Forget Faith-based: the Case for a Secular Safety Net

I went on a tour of a Catholic home for pregnant women last week. I had no idea that places like this still existed, but was invited to visit because of my work with abuse survivors. Our tour guide was a young woman in her twenties – a proud graduate of the program. Just over a year ago she found herself pregnant and homeless after leaving an abusive relationship; today she has a job, an apartment, and a baby girl. On the surface, this looks like a success story, but that impression changed for me once I learned about the religious components of the program.

When I asked her if they accepted people of all beliefs or none into the program, she said that she was not Catholic or really even Christian when she moved in. She shared that she had really struggled with her faith because of the things that had happened in her life, but after going through the program, she realized that faith in God was the path to a better life, and she decided to be baptized as a Catholic alongside her infant daughter. Before she was even done sharing her story, the Director of Faith Programs jumped in with the official answer: “Women come to us from all backgrounds, and we help them find their faith.” They do this through Mass two times a week, weekly prayer meetings, and individual faith counseling. They even organize anti-choice protests at the local Planned Parenthood.

What is the harm? One should not have to compromise their values in order to get help. One should not have to lie. And people will lie. When given a choice between safety and stability and homelessness or living with an abusive partner, you will do whatever it takes to get help. Women escaping an abusive relationship based on power and control shouldn’t have to exchange one abusive partner for another. Even if a woman is Christian or Catholic going in, she shouldn’t be told that faith in God is a magic bullet and if she has faith she won’t be in a violent situation in the future. Prayer might make you feel better, but it won’t make you safer. I sometimes wish it did.

Another program in our community, the only transitional housing for survivors of domestic violence, uses a year-long program based on the book The Purpose Driven Life.

The goal of Cognitive Restructuring class is for women understand that they are the director and developer of their own life and that they are not a victim of their personal passions and fears, nor the desires, threats or whims of people from their past. Their dreams and goals and choices are their responsibility. To help women to become aware of their thinking errors and learn methods for replacing negative thoughts with positive interventions and to recognize tactics that they use that block their recovery process and to assist women with monitoring their efforts to change.


Purpose 1. You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure

Purpose 2. You Were Formed for God’s Family

Purpose 3. You Were Created to Become Like Christ

Purpose 4. You Were Shaped for Serving God

Purpose 5. You Were Made for a Mission

I threw up a bit in my mouth the first time I read that. Again, the key message is that you are responsible for the things that happen to you. If you are a victim, it is your fault. If you become a good Christian, you will be saved. Even the name – “Cognitive Restructuring” – sounds like something out of a horror novel set in an asylum. This is indoctrination. This is wrong. Consider also that religion might be part of the abusive situation someone is trying to leave. Too many religious communities and leaders ignore or condone violence, based on antiquated and often harmful ideas about family, marriage, gender roles and sexual orientation. Imagine how it must feel to leave religion only to have it thrust upon you by those in the community who are supposed to help you.

Not only are there too many “faith-based” organizations providing social services, but even organizations that claim to be secular often have an undercurrent of religion or don’t provide inclusive services. And in many communities, your only option is a shelter or program run by The Salvation Army, the largest charity of its kind in the United States, which has a long history of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. If you are transgender, can you stay with the gender group with which you identify in a homeless shelter? If you are gay or lesbian and your family becomes homeless, can you stay with your partner and family in a family shelter? In my community, the answer to both of these questions is no. There are some great inclusive organizations out there (I work for one), but if you live in a religious community, a rural area or a more conservative area of the country and happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, your options may be limited or nonexistent.

When I left my husband, I was lucky. I had family who was willing and had the means to help us when we needed support and a safe place to go. But what if your family is part of the problem? In my community, even as a proud and out Atheist, I feel uneasy answering “none” to the religion question on the many forms I encounter in daily life – at my child’s school or the doctor’s office. Add a crisis to the mix? I would have lied in a heartbeat to provide shelter and food for my family. No question about it. What if there was an organization that not only didn’t care when you answered – “I am an atheist,” but was actually happy about it? I am tearing up just thinking about it.

10934095_327339524133188_7169923506599342522_oThis is the main reason I am excited to serve on the Board of Directors of Secular Avenue, a newly launched 501(c)(3) organization formed to help secular people achieve safety, stability, and autonomy. Secular Avenue’s initial focus is SAFE, a program that assists people who are unsafe at home due to leaving religion, religious extremism, domestic abuse, or coming out as LGBTQ. Services include financial assistance, counseling, legal assistance and resource coordination. Secular Avenue’s values include offering individualized, trauma-informed care, based on best practices and needs assessment, effectively using resources to maximize impact, transparency, and stewardship of donated funds. Additionally, Secular Avenue promotes the humanist values of autonomy, human dignity, critical thinking and assistance without religion.

Perhaps most important to me, Secular Avenue provides a meaningful way for atheists to help other atheists. And to know that they will receive care without compromise. Philanthropy and community service are important to me and are values I want to instill in my children. The idea of atheists working together to craft a secular safety net to catch people when they fall, especially when they are vulnerable, leaving abuse or religion, or coming out as LGBTQ gives me some faith…faith in humanity.

To learn more about Secular Avenue and how you can support this important work, visit!giving/cobq

Featured image: Steph, all rights reserved.

Secular Avenue logo, Secular Avenue, all rights reserved.


Steph is a mom, stepmom, freelance writer, and advocate. When she's not busy writing, chasing kids around, cleaning up messes, and trying to change the world, Steph enjoys snuggling, making pies, politics, reading paranormal fiction, yoga, and fitness. A fully recovered natural parent, Steph now trusts science, evidence, and common sense to lead the way. She has been actively involved in the reproductive and women's rights movements for more than 20 years and is a passionate pro-choice feminist. Her writing can be found on Grounded Parents, Romper, The Cut, and other print and online publications

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  1. Steph, that “Purpose Driven Life” bullshit is so…

    It doesn’t even make sense! God made you this way, but it’s all your fault? What the fuck?? Also, “You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure” sounds really creepy and gross.

  2. I understand the need for people to seek out like minded assistance. I think that your organization sounds like a good concept. I will never criticize someone for helping others. That also goes for religious organizations. However, Saying that Catholics, Christians, and the like should be forbidden from helping others because they are motivated by their faith has two major flaws. First you silence their freedom of speech; their right to express their opinions and beliefs. Secondly, perhaps, you imply that they shouldn’t be allowed to reach out to those that need help. If someone makes the decision to adopt the faith of those showing compassion to them that is their choice. If they lie to gain access they will still be taken care of, guilt can be forced upon someone, but guilt is also a natural emotion that isn’t always motivated by fear.  I know that some of the statements aren’t preferable, but consider that when trying to motivate someone who has been a victim…discovering a level of command over their future might not be the worst thing. It doesn’t promise that bad things won’t happen. It does offer hope to someone who is struggling. Which is the whole point.

    TL:DR Why not both?

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