As part of our dialogue on the SAM blog, we invite people from diverse faith-based or ethical communities to share how their religious or philosophical beliefs connect to their commitment to social action. This week, Chelsea Link, Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society and the President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council, reflects on the connection between atheism and social justice.
This summer, a Christian student at my school told me that if he found out God didn’t exist, he would kill himself.
I was horrified, of course, but also simply confused. If this student stopped believing in God, would his world really look that bad? Would it suddenly look that different? Would it cease to be worth living in?
That world is my world. I live every day of my life assuming that God doesn’t exist, and I’m having a grand old time.
But I was even more confused when the same student went on to say that, if he didn’t kill himself, he would at the very least become a heartless monster; he would stop doing community service, stop caring about the wellbeing of others, and devote the rest of his life to selfish and radical hedonism.
As somebody who has lived through exactly the process he is hypothesizing about – the transition from a theistic worldview to an atheistic one – I can testify that my commitment to serving others only became stronger when I stopped believing in God.
I’ve always believed in the importance of community service. But, for most of my life, it didn’t seem particularly urgent. It will all be evened out eventually, I figured. It’s nice to do what you can, but no matter what we do in this life, God will sort it out in the next. Justice will be served regardless of my participation in it.
When I became an atheist, I suddenly lost recourse to this comforting thought. I became painfully aware of the very real possibility that justice might never be served. With that awareness came the unshakable conviction that I must do everything in my power to ensure that people do, as nearly as possible, get justice in this life. If I don’t do it, I can’t assume that it will get done.
Rabbi Hillel famously asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I ask, if we are not for ourselves, who will be for us? And if I am not for my fellow humans, who will be for them?
Thus, the idea that atheism dissolves responsibility is baffling to me. On the contrary, the way I see it, responsibility is a constant; the question isn’t whether it exists, but who bears it. You can only abdicate responsibility if you have somebody to foist it off on – somebody like God. When God is removed from the picture, the weight of the world falls squarely and irrevocably on our own shoulders.
That’s why I, as an atheist, am committed to working as hard as I can for social justice.
I believe in the religion of reason – the gospel of this world; in the development of the mind, in the accumulation of intellectual wealth, to the end that man may free himself from superstitious fear, to the end that he may take advantage of the forces of nature to feed and clothe the world.
– Robert Ingersoll
Chelsea Link is a senior at Harvard University, studying History and Science with a focus in the history of medicine. She is the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society, and the President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council. She also writes for NonProphet Status and the Harvard Brain, and volunteers with the Be the Match bone marrow donor registry.