Thursday, November 7, 2013

ALTRUISM AND ORGANIZED RELIGION

Nearly all organized religions have divisions devoted to doing good works.  Because of my background, I’m most familiar with Christian groups, but I believe the same is true for other faiths, as well.  In Christian faiths, at least, a primary rationale for such good works is based on Christ’s teachings, particularly his admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  But what about secular groups?  They don’t treat Christ’s teachings as an obligation of faith.  Nor are they concerned that a failure to live up to such an obligation could jeopardize their chances for salvation.  So how do secularists compare in terms of their commitment to altruistic activities?


I ask this question because of an interview that I recently came across on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iUcD86YvlE.  The woman, Rebecca Vitsmun, was a survivor of the massive tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma last May.  The interview is a bit long (16 minutes) but very well worth the time to watch.  Ms. Vitsmun is articulate and genuine and her experience was harrowing, to say the least.  One of the most interesting aspects of her experience was that she was chosen to be interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in the aftermath of the storm.  The interview with Blitzer took place while they were standing in front of the pile of debris that had been her home, and she is holding her 18-month old son during the interview.  The interview is also well done, until, that is, the close when Blitzer, looking for a way to wrap things up, asks what he thinks is a rhetorical question, “You gotta thank the Lord, right?”  When she hesitates, he adds, “Do you thank the Lord?”  It’s then that she states, “I’m actually an atheist.”  Both Blitzer and Vitsmun then laugh, simply because of the awkwardness of the moment.  (The last portion of the Blitzer/Vitsmun interview can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAcO1r9Q_os.)

[As an aside, it’s hard to understand how Blitzer, the son of Jewish refugee parents from Poland and a seasoned journalist, could make such a gaffe.  And it is interesting to review some of the online commentary following the Blitzer interview, including claims that the atheist community set Blitzer up for the faux pas or that Vitsmun must have been a non-theist rather than an atheist, since any true atheist would have exhibited visible hatred toward any sort of religious reference.]

Why am I mentioning this interview in the context of the question regarding altruistic activities?  Toward the end of the Vitsmun interview, she describes how impressed she is that within a very short time after the storm there were all sorts of volunteers on the scene helping with the cleanup, both faith-based and secularist.  But, she said--and this is the key point--there was a difference between the secular volunteers and the faith-based ones.  The religious groups were more organized:  They were in teams; they had t-shirts; they had supplies.  The secularists, she said, didn’t have anything like that; they didn’t have the infrastructure in place.

So here are my questions:  Are Christians more altruistic than secularists?  Does organized religion provide a better platform for providing humanitarian help to those in need?  Why did Rebecca Vitsmun, an atheist, remark that the faith-based groups were better organized than the secularists?  I think these are important questions--and challenges--that secularists need to respond to.

First, I do not believe that religious persons are any more or less altruistic than are nonreligious persons.  As I have said before (see my essay, “Whence Moral Standards?”, 11/2/13), I believe that it is our human condition that leads to ethical and moral standards, not religion.  Religion simply serves to rationalize and enforce such standards.  And that, in my opinion, applies as much to the encouragement of positive moral actions as it does to the proscription of negative moral actions.  Secularists can be kind and giving or they can be selfish, just as individuals who profess religious beliefs can be.  

But Ms. Vitsmun was struck by how organized and active the faith-based volunteers were compared to the secularist volunteers.  There are partial explanations for this.  There are simply more religious people than nonreligious people, at least in the U.S.  Also, there is an organizational difference.  As I stated above, many if not most faith-based groups have an arm of their organization devoted to humanitarian causes, including volunteer arrangements.  And many religious individuals consider their faith as central to their lives and their church as their extended family in some ways.  As a result, volunteer activities do not need to involve going outside of their circle; rather, they can be treated as a form of family activity.

There are, of course, other ways besides volunteering by which individuals can provide humanitarian assistance.  They can contribute financial aid to organizations that in turn can provide direct assistance to those in need.  And while a number of aid organizations are faith-based, many others have no religious affiliation.  These include the American and the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and Goodwill Industries, to name a few.  Moreover, secularist groups on a local level can and do provide organized support for charitable  causes.  Even so, I think that the secularist community can learn from the religious community in terms of a broader-based approach to humanitarian aid.

It would be interesting to hear what others, both religious and secularist, think.

© 2013 John M. Phillips


13 comments:

  1. I, of course, think that God placed in each heart a concern and an empathy for others...we are family... So if nonreligious people reach out to help others it comes from the same heart felt need to help and care, as you would hope someone would do for you if in need. Again it's the circle of love, as you give you receive. Christ in action, though the hands of His children...seeking to set right, to atone.

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    1. Lisa, if I understand you correctly, you and I agree that individuals have a sense of morality and of altruism, not because of Christian or other religious training or teachings, but simply because it is part of our makeup. Where you and I differ is that you believe God has put that sense of altruism in us; he has built it into our nature. And this is true whether we are religious or not. I, on the other hand, believe that our moral sense is the result of a combination of "natural" factors--in part the product of evolution, just like certain other features of our behavior, and in part the result of societal influences.

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    2. You can call that natural factors...infact I like that, it is our inborn nature. And sadly evolution is causing that factor to be less, and less common...I think. Just look at the world...and I know history repeats itself...as in the days of Noah. It is not, as you say religion that starts that quality in a child but it is love from parents that awakens it and keeps it burning. Look at the children the Nazis removed from the parents and place in nurseries with no human contact...they died...not from lack to sleep, or neglect when it came to being clean and warm and fed...but they had no love.

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    4. Good parenting teaches by example how to love. Have you hear about Japan...the birth rate is less than one per couple and people aren't committing to raising a family and getting married...they see no point. It has become a real national concern. I just think that is an interesting fact in light of the world situation.

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    5. Lisa,

      You are certainly right that parental influences are critical to instilling moral precepts. I guess that's part of what I meant by "societal influences."

      I'm not sure why you think that evolution has led to less humanitarian behavior. In fact, I think that evolution has been responsible for some of our altruistic behavior, and studies appear to bear that point out. But I am glad to hear that you believe in evolution. For some reason I had thought you were a doubter in that regard. :-)

      Not sure what you mean by "as in the days of Noah." With respect to the amount of goodness in the world, you might want to consult the point of view advocated by philosopher Steven Pinker, who argues that the amount of violence in the world has declined significantly. See, e.g., http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html.



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    6. Just a thought on evolution...what we believe and what we focus on has effects on the brain...the pathways are changed...and we pass that on to the next generation, genetic changes. That is evolution...as a believer in creation, I am convinced our world has evolved to such an extent that the original design is so changed , damaged that if you could separate the first world and the world today and place them side by side it wouldn't even look like the same planet and humans wouldn't look like the first two...hardly the same species, we are so changed from the original design..sin, evil is leading to death and destruction. But I know you won't agree. As I don't agree with Steven...just look at the military might of today compared to 100 years ago....first World War...in my grandparents life time. Drones flying around killing people at will...the evidence is plain that he is wrong!

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    8. Lisa,

      I had posted a reply to your comment but on further consideration decided it was harsh and probably unfair, so I deleted it and decided to start over. I'm sorry if it upset you. That was not my intent. Nevertheless, I did feel that your comment demanded a reply, so here goes (again). . . .

      I'm concerned that your understanding of evolution (and genetics) is misconceived. Parents do not pass on acquired traits genetically, as you seem to be saying. That is not how evolution works. Rather, it works by the fact that on average parents that happen to have genetic traits that promote survival and offspring are in fact going to have more offspring than are parents that lack those traits or that have traits that make survival or having offspring less likely. And so it goes.

      It is difficult to understand what evidence you could point to that would support your belief that the world and humans have changed so drastically in what I assume you believe has been only several thousand years. Do you have any creditable evidence, biological, geological, paleontological, or otherwise fin support of such changes?

      My guess is that although you don't agree with Steven Pinker's thesis, you have not actually watched the video of his TED talk. I think you would find it disturbing on a number of fronts. Nevertheless,he presents a good deal of evidence in favor of his position. I at first found his thesis to be counterintuitive and not what I had believed and I am sure that there are arguments on the other side, but I did find his argument and evidence to be credible and at least worthy of consideration.

      John

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    9. Found the Ted talk quite interesting and it makes sense.The statistics were really surprising . the ability of man to kill large numbers of people has promoted stronger methods of seeking peace.

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    10. Yes, as Pinker points out, a major reason his position is so counterintuitive is that the reduction in violence tolerated by societal standards is always ahead of the actual amount of violence occurring. So we always feel that there is too much violence (which there is, of course). Besides, there are simply more people than there were in the past. So even though there is still a great deal of violence, the per capita level of violence is declining.

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  2. Lisa you mentioned "the first Two" humans in the world and how humanity has evolved negatively since then. I therefore assume you believe in a literal 6 day creation story and Adam and Eve. Your use and meaning of the term of Evolution is not the same as John's use of the word. Belief in a literal 6 day creation is really incompatible with Evolution. Most major Christian denominations do not refute the age of the world and have incorporated current scientific knowledge and see the Bible as not totally literal.

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    1. The only point I would add to this is to ask what, if any, evidence Lisa (or any other fundamentalist Christian) would consider that would change their mind on these matters.

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