The key insight that comes from being an atheist is that this life is the only one we have. We don’t have religious people’s luxury of explaining away real-time misery as a test of eligibility for a comfortable afterlife or as just retribution for an ignoble previous incarnation. This life is all we have. From that key moral insight of atheism comes the practical commitment of humanism. Mario Bunge rewrote the Golden Rule into the even simpler maxim, “Live well and help others live well.” At first glance this might sound like a bland thing to say. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we care to look hard enough, the call to live well and help others live well has pulse-quickening implications. Consider these examples.
Across Africa, many infants are left as orphans because their parents have died prematurely of HIV-AIDS. The attitude of the churches in this matter is shameful. Incredibly, rather than being brought before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, the church leaders responsible are promoted to archbishop and praised as moral examplars. The Vatican’s anathema against contraception is the single most important impediment to bringing the HIV-AIDS epidemic under control. What becomes of the most vulnerable victims, the children? Some are taken away by criminal gangs and brought up as pickpockets, beggars, or prostitutes. Some are purposely disfigured to make their begging seem all the more urgent. Others are sold overseas to childless couples. A few find their way to local orphanages. Quite a lot are simply left to fend for themselves as best they can.
George Ongere from the Center for Inquiry–Kenya has decided to do something about it. He started up a humanist adoption program and is in the process of getting official recognition from the government. Under this program, infants are housed safely before being adopted by selected local families. In this way, the children have as good a chance of a normal life within their own society as they would have had before the deaths of their parents.
Then there’s the problem of superstition. In India recently, the Center for Inquiry arranged a series of talks for nursing students so they might be equipped to deal with the legion of fraudulent gurus and “godmen” who so bedevil the lives of the poor, particularly in the countryside. The Center for Inquiry–India arranged for some respected medical and scientific personnel to speak to the nurses about the shabby tricks the godmen play on vulnerable people in the hope that the villagers will not fall for their tricks the next time one comes to the village.
I have seen this phenomenon firsthand, both in India and Africa. In Uganda I heard from a man who had been a witch doctor for fifteen years. He went around the villages and, so long as they paid, fed, and housed him—and ministered to whatever other needs he had—he would ensure that the rains came and would protect them and their crops from evil spirits. Eventually he tired of living this life of lies, threats, and extortion. He turned to help CFI show how the tricks are done and to warn people not to fall for them. In India, science teachers do this sort of work on their holidays. They go to the villages and show people the cheap tricks the godmen use to persuade them of their holiness.
The next time you hear someone dismissing the battle against superstition as “intolerant” or “so twentieth century,” you will know that person is more interested in parading postmodern sophistication than in understanding and alleviating the suffering of millions of vulnerable people. Superstition is a real danger that can scar people’s lives. It can even kill people. The Atheist Centre in India has been involved, at the request of the Andhra Pradesh state government, in helping to damp down periodic witch crazes, during which innocent people suspected of witchcraft have been murdered. There’s nothing “intolerant” or “twentieth century” about being incensed at such unnecessary suffering.
Sometimes living well and helping others live well revolves around what one is thinking and saying. As Egypt slowly emerges from dictatorship following the Arab Spring, many young people have become disillusioned with the primitive Islamism being touted as the only alternative to the former government. Ideas of this sort are dangerous in Egypt, as they are in most Middle East countries. But that’s not stopping the Center for Inquiry–Cairo from pushing them as far as they can within the limits of their resources. Ideas have consequences, and CFI is doing its best to ensure those consequences involve freedom and democracy.
It’s imperative we don’t let the religionists walk off with the presumption that living a purpose-driven life is the exclusive preserve of their faith. Around the world there are courageous humanists, many of them in the various Centers for Inquiry, who are doing incredible things with little or no money. These are good people doing good things. It’s that simple—there is no need for lengthy philosophical disquisition. Live well and help others live well. What a call to arms that is, if only we look far enough.