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