In the recent post “Atheist Charity“, I quoted one example of a charge often laid against atheists: that we have not done nearly enough to help the needy among humanity, as opposed to religious groups that build hospitals, run soup kitchens, and so on.
I have a counterclaim: in terms of actual good done, rather than the narrow measure of dollars donated to charity, atheists can rightly claim credit for a great deal. Since the dawning of the Enlightenment, atheists and humanists have played a major role in scientific study of the world, and this study is what has given us the tools we can use to do actual good. All the compassion and good will in the world, whether from religion or for humanism, is futile without science to discover how the human body works and provide real ways to relieve suffering.
There are basic, limited comforts that any person can give another. We can bathe a feverish person’s brow or hold their hand; we can speak words of comfort or reassurance. And the value of this human contact should not be discounted, but in cases of serious illness, it is not nearly enough. Good intentions alone cannot cure an infection, mend a shattered bone, shrink a tumor, or replace a failing organ. Nor can they reconnect severed nerves or stem blood loss. If we wish to heal, we have to understand how the human body functions. We have to rely on science.
In just a scant few centuries, science has already brought vast improvements in our day-to-day lives. Consider how many diseases we can now treat, how many illnesses we can now cure, that were untreatable even a few decades ago. Think of how many people are alive today that would have been dead by now if they had lived in an age when we couldn’t treat appendicitis, or when we didn’t have vaccination, or when childbirth was a risky ordeal and Caesarian section a death sentence for the mother. Many lethal scourges of our past are now matters of routine treatment. Many more, though not yet cured, have been transformed into chronic, controllable ailments rather than life-threatening dangers.
Meanwhile, millennia of religious belief have produced not a glimmer of insight into the way the world actually works, nor a shred of real improvement in the human condition. When it comes to alleviating suffering in meaningful ways and not just offering comfort, superstition is utterly ineffective. All the prayers in the world cannot help a diabetic who needs insulin.
Even worse, no matter what other charitable works they do, some religious groups are actively opposing the further scientific research that holds out the hope of curing illnesses that are currently untreatable. As I wrote in “Be Rational“, it is a form of virtue to dedicate oneself to seeking out what is true, the better to use that knowledge to help one’s fellow human beings. It is not a praiseworthy act to steadfastly cling to delusion and error, refusing to investigate one’s preconceptions, and thereby rendering oneself unable to help the needy in any substantial, meaningful way. Even more immoral is to fight against the efforts of others that are seeking to do this.