Religion is not a motivator for good, part 2

In the first part to this post, I defined religion as an influencing factor in terms of people doing good. This is opposed to the idea of a motivating force. I compared them as such:

There is a key difference between a motivating force and an influencing factor. The former is the direct cause for something that happens (or said, thought, etc) and the latter is an indirect cause. To put it into other terms, my hunger is a motivating force for why I might buy a sandwich. An influencing factor, however, would be a commercial I saw for Subway. My procurement of food is directly motivated by my hunger, but my specific purchase is influenced by another factor – that is, my motivation exists independently of a given influence.

The reason, I’ve argued, that people do good deeds is that it’s in human nature to have empathy, sympathy, concern, and interests in the well-being of others due to our evolutionary history and status as a social animal. That isn’t to say we don’t have good reasons for those good deeds, but I am saying our tendencies as humans should not be viewed as fundamentally different on a biological level than the tendencies of any other animal.

As it happens, religion has had a long history of getting people to do good things. I would hazard that most charities are religious in their nature, and if not, then they at least make up a sizable portion of the total. We see church and mosque and synagogue groups traveling to help out developing nations and other places and people in need every day. It isn’t uncommon for someone to help out a neighbor while citing God’s will. The fact is, religion has influenced a lot of people to do good things.

Unfortunately, as it also so happens, religion has had a long history of bringing people to do bad things. We have The Inquisition, the Crusades, yet another war brewing in the Middle East, the current situation in Nigeria, Northern Ireland for quite some time, the Church’s devastating restriction of science for so many centuries, and on and on and on. The fact is, religion has influenced a lot of people to do bad things.

But here’s the kicker: There isn’t anything to stop a person from being influenced by religion to do bad things. The two primary reasons for this are 1) the subjective interpretations that are demanded by holy texts and 2) faith. Let me quickly break these down.

Subjectivity in Holy Texts

Unlike science or history or a number of other legitimate fields, theology and religious studies have no objective methods for determining what any piece of holy writ is meant to convey. Sure, there are textual critics, such as Bart D. Ehrman, who do perfectly valid work that has perfectly valid conclusions, but that’s because they have a real methodology and objective argumentation. The biggest advocates of what this or that piece of holy text means are little more than literary critics. That isn’t to say literary criticism is necessarily vapid, but there is a lot of empty air in the field. I mean, there’s a reason why two people can write two conflicting theories on a Shakespeare play and yet each have acceptable arguments. Or fifty different people with fifty conflicting theories. It all comes down to personal, subjective interpretation. Really, that’s art. And there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, but problems do arise when people begin to pretend they’re using objective means to come to their conclusions – which is exactly what we see with theologians and priests and others of the like.

Faith

I still haven’t heard a better definition of faith than “belief without evidence”. Because that’s exactly what it is. Stories in the Bible (and presumably other holy books) support this (but maybe arguments can be made against this claim and I can’t really say boo, what with the subjectivity of it all), and the words and sermons of believers are overwhelmingly in favor of believing x could be true, even when there is no good reason to suppose it actually is. So given this fact, it isn’t surprising that we see religious people influenced by their religion to do bad things every day. Because, why not? If a large premise of religion (and belief in God) is that one doesn’t need to use reason and rationality to come to bold conclusions, then what stops a person from going a step further and saying that God wants his followers to take x’s land, or oppress y’s people, or kill people of belief z? Indeed, arguments leading to these conclusions have all been made using religion – Christian and Muslim invasions, Christian-based slavery, 9/11. It may be argued that these are incorrect conclusions, but 1) there’s no objective way to determine that and 2) if the religion says faith is a virtue, then there is no need to enter something as wacky as reasons into the debate, is there?

So to conclude, it is our humanity – our very nature – that leads us to the tendency to do good things. Everything else is sauce for the meat – though, to be clear, not all sauces are equal. Some will tend to bring us to do more good than bad, to even be restricted from doing bad because of those crazy things called reasons. Others, however, are not so positive. Enter religion. This influencing factor is subject to the interpretations of countless people who have come to countless conclusions. (Just imagine if science worked that way, where two scientists working independently with the same information rarely came to the same conclusion. It would be mayhem.) Moreover, religious belief has this awful tendency to be underpinned with faith. Faith, as described earlier, is nothing more than belief without evidence. And if a person is willing to believe something for no reason other than hope or wishful thinking or fear or whathaveyou, then what sort of basis is that for doing good? More importantly, what sort of basis is that for not doing bad? The fact is, it isn’t a good basis for either – but anyone can (and has) made it a basis for any number of acts, good or bad. That’s what faith inherently allows.

Religion is not a motivator for good, part 1

This image caused a kerfuffle over at the Atheists of Maine Facebook page last week:

The point of the image is simple: Science has a practical utility whereas religion often has a petty focus. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who don’t want to understand that. Some were Christian trolls (who had to be banned), others were atheist/agnostic trolls (one of whom was almost banned), and still another was an accomodationist (that is, a person who does everything in his power to promote the effects of religion without actually believing in its core ideas). This last person responded with this link:

As hundreds of thousands of East Coast residents evacuated to seek shelter from Hurricane Sandy, the Christian humanitarian relief organization World Vision scaled up its emergency response to provide immediate relief supplies to families and children impacted by the storm.

Three rapid assessment teams will deploy in New York, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia this week while additional staff will remain on standby to begin distributing emergency supplies to the hardest-hit areas.

“Why, there you are!”, the argument goes. “Religion does have an important role to play. Just look at how much good it has motivated!”

I think it’s a patronizing and lazy argument.

It’s patronizing if only because it was made with the posting of a link, as if it isn’t common knowledge that people do good things all the time under the banner of religion. It’s lazy, if not because it was nothing more than the posting of a link, then because it doesn’t take into account human nature, evolutionary history, different forms of selection, and overwhelming evidence from other animals around us. Let me clarify.

People do good deeds in the name of religion all the time. That isn’t a secret, with or without the above link. But that does not therefore mean religion is a motivating force for that good. That argument was never made, and whereas that’s the point being argued, it’s the height of intellectual laziness to engage in this arena of discussion without even considering anything about motivation. Let me clarify further.

There is a key difference between a motivating force and an influencing factor. The former is the direct cause for something that happens (or said, thought, etc) and the latter is an indirect cause. To put it into other terms, my hunger is a motivating force for why I might buy a sandwich. An influencing factor, however, would be a commercial I saw for Subway. My procurement of food is directly motivated by my hunger, but my specific purchase is influenced by another factor – that is, my motivation exists independently of a given influence. So now let me connect this to the point I want to make.

The motivation to do good in the world is an inherent human characteristic. We have ample evidence for why this is so, ranging from the extrapolation of kin selection into an environment with large, non-tribal populations to the way other animals exhibit moral behavior to studies which compare how different cultures respond to the same moral problems. For example on this last point, the Trolley Problem was posed to remote tribes that had never been exposed to Western, Christian, or most other modern ideas. The specifics of the thought experiment were tailored to make sense to these isolated groups, but the results were stunningly in line with what we see all over the world. A sense of right and wrong would appear to not only be inherent in humans, but it can often result in similar outcomes in disparate groups.

The position I am putting forward then is that religion is an influencing factor that often operates on this inherent motivation to do good. A more robust argument can be made for this, but the rough outline is here (and it’s an outline I don’t think accomodationists and many others have even considered). Religion itself, however, is not a motivator to do good. Just ask yourself, Who honestly believes that good deeds would cease without religion? And for those that do believe that, how do they explain people who are good and do good without it? One might say that religion is just one of many motivators for good, but that’s basically saying that there exists some other basis for doing good. That basis, I am arguing, must be the reason people do good things. I happen to believe we have a lot of quality reasons for looking to our evolutionary past and status as social animals to figure out the nature of this basis, but even if I’m wrong, it still follows that religion is an influencing factor in doing good, not a motivating force.

In part 2 to this post I am going to address how religion’s status as an influencing factor and one of its prime characteristics (the promotion of faith) opens the door for it to cause harm in the world.