Sunday, March 09, 2008


Atheism and caring

In this week’s edition of the public radio program Speaking of Faith, the guest was Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic Studies and the president of the Islamic Society of North America. The program ended with the reading of an excerpt of one of Ms Mattson’s essays, “Finding the Prophet in his People”. A portion of the excerpt caught my attention, particularly:

When I was married in Pakistan, my husband and I, as refugee workers, did not have much money. Returning to the refugee camp a few days after our wedding, the Afghan women eagerly asked to see the many dresses and gold bracelets, rings and necklaces my husband must have presented to me, as is customary throughout the Muslim world. I showed them my simple gold ring and told them we had borrowed a dress for the wedding. The women’s faces fell and they looked at me with profound sadness and sympathy. The next week, sitting in a tent in that dusty hot camp, the same women — women who had been driven out of their homes and country, women who had lost their husbands and children, women who had sold their own personal belongings to buy food for their families — presented me with a wedding outfit. Bright blue satin pants stitched with gold embroidery, a red velveteen dress decorated with colorful pom-poms and a matching blue scarf trimmed with what I could only think of as a lampshade fringe. It was the most extraordinary gift I have ever received — not just the outfit, but the lesson in pure empathy that is one of the sweetest fruits of real faith.

It’s a touching story, and it does sound like a wonderful and moving gift — extraordinary, as Ms Mattson says.

I find it interesting, though, that she attributes their caring and generosity to their faith. Ms Mattson might not mean it this way, but it’s a common indictment of atheists that we lack the sort of moral, social, and community character that prompts the sort of giving that this story relates.

To be sure, religious organizations often actively encourage social responsibility, and it’s often a positive effect that the organizations have on our society. But it’s clear that their encouragement is neither necessary nor sufficient. Many of the faithful evince little or no social responsibility, and many of the faithless work tirelessly to help those in need.

There is, as well, the aspect that those motivated by their faith and their religious leaders will often (not always) limit their giving and caring to members of their own group, perhaps including potential converts. In that sense, socially responsible atheists may have an edge: we don’t have a defined constituency; we extend out generosity to the wider community.

Again: I’m not saying that Ms Mattson meant to imply that only Muslims, or only “people of faith” in general, would have extended their hearts to her in the way she describes. I am saying that I’d like no one to make that assumption. I’m saying that atheists care too.

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