Gregory Paul: "The Great Atheist - Nelson Mandela"
Back in the last decade there was a cable talk show titled Faith Under Fire. Hosted by a right wing Christian, it featured theists and atheists in direct conflict over assorted matters. In one segment a theist challenged a leader of an atheist organization to name a single atheist who had become a great moral leader. To my annoyance the had-not-thought-about-that-one-before atheist was stumped.
A leading example, of course, is Andrei Sakharov. The wholly ungodly leftist physicist started out as the father of the Soviet H-bomb, but became so fed up with dictatorial communism – Khrushchev’s insistence on detonating a colossal 50 megaton thermonuclear device for no practical reason being a factor – that he became the leading dissident against the system, fighting for progressive democracy at considerable expense to himself.
And the other great moral atheist leader of the 20th century was Nelson Mandela. He too was an nontheist of the left (as most are, in the US 3/4s of the nonreligious are progressives, the rest Randian libertarians.)
It cannot be overemphasized that there was nothing atheistic about the vicious terror state operated by the Afrikaners. The apartheid scheme was devised by Bible following Calvinist Christians, specifically the Dutch Reformed Church. This paralleled the similarly terroristic slave state, followed by Jim Crow apartheid, of the American south. They too were Calvinist Protestants, mainly Baptists and Methodists. Every KKK chapter had a minister. The crowds that cheered on the lynching torture spectacles were Christ believers. And the white Christian churches of the south never opposed the rampant bigotry.
There was largely liberal Christian opposition to apartheid, especially from black Christians who decided to fight for their self-interests as well they should, and despite the autocratic, proslavery stance of scriptures. But the main counter effort came from secular leftist humanists in South Africa, who constituted the majority of the ANC leadership. Most prominently Mandela. A man of iron resolve who proved – perhaps uniquely -- able to peacefully reform his troubled country into an equal rights nation. A very good man got remarkably good results via tolerant, progressive humanism with a big dose of common decency thrown in. Mandela never claimed to be a servant of a god, he said he was “a humble servant of the people.” He understood that there is never a need to invoke the gods, who are a pretty useless lot when you think about it.
Here is something interesting. One might think that post-apartheid South Africa is a country of deep piety. Not so much. A third are atheists or at least nonreligious (http://www,wingia.com/web/files/news/14/file.14.pdf). If South Africa succeeds in becoming a prosperous progressive democracy, it will become even less theistic, as are all the most successful 1stworld nations. And that would be a good thing.
For here is something that is perverse. According the strict Christian doctrine Mandela is on his way to hell. He did not accept the grace of Christ, so he is eternally damned for his failure to seek forgiveness for his inheritance of original sin. Any good works he did are not pertinent. Ask many a Christian and they will say so. Fortunately that’s just a theofantasy. So is the blasphemous notion by liberal believers that nice people get a ticket to heaven even if they are not ardent followers of Christ.
Atheism is not afflicted by the bad morality that contaminates theism, in which the self-centered goal is to seek supernatural rewards. Atheism per se is morally neutral, so atheists are entirely free to be as ethical as they are able to be, and to be so in a manner that is truly altruistic, no reward being involved. Needless to say atheists are free to be very bad, as is the leftist atheist nitwit who is running Zimbabwe. But bad theists are a dime a dozen too, and they readily cite defective scriptures to back up their depravity.
Of course we will hear and read little, or more likely nothing, about Mandela’s irreligiosity from the supposedly secular bent mainstream, or even progressive, news media in the wake of the great atheist’s death. Just as there will be little mention of the deep religiosity of the operators of apartheid. But next time a theist deploys the old there-are-no-great-atheists-charge in your presence, toss Mandela – and Sakharov – back into their laps. And enjoy their subsequent deer in the headlights look.