Does religion erode responsibility?

Religion enhances our sense of responsibility for others

It is sometimes claimed that Christianity erodes people’s sense of responsibility.

Religious people put the responsibility for what happens in this world on God. As Creator, he has made things the way they are. Religions therefore teach their followers to accept the status quo including differences in social status, suppression and injustice. Religions often promise rewards in afterlife, sweetening the pill of suffering and depriving people of the incentive to improve their present lives. For the sake of human progress, religion should be exposed as a dangerous opium that should be proscribed.

It was Karl Marx who coined the phrase: “Religion is the opium of the people”. But a fervent exponent of the opinion in more recent times has been Albert Camus. It is worthwhile understanding his genuine concerns.

Albert Camus (1913-1960), a Nobel Prize winning novelist and journalist, wrestled all his life with what he called the `absurdity’ of human existence. For Camus there was no overall purpose in which we can find comfort. “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I don’t know that meaning. And yet, the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.”

Camus compared life to the punishment inflicted on the mythical giant Sisyphus. Because Sisyphus lived by robbery, the gods have condemned him to try to roll a heavy rock to the top of a hill. Sisyphus tries day after day. His body is covered in sweat, and dust swirls around him as he wearily pushes the stone upwards. But whenever he reaches the summit, the weight of the rock forces him back. He loses his grip and the boulder bounces back to the bottom of the valley. Sisyphus then has to start all over again.

Life, Camus says, is equally useless and absurd. Whatever we try to build up will be destroyed. Our greatest agony is that, as rational beings, we know it is pointless and absurd. Suicide is therefore “the one truly serious philosophical problem: to judge whether life is worth living or not (see: A.CAMUS, “The Absurdity of Human Existence”, in The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays, New York 1955.).

Camus talks about human freedom in his novel The Stranger. A young man, called Mersault, is driven through circumstances to killing an Arab. He does not really understand why he committed the murder, yet he did it. His life in jail becomes a symbol for our human predicament:

“The biggest problem, at the start of my imprisonment, was that I was still thinking the thoughts of a free person. For instance, I felt the desire to go to the beach and walk into the sea. When I imagined the sound of the first waves under my feet, the feeling of the water engulfing my body and the sense of freedom it gave me, I suddenly realised how constricting the walls of my cell were. But that only lasted for a few months. After that I began to think the thoughts of a prisoner. As my mother used to say, we get used to anything.”
A.CAMUS, The Stranger, New York 1988, p.87.).

Camus decided that life was worth living, but only as a heroic struggle against suffering and deprivation. A genuine human being should take responsibility for his own life and that of others, whatever the cost. Camus has described this ideal in his novels The Rebel, The Stranger and The Plague. Camus was appalled by our human blindness to the misery and suffering of other human beings. He blamed religion for fostering the sense of indifference by holding out `trust in a good God’ and `empty promises regarding heaven’. The facts show that only we, human beings, can somehow alleviate the misfortunes of others.

The atheist doctor Rieux in The Plague remarks that if he believed in an all-powerful God he “would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him”. He declared himself an atheist because he was convinced that authentic morality consists in “fighting against creation as he found it”. And The Rebel proclaims the same view.

“Rebellion indefatigably confronts evil, from which it can only derive a new impetus. Man can master, in himself, everything that should be mastered. He should rectify in creation everything that can be rectified. And after he has done so, children will still die unjustly even in a perfect society. Even by his greatest effort, man can only propose to diminish, arithmetically, the sufferings of the world. But the injustice and the suffering of the world will remain and, no matter how limited they are, they will not cease to be an outrage.”
A.CAMUS, The Rebel, London 1953, p. 229.

I have given a little more background to Camus’ objection to religion because it proceeds from real concern. His appeal to do something about injustice rather than talk religion, has to be taken very seriously indeed; especially by Christians who are committed by the Gospel to make concern for other human beings one’s greatest priority.


It is interesting to note that in the last three decades a renewed awareness of this radical commitment to justice in the here and now has arisen in the Christian Churches. Its powerful expression began in Latin America and has been incorporated in new Christian action world wide. Many Christians acknowledge that belief in an afterlife has, unfortunately, all too often worked as a palliative to prevent believers from direct social and political involvement. The new awareness is known as liberation theology. For a good introduction, see: S.TORRES and J.EAGLESON (ed.), Theology in the Americas, New York 1976.

Christian faith has brought liberation

The claim that religion as such hinders the process of liberation cannot be factually sustained. Most reformers in the Western world have actually been motivated by their Christian faith; and in many other continents it was Christian missionaries who brought education, health care, social reform and human freedoms.

Let us look at India, for example. The Oxford History of India reports that it was the Christian missionaries who introduced such vital improvements as schools, hospitals, medical field work, famine relief and rural uplift. In particular, they spearheaded reforms that would liberate women. In Hindu society women were completely under male domination. Around 1800 the principal abuses included suttee, i.e. burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands, infanticide of baby girls, child marriage, social alienation of widows, purdah, i.e. seclusion from public society, polygamy and temple prostitution.

Christian missionaries galvanised the government to pass new legislation in order to curb the worst excesses. They also introduced schools for girls; overcoming an age-old prejudice by untiring diplomacy and “by providing living examples of a new kind of womanhood to India”. Though sharing the faith was obviously a cherished objective for missionaries, it was neither a condition nor even the first aim in providing humanitarian services. Missionaries were concerned about the plight of the poor, the illiterate, the outcasts and women, whatever their religion. The first school for girls was founded in 1830. Schools were followed by colleges for women. On Independence Day in 1947, half the hospitals and colleges in India were missionary foundations. Less than three percent of the patients and students served in these institutions were Christians.

This is the assessment of a secular historian:

“The efforts of the missionaries had a practical effect in giving women hope against the traditional monsters of ignorance, pain and disease. They brought with them a new conception of woman as a personality and of her place in society. The effects of these measures also appealed to the masculine mind and worked both by revealing possibilities not considered before and stirring uneasy feelings at continued acquiescence in the status quo now shown to be as unnecessary as undesirable.

In this way a women’s reform movement within Indian society was born, which gradually wrested the initiative from external agency and made the movement truly Indian.”
V.A.SMITH, Oxford History of India, Oxford 1958, pp. 724-726.

In 1966 I attended the opening of new Christian hospital in Hyderabad, India. The inaugural address was given by Prof. Dr. Pai, a Hindu who was the chief medical officer of the State of Andhra Pradesh. Talking about motivation for doctors and nurses in health care, he recounted the parable of the Good Samaritan. A Jew on a deserted stretch of road falls into the hands of robbers and is left half dead by the way side. A priest and a Levite also passed that way. They saw the man, but let him lie. Finally someone who belonged to a hostile nation, a Samaritan, also came by. “When he saw the wounded man, his heart was filled with pity. He went over, poured oil and wine on his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted the man onto his own donkey and took him to an inn where he nursed him. Next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. `Take good care of him’, he said, `and when I come back this way, I pay you whatever else you spend on him’.” (see: Luke 10,30-35.).

Dr. Pai said that the parable of the Good Samaritan was the finest expression of the medical ideal of service he had ever come across.

Service by Christian missions

Similar examples can be given for most other parts of the developing world, whether in Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa, or Central and South America. Almost all the leading intellectuals in young independent countries received their education from missionaries who left comfortable lives and promising careers at home, to serve total strangers in far off and often dangerous countries. They were not colonizers or only concerned with `winning souls’, as is often maliciously stated. In spite of undeniable human shortcomings, these Christian volunteers were genuinely motivated by the desire to implement the ideal of genuine service of others which Jesus Christ holds out in the Gospel.

“You know that the rulers of pagans like to boss over others and their leaders like to show their power. This is not the way it shall be among you. If any one of you wants to be great, he must be the servant of the rest. If one of you wants to be first, he must be your slave – like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many people”. (see: Matthew 20,25-28.)

“Love your neighbour as yourself . . . Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you . . . Treat others in the way you want to be treated yourself.” (see: Mark 12,31; Luke 6,27-28; Matthew 7,12.).

“Did you feed the hungry? Give a drink to the thirsty? Did you welcome a stranger? Did you give clothes to someone who was naked? Did you visit a person in prison? . . . I tell you, whatever you have done to the least of these brothers and sisters, even if you did not think of me, you have done to me personally!” (see: Matthew 25,31-46; freely translated.).

These have not remained empty words. During the last hundred years more than one and a half million Christian missionaries founded and staffed

  • village schools,
  • high schools,
  • colleges,
  • rural health units,
  • hospitals,
  • leprosy centres,
  • social training centres,
  • rural development projects,
  • adult literacy programmes,
  • women’s emancipation projects,

you-name-it in the most inaccessible places on earth. Who then can seriously contend that religion erodes our sense of responsibility for human welfare?



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

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