I recently posted two items that I had written for my book What If I’m an Atheist? but had to delete from it in cutting the book to the proper word count. In the spirit of “Well, why not?” here is an excerpt that did get into the book and that I think deserves a blog posting.
To prove that unbelief is immoral, some theists have pointed out that mass murders such as Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong were atheists. But other unbelievers have been close to saintly.
Henry Stephens Salt (1851-1939), humanitarian
Salt led crusades for nature conservation, peace between nations, and improvements in schools and prisons. He wrote the first book proposing animal rights. Mahatma Gandhi praised his high moral code.
And he was an atheist. “Religion,” Salt wrote, “has never befriended the cause of humaneness. Its monstrous doctrine of eternal punishment and the torture of the damned underlies much of the barbarity with which man has treated man.”
Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), diplomat
Fridtjof Nansen was an agnostic — “The religion of one age,” he wrote in 1907, “is, as a rule, the literary entertainment of the next” — and an international hero.
When his native Norway demanded independence from Sweden, he prevented a civil war by helping to negotiate a peaceful split. During World War I, when supplies were scarce and shipping was dangerous, he secured food for his hungry countrymen. After the war, he helped refugees and prisoners of war get home safely. And he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), physicist
Lifelong atheist Andrei Sakharov signed the 1973 Humanist Manifesto, which included the line “As non-theists, we begin with humans, not God.” But that was only one of the ways in which he championed his beliefs.
The Soviet Union had awarded Sakharov its highest honors for developing the country’s nuclear weapons. But when he spoke out against those weapons and in favor of giving the Soviet people more freedom, the government arrested him and held him prisoner for six years. For his efforts on behalf of freedom and peace, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Other unbelievers who have performed in conspicuously moral ways:
Clarence Darrow, lawyer (1857-1938): Defended disadvantaged people and unpopular causes.
Linus Pauling, biochemist (1901-1994): Received the Nobel Peace Prize for anti-war activism.
Warren Buffet, businessman (1930- ): One of the world’s biggest charitable donors.
Bob Geldof, musician (1951- ): Raised millions of dollars for famine victims in Africa.