More often than not, when you ask a person in my field--I work in a homeless shelter--what motivated them to join up, it is reasonable to expect some variation on the following answer: I was called to it.
Without a doubt, the religious faith of folks in my line of work is a factor. Whether it was a person who has 'been there' and wanted to give back, or a person full of empathy and awareness of the shortcomings of our system, and got the little nudge that they needed from their respective church, mosque or synagogue, religious faith tends to motivate; That is wonderful, that is fine. We need as many good people as we can get, whatever the motivation (and there are many inspiring religious folk in this field: try to maintain a disdain for the faithful when you see all of the wonderful services the faithful offer in the homeless community; it's near impossible).
I offer my own testimony as both that of an interesting exception, and in the hopes that other secular folk might be inspired to get involved as well.
The spirit that led me to my current station was the realization that there was no other kingdom, and there was no greater glory to be found in the needless suffering of my fellow primates.Learning that there was probably no hereafter moderated many known (and unknown) masochistic tendencies I possessed in my religious life. To know that 'this is probably it' lit a fire under my ass to do something good with my life, to hell with treasures in heaven.
Homelessness offends me on different levels. On one level, I'm offended by the sheer callousness with which mankind can treat his fellows. In a society with a supposed safety net, an awful lot of people end up hitting the concrete pretty hard. I am also offended for selfish reasons. Isn't it obvious to everyone, that if you want yourself and the people you love to be safe and sound and free from the twin sins of want and ignorance, maybe it would be a good idea to make sure our neighbors are safe from them as well?
I feel a sense of urgency compelling me to try to contribute positively to our current (and only guaranteed) situation, and since I am able to do this kind of work, why shouldn't I?
Ideas have different effects on different people. Religion encouraged in me--as I believe it encourages in many people--an acceptance of suffering as part of god's plan, and--sickly--as a gift in some cases. As an atheist, I assure you that I don't look for divine meaning in the suffering of sentient beings. I look to find ways to minimize suffering for myself, and for others, and to maximize general well-being. I'm not working towards a utopia in the sky, or a utopia here on earth: I don't believe in either thing. I do believe in optimal states, however, and think that is an attainable goal worth working towards.
I have met many great people of faith working in this field. It's softened me, and has opened my mind to the possibilities of collaboration with people of different viewpoints and belief systems. Something that has saddened me, however, is how under-represented secular groups and individuals are in homeless service. This is something that I would very much like to see change. If you're an atheist, agnostic, non-theist, bright, or free-thinker, or have some connection to such a group, why not think of a way to volunteer in this field that could definitely use your time, money, and creativity?
cross posted at KOS.