“Atheism Has No Redeeming Social Value”

Dr. Roger Olson, a professor of theology at Baylor University, attacks atheism (but not atheists) in an opinion piece for The Lariat newspaper:

We have to recognize atheists’ full freedom to believe God does not exist, but we don’t have to embrace atheism as a social good. In fact, I would argue that atheism has no redeeming social value.

Atheism undermines values. How? Let’s look at care for others. Yes, an individual atheist might care for other people. But when have you heard of an entire atheist organization serving the poor, the sick or the hungry?

For [Baylor and universities like it] atheism is not benign, but the enemy — even if atheists themselves are not.

Finally, let me repeat that I have nothing against atheists as persons and neither does Baylor University.

But in my opinion, they are people of character and virtue in spite of their philosophy of life — not because of it.

There are mistakes all over the place and many responses to give.

First of all, atheism is nothing more than the lack of belief in God. Period. End of story.

I know I sometimes make the mistake of saying otherwise, but being an atheist doesn’t entail living your life in a certain way. It just means you don’t believe in a God.

A Humanistic philosophy, on the other hand, is more than mere atheism. The Humanist Manifesto III lists what followers affirm, like this item:

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

So for all of Olson’s attacks on “atheism,” he’s not really getting anywhere due to the definition. You can’t argue whether atheism has redeeming value or not. It’s not a position, rather a state of mind. Some of us just like calling ourselves by that label.

But let’s get back to his intention. He means to say that not believing in God undermines one’s values.

When have atheist groups helped the poor, sick, hungry?

Well, there was a concerted effort to get atheists around the country to donate blood.

Several local groups across the country raised money for Katrina victims, tsunami survivors, and various other worthy causes.

And I don’t know if Olson would accept this, but atheist groups have been in the courts for decades fighting against civil rights violations.

Alonzo Fyfe also makes this excellent point:

Atheists can do good deeds, he said, but unless they hang the term ‘atheism’ on their good deeds and does them in the context of an organization that has ‘atheism’ in the title – it doesn’t count.

So, it does not matter that Bill and [Melinda] Gates and Warren Buffett decide to spend $60 billion on the world’s problems. They did not put the word ‘atheism’ in their name, so it doesn’t count.

Still, I wish we did a better job with the volunteering. Not for the PR value, but because it’s the decent thing to do.

Olson also makes this comment:

… what answer can an atheist give (that is consistent with atheism) to the question, “What if I figure out a way to be personally happy and fulfilled while oppressing other people?”

There is no answer to that without appeal to someone transcendent to whom we are all accountable.

That is “consistent with atheism”? Again, that makes no sense.

I would argue, though, that most atheists I know wouldn’t be happy and fulfilled if others were being oppressed, but that’s not what Olson is referring to.

He means to say we’re selfish by nature, and if we can find a way to be happy, we have no obligation to help others achieve that same type of happiness.

Austin Cline provides an elaborate answer to the question of why atheists are moral here.

I’m still not hearing any good reasons to deny “official” status to the atheist student group at Baylor. If Olson supports discussions on these issues and fails to see atheist organizations doing anything meaningful, why not allow a registered student group to form on campus and prove him wrong?

(Thanks to Bjorn for the link!)


[tags]atheist, atheism, philosophy, Christian, religion, Jesus[/tags]

  • Kate

    Donating blood during the National Day of “Prayer”.

    I’ve nearly passed out twice in Anatomy & Physiology back in high school (had to be taken to the nurse), keeled over when I was watching a cat spay and a nipple got shaved off, nearly passed out when my lab partner took my pulse.

    I. gave. blood.

    It took me over an hour, one nurse refused to do it because he called me a liability risk, and I needed two nurses to help me keep from passing out, but I did it. So if *I* can give blood, where will all of YOU be next May when it comes time again??

    We need to be more vocal, more out there, more helpful. And start shutting up morons like this.

  • Siamang

    Rule number one of morons? They never shut up.

    The Baylor thing is priceless. They won’t even allow an atheist group to organize on campus. Probably because they’d, you know, sponsor a bake sale to send money to refugees in Darfur and prove Dr. Olson wrong.

  • Mriana

    … what answer can an atheist give (that is consistent with atheism) to the question, “What if I figure out a way to be personally happy and fulfilled while oppressing other people?”

    I’m insulted! I do not oppress people and I don’t believe in it. Where does this man get off? Does he know that religion oppresses people more than no religion? Has he even thought about it? When was the last time he befriended a homosexual just because he wanted to be friends and nothing more? When was the last time he gave a woman a fair shake at a job? Don’t tell me, he’s free, white, male and over 21? This guy needs an education. :(

  • Arlen

    Mriana, while oppression has long been carried out in the name of religion, I’m not sure that one can argue that atheists are any less oppressive. People like power, no matter what they do or don’t believe about God.

    Furthermore, I think your frustration is undercutting your point. Listing your own assumptions about him (and about other free, white, adult males) isn’t really a counter-argument to any assumptions he made about you.

    For the record, I think it’s ridiculous that any university would disallow atheists from forming a club.

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  • Mriana

    Furthermore, I think your frustration is undercutting your point. Listing your own assumptions about him (and about other free, white, adult males) isn’t really a counter-argument to any assumptions he made about you.

    Maybe. :?

  • Darryl

    You’re right Hemant, Olson assumes like many Christians and political conservatives that humans are by nature bad; they have to be restrained and threatened and punished and find it impossible to act ethically without the threat of a vengeful sky-father figure watching their every move–and every thought. I hate this ideology. Christianity breads authoritarianism and militarism despite its fake pacifism. Just look at the blood-thirsty conservative Christians running for the Oval Office. More killing, more war, more torture, more law enforcement, more mandatory sentences, longer sentences, more prisons, private prisons, more guns, more violence. Yep, the fundies are right after all: this is a Christian nation.

  • http://quovadis.dk/ Kristian

    when have you heard of an entire atheist organization serving the poor, the sick or the hungry?

    Ever heard of …

    Amnesty International ?

    Medecins Sans Frontieres ?

    or UNICEF for that matter ?

    What an idiot.

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  • http://ozatheist.wordpress.com/2007/10/18/they-are-having-a-go-at-our-morals-again/ OzAtheist

    Thanks for the link Hemant, I’ve just wasted half my day writing a response. (TIC), I wasn’t as friendly as you. :-)

    I’ve posted my rant here and also submitted it to Baylors feedback.

    I sympathize with Mriana, sometimes it’s hard to be objective and clear-headed when you read stuff like Roger’s letter. Sometimes you just have to rant, as I’ve just done. hee hee

  • http://www.aninsomniac.co.uk Matt M

    “What if I figure out a way to be personally happy and fulfilled while oppressing other people?”

    If such an individual was still capable of empathy and compassion for others then an argument could easily be made on those terms. If they lacked these emotions then they’d be sociopathic and therefore unlikely to be talked out of it by anyone – religious or not.

    Besides, the question can easily be flipped around: “What if God spoke directly to me and told me to oppress others?”

    There’s no answer to that without removing the idea of a transcendental God who interacts with human beings.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    I know I sometimes make the mistake of saying otherwise, but being an atheist doesn’t entail living your life in a certain way. It just means you don’t believe in a God.

    The “atheism is a lifestyle” meme has unfortunately spread far and wide, Hemant.

  • Polly

    Besides, the question can easily be flipped around: “What if God spoke directly to me and told me to oppress others?”

    I have asked this question before of believers. The Bible-god orders his people to kill innocent people – even children (Abraham, conquest of Canaan).

    So, what if he told YOU to do something like that? Would you do it? Why NOT? (I haven’t gotten any answers.)

  • Karen

    For [Baylor and universities like it] atheism is not benign, but the enemy — even if atheists themselves are not.

    Finally, let me repeat that I have nothing against atheists as persons and neither does Baylor University.

    Hoo, boy. This sounds suspiciously like the “love the sinner, hate the sin” doctrine that evangelicals use against homosexuality. Atheists = the new gays?

  • http://www.sadcrc.wordpress.com Calvin Moore

    I’m not attacking anyone here. I’d just like some confirmation. On an individual level, we know atheists help others. However, after the cameras stop rolling, are atheist organizations still helping in places like New Orleans or Sumatra? The Sudan? Uganda? As a Christian, I know that after the sensational has passed, we are still in the trenches serving in war-torn countries and nature-ravaged areas. We still build hospitals and staff them. We still feed and clothe the homeless. We still run adoption agencies. In India alone, Christians run 1/3 of all health care (an amazing feat given that 3% of India is Christian). I am not going to make any blanket statements about atheist organizations not sticking it out. I just haven’t heard about them because I’m not an atheist. Can anyone share with me who is doing what organizations are still working to help the marginalized in the world?

    (Note: I know the number of Christian organizations will be more simply because of the volume of Christian organizations versus the volume of atheist organizations, so even if it is just a few organizations that stick it out, it would be fine if I can compare it against the overall number of atheist organizations that actually exist.)

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    Your point being . . . ?

  • Karen

    “After the cameras stop rolling … ”

    What – you think atheists are awash in all kinds of good publicity? Hardly. We are all too thrilled with some meager non-attacking publicity, frankly. ;-)

    Calvin, there are many non-religious groups doing a great deal of good in the world. Doctors Without Borders and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are two that are very effective – with or without the publicity.

    However, they are not usually specifically labeled as “atheist” groups because atheism is not an organizing philosophy of life. It is nothing more than holding no belief in god. Thus, if atheists organize it is typically not to do good works specifically, it is to uphold the separation of church and state, fight religious incursion into secular society, etc.

  • http://boredbeyondbelief.wordpress.com Joe G.

    Actually, given what Olson asserts makes me respect atheists even more. They don’t need a lot of organizations, one on almost every corner of a city, to get them to be kind to others. They can do it on their own!

    Karen wrote:

    Hoo, boy. This sounds suspiciously like the “love the sinner, hate the sin” doctrine that evangelicals use against homosexuality. Atheists = the new gays?

    My thoughts exactly. Being a gay man, I’ve been told that I’m loved, but that my sin is hated, numerous times. Welcome to the club!

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    What Calvin’s doing here is committing the logical fallacy of moving the goalposts. “Sure, I’ll concede that atheists as individuals can be altruistic, but can you tell me how many atheist organisations are out there helping people? Huh? Can ya? Ergo, Christianity wins.”

    Two can play at this game, of course. I wonder if any of you can tell me how many atheist organisations
    have aided and abetted the sexual abuse of children?
    treat women as second-class citizens, or worse?
    perpetuate hatred and violence against sexual minorities?
    actively oppose the practice of or teaching about science that they perceive as contradicting their dogma?
    burn books?

    Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t play Calvin’s game altogether.

  • Karen

    Being a gay man, I’ve been told that I’m loved, but that my sin is hated, numerous times. Welcome to the club!

    Thanks, Joe G. :-)

    My brother is gay and he explained something to me back when I was an evangelical who bought into the “love the sinner” b.s. Being a gay man, he told me, is an integral part of who I am. It’s not a series of actions, it’s much more than that, just as being heterosexual (whether you’re celibate or active) is more than just who you sleep with.

    I thought that was an excellent point. And it also makes it pretty much impossible to “love the sinner, hate the sin” as if one’s sexual orientation can be completely divorced from one’s overall personhood.

  • http://quovadis.dk/ Kristian

    Calvin Moore:

    However, after the cameras stop rolling, are atheist organizations still helping in places like New Orleans or Sumatra? The Sudan? Uganda?

    Apart from the three secular organizations I linked to above, there is also the worldwide network of Engineers Without Borders, a secular organization devoted to improving living conditions and restructuring of disaster-struck regions. I know that just this year, the Danish EWB organization has been working in Chad, Lebanon and Mozambique. Have you seen any footage of this?

  • http://www.atheistvoices.com Scott

    An Atheist Centre in Vijayawada, India has been very insturmental in helping with the Tsunami victims in the area. They have done a lot to help human kind. read more about them HERE

  • http://www.atheistvoices.com Scott

    Note about Tsunami

    Vijawawada, very near the east coast of India (ESE of Hyderabad), is too far inland to have been affected by the tsunami. As is typical in India, the city has mobilized in support of the relief effort. For example, workers at the Genting Lanco Kondapalli Power Project agreed to include a day’s salary in a package sent by the company itself, said a press release. Some indicate that charity is a way of live in many parts of this country where abject poverty wields its scepter. Atheist Centre has long been among the first to arrive on the scene of the floods and other tragedies that frequently cripple various parts of southern India, and Atheist Centre’s volunteers are never afraid to “get their hands dirty” when addressing the truly ugly aspects of natural disaster, where human need transcends religious and political loyalty. On many occasions, the Atheist Centre has shown that human compassion can likewise transcend the same boundaries.

  • http://www.sadcrc.wordpress.com Calvin Moore

    I may be a Christian, but my question is legitimate. I am hosting a panel discussion at my Christian college (Rochester College) on Nov 12th and I want people to better understand where people are coming from. Two of my panelists are atheists. I am trying to keep from making blanket statements during the event. I am not attempting to “move the goalposts” or “play a game.” As a Christian, we tout our own accomplishments and assume no one else is doing anything of value. I REALLY do want to know and I thank those of you who were willing to give me a straight answer without assuming some hidden (antagonistic) agenda. Pax.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    I may be a Christian, but my question is legitimate.

    Not really. For one thing: you’re comparing apples and oranges when you compare Christian organisations with atheist organisations. The latter are not only fewer in number (given that there are fewer atheists), as you acknowledge, but they haven’t been around for very long either.

    Furthermore, as Hemant points out in his post, “atheism is nothing more than the lack of belief in God. Period. End of story.” Atheist organise for the same reason that women, gays and lesbians and racial minorities have organised historically: to combat discrimination, injustice and bigotry on the part of the wider (and, let’s face it, mainly Christian) community. Aside from that, herding atheists is like herding cats, as the saying goes. So the extent to which atheist organisations participate in charitable/altruistic activities cannot be a reliable metric of the “redeeming social value” of atheism. The only purpose such a metric can possibly serve is to confirm the prejudices of those who tout their own accomplishments and assume no one else is doing anything of value.

    But let’s return to your original question:

    Can anyone share with me who is doing what organizations are still working to help the marginalized in the world?

    To the extent that marginalisation–e.g. of gays & lesbians, of women–can be the product of religion, then just about every atheist organisation is working to help the marginalised.

    Hope that helps.

  • http://www.sadcrc.wordpress.com Calvin Moore

    AV,

    I’m not sure why I’m sensing a bit of hostility towards my question. It’s a simple enough one and (what I believe) is an innocent one at that. I have explained that I am at a disadvantage when it comes to knowing who is doing what among atheist organizations. Others here have given me names and places where atheist organizations are active, betraying the notion that atheist organizations exist “to combat discrimination, injustice and bigotry on the part of the wider (and, let’s face it, mainly Christian) community.” It would seem they exist for more than that, as evidenced by the countless examples listed off for me here at Friendlyatheist.com.

    If you would like to argue (which it seems you are hell-bent on doing), we can argue as to the reasons atheists help others and the reasons Christians help others. Atheists seem to help others without the need of a God directing them to do so. Christians, on the other hand, serve because Jesus tells them to. Without this, Christians would (generally) argue, I have no reason to help anyone but myself. Christians will point to the failure of Communism as evidence of this fact (i.e. Atheism + the notion that mankind is basically good and will help his fellow man out without God = failure). This, I believe is an excellent discussion to have and leads to the next question, “Which has more redeeming value then: atheism or Christianity?”

  • monkeymind

    Calvin, if you read your original post again I think you might see how people might take it to be, forgive me, an invitation to a pissing match: You might have thought you were asking a neutral question, but I can see why people heard: “what are YOU GUYS doing compared to all the great stuff we are doing? HUH? HUH?”

    The fact is, the great thing about the open society is that there is a lot of space where people can participate on an equal footing without regard to their religious or ethnic affiliation. I think you are not really taking in what Karen had to say about atheist organizations representing a narrow slice of what atheists as people are interested in.

    There are tons, literally tons, of secular organizations, that do not ask people what their religious beliefs are before permitting them to participate. As long as they can abide by the volunteer guidelines, they’re in. There are also some religious groups which are almost as open. But the majority of religious groups require you to adhere to a particular view about God before you can participate. So I would argue that non-religious or secular groups are more important for building community in a modern society where people come from all different types of religious backgrounds.

    The fact that atheist groups sometimes do charity work doesn’t alter the fact that that’s not why most people join these organizations. Heck, I belong to a knitting group and a canoe club that sometimes do charity work, but that’s not why I joined those groups.

  • http://www.atheistvoices.com Scott

    At our organization we have a winter solstice party every year. Our proceeds go to Katadin (a home for at risk teens) to provide them with “Christmas” presents. We do not give them a lot, but it’s something at least. “Those that wait until they have a lot to give don’t usually give anything”. We also give money annually for a GLBT scholarship. Unfortunately we have no extortion practices in place to make our members give their 10%, whatever atheists give is strictly because they want to.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    Others here have given me names and places where atheist organizations are active, betraying the notion that atheist organizations exist “to combat discrimination, injustice and bigotry on the part of the wider (and, let’s face it, mainly Christian) community.”

    Atheist organisations can exist to combat discrimination, injustice and bigotry on the part of the wider community and be active in altruism/charity work at the same time.

  • http://www.suziesbookpages.co.uk Sue

    This is one of the things that makes me most sad about religious people. Too many of them think that without the threat of a big scary bearded God sitting on his cloud waiting to send us all to Hell, everyone will Do Evil all the time. Whereas actually, I think most people do good most of the time because doing good makes society work: it’s nothing more complicated than that. Love thy neighbour because it’s easier to get on with thy neighbour than to have a war with them.

  • Mriana

    I agree, Sue. It is sad. I also agree that most people do good most of the time.

  • Emily Smith

    I am so glad other people were as angered as myself. I go to Baylor University. I also don’t believe in God. All undergrads at Baylor have to take 2 semesters of Chapel (2 hours a week or worship and lecture) and well as 2 actual religion classes, which focus only on Christianity of course. I can deal with religion being forced on me, I’ve dealt with that. But the article angered and upset me to the point where I wanted to throw something! If a mother raises her child with morals, the child will have morals! Religion or not. My mom taught me not to lie, cheat, steal, among many other things, and I have morals because of her. What about the Jewish community, Muslims, Buddists as well? This article says only the Christian religion provides morals so it is an insult to EVERYONE who does not follow the Christian religion, not just us. He could have easily written that Christianity supports morals which would be unoffensive and with a positive angle. There was no need to say the things he did.


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