In an essay describing what he appreciates about religion, atheist Sigfried Gold points to its unparalleled ability to deliver services and help geared toward “self-transformation”:
Religions have certain advantages in the self-transformation arena that can’t be matched by secular forms of this work. One is the ideal–if not actual attitude–of religions towards money. Although the financial costs of religion can be quite high (giving away a tenth of one’s income is not uncommon), payment is generally voluntary; newcomers and poorer congregants can usually enjoy all the benefits of community, moral guidance and support, meaningful rituals, comfort in times of adversity, without having to pay more than they choose. Disingenuously or not, religions claim to be motivated by concerns beyond money, and obligate themselves to at least put on a show of providing services unattached to remuneration. For people outside the social welfare system, secular self-transformational help must be paid for. Much of the support in a religious community comes from other congregants rather than from paid clergy. As a special case, 12-step recovery fellowships, which include some of the largest organizations in the world, offer their members access to daily or hourly support, essentially for free, that could only be matched among secular service providers by extremely expensive in-patient treatment centers or psychiatry wards.
I fervently yearn for a day when people wishing to be better have easy access to free or donation-based support, offered primarily by their peers, possibly facilitated by modestly paid clergy, and offered without coercion, without insistence that one set of beliefs is right and the rest are wrong, offered because people who actively pursue their own paths towards meaning, fulfillment and some vision of the good feel a generous desire to share what they’ve learned on those paths with others. Religions may be declining in their ability to provide that kind of altruistically motivated, communally organized support, but we have few other models to work with.