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.