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?
Religions promote nonsensical thinking all over the world, causing unbelievable suffering and then at the same time show up to be heroes?
They push conservative non-humanistic governments and thrive when the need for charity increases.
They push for population explosion and downplay the importance of preserving THIS World. The thrive on suffering and consider it a fuckin virtue.
Every time a gay person is beat up, or an airplane flies into a building, or a jew gets exterminated like a roach remember the root cause.
They equate secularism with fascism and communist dictatorships.
We are headed for extinction, plain and simple. Non-magical minded people are our only hope so don't expect me to believe religion is helping people.....
Personally, I volunteer. My favorite I donate my time and funds to is Habitat for Humanity
An interesting topic and one that is often used as an argument in favour of religion. My own personal viewpoint is this (but I cannot prove it, I'm afraid). (*Disclaimer: this scenario is just to illustrate my point so please could no-one bother attacking the fact that this could not happen):
Imagine that tomorrow we (as a human race) were to discover that there are no God or Gods and all the religions of the world turned out to be man-made after all.
How do you imagine that (overall) people's good works and charitable natures would be affected? My hunch is that people who currently do good works would continue to do so and those that don't would continue not to. Instead of organising themselves and their groups around fictitious Gods they would find another common context for their efforts.
Some people (Dr Bob on this site has hinted at this) fear that without religion everyone will suddenly turn selfish and reckless. I see no reason why this would be. You don't need God or religion to teach children that helping others is a good thing to do. You just need to teach them it.
So, whilst I agree that currently there are large organisations of Christians doing good works, I don't think this is predicated on them being Christian but just that large numbers of people are Christian. When (if?) the tide finally turns and atheists outnumber Christians I would not expect the number of charities or contributions to suddenly take a dip.
I cannot prove any of the above.
I disagree: I think it is trying to please the supernatural "origin of goodness" (i.e. God) which inspires Christians and other religious people to go the extra 100 miles basically out of the goodness of their hearts.
Having said that, it seems that those countries which rely the most heavily on religion to regulate their societies, are among the most evil and spiteful on Earth. I'm not sure why this is, but perhaps it is to do with the concept of personhood in some cultures, where low-status people are not valued as people, along with a worship of status at any cost. It was like this in the West maybe 150 years ago. But Jesus, at least, preached that every person is valuable in themselves.
It takes a strong, uncorrupted set of state institutions to regulate society and keep most people acting nice. The UK was in a state of comparative anarchy before the introduction of an organised police force. But perhaps religion has always had a strong hand in pushing forward reforms.
It may be said that religions are excellent at small-scale, face-to-face morality, and rather disastrous when it comes to the large scale. However, it is a lot better than nothing.
More precisely (from what I've been reading), the paradigm in Eastern cultures is for the person to be defined in terms of their relation to and position in society, rather than as a separate individual, as in the West, and for their individual rights to be superceded by their duties and obligations to society. That may seem a bit horrifying to us, and our way of life may appear isolated and lonely to someone from their culture. So an Eastern society is seen as one big machine with lots of interdependent roles, rather than people (roles stay the same, people come and go, they are just cogs in the machine), while a Western society is seen as a collection of more or less free and independent individuals, and we value individual rights and freedom.
From what I understand, this emphasis on roles rather than people is a reversal of the original situation in small groups, where every person was seen as valuable in themselves and was fully looked after as an equal. There is lots of evidence from the archaeological record of Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Neanderthals, as well as Homo sapiens, caring for chronically sick and disabled individuals for their whole lives. In some Eastern societies, these people would be of such low status as to be seen as valueless, and may be asked to commit suicide because they are a burden. Many social species have been observed to look after sick and disabled individuals within their groups, but it is sporadic, not guaranteed, and only humans have been observed to do it consistently and reliably. The reason is probably that we are the most interdependent species, since we are required to cooperate in sophisticated ways in order to find food, and this necessary interdependence and cooperative lifestyle leads to a need to feel that everyone in your group has your back, and for people to seek to gain a good reputation as someone who is caring, generous and prosocial under even the most trying circumstances, since a good reputation earns you feeding opportunities and people generally wanting to help you.
This reliance on coordinating roles is a result of the need to coordinate an interdependent society on a large scale. I think that Jesus largely threw off this cultural baggage in his moral teaching, and went back to the small-scale values of generalised concern and valuing every individual which are part of the evolutionary heritage within our species and the human family tree.
I think the key to understanding this situation is "dominance hierarchies". Within a social group of a social species, individuals are forced to compete with each other for resources and mates. The way to settle this competition, to decide who wins, is through dominance: fighting ability. Those with lesser fighting ability are forced to simply give way to those with greater fighting abiliity.
But early human societies were required to operate a "counter-dominance" policy for the sake of cooperating: nobody wants to cooperate with a bully who just takes all the rewards for themselves. So early human societies, and today, hunter-gatherer societies, were highly egalitarian with a flat power structure and explicit policies against dominance, status-seeking and bullying.
When we settled down and began farming, this reintroduced inequality as some individuals were able to accumulate wealth and resources while others did not have much. So power hierarchies were reintroduced to human societies.
All this means that humans have a dual heritage of both egalitarianism and dominance hierarchies. In a society like India, traditionally, and in the West, in the past, society is/was rigidly hierarchical with individual rights being less important than one's position and function within the hierarchy/society. The situation is like a hybrid of cooperation and dominance: regulated dominance.
I'm not sure of the reasons why, but in the West we have attempted to reassert our egalitarian side, to cut ourselves free of the dominance hierarchy. It probably has multiple causes, perhaps: the influence of the Christian church, and its egalitarian strand of valuing individuals regardless of status; the Enlightenment and people like Rousseau talking about individual rights and freedom; and technology and state institutions, which mean that citizens within society are less dependent on each other. We don't need hierarchies (or religion) to regulate society to the same extent as previously.
I think the religious idea of "God's love" has a lot to do with why religious people are so good at looking after marginalised people.
"God's love" comes in two distinct varieties:
1) unconditional and universal: God loves all living creatures automatically, without question.
2) judgemental and legalistic: God loves only those people who follow the rules of our religion. Of course, one of the rules of the religion may be "doing charitable works". Potentially, God may love anybody, because anybody has the potential to start following the rules of our religion.
If we translate it into biology, God's love can be seen as the universal, evolutionary pressure to thrive, experienced by all living things. In this paradigm, a sinner is someone who, in their attempts to thrive, ends up harming themselves or others.
So the "unconditional" religious version is the same as the biological version. I think this is the root cause of that strand of religious thinking in which all individuals are valued and respected in themselves.
There is no unconditional love from God and we are not driven to flourish.
God cannot possibly love one of his little evil maggots who didn't believe in him as his puny sinner roasts in hell for eternity. His love comes with a very high price: swallowing whatever he says, giving up your intellectual integrity and and grovelling and praising this bi-polar maniac. It is not unconditional. He expects just about everything from you and will hurt you terribly if you don't give it. That trumps any and every line that claims he "loves you unconditionally". A being that threatens you with endless torment...cannot possibly love you unconditionally. That's rubbish.
Also...we are not driven to flourish. We are driven to replicate our protein strings. Natural selection is a by-product of replicating protein strings...not the other way around. Animals need not "flourish" in order to keep mindlessly copying endless kilometers of code. Most animals are born, perhaps survive into adult hood, live in constant fear of being eaten, obsess over mating, compete with fellow animals and run from predators, squirt out a baby, tirelessly take care of those that survive, scamper and search for food, go without food somedays, break a bone and collapse on the ground in agony, stay there for five days in terrible pain until an animal comes and eats you. Go into a forrest and this is basically what every non-hive-like animal goes through. They are not flourishing. They're living a nightmare...all in the name of copying genetic code. Humans barely do it better.
I'm sorry Simon but your meme about "people flourishing" is a highly idealistic optimistic poetic one. It doesn't reflect reality neither at a biological level nor at a social level.
"survive into adult hood"
- to do this, an animal needs to be healthy (= to thrive). A sick animal is less likely to survive and therefore less likely to reproduce. This is the level of behaviour that is driven by straightforward genetic evolution. What is a hospital for? To make you thrive, and to save your life. The two go together.
It's a hard world out there, and bad things happen during the life of every living thing. It is pessimistic and unrealistic to say that this is all life is about. I'm sure you wouldn't seriously describe life as a "nightmare". People who study animals have found that a large amount of their time is spent playing and having fun (and recreational sex).
"A being that threatens you with endless torment...cannot possibly love you unconditionally. That's rubbish."
- there are two separate and distinct sides to religion: you could call them the legalistic side, designed to make people behave in certain ways, in order to make society function on a large scale; and the spiritual side, to do with individual and ethical thriving on a personal scale, and this is what Jesus specialised in and spent his short ministry banging on and on about and attempting to get across. If you are religious you would say it is a gift from God because it is similar to a magic power within all living things: the potential to thrive, which just has to be nurtured with the right conditions to bear fruit.
"The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like.” He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all seeds. But when it falls on tilled soil, it produces a great plant and becomes a shelter for the birds of the sky.”"
Jesus: Gospel of St Thomas
"It's a hard world out there, and bad things happen during the life of every living thing."
Because the doGdaddy wants it that way. But he loves you. Hahaha
Simon...healthy animals end up getting seriously injured and then slowly die by a pathetic attempt to keep going or a few days (in a lot of pain or without food) or being eaten alive. Even the animals which "flourish" as you call it...end up like this. Next to none of them die by natural causes (heart failure). It's a ghastly end.
But that's not the point. The point is....all small mammals, most fish, most non-hive insects like in constant fear of being eaten. Some of them are swimming in their own adrenaline and can barely sleep so they are ready to flee at a moments notice. Each part of their lives is a struggle and just getting a baby child to be born and survive into adulthood is a tedious, difficult, draining experience (requiring lots of luck). They all face horrible ends (sometimes dragged out for days). And if they are also predators, they spend a lot of time obsessing over capturing and ripping apart animals to eat them and feed their endlessly shrieking babies. Oh...and then it snows. Almost no food anywhere. Not enough food stored. Standing still trying not to move most of the day while still on guard for predators, very hungry, preserving the tiny storage of food. Noises. Vibrations. Snap of a twig. Who was that? Oh it's just my shrieking hungry baby who if he doesn't get food will give away our location.
This is not flourishing Simon. This is nature rendering whatever sad creatures manifest by the drive to endlessly recopy protein strings. The animals that seem to be frolicking in the forrest and resting on tree branches...are living a extremely short and nasty life. This is a nightmare. And yes...an enormous percentage of animals live like this. The world ins't just elephants and whales and lions. That "play fighting" and "obsessive sex" is seen amongst the higher mammals (often social) who live in groups together who are less likely to be attacked. Not squirrels or hagfish. And even then...they suffer. The group maintains some security and even joint food...but it means that most of the males never mate and live their adult lives in extreme sexual frustration and for those who leave the pack, loneliness and agression to others of their species. The female adults have no time for play fighting. They're getting raped by the alpha male or tirelessly feeding their many young so that some of them survive or searching for food cause the alpha male doesn't