Public Square

An Atheist’s Perspective on Christian Engagement in the World

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On June 29, 2013 in Starke, Florida, the first monument to atheism to be erected on government property was dedicated. It sits alongside the Ten Commandments on the Bradford County courthouse grounds.

What caught my attention, in addition to the event itself, was a particular quote on the side of the granite bench monument.

The quote is from Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists:

An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanished, war eliminated.

O’Hair’s activism began when her fourteen-year-old son William felt like he was being harassed for not participating in a school-led Bible reading in a Baltimore City public school. In 1962, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled against a voluntary participation amendment that was inserted into Maryland’s state education laws as a result of O’Hair’s legal proceedings.

Then, in an eight-to-one decision in a 1963 Supreme Court case, Abington School District v. Schempp, the Court ruled that mandatory Bible readings in public schools were a violation of the Establishment Clause. Since O’Hair’s earlier case was consolidated into Abington v. Schempp, her cause gained national attention.

O’Hair’s precise motivations against religion cannot be fully known, but her quote did not come from a vacuum.

Her quote seems to have been inspired by the Christians and other religious followers who had withdrawn from the physical world around them, the groups who didn’t build hospitals or who only prayed for the hungry but never fed them. The kinds of Christians James decries in James 2:15-16 who said “Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,” but but did nothing about the physical needs of others. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that some people are “so heavenly minded they are no earthly good.” O’Hair probably had these people in mind.

O’Hair’s quote saddens me because she seems to have been misled by what many religious people believe, particularly Christians, about the goodness and importance of the created, material world. Her belief in the uselessness of religion operates on the assumption that a spiritual life eschews the here and now, the needs of our neighbor, and the culture in which we live.

The case for Christian disengagement is a tough one to make, though. Jesus taught with both word and deed. Churches are and have been the source of humanitarian aid throughout the world. Christians played a major role in the development of many hospitals, universities, low-income relief programs, and other humanitarian efforts.

Hugh Whelchel says in the preface to his book, How Then Should We Work?,

By rediscovering the Biblical doctrine of work, Christians can radically impact our culture making a positive, sustainable difference in our communities, our cities, our country and our world for the glory of God and His Kingdom.

Later on in his book, Whelchel illustrates this statement by sharing the story of Irish monks in the Middle Ages:

Thomas Cahill, in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, tells how Christian monks in the Middle Ages moved out of Ireland and through pagan Europe. Along the way they invented and established academies, universities, and hospitals. Through these new institutions the monks transformed local economies and cared for the unfortunate.

Christians have contributed towards all the causes O’Hair attributes to atheists. Jesus will abolish all the evils that O’Hair mentions when he returns. Meanwhile we have the privilege—to put it mildly!—to work with him in his active redemption.

To conclude, I respectfully modify O’Hair’s quote:

A Christian believes that a hospital and a church should be built. A Christian believes that deeds must be done and prayers said. A Christian strives for involvement in life and has nothing to fear in death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanished, and war eliminated and works with Christ to accomplish those goals, knowing that they will be accomplished one day.


Editor’s note: Read more about our calling to engage the world for Christ in How Then Should We Work?

On “Flashback Friday,” we publish some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was first published on Aug 29, 2013.

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