On July 1st a New Jersey based atheist group, American Atheists, erected a 1,500 pound monument outside the Bradford County Courthouse in Florida.1 On the front of the monument are words by the famous 20th century atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair. In the name of equality the monument and bench were erected because the Florida courthouse refused to remove another monument, religious in nature.
What does the atheist monument say? Along with historical quotes the monument prominently features these words from O’Hair.
“An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that a deed should be done instead of a prayer. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not to escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty banished, war eliminated.”
These are moving words by O’Hair that touch the heart. There is only one problem. None of it is true.
I don’t mean that there aren’t atheists who want these things; certainly there are. Rather, historically, none of these goals are things that atheists have actually pursued as a movement. I believe this is because there is nothing in the worldview of atheism that actually encourages such noble deeds. Let’s look at each statement and consider the facts.
“An atheist believes that a hospital should be build instead of a church.” That belief may be so, but what about the reality? Hospitals the world over through history have often been commissioned by churches and Christian groups as an expression of biblical principles. According to Albert Jonsen, University of Washington historian of medicine, “The second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia, and concludes at the end of the fourteenth century, with medicine well ensconced in the universities and in the public life of the emerging nations of Europe.”2 From that time on Christian efforts to address the medical needs of people grew at an astounding rate with more than 37,000 monasteries caring for the sick by the 1500s. By the mid-1800s most hospitals that were established had been done so by religious institutions and with religious motivations.3 In addition, throughout history churches have been used to not only care for the sick, but as a place to also care for orphans. Even today there are ministries building churches all over the world that include orphanages to raise and educate abandoned children (www.icm.org). Even in my former home of Mongolia 42 out of 44 orphanages in the country are run by Christians or Christian institutions.
The root of Christian motivations for healing the sick came straight from the Bible. “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:9). “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5).
While there are many Christian hospitals and many secular hospitals, where are the atheist hospitals? (Atheism and secularism are not necessarily the same thing.) One might note that many hospitals were built in Communist Russia and China which were official atheist states, but it was also under official state atheism that tens of millions were slaughtered in these countries by their own governments pursuing an atheistic, even darwinian worldview.
Attending to the sick is a command of scripture (Matthew 25:31-46). It is an essential part of the Christian worldview. Therefore the construction of clinics, hospitals, and missionary ventures to address medical needs in poor communities worldwide flows directly out of that worldview. But atheism has no such worldview out of which these things spring.
To further quote the monument, “An atheist believes that a deed should be done instead of a prayer.” I ask, why not both? As we’ve already seen, sacrificial good deeds don’t normally flow out of the atheistic worldview. Therefore, O’Hair’s statement is not persuasive. Religious movements have been performing good deeds for centuries from the building of hospitals to digging community wells (www.holywatergroup.com). It was primarily Christian abolitionists that helped bring an end to the slave trade in the US and Britain. “One reason abolitionists are forgotten is that they were inescapably Christian in their motives, means, and vocabulary.”4 And it is primarily Christian institutions that are battling modern day slavery and human trafficking in Asia and Africa (www.ijm.org).
Most homeless shelters in the United States are not government or secular run institutions. Rather, they are founded by Christian movements or individuals in an effort to relieve human suffering, such as the work of Gospel Rescue Mission (www.grm.org), Joy Junction (www.joyjunction.org), and many others. While there are government sponsored anti-drug efforts, one of the most successful anti-drug institutions is Teen Challenge (www.teenchallengeusa.com) with one of the highest success rates in the world. Religious movements are even at the forefront of criminal and prison reform worldwide (www.prisonfellowship.org).
What of education? Most western universities were started by church institutions or as religious efforts. These include many of the most famous: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, and the list goes on. Where are the atheist universities? Atheists have been great at co-opting the hospitals, schools, and other institutions that Christians have built—but atheism as a movement doesn’t actually build anything—it’s worldview doesn’t encourage the required care and sacrifice for others. Ms. O’Hair may have said that, “An atheist wants disease conquered, poverty banished, war eliminated,” but atheism as a movement hasn’t contributed anything toward the solutions to these problems for the simple reason that it doesn’t have the philosophical basis on which to base such actions. When it comes to real-world solutions atheism comes up empty.
Lastly, the monument states that, “An atheist strives for involvement in life and not to escape into death.” Yet the examples I’ve provided (and we can provide many more) demonstrate just the opposite. Religious institutions from churches, to hospitals, to education and missions are all focused on saving life, adding to life, encouraging life, and raising the quality of life for all people—regardless of their background, status, or race. This is foundational to Christianity. Jesus said, “I came that they might have LIFE, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). In fact, the Bible condemns the Christian who lives life selfishly and isn’t involved in helping others. “Anyone who knows what is right but fails to do it is guilty of sin” (James 4:17).
As a worldview atheism does not encourage living life to the full. Atheism makes no sacrifice. Atheism emboldens no heroism. Atheism does not encourage or give or love. It offers no hope and without sacrifice, encouragement, hope, and love, what does atheism contribute to better the condition of humanity? As a worldview it offers nothing because, ironically, atheism encourages the belief in nothing.
The best the world has to offer has come through the contribution of religious institutions. These institutions have a worldview that is foundational to relieve human suffering, raise standards of living, reform communities, save the unsaveable, love the unloveable. All of this is rooted in the simple yet powerful words of the Bible and the Savior, Jesus Christ. What would the world look like without the Bible and Jesus? It would be a horrible thing to find out.
American Atheists may be proud of the granite monument they’ve constructed, but sadly and tragically, the worldview it advocates is built on sand.
1 Group Builds First-Ever Atheist Monument at Fla. Courthouse; Promises More Sites, By Michael Gryboski, Christianpost.com.
2 A Short History of Medical Ethics, Albert Jonsen, July 1st, 2008.
3 The Christian Origins of Hospitals, C. Ben Mitchell, February 6, 2012, Biblemesh.org.
4 Christianity Today Library, Issue 33, 1992. http://www.ctlibrary.com/ch/1992/issue33/3321.html.