Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Third Epistle To The Blogosphere

Back to religion, brothers and sisters.
In Monday's Guardian Roy Hattersley argued that atheists like himself have to accept that most believers are better human beings. More specifically, that most acts of altruism (like helping the victims of disasters like Hurricane Katrina) are carried out by believers. "Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs and atheists' associations."

Let's start with that last point. 'Free thinkers' clubs'? Do they still exist? Have they existed since the days of my free-thinking grandfather in the 1930s? Those organisations for non-believers that do exist, like the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society, are very small. Most atheists don't join such organisations. I certainly wouldn't.

Because non-believers are mostly unorganised individuals they are mostly invisible. That contrasts with the very organised churches, the officials of which even adopt a special uniform.
But consider the amount of altruism, charitable work and voluntary work, not to mention individual acts of kindness, that goes on in society and then consider the percentage of the population who attend church regularly. If acts of charity were dependent on religious belief the social fabric would have totally collapsed by now. (It hasn't, despite what the Daily Mail might say).

Look at the internet. A global communications system based on technology rather than belief, whose users reflect the same proportions of believers and non-believers as in their different societies. Not the least remarkable thing about the internet is that it is awash with altruism. From forums for people with Tourette's Syndrome or agoraphobia to the hundreds of sites set up to help other computer users with technical problems without any profit motive, the internet is overflowing not just with spam and pornography but with the milk of human kindness. Since I started this blog I have been the recipient of both kind words and kind deeds (you know who you are). Perhaps some of them were motivated by religious faith but I know that some of them were not.

A relative of mine spent time working with women with Aids in the South African townships and later worked for a mental health charity in this country. I'm fairly certain that this was not religiously-inspired. Just one example that could be multiplied millions of times.

The motivation for doing good is an interesting subject to debate but in practical terms it probably doesn't matter much. Having said that, if an atheist does you a good turn you know that, whilst they may have done it partly to make themselves feel good, they haven't done it because some ancient text told them to or because it will smooth their path through the heavenly gates. And any gay person who has been assured by some sanctimonious believer that they love the sinner but hate the sin is not going to be too impressed by faith-inspired altruism.

Hattersley cites the case of a Salvation Army Captain who tried to convince him that homosexuality is a mortal sin. Yet, says Hattersley, lost in admiration, this same man will be out on the city streets helping young men driven into male prostitution.
I would ask Hattersley to consider that such a man might have a teenage son and that son might be gay and be driven to despair by having to grow up in a family where his natural sexual desires are regarded as sinful. Not quite so admirable, is it?

Hattersley lavishes much praise on the Salvation Army. For some reason, in this country they have always been the teflon-coated religious charity. To criticise them is like condemning maternal love or praising paedophilia. But I've always had a problem with a religious organisation that adopts the structure and titles of an organisation that is dedicated to killing people.
More seriously, a member of my own family has never forgiven them for the demeaning way they treated him when he fell on hard times more than sixty years ago.
There's also the breath-taking hypocrisy of a teetotal, anti-alcohol organisation that marches into pubs near closing time on a Friday night and shakes collecting tins at people they know will, from a combination of drunkenness and the presence of their friends, give generously.
In the past, the Salvation Army has been found to be one of the least cost-effective charities, spending a higher proportion of donations on administration than most others. That may have changed now. But they must still spend a lot on those Victorian uniforms and those bloody trumpets.

Altruism, like its opposite, is hard-wired into us. We are, after all, a social species. And helping others is not a peculiarly human characteristic. Never mind apes, the humble crow is a species that lives in a community and helps each other.

Altruism, charity, call it what you will, serves an evolutionary purpose. Maybe that was what caused that Sky Pilot I quoted in the post before last to see God in evolutionary processes.
Personally, I'd rather leave the Big Fellow out of it and do you a favour simply because you're a fellow human being.

This is my third post today so it's possible I might take a day off tomorrow and help an old lady across the road.
Unless, of course, she's carrying a bible or a Daily Mail.
Typical fucking atheist.


At 9:07 PM, Blogger cello said...

Thanks for helping me through that. I have been thinking about it a bit more. I've decided that even if the faithful are responsible for more charitable acts than atheists (far from proven as you say) their motives must be less selfless. If they believe there will be a reward for their behaviour at some future point then the act is no longer altruistic but self-serving. In the same way you can't be brave unless you're frightened to begin with, you can't be charitable unless you believe there is no possible personal benefit in your actions.

At 10:55 PM, Blogger portuguesa nova said...

Very interesting way of looking at it.

I had actually never even considered the internet a "charitable" place, but you are absolutely right. In fact the computer geeks are the most charitable of all...I have never, ever posted a question on a tech forum and not had it answered (and answered and answered) immediately answered.

I once worked at a restaurant with a staff full of part-time waitress/part-time housewives and most of them were the most nauseating Bible bangers you've ever met.

A woman was telling me about how she travelled to Brazil once a year with her church group to work with homeless boys.

I responded with the expected, "Wow, great, etc..." I then asked, "You speak Portuguese?"

She said, not surprisingly, "No, but people who are most in need of the word of Christ can understand it in any language. If we didn't go down there to help them, the gays would eat them up."

Otherwise homelessness would be such a liberating exciting life for a kid! Remember Oliver Twist?

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Urban Chick said...

i absolutely agree with your remark that altruism is evolutionarily basic

primatologists have observed that chimpanzees etc. show some basic understanding of the concept of fairness and justice and that, to some degree, they display what we might call 'moral behaviour'

this thrills me and confirms everything i have believed about human behaviour, as i deeply resent believers claiming concepts as 'compassion' and 'forgiveness' as religious concepts (be they christian, jewish, buddhist - whatever)

and i agree about the internet: i have had cause to draw on cyber-based forms of support in the past couple of years which has hugely enhanced my ability to deal with some hard times and made me some good friends too, some of whom i have now met in person

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

cello, your analogy with bravery is interesting because I feel that stupidity is often confused with bravery.

pn/uc: that aspect of the internet is not proclaimed often enough. The old media prefer to concentrate on internet scare stories.
The altruistic, co-operative aspect of the internet has profound political and social implications that seriously challenge the profit motive as the solution to everything.


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