Darrow Miller and Friends

The OXYMORON of Atheist Compassion

Atheism provides no basis for compassion and social justice. “Atheist compassion” is an oxymoron (a statement that contradicts itself, like “jumbo shrimp.”) That is not to say that atheists are never compassionate; they often are. But their compassion is not driven by their philosophy. The natural end of atheistic thought is social Darwinism, survival of the fittest, selfish cruelty. Like the adherents of many other thought systems, atheists live on “borrowed capital” of the biblical worldview. Ironically, atheists’ compassion is a function of their imago Dei (image of God) humanity. In spite of what their belief system tells them, they care about others because they were created by a loving God to reflect Him.

We started this argument in an earlier post. We discussed the inevitable shift in the view, and the practice, of compassion driven by the influence of an atheist/secularist worldview. We argued that the West has lost consensus in five arenas of the public square: 1. Love of God as a basis for loving people, 2. The personhood and dignity of all people, 3. The moral and relational nature of the universe, 4. The biblical basis for equality, and 5. A relational participation with poor neighbors.

In this post we will consider three further shifts: 1) The locus of responsibility, 2) The prevailing social philosphy, and 3) economic theory.

Locus of Responsibility: from Voluntary to Professional

At one time, citizens helped their suffering neighbors, either working singly or in the context of Private Voluntary Organizations. Much, though not all, of this dynamic of voluntary acts of compassion has been shunted off to professional services. The former brings people together; the latter separates people.

Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs) – aka Non-Governmental Organizations – were born out of what the French historian and social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville called voluntary associations. He writes that love propelled neighbors to help neighbors.

The love and respect of your neighbors must be gained by a long series of small services, hidden deeds of goodness, a persistent habit of kindness, and an established reputation of selflessness.[1]  

I have seen Americans making great and sincere sacrifices for the key common good and a hundred times I have noticed that, when need be, they almost always gave each other faithful support.[2]

Tocqueville describes how people moved from helping as individuals to increasing leverage through the formation of voluntary associations.

Americans group together to hold fêtes, found seminaries, build inns, construct churches, distribute books, dispatch missionaries to the antipodes. They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method. Finally, if they wish to highlight a truth or develop an opinion by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association.[3]

He observed that when the French look to solve problems, they turn to the state. The British turned to the aristocracy. The Americans, uniquely, turned to one another in the form of voluntary associations.

Over time volunteers have been replaced by professionals and the voluntary associations have become quasi-government service arms. Community voluntary associations have given way to large non-profits employing skilled fundraisers who acquire money to hire professional staff to care for the poor. In recent years these organizations have largely become contractors for government “charity.” American historian Dr. Gertrude Himmelfarb describes this process as “telescopic philanthropy.” The personal, relational and nearby dynamic has disappeared. Now, willing helpers are separated by distance and bureaucracy from those they want to help.

Marvin Olasky observes:

As professionals began to dominate the realm of compassion, volunteers began to depart … Agencies began to report a dearth of volunteers, while at the same time narrowing the field for those who did volunteer. At the United Charities of Chicago by 1915, “interested laymen were as likely to be consigned to a desk job as they were to be assigned to a family.” When board members at one charity organization wanted more involvement, its president announced, “our staff is so well organized that there is very little for our Board Members to do….” Boards did retain one major function: “Under the exacting gaze of a freshly certified professional elite, boards were remodeled into fund-raising bodies.”[4]

Social philosophy: from Max Weber to Karl Marx

Change in the accepted social philosophy emerged as another influence on the practice of compassion. This is especially seen in two disparate representatives, both German. Max Weber was a child of a German reformation family. He believed that “ideas have consequences” and attributed the rise in economic development in northern Europe to The Protestant Ethic (aka the Protestant Work Ethic). People could be empowered by political and economic freedom to establish societies that create wealth for the sake of the common good.

On the other hand Karl Marx was a throughgoing materialist. He believed that matter is all that matters. Economic problems and conditions can only be solved by material means. Accordingly, the solution to poverty is the redistribution of scarce resources. The state becomes the arbiter of economic outcomes, by coercion and force if necessary.

Economics: from Adam Smith to Thomas Malthus                  

Of course economic theory is a very powerful influence in the discussion of social justice. This arena experienced a shift from the ideas of Adam Smith to those of Thomas Malthus. Smith held to a positive sum economic system that sees the human creation of wealth as part of the Genesis mandate. Malthus, on the other hand, espoused a zero sum economic system. In this view, resources are by nature material things in the ground and limited by definition.

The Reformers preached that the universe had a moral dimension. They also regarded creation as an open system. God made man imago Dei to work and steward creation to make it bountiful. Man had a moral responsibility for the care of creation and the care of his fellow man. This sense of responsibility founded the concept of the creation of wealth. John Calvin in Geneva – the “City on the Hill” – laid the foundations for the economic revolution that created the concept and reality of the “middle class.” These ideas, as we have argued elsewhere, would spread from Geneva to the English and Scottish Puritans and then to the Puritan founders of the United States.

Adam Smith (1723-1790), was a member of the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith is often cited as the father of modern economics and capitalism. His book, The Wealth of Nations, is the first modern work of economics. Smith was an enlightenment deist living off the memory of the theistic Reformers, the Scottish Puritans. It was the giants of the Reformation that laid the intellectual foundations for free enterprise and its corollary, private property.

– Darrow Miller with Gary Brumbelow

[1] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840, 593

[2] Ibid, 594-595

[3] Ibid, 596

[4] Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, 146 and 147.

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Darrow is co-founder of the Disciple Nations Alliance and a featured author and teacher. For over 30 years, Darrow has been a popular conference speaker on topics that include Christianity and culture, apologetics, worldview, poverty, and the dignity of women. From 1981 to 2007 Darrow served with Food for the Hungry International (now FH association), and from 1994 as Vice President. Before joining FH, Darrow spent three years on staff at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland where he was discipled by Francis Schaeffer. He also served as a student pastor at Northern Arizona University and two years as a pastor of Sherman Street Fellowship in urban Denver, CO. In addition to earning his Master’s degree in Adult Education from Arizona State University, Darrow pursued graduate studies in philosophy, theology, Christian apologetics, biblical studies, and missions in the United States, Israel, and Switzerland. Darrow has authored numerous studies, articles, Bible studies and books, including Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Culture (YWAM Publishing, 1998), Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women for Building Healthy Cultures (InterVarsity Press, 2008), LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day (YWAM, 2009), Rethinking Social Justice: Restoring Biblical Compassion (YWAM, 2015), and more. These resources along with links to free e-books, podcasts, online training programs and more can be found at Disciple Nations Alliance (https://disciplenations.org).


  1. Jon Davis Jr.

    September 20, 2012 - 1:51 pm

    He [Tocqueville] observed that when the French look to solve problems, they turn to the state. The British turned to the aristocracy. The Americans, uniquely, turned to one another in the form of voluntary associations.

    What a sad thing it will be if this voluntary organization to transform society were to fade from the earth!

    Thankfully, God is Sovereign; and while there may be setbacks – ultimately the ways of God will triumph!

  2. ZH

    November 18, 2012 - 2:00 pm

    The OXYMORON of Christian Compassion

    Adapted on November 18, 2012 by ZH

    Christianity provides no basis for compassion and social justice. “Christian compassion” is an oxymoron (a statement that contradicts itself, like ”jumbo shrimp.”) That is not to say that Christians are never compassionate; they often are. But their compassion is not driven by their philosophy. The natural end of Christian thought is self-interest – acting “good” in the hope of an eternal reward and to avoid the wrath of a deity. Like the adherents of many other thought systems, Christians live on “borrowed capital” of their inherent human tendency towards empathy. Christian’s compassion is a function of their human empathy. In spite of what their belief system tells them, they care about others because that’s what higher mammals naturally do.

    • admin

      November 24, 2012 - 11:14 am

      Dear ZH,

      Thanks for your response. For anyone who is functioning from an Atheist framework your comments are absolutely correct. Such a framework finds no compassion in the universe and that would include Christianity.

      However, being there is a God who stands outside the universe, his compassionate nature is reflected in the self-sacrificing love of His Son, who demonstrated that compassion by his voluntary death on the Cross for you and me. Christ’s life and death reflect the very nature of compassion. As human beings we can be called to something higher than the power of “red in tooth and claw.”