The Atheist Monument: A Shrine to Dishonesty?

5 Jul

On Saturday 29th June, 2013, a group known as “American Atheists” set up a monument bench outside a Florida courthouse in a bid to compete with another monument featuring the Ten Commandments.

The bench carried the following text, penned originally by prominent American atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair:

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

Many Christians – and indeed theists of other religions – will be concerned by the accommodation of such antireligious statements in the public space. Yet I wonder if it is atheists who have more to be concerned about. For the statements that supposedly represent the atheist way of life (and the supposed superiority of its claims to truthfulness and the moral high ground) are not only unrepresentative of many atheists, their implications are completely unrepresentative of many Christians too.

Let’s look at O’Hair’s statements line by line:

1. “An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church.”
There are several problems with this statement. Firstly, one might point out that in most Western countries, the responsibility of building hospitals these days lies with government departments and/or health care organisations. The building of hospitals is not an activity to which either atheists or theists can singlehandedly lay claim. Furthermore, one might far more reasonably attribute the construction of buildings which house activities that have the potential to do harm to society to atheism – or at least to godlessness, if not to the kind of intellectual, systematic atheism presumably championed by devotees of O’Hair. Pubs, night clubs, table-dancing clubs, drug dens, porn cinemas and brothels are all run by people who display little evidence of adherence to the Gospel. Meanwhile, a very good reason why Christians seek to build churches is that a church serves as a sanctuary from the world, into which people who have been hurt by the outworking of present-day atheism (sexual liberation and its devaluation of love, sex and relationships; divorce and family breakdown; materialism; uninvolved parenting) may come and find relief, restoration and new hope.

Building churches therefore fulfills needs – needs which the ousting of God, morals and the Gospel from the public space by outspoken atheists has ironically served only to exacerbate.

The implication that Christians are not interested in building hospitals only appears more ill-founded when one takes a look at both history and the nature of church and Christianity today. Given that atheists are obsessed with the notion that they are possessed of all truth and rationality by virtue of their devotion to science, it seems bizarre that they are so quick to turn a blind eye to facts as presented by history or observable phenomena of the present day.

Christians have always been at the forefront of medicine and health care. Many of the first hospitals grew from the care of invalids and the dying by nuns and monks. These devoted religious men and women were often the only people who had the faith to brave deadly plagues to succour the dying. Numerous scientists responsible for significant breakthroughs in medical science were either theists or committed Christians, including Louis Pasteur, who discovered penicillin; Edward Jenner, who pioneered the smallpox vaccine, and Francis Collins, who sequenced the human genome.

It is not only medical pioneers who are often people of faith. A great many Christians work in medicine and health care, and see this service to man as part of their service to God. A church I used to attend is located next door to a large hospital, and many of its staff attend services. In 35 years I have met countless Christians doctors and nurses, and still more Christians who fulfilled every conceivable role in health care and therapy, from hospital porters to midwives, general practitioners, speech therapists, physiotherapists, a professor of haematology and even a brain surgeon. To suggest, therefore, that Christians would rather build churches than hospitals is simply insulting to the many believers who have given their lives to helping people get back to health.

The truth becomes all the more apparent when one looks overseas. Christian missionaries have been responsible for introducing medicine to less-developed countries, a tradition which continues today. Mercy Ships is one such organisation: operating on a budget of some £4 million (US$6.4 million) per year, it takes medical care to some of the world’s most disadvantaged people in Africa, providing life-changing operations and giving training to local medical personnel. Many doctors and nurses give up their time, unpaid, to serve on Mercy Ships and bring healing to people who would otherwise never have access to treatment.

Sceptics may say that Christian organisations are only baiting the vulnerable, that there is always a hook attached to the line of religious conversion. Clearly these sceptics know little of true compassion. Mercy Ships’ mission statement could speak for many:

“Mercy Ships is an international faith-based organisation with a mission to increase access to health care throughout the world… As a Christian charity, Mercy Ships freely serves the poor without regard to race, gender or religion.”

And Mercy Ships is not alone. I could point to many churches which actively support medical missions or deal with the fallout of disease and poverty. I am beginning to lose count of the number of churches I know which have an active commitment to supporting facilities such as Aids orphanages in Africa, or the numbers of people I know who have give up holiday time or taken time out from their careers to go on short- and long-term placements to places such as Kenya, South Africa, China, Romania, in order to work with orphans, street kids or the handicapped. The overwhelming majority either pay their own way or do their own fundraising amongst other Christians. One young man I know is a qualified hospital/ER nurse who is currently spending a period of years operating a mobile clinic on a motorboat on Lake Tanganyika.

So do Christians believe that a church should be build instead of a hospital? The evidence suggests they are keen to build both, recognising that it is important to care for man’s physical needs as well as his spiritual needs.

And do atheists set out to build hospitals? Maybe some do, but atheism is generally both a cover and a pretext for people to do their own thing, to serve self-interest. The Christian Gospel, with its message of caring for those who are poor, needy and downtrodden, has within itself the seeds of the very social change that the atheists claim only non-believers can achieve.

It is clear that if we genuinely want to see more hospitals built in places that are way off the Western health services’ map, you can bet on Christians to get the job done. And in order for that to take place, we need infrastructure: the capacity to send and support; organised forums of committed, believing people who put others before themselves and who will both inspire people to go to the assistance of those in need and support them financially once they get there. Thus if atheists truly want to see more hospitals built, they had better pray that Christians build more churches.

More articles about the Atheist Monument to follow…

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