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Atheistic and Christian faiths - a contest of delusions?

By Rowan Forster - posted Monday, 15 March 2010

It will be interesting to see whether last weekend's Global Atheistic Convention in Melbourne sheds any new light on the atheistic faith and those who practise it. I use the word "faith" because it's impossible to conclusively prove there is no God, just as atheists assert that no one can prove there is one.

One element of atheism of particular interest is its track record and its legacy in terms of any lasting contribution to the well-being of humankind.

I suspect that if you asked the average person on the street to name two or three Christian or church-based charitable enterprises, she or he would have little trouble in coming up with agencies like the Salvo's, St Vinnie's, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, World Vision, the Christian Blind Mission, and such like. She or he might even be aware that the "C" in YMCA and YWCA stands for "Christian".


But if you were to ask for the names of two or three corresponding atheistic agencies, I suspect the person on the street might struggle.

There is of course a clear and important distinction between non-religious welfare agencies (such as Oxfam, Care Australia, UNICEF, and Doctors Without Borders) on the one hand, and specifically atheistic ones on the other. By this I mean it's very hard to nominate (or perhaps even imagine) any charitable enterprise or benevolent agency that was directly and specifically inspired by atheism, founded by devout sceptics, staffed by dedicated nihilists, and fervently supported by devoted anti-religious non-believers. The very concept sounds almost self-contradictory.

To get down to specifics, it's legitimate to ask what and where are the atheistic equivalents of Christian welfare agencies like the aforementioned Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul, World Vision, TEAR Australia, Samaritan's Purse, the Leprosy Mission, Habitat for Humanity (founded by Christian convert Millard Fuller) and Opportunity International (co-founded by Australian Christian entrepreneur David Bussau), not to mention the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Alcoholics Anonymous, all of which had Christian origins, as did the Royal Flying Doctor Service (founded by Reverend John Flynn).

And speaking of flying, the Wright brothers were part of a devout Christian family (their father was a clergyman) who regarded the invention of flight as an answer to their fervent and persistent prayers.

On a recent episode of the ABC television program Q & A, in response to a question on homelessness, panel member Malcolm Turnbull singled out for special commendation two agencies helping the homeless in Sydney. One is the Salvation Army's Oasis Centre, and the other is the Wayside Chapel. Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek mentioned another church-based agency helping the homeless in Adelaide. And on last Friday's edition of Stateline, a report on homelessness in Melbourne highlighted the aid freely given by St Mary's House of Welcome in Fitzroy.

By sheer coincidence - or is it? All four of these agencies are run by Christian organisations and individuals. Not a single corresponding atheistic agency anywhere in sight.


In addition to comparing track records in relation to charitable welfare agencies, it's also instructive to make a similar comparison in relation to notable social reformers and human rights campaigners. These include William Wilberforce (heroic campaigner against slavery); Thomas Barnardo and George Muller (founders of homes for orphans); Elizabeth Fry (pioneering prison reformer); Florence Nightingale (founder of the modern nursing movement); Dame Cicely Saunders (founder of the modern hospice movement); Charles Colson (founder of Prison Fellowship); Rev.Dr.Martin Luther King; Archbishops Trevor Huddleston, Desmond Tutu and Oscar Romero; Helen Keller; Jean Vanier (founder of L'Arche community which cares for people with profound disabilities); U2 lead singer Bono, a leading light in the "Make Poverty History" campaign, as is Reverend Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia, and outspoken advocate for victims of gambling addiction - to name but a few.

In another not so surprising non-coincidence, all of the above (and many others like them) were or are committed Christians.

It's also no coincidence that Children First founder Moira Kelly, who recently played a pivotal role in facilitating the separation of conjoined twins from Bangladesh, is a practising Catholic, not a practising atheist; while former Young Australian of the Year, Hugh Evans, founder of the Oaktree Foundation, is also a committed Christian.

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About the Author

Rowan Forster is a Melbourne journalist.

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