atheism and charity

Here’s a response I hammered out quickly, while I had a few minutes here at lunch, to Donald Sensing’s post, “Atheists Arguing”, which I also posted there, but it hasn’t been approved yet:

The problem with their debate (see Donald’s post and link) seems to be an underlying assumption that when it comes to religion, we necessarily have to take the good with the bad. Anyone claiming that religion has done more bad than good in the world is obviously not paying attention, or they have a much wider perspective on the last few millenia of history than I could ever hope for.

It’s obvious that a religious framework provides an excellent moral framework that is often used towards compassionate ends. But religion also has failings that lead it towards despicable ends as well (in my opinion these have more to do with the convenient avenue of deviation from reason/rationality to mysticism/faith, but that’s a whole other argument). But the proportion of good to bad is really missing the point—it’s a false dichotomy: that either we have religion, and a positive moral framework, or we don’t have religion, and we lose it.

In my opinion, the good of a religious moral code can be extricated from the things about religion that we (atheists/agnostics) may consider “bad” (say, the irrational and faith-based belief in a God). In fact, I’d venture to say that this extrication happens more often than you may be willing to admit, given your examples:

And the atheists’ coordinated effort to help stricken people? Did we miss it somehow? Nope, there wasn’t any.

In my city there is a Baptist Hospital (in which I was born, actually) and a St. Thomas Hospital, founded and supported by the Roman Catholic Church. And the Atheist Hospital is where? Right: there ain’t one.

There are countless examples of people of religious faith joining together and being deeply involved in making better the lives of human beings around the world. Before atheists scoff at us perhaps they’d like to ponder and explain why they don’t.

My personal opinion is that the heart of every atheist is filled with the fear, indeed the deep suspicion, that they are wrong.

This is a little silly. Religious organizations found charitable organizations to proselytize (in varying degrees) as often as they do because they are taking, say, the Christian notion of charity to heart (token example: the union rescue mission for the homeless). In these situations, the visibility of the religious affiliation is important in order to drive home the association and, ideally, the potential conversion—hence the references to the religion in the charity name, and the liberal use of religions imagery and symbols.

Atheists or agnostics don’t have a goal of proselytization or evangelization, so you’re not going to see an “Atheist Hospital”, or an “Atheist homeless shelter”, you’re just going to see “Hospitals”, or “homeless shelter”, and this is the way it ought to be—religion or belief in a God should not be a precondition for compassion towards our fellow man, nor should it be muddled with religious evangelization.

And if you’re going to honestly claim there are no non-religious-affiliated organizations of charity (or even more to the point: that there are no atheists working for charities despite the fact that they are religious-based), well, good luck with that.