Atheist Admits Faith Works

Roy Hattersley (1932 – ), former deputy leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party, was a member of Parliament from 1964 – 1997. A prolific writer, he has written fifteen books, including novels, and is a regular columnist for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, having won the Granada Television award for the journalist of the year.

Despite writing books on John Wesley and the Salvation Army’s William and Catherine Booth,1 Hattersley remains a firm atheist. However, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, unable to accept the doctrinal claims or ethical implications of Christianity, he admitted that almost all groups engaged in disaster relief and alleviating human suffering were religious in both origin and nature. He writes:

“Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers’ clubs and atheists’ associations—the sort of people who not only scoff at religion’s intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil.

. . .Last week a middle-ranking officer of the Salvation Army, who gave up a well-paid job to devote his life to the poor, attempted to convince me that homosexuality is a mortal sin. Late at night, on the streets of one of our great cities, that man offers friendship as well as help to the most degraded and (to those of a censorious turn of mind) degenerate human beings who exist just outside the boundaries of our society. And he does what he believes to be his Christian duty without the slightest suggestion of disapproval. Yet, for much of his time, he is meeting needs that result from conduct he regards as intrinsically wicked.

Civilised people do not believe that drug addiction and male prostitution offend against divine ordinance. But those who do are the men and women most willing to change the fetid bandages, replace the sodden sleeping bags and—probably most difficult of all—argue, without a trace of impatience, that the time has come for some serious medical treatment. Good works, John Wesley insisted, are no guarantee of a place in heaven. But they are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists. The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand.

. . .It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian or, better still, to take Christianity à la carte. . .Yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night.

The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.”2


1 Blood and Fire: William and Catherine Booth and their Salvation Army (London: Time Warner Books, 2000).

2 Roy Hattersley, “Faith Does Breed Charity: We Atheists Have to Accept that Most Believers Are Better Human Beings,” The Guardian (U.K.), September 12, 2005.

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