this money, but the odds are good enough for me, and the human interest I gain is incalculable.

Masses of Atheists: Kiva Teams

Book cover: The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

Teams of Kiva lenders can communicate through message boards and bring satisfying connections with others of like mind or interest around the world. Kiva has over one million lenders. And the lending teams on offer number in the thousands, everything from Beer drinkers to Bahá'í. On joining Kiva, I found the Kiva Atheist team at the top of the list. At the time, I assumed that was because it started with 'A'. A nice surprise to find that no, it was top of the list because its members had loaned more than any other team! Atheists are actually a generous lot, even though they don't even do good deeds in the hope of eternal gain. You can find us at

I love the full name of the team. It is Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious. Even the acronym, AASFSHNR, has needed to be abbreviated to A+! I also love that this team brings together around 32,000 people from around the world, many of whom live in the USA (infamous for the high proportion of people who still believe the world to be only 6,000 years old). After regular contributions to the message board on the A+ team, I was quite honoured to be invited to be a co-captain of the team in 2012. What a thrill to be a leader of a massive band of international atheists, all helping others around the world.

Back at the start, I had also joined the Kiva Paying It Forward team at The group is named after the concept of passing on to others good deeds from which we have benefitted (from the book and film, Pay It Forward). My son was barely recovering from a grave illness when I found Kiva, and my gratitude owed to modern medical science and hard-working medicos who got him on the road to recovery meant that 'paying it forward' was just what I needed to do. I was invited to co-captain the team when it had only a handful of members. Since then, I've found another co-captain in Amsterdam. The team now has 360 members and is coming up to $600,000 lent. I find all of this very satisfying. Kiva is an ideal format to pay it forward for people who feel they have benefitted from the good deeds of others.

There are also teams of lenders for every possible interest, persuasion or quirky passion, and you have the opportunity with each loan to 'credit' it to the team of your choosing once you have joined one or more. In the early days, as I was getting involved in Kiva, there was some friendly competition between the Atheists and the Christians. Currently, the Christian team is causing some consternation in the A+ team by out-lending us each month, thus gradually whittling away at our lead.

Also, over the years, competition has taken place between the Catholics and Bahá'í teams, and between the Mormons and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (which is, in a lovely twist, actually the largest team that classifies itself as a 'religious congregation'). I'm also a member of three other teams called Fabulous Fabrics Fans, Women in Hats and Older Borrowers. There's a team for everyone, and it makes the lending experience so much more personal to not only have information and updates from the borrowers, but personal connection with other lenders.

Book cover: The International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris

An American travel writer, Bob Harris, has written an excellent book, The International Bank of Bob, about his experiences visiting many Kiva borrowers around the world. His supporters set up a team called Friends of Bob Harris to further this work and connect on the web site. His writings give an insight into microfinance and the whole Kiva lending experience from the inside. I highly recommended it.

Combined with my other volunteer work and donating 10 per cent of my income, all the lending I do through Kiva is a way for me to feel I am 'doing the most good' to share my somewhat privileged life with those who were born into more difficult circumstances. After all, I have clean water, enough food, a good education, electricity and healthcare as needed.

Give It a Go!

Making Kiva loans is an excellent antidote to so much negative news. Seeing so many happy, healthy women in large groups of farmers and market sellers in Africa and South America working to improve the lives of their families on Kiva is proof that millions of people around the world can have easier and healthier lives than their parents. The updates from loans confirm that given a hand up, many people can work to improve their situation and give their children more opportunities.

Finding an active team of other lenders on the Kiva web site can open a whole new world of social contacts with like-minded people in many countries. It's amazing how much personal connection and happiness all this lending and donating brings me. I invite others to try it. What will YOUR personal portfolio of loans look like? Please follow this link to join the A+ team on Kiva.

Copyright © 2015 Heather McLaughlin

You will be interested in
Book cover: Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age by A. C. Grayling
Book cover: Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting by Daniel C. Dennett
Book cover: The Foundations of Scientific Inference by Wesley Salmon
Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith
Book cover: Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Blackburn
Book cover: The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism by Jessica Whyte

Share This

  • twitter
  • facebook
  • linkedin
  • googleplus
  • gmail
  • delicious
  • reddit
  • digg
  • newsvine
  • posterous
  • friendfeed
  • googlebookmarks
  • yahoobookmarks
  • yahoobuzz
  • orkut
  • stumbleupon
  • diigo
  • mixx
  • technorati
  • netvibes
  • myspace
  • slashdot
  • blogger
  • tumblr
  • email
Short URL: