What I Write About

I write about the infinite number of intersections between every day life and the good news of the God who has come to get us.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Giving Atheists Their Due

Several months ago I wrote a paper discussing various approaches to discussing the gospel with students at UNC. I noted that the campus is full of activists, so it was important for Christians to talk about issues of justice and mercy as central to the Christian understanding of making the world right. I noted that while we've done plenty that we need to apologize for throughout history (see Crusades, The) we've also got plenty to be proud of: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, William Wilberforce. It's no coincidence that most of the greatest activists throughout history have been Christians.

One reader that I shared my paper with objected that this was a weak argument. She pointed me to an article by a man named Peter Singer who is a somewhat famous (and controversial) ethicist. His article is about charitable giving by rich folks like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and why they should give. Tucked in the middle of his article is this bit:

Interestingly, neither Gates nor Buffett seems motivated by the possibility of being rewarded in heaven for his good deeds on earth. Gates told a Time interviewer, “There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning” than going to church. Put them together with Andrew Carnegie, famous for his freethinking, and three of the four greatest American philanthropists have been atheists or agnostics. (The exception is John D. Rockefeller.) In a country in which 96 percent of the population say they believe in a supreme being, that’s a striking fact. It means that in one sense, Gates and Buffett are probably less self-interested in their charity than someone like Mother Teresa, who as a pious Roman Catholic believed in reward and punishment in the afterlife.

We'll talk some today about the generosity of atheists and tomorrow about the whole idea of reward--and the self-interest of Mother Teresa.

Singer, like most of us, is somewhat selective in his illustrations. By all means, Christians are not the only ones who give and give generously to any number of causes. Praise God that this is so. It is a mercy of God that he would use all types of people, even and especially those that do not believe in Him, to enact his redemptive purposes on earth.

However, it is certainly mis-leading to paint the portrait of the generous atheist/agnostic being disproportionately beneficial to the world. Carried to a logical but slightly over-stated position, the idea here would be if only more atheists had more money and power, they'd give generously without all this selfish reward-in-heaven stuff.

As the twentieth-century came to a close it was oft-repeated among historians that the twentieth century was (altogether now) "the bloodiest century in history." Let's talk about the wonders of atheism as a contribution to this turn of events. Stalin's devout atheism led to more deaths than Hitler's Germany did. Chairman Mao also did more than his fair share. Hitler, while he was baptized as a Christian, based his Nazi Germany on Nietzche's philosophy--certainly no friend of Christianity!

In fact, we can take Singer's argument and turn it on its' head. Atheists historically are barely a blip on the radar in terms of historical population. And yet they are single-handedly responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of the most savage killings in all of history.

Or maybe the moral of the story is this: give atheists plenty of money, just don't give them military or political power.


katie said...

ak, i've been missing your blog. now that i'm back to unemployment, i've got more time left to check out your ponderings. thanks for making me think :) and all my best to the entire kirk clan.

gracethrufaith said...

I think I agree with you..

gracethrufaith said...

this is Leslie by the wat

Alex said...

katie, welcome back! i mean really, if you have to choose between employment and reading piebald life, i think you're making the right decision!

leslie, thanks for checking in!