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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Religion unnecessary for Altruism

Joe from our team posted this link today on our message board:

This is a great article which confirms what I have been proclaiming and suspecting for a long time. Religion is not necessary for and does not boost altruism. The simple reason being that altruism is an evolved human characteristic and it evolved in us before we had language and therefore before we had religion.

Religious people like Atheists/Agnostics are equally capable of being altruistic the differences appear in the expression of altruism. Many religious people by tithing at church feel that they are being good to other people and therefore diminish the amount they cooperate in the community-at-large because they feel they are doing more than their part at church. However, there is an ulterior motive when they give money at church and that is to boost their reputation amongst their fellow church-goers.
Humans are evolved to be acutely sensitive to our reputations as do-gooders in our social groups because this promotes strong cooperative bonds that help the species. This psychological mechanism was originally unrelated to religion, the authors write in the Oct. 3 issue of the journal Science.
Unfortunately tithing is arguably the worst form of charity because it contributes to the teaching of false beliefs, mental suffering (hell, torture, sin, etc.) and only a fraction of the money is put to real charitable causes (4% of the money tithed to the Church of England goes to charity).

We know this does not apply to all religious people because we see them at doing real good for others. I would argue one main difference between the expression of altruism by religious folks and atheists is the size of the "in-group". For religious people the in-group is as large as their religion; for Christians about 1.9 billion; for Muslims about 1.1 billion. For atheist the in-group is the whole worlds population 6+ billion because we know people need help regardless of their religion.

When debating with religious people I often hear them proclaim that without religion society would fall apart there would be chaos, anarchy and people would commit violent and violent sexual acts with no hesitation. It's worrisome that some people have the impression that those things would happen. I kindly point out that we have laws which punish people for crimes and that is the main reason people refrain from criminality if they are so inclined (or in a desperate situation).
In fact, the courts, police, cameras, credit records and other justice-related authorities can serve the same purpose nowadays, encouraging prosocial behavior among large groups of strangers.
I also point out that human nature is not all bad; every person is both good and bad because of our evolutionary heritage (attack the enemy but protect the family) and we can to some extent choose how to behave. People have good in them and they want others to see the good in them so if they are in a position in society where their needs are met then there is no reason for their bad nature to surface and want to act out negatively towards others.

Indeed, this is one of the main arguments for improving the living situation in the Palestinian territories. In Palestine, the territorial situation is uncertain and the in/out group definitions are clearly defined and we see Muslim suicide bombings (which is altruism towards Muslims but a horrible crime against humanity). In Iran, where suicide bombing occurred during the Iran-Iraq war, we no longer see suicide bombings because the in-group (Iranians) are no longer being threatened by the out-group (Iraqis) and the standard of living is high considering Iran is not in the World Trade Organization. If Palestine had a clear territorial definition and an improved economy we may see more of the good nature of Palestinians; and even business cooperation with Israel. However, I'm not trying to claim an easy solution to a difficult problem.

The beauty of Atheistic Altruism is the following:
  1. We know there is no higher power governing our behavior or decisions.
  2. We know that all people are related through a common ancestor and in an evolutionary sense we are all related; and we all suffer.
  3. We know people need help and we are faced with three decisions:
    1. Do nothing.
    2. Do harm.
    3. Do good and help.
I am proud of how many of us choose to "do good and help".

By Peter


Andy said...

Pete, I'm a bit curious to hear your thoughts on the current Emergent movement, as it has been rejected by most of the mainstream. Do you feel it has the potential to create a more moderate and open outlet for religion in a way that could possibly be accepted as benign to most atheists?

Tropical Pete said...

My feelings are that in free societies like the West there will always be some form of religion because those who do not have well formed mental skeptical tools are prone to mythical beliefs. For example we still see people who regularly visit psychics and believe in astrology even though these issues have been thoroughly debunked.

Personally, I feel that psychic parlors are committing fraud but under our current climate of religious protection the government is powerless to put a stop to them. Hopefully one day taking money under false pretenses will be enforceable regardless of whether the person claims to be a religious authority. If that day comes churches will quickly have to reorganize under the Emergent philosophy.

The emergent churches are already taking root. The Unitarian churches do not even require a belief in God to attend but they still have the feel of a Christian Church. I think that form of Church is viewed as benign to most atheists. The United churches in Canada are also very liberal allowing gay marriages etc.

I think in the long run the Churches described above will be the only Churches left after the wave of reason and rationality causes the other churches to be unpopular and go out of business.

The power of the Internet to expose the "hypocrites" as Bob Marley would refer to them; is ever increasing.

Therefore, it is worthwhile for atheists to pressure extremist churches who do not believe in Evolution, etc. Or who have arbitrarily strict dogma like the Catholic church.

The Catholic church is constantly losing members and I believe that a large percentage of those defects end up in emergent churches versus evangelical churches, although I do not have specific numbers handy.

Since the positive and negative aspects of every religion can be picked apart using reason it's worth fighting the ignorance of Catholic and Evangelical churches to pressure their followers to tone down the confidence in their beliefs and adopt a more spiritualistic approach to religion.