The Illinois Secular Student Society has launched a Secular Samaritan campaign. They make the point that you can be good without God and use the instance of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet both of whom have and continue to give away billions of dollars to good causes.
On one level I think that this is great. It is true that if, as Christians, we want to see the world transformed then to see others join in this task is good. Its great to see people such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet give so much wealth to the poor and the needy. And its not as if they have to. They have chosen to do so. They have wanted to care for those who are in need. Hats off to them.
The point of the story about the good Samaritan is precisely that we shouldn’t judge in and out – who is worthy and who isn’t. From that point of view these secular students have chosen well.
But there are interesting other things in all of this. Firstly, the name itself. They are using the echoes of the parable that Jesus taught. They are entering the debate precisely on the ground that Jesus mapped out. Whether they would like to get rid of religion and faith or not they are having to campaign on ground that the Christian faith has mapped out. This is important. Goodness – love for others – even those outside the group/clan/tribe – is a specifically Christian virtue that you don’t see before Jesus. So when others are wanting to claim this virtue we should applaud them.
Secondly, I would want to ask them – not what have other people done to be good but what are you doing for the betterment of humanity? They try and equate religious faith and the works that they do and those by atheists as equivalent. In terms of doing good that’s fine. But what about the overall amount? Roy Hattersley wrote in the Guardian after Hurricane Katrina hit the United States:
The Salvation Army has been given a special status as provider-in-chief of American disaster relief. But its work is being augmented by all sorts of other groups. Almost all of them have a religious origin and character.
Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers’ clubs and atheists’ associations – the sort of people who not only scoff at religion’s intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil.
There is a link between what you believe and what you do. As someone once said “You do what you believe and you believe what you do”. Roy Hattersely ended his article by saying:
The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.
Finally, of course, no-one is an island. Each person lives in relationship. Bill Gate’s wife Melinda is a Catholic. It is obvious reading about her (a fascinating read by the way and well worth reading) that she has had a profound influence on Bill (Presumably why they married!!!). She has helped with his empathy and the direction of giving as well as giving itself. Obviously too Warren Buffet is a great friend of theirs and they work inter-relatedly. It is not to downplay Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or what that have done but it is obvious too that Melinda plays a major role.
I welcome atheists starting to do more. I think it fantastic that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet give so much away – they are examples of generosity.
But lets let the atheists overall do more than bus campaigns.