What a Christian Learned from an Atheist

Stan Nelson, a columnist for the Pueblo Chieftain Online, wrote an article about atheism a couple weeks ago and said this:

The truth is that atheism and religion stand on the same, blood-soaked level, one as culpable as the other. But the reason for that is atheism and religion are not strict opposites. Atheism is not the opposite of religion, but of faith, specifically in God or, for that matter, any god or gods. Religion is the demonstration of faith, defined in prosaic terms in James’ epistle: “To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”

So we’re left with the dismal fact that religion and atheism can kill, because as practical belief systems, they allow such abuse, even if they should not. Investigation and experience tell us, however, that faith can and does save life, sometimes in a quite practical sense, in too many examples to list here.

Does atheism do that?

Austin Cline was quick to point out the inaccuracies in a letter to Nelson:

It would be more accurate to say that atheism is not the opposite of religion, but the opposite of theism – or, more accurately, the lack of theism.

Atheism is not a belief system. Atheism is not a religion, an ideology, a world view, or anything like that. If this seems wrong, consider the fact that theism is also not a belief system, religion, ideology, world view, or anything like that. Theism and atheism are single data points or positions: theism is the presence of a belief in the existence of at least one god of some sort, atheism is the absence of any sort of belief.

As for the atheism saving someone’s life column, Cline wrote this:

You’re comparing apples and oranges here: specific types of theistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) against a mere data point that is part of various belief systems (atheism). Does the absence of belief in angels save a life? Does the absence of belief in aliens save a life? Those are nonsensical questions. It would also be nonsensical to ask if the mere presence of such beliefs save life. The same is true about the presence or absence of belief in gods.

Did the letter make a difference?

Nelson’s latest column shows that he picked up on some of the information:

Speaking of definitions, an apology and a concession must be offered to Austin Cline, who is the contributing author for the section on atheism and agnosticism for the informational Web site about.com. The mistake made was to identify atheism as a belief system. It can be, as Cline pointed out, a component of a belief system, but should not be considered a belief system unto itself. Cline’s depth and latitude should be deferred to, at least in that regard.

So if a columnist writes something inaccurate about atheism, let this be an example of how an email from you can set things straight.

Nelson also shares this tragic story he received from one atheist:

“In an article you wrote, you asked whether atheism has ever saved a life,” wrote Jameson Sawyer. “Yes. Mine.”

Sawyer is from Bowling Green, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, and has suffered from multiple sclerosis since 2003. And last year was a bad one for him.

“I was in a dark place mentally,” he wrote, “my fiance and I had broken up after five years, my multiple sclerosis was acting up, and due to it, I was rapidly becoming paraplegic, with no feeling in my legs and unable to even stand, let alone walk. I was basically bedridden. I will be totally honest here, I was contemplating suicide.”

Friends prayed for him. However, Sawyer gives the credit for his decision to carry on with life to modern medicine, therapy, his own considerable grit and two other very important things.

One was his dedication to others. Sawyer was a team captain for the MS Walk in Toledo that year. As the day approached, he lay on his bed with a deadly combination of pills in his hands and his teammates on his mind.

Though “the pain was amazing,” he wrote, “I thought about how my act would affect my own family and friends. I thought about how it would affect the people with MS who I’d be depriving of my ability to raise funds and awareness for the fight.”

So his decision to choose life was made. “I’m too much of an actor. I’m not ready for the final curtain call.”

He put the pills away and did his job at the MS Walk, on wheels and in pain.

“I had a mission to do, and it needed to be done,” he wrote.

Whether you are atheist, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish or whatever, you cannot read that and not feel the tug of connection, of sympathy – not pity – and triumph that can be shared.

The other important thing was corollary to the first. If you believe, as Sawyer does, that you’re put here for other people, then you have to know the ground rules. He did, in his own way.

“As an atheist, I believe (with evidence to back it up) that this life is the only one we get. Getting off this ride now means you don’t get another ride.”

Nelson doesn’t agree with everything Sawyer writes, but he shares the story with the hope that other Christians can also learn from it.


[tags]atheist, atheism, Stan Nelson, Pueblo Chieftain Online, God, religion, Christian, Austin Cline, Judaism, Islam, Jameson Sawyer, Buddhist, Muslim[/tags]

  • steph

    I think the “blood soaked history” he refers to is more properly meant as active anti-theism.i.e. the “Stalin” kind. People often confuse that term with atheism to think it means the same thing. I think many people honestly don’t understand what atheism is.

  • Robert Bowland

    It is rather arrogant to compare religion or theism to atheism in any way. There just isn’t any relationship. Atheism is in itself is a misnomer. Atheism is simply the rejection of any faith based doctrine of god or any of its dogma. It is not a system of any kind either. When atheists get together, they form an alliance not a communion or congregation. Atheists do not believe nor toterate the idea of an existing god. Evolution, in both its micro and macro perspective, have more evidence of its existence than religion of any kind has of its own. Religion is a faith based on assumption it can not prove. This is an absurdity to compare the two. Get it. I can prove to you the evidence of evolution and other non-faith based material. The libraries are full of such information. With religion on the other hand, not only can’t they prove anything, they make fools of themselves when these relgionists do. Libraries keep there books on file simply because they are story telling books just like old fairy tales. Religious followers seem to try to force or trick others in order to get others to believe in it. Why do these money hungry religious leaders always go to the poor and lesser educated? Figure that one out? There is all kinds of literary and historical evidence of this kind of grap. The Christian and Muslim fundamentalists today are an example of this. This is faith based? Give me a break. The whole idea of suggesting that atheism is a faith in a god or any kind of faith-based system is just MORONIC.

  • Kate

    Nelson was incredibly condescending in his latest article though. He sounded like I felt when I was a kid and I got sent to my room and heartily disagreed with the punishment, but grudgingly apologized so I didn’t get punished even more.

    Not impressed.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    Here’s someone else whose life was saved by atheism.

  • Robert Bowland

    Another point I forgot to mention. Let’s don’t go there either, but what can others say, mixing apples with oranges is a typical writing style of religionists. Communism and socialism are not atheism. Not in the real understanding. One has to remember that when communism came about there was a rejection to Christian-based monarchies, but then again it was an established written in stone doctrine with a set of human made laws, rules, and concepts that obviously had failed with many nations. These type of reactions result in war and struggle with some sort of blood bath usually. Atheists don’t draw up such systems. Usually, these man made systems fail and, again, history proves this. We simply deal with fact and truth not assumptions. We don’t have to war on this. To atheist the act of war is rather MORONICALLY costly. This is what religionists do in their arrogant attitude ‘I’m right, your worng. My god is better than your god.’ That sound kind of childish. Please, don’t compare us atheists to these kind of people.

  • http://tomesnyder.com/ Tom E. Snyder

    Why do these money hungry religious leaders always go to the poor and lesser educated?

    Because that’s where the money is.

  • Karen

    Awesome link, Siamang! What a great story – I bet a lot of us here can relate.

    Interesting how so many different things can ‘save’ people when they’re in the pits of despair. Religions (esp Christianity) tend to trumpet their conversion stories, and talk about the god-shaped hole that can only be filled supernaturally, but we don’t hear much about the other things that people latch onto that help them overcome depression, suicidal thoughts and general unhappiness.

    A few weeks ago there was an NPR feature on a guy whose life was really in the dumps – he’d gotten involved in drugs and crime and even done time in prison – and it was music that turned him around. Specifically, his childhood piano teacher looked him up and persuaded him to start practicing again – apparently he’d been something of a child prodigy, but family circumstances led him to give up music.

    Once he got back into the music world, he cleaned up his act, entered competitions, met his future wife at one of them, took over a family business and today he’s a totally different guy. It doesn’t always take “supernatural” resources to save people, despite all the dramatic stories we hear from religion.

  • Jen

    Every time, blah blah blah atheism is a religion blah blah blah Stalin and Hitler killed people because they were atheists blah blah blah it takes more faith to not believe than to believe.

    Then we set them straight- Hilter was actually Catholic and besides, no one kills in the name of atheism, and it goes in one ear and out the other.

    Then the next day, “atheism is a religion…”

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  • http://www.myspace.com/jesterspace Jameson Sawyer

    “If you believe, as Sawyer does, that you’re put here for other people, then you have to know the ground rules.”

    Heh.. I was not ‘put here’. I chose my path.

  • Roland

    Sorry but Atheism is a belief. For in order to be an Atheist you must believe in nothing. Only an Agnostic has no belief, as an Agnostic dosen’t know what to believe.


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