I have four decades of experience as an evangelical Christian in the UK, followed by one decade as a humanist with no belief in any deity. I've also spent years imprisoned in my country. Highly obvious in British prisons (as elsewhere in society) is the dedication shown by Christians of various denominations towards spending time with and practically helping people that the rest of society reject.
Admittedly, they want their "clients" to convert, but that makes no difference to their genuine care and love, and they keep caring even if the client has no interest in their religion. There are few or no secular groups doing this in prisons and prisoners find it highly attractive, as it provides a rare occasion when they're treated as normal human beings. It is widely felt that state representatives - social workers, psychologists, prison officers, Job Centre workers etc. - treat prisoners and ex-offenders with indifference or contempt, and the warmth shown by religious people is magnetic.
In my town, I see active, successful churches providing social services that the state is withdrawing from. One supplies furniture at low prices to people living on social security benefits, which I'm finding invaluable. This kind of work is what religious people did before the state took over in the 18th-20th centuries.
My point for discussion is: what are non-religious people doing? Why aren't we forming helping groups and ensuring that the churches (this is, so far as I can see, limited mainly to Christians) don't have this field to themselves? With the shrinking of the state becoming a permanent feature of the UK and the USA, we secularists cannot expect to see the churches continuing to decline as they've been doing since the 1950s, because they're actively reaching out to the most needy and showing they have a vital role to play.
What should our response be?
The wifebeater from Alabama. On the one hand, he feels love for his wife, every day, he always has been in love with her and almost always feels that love. On the other hand, he also feels it necessary to strike that bitches mouth shut when she nags about the unpaid bills after a long day of work.
And so there is always a sense of love for this man...but when he is terrorising his wife into silence by physically assaulting her (and shutting her up with the threat of more violence) he is not expressing his unconditional love but pointless cruelty. Anyone who claims pointless viciousness and brutality is a manifestation of unconditional love...is someone who needs behavioral cognitive therapy.
God is Alabama man...only far worse...because he's supposed to be our caring father and his emotional manipulation, physical abuse and terror of future brutality...is exponentially worse than Alabama man.
You cannot eat the whole cake and still have leftovers.
God doesn't want his people to flourish, there is not a single line in the bible that has God say: God live a happy life, do what you need to do to be fulfilled, end your life when you feel it is your time, explore your emotional depths and sexual needs, educate yourself with objective useful information, challenge your fundamental beliefs, treat women and marginalized people with absolute equality, create a safe society with democratic principles.
God doesn't say that ever. He wants baby machines that spit out babies and an austere family structure with extremely severe constraints over your family live, education, sexual acts, moral principles, treatment of others, punishment etc.
I don't know where you find "real meaningful flourishing" in the bible. Could you quote me a chapter that unambiguously calls for this? And no...poetic vague calls for a sweet frolicking life with disclaimers that eventually come which make that sweet frolicking life impossible...do not count.
What we get in the Bible is all in poetical language. Jesus was trying to put across in words a "magic power" existing throughout nature that he ascribed to God, that brings health and happiness if you tap into it. So of course it was difficult for him to describe directly, without any knowledge of genetics or evolution. However, he seems to have done a really good job of getting it across using his poetry, stories and the example of his life, since Christians in general seem to understand it really well. They have an understanding of the essential point, which is that if you put the right conditions in place, people will thrive and grow. The prison visitors mentioned in the Original Post are a good example of this.
His way seems to work a lot better than my way of spelling out the ABC in precise scientific terms. However, because it's precise, it has more power as a theory and so, for example, it can be used as an explanatory background for morality (if we add in the ecological conditions of a species, which gave rise to their particular evolutionary path) and in general it can be fitted into the other scientific knowledge we have.
I can see both sides of the discussion that is going on here between Simon and Davis. My personal experiences have led me out of both religion and of the Green movement (I stood for election to the European parliament in 1994). In both cases, part of my disillusionment was the plain lack of truth in what they taught. Green thinking has an unscientific, Romantic world view that asks us to return to some wholly imaginary state of natural ecosystems living in harmony - which David makes very clear is nonsense.
My mother brought me up to be an evangelical Christian, which I now view as a serious abuse of her power over me. But she did it for what she felt deeply was the best reason: to save my soul. There's a seemingly widespread view amongst the liberal intelligentsia that people who do bad things for their religion must be doing it for some other reason. I don't think so. These people really believe, as indeed I did by turning off the analytical part of my brain. Those beliefs also motivated great love and kindness, which I experienced from and with my mother as she sincerely loved her foster-children, people who were mentally ill, had physical impairments or were in poverty. These acts of sacrificial love should inspire us non-believers into doing the same, or do we think (as a surprising earlier reply stated) that we humans need a deity to make us love one another?
My other experiences of secular organisations such as social work, the psychiatric professions or charities have been much less positive. Most prisoners would tell you their own stories of contemptuous treatment by people paid to help. Which would any of us prefer: a lifetime of deep friendship with one religious person who's around all the time when you need them - or impersonal encounters with a series of secular so-called professionals who barely know your name and must never come into physical contact with you?
I think we supposedly intelligent non-believers need to understand that religion is still a great threat to humanity. I read recently (in a book that was trying to put facts in place of hysteria) that the official figure for the proportion of Muslims in London was, in 2012, "only 12%". Only? One in eight? We may despise what the Church did to infidels like us in past centuries, but we can expect something similar or worse if Islam continues to grow without its own Reformation. There is a battle on and giving money to secular charities is not much of a solution. We need to show by our lives that sacrificial love is not the prerogative of the religiously-minded.
- it's not unscientific or romantic to say that every individual living being possesses, within them, biochemical and behavioural motivations solidly and imperatively aimed at thriving, surviving and reproducing. It's a blindingly obvious statement of raw fact. Thriving is necessary for surviving, which is necessary for reproducing. Fact. This fact is the necessary basis for any kind of care: whether self-care or care of others.
The spiritual side of religion has always had this fact as its stock in trade, but for some reason it leaves scientifically clued-up atheists scratching their heads.
"thriving, surviving and reproducing"
- these three interlinked things go a long way to explaining what life is all about. Add in cooperation / competition and you've got pretty much the whole picture.
As 'The Selfish Gene' clarifies very well, the genetic imperative and the behaviour of an organism are not the same thing. Also, the obvious drive to thrive or just to survive in the natural world is generally at the expense of other organisms. Altruism, while not unknown, is rare.
"the genetic imperative and the behaviour of an organism are not the same thing"
- do you like sex? Do you want to live and not die? Do you enjoy being happy? Are you a narcissist, or a psychopath? In many cases, the genetic imperative has a strong influence on our behaviour.
"Altruism, while not unknown, is rare."
- That's a myth. On the contrary, altruism in the form of mutualistic cooperation is a very common survival strategy. Pure altruism exists in the care that parents give their offspring (in mammals and birds). We are also altruistic towards those with whom we cooperate. Human society is the success it is because of its cooperative foundations.
'The Selfish Gene' or an equivalent should be on all schools' required reading list. I urge you to read it.
The amount of energy that an organism expends on another is directly proportionate to the fraction of its own genes that the other gene possesses. Humans care sacrificially for their children or siblings and decreasingly so for aunts, uncles or cousins. This is not altruism which, by definition, expends energy without expectation of personal genetic benefit.
I've read The Selfish Gene, which is where I got my ideas about the genetic imperative to thrive as well as survive and reproduce.
"Humans care sacrificially for their children or siblings and decreasingly so for aunts, uncles or cousins."
- then that's the genetic imperative right there.
You can if you wish define that as non-altruism, because there is some genetic fitness benefit to the actor. There is an alternative version of this rule to do with cooperation, where we expend effort to help someone we are cooperating with depending on the benefit we receive from their increased well-being.
This care that parents give their offspring is a very strong impulse, as we would expect from an evolutionary standpoint as it enables offspring to survive. Like any strong imperative, it can become detached from its evolutionary "moorings" and be made available for use in other contexts. In other words, it's the psychological basis for pure altruism, where individuals will help others without any benefit at all to themselves. This is surprisingly common in nature, especially among the more intelligent animals and those who practice cooperative breeding (distributed parenting - helping to look after offspring not your own) such as elephants and wolves. It probably takes a lot of brain power to calculate the cost/benefit analysis of helping another - so evolution has done this work, and animals are just left with the psychological motivation to help. Mostly there's a return benefit, often there isn't.
"evolution has done this work, and animals are just left with the psychological motivation to help"
- evolution says, "help those close proximity to you, or those within your social group, because in the long run, you depend on them and they generally benefit you". That is the cost/benefit analysis that evolution has done.
In a highly cooperative species like humans, there is an equally strong impulse to exclude free-riders, since they have not contributed any effort to the cooperative endeavour, and to help them would put "my" cost/benefit ratio out of balance (my benefit is no longer proportionate to my cost, since the free-riders have stolen some of it). In the very early days of human ancestors, cooperation probably took place in twos and threes, at a very personal level. This instinct to exclude free-riders would have been as strongly selected for by evolution as the instinct to cooperate.
So this is one of the reasons why we dislike people from other groups - they are seen as free riders on the effort that our own cooperative group has put in. Also, they do things differently from us (= wrongly), they have different loyalties (to their own group) and maybe their group competes with ours. But these reasons for disliking outsiders are all rather fluid, so in theory it is possible to fix them and it is not too much of a stretch to begin accepting outsiders.
That said, there are animals such as chimpanzees and bonobos (our closest relatives) who form long-lasting friendships and in these circumstances, it is likely to be consciously known by the animal that helping one of their friends will bring a benefit in the future, so this situation is not one of blind helping without any thought of return.
In the classical theory of morality, these interdependent coalitions in great apes, with their strategic, mutual exchanges of help, are thought to be the starting point for human morality and interdependent helping. We extended this behaviour from just helping "family and friends" to helping "cooperative partners" and "the whole group".
I think you will find that very little community support by religious groups is unconditional or free. Often they take a terrible plight, and profit from it - look at Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu. I mean how sick is it that you use another person's misfortune to publicise your belief or to put money in your pocket.
Other times they use the provision of services to preach and convert. If you can find me a church that does this anonymously and without any conditions and for no profit then I will give that church my support.
I also disagree with the notion that atheists do not support their community or contribute. What they don't do is use it as a marketing tool. This notion has been spread in recent years by theists and particularly christian groups looking to protect their siphoning of funds from the public pocket.
What we need to do is object every time someone says that atheists aren't doing enough.
Non religious people aren't doing anything that most people know about for a variety of reasons. First, non religious folks make up a small amount of the population as it is. A second reason and probably the most important is atheists largely have nothing in common other than lack of belief in any deity or deities.
Christians have an entire culture in common. In general we have the same morals, values, and beliefs. If you are a Christian in western civilization it is pretty easy to find other Christians. If you are an atheist there is no specified place or social setting that you can interact. The internet is really the only way atheists find other atheists unless you meet at work, school, or it comes up in friendly small talk.
As for what your response should be, you should be happy and supportive. Anyone who puts others before themselves and goes out of their way to provide comfort without benefiting directly themselves should be supported regardless of religious affiliation.