Below is an abstract of the speech by Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, given at the World Religions Conference "Silver Jubilee," October 1, 2005, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. Dan was invited to represent atheism at the 25th annual event, along with representatives of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Aboriginal spirituality. The topic for all was "salvation." His participation was kindly sponsored by the local Humanists, who joined Dan in singing "Die Gedanken Sind Frei" at the end of his talk.
By Dan Barker
Atheism is a philosophical position, a world view that disbelieves or denies the existence of god(s). It is not a religion. Atheism has no creeds, rituals, holy book, moral code, origin myth, sacred spaces or shrines. It has no sin, divine judgment, forbidden words, prayer, worship, prophecy, group privileges, or anointed "holy" leaders. Atheists don't believe in a transcendent world or supernatural afterlife.
Most important, there is no orthodoxy in atheism. We atheists do not expect conformity of thought or action. To freethinkers, allowing for differences of opinion is a sign of health.
Terry Mosher of the Montreal Gazette drew an editorial cartoon on March 5, 2002, saying:
"Here's a headline we never see: Agnostics slaughter Atheists!"
Atheists are simply people without theism.
However, many atheists have opinions about much of the above. We champion reason as the only tool of verifiable knowledge. For morality, most atheists follow humanism, a set of natural principles (not rules), that help us think about how to live.
In many religious traditions, "salvation" is a deliverance from one of the three "D"s: danger, disease, and death. Most believers see these in both natural and supernatural ways. Danger can arise from an occupying conqueror, or from the threat to morality and order by evil spirits or devils. Disease and death can be feared both physically and spiritually.
Atheists, with the same human desires and fears, also care about deliverance, but only as natural concerns. We see deliverance coming--if it is to come at all--in the real world, from our own human efforts.
Sometimes no deliverance is needed at all. The New Testament Jesus reportedly said, "They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick." (Matthew 9:12) We atheists consider ourselves whole. We are not sick. We don't need the doctor.
Suppose you were convicted of a horrible crime and sentenced to life in prison, but after a few years behind bars you are surprised to hear you are being released. This "salvation" would be a wonderful experience, but which would make you feel better: learning you were released because you were pardoned by the good graces of the governor, or because you were found to be innocent of the crime?
Which would give you more dignity?
We atheists possess "salvation" not because we are released from a sentence, but because we don't deserve the punishment in the first place. We have committed no "sin."
Sin is a religious concept, and in some religions, salvation is the deliverance from the "wages of sin"--death, or eternal punishment. Sin has been defined as "missing the mark" of God's expectations or holiness, or "offending God," so it follows that since there is no god, there is no sin, therefore no need for salvation. Only those who consider themselves "sinners" need this kind of "salvation." It is a religious solution to a religious problem.
We atheists might ask: how much respect should we have for a doctor who cuts you with a knife in order to sell you a bandage?
If salvation is the cure, then atheism is the prevention.
People who believe in "sin" and "salvation" have nothing to fear from us atheists. We are not barging into mosques, synagogues and churches dragging people from worship. If believers do not have freedom of conscience, then neither do we.
Most humanists define ethics as the intention to act in ways that minimize harm. Actions have consequences, so morality is a real-world exercise. A moral person is accountable. If my actions cause unnecessary harm, intentionally or unintentionally, then my "salvation" comes in trying to correct that harm, or to repair the damage as much as possible.
Canadian physician Dr. Marian Sherman, a prominent atheist from Victoria, B.C., in the Toronto Star Weekly (Sept. 11, 1965) article, "What Makes an Atheist Tick?", is quoted saying:
"Humanism seeks the fullest development of the human being. . . . Humanists acknowledge no Supreme Being and we approach all life from the point of view of science and reason. Ours is not a coldly clinical view, for we believe that if human beings will but practice love of one another and use their wonderful faculty of speech, we can make a better world, happy for all. But there must be no dogma."
When asked about death, Dr. Sherman replied: "It is the end of the organism. All we can hope is that we have found some sort of happiness in this life and that we have left the world as a little better place."
Those with a negative view of human nature might seek help in solving problems from outside humanity. But those with a positive view of human nature--a true hope--will work for "salvation" from within the human race, using the tools of reason and kindness.
For atheists, "salvation" is active problem solving.
We do not think there is a purpose "of" life. If there were, that would cheapen life, making us tools or slaves of a master. We think there is purpose "in" life. As long as there are problems to solve, hunger to feed, illness to cure, pain to lessen, inequality to eradicate, oppression to resist, knowledge to gain, and beauty to create, there will be meaning in life.
A college student once asked Carl Sagan: "What meaning is left, if everything I've been taught since I was a child turns out to be untrue?" Carl looked at him and said, "Do something meaningful."
If you want to be a good, kind person, then . . . be a good, kind person.
If salvation is the freedom from sin, then we atheists already have it. If salvation is deliverance from oppression and disease in the real world, then there is real work to do. In this ongoing effort, we atheists and humanists are happy to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the truly good religious people who also strive for a future with less violence and more understanding.
Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation with Annie Laurie Gaylor, is the author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, three books for children on freethought and humanism, and more than 200 recorded songs for children. Before "losing faith in faith," he majored in religion at Azusa Pacific College and was an ordained minister specializing in a musical ministry. He has produced three tapes of freethought music, the "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist" CD, and the "Beware of Dogma" CD.