Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Religion, Atheism, and the Reason for Good Deeds

A couple of days ago I asked about the appropriateness of religious symbols in public buildings.

I used the example of the ancient Roman goddess Justitia. She is represented in public buildings and on public documents as a blindfolded woman holding scales and asword. Her image stands without protest because her image has come to symbolize a value – justice – that is worthy of a position in public buildings.

If Jesus were to occupy such a role, then what value would Jesus symbolize?

I suggested kindness and charity to those who lack food, clothing, shelter, or medical care as a potential value. However, I also protested that the followers of Jesus seem more interested in using this symbol to promote willful ignorance in the face of all evidence, bigotries and hatreds having no better foundation than that bigots alive thousands of years ago attributed their own bigotry to God, or malicious deception for the sake of political power.

When people use the image of Jesus, we seem to see these latter three ‘values’ more often than not. And when we protest these ‘values’ – when we claim that they are not fit values for any individual let alone any government, we hear the protest, “But look at all of the good religion has done!”

Consider this:

Consider a person who runs into a burning house and pulls a family out through the flames, saving them from an ugly death. He then goes back to his business where he sells “miracle cure” snake oil to the ill, promotes willful ignorance of its harmful effects, and uses malicious distortions and lies against anybody who questions the value of his product. When others complain about what he is doing, he protests, “But I saved that family from the burning building!”

In fact, our snake-oil salesmen not only sells snake oil on the side. He immediately takes out advertisements claiming that his snake oil gave him the courage and moral character necessary to run into a building and save the family. In other words, he then uses his heroics as a marketing gimmick to sell more snake oil.

Though our snake-oil salesman credits his snake oil with giving him the ability to rescue the family, we may actually ask the degree to which he was motivated by the profit potential of using the publicity generated by a heroic act to sell snake oil. As he ran into the building, was the thought going through his mind, “I must do what I can to save this family?” Or was it, “Imagine what the publicity this will generate do to sales of snake oil!”

We may be grateful for the good that this man has done, but this in no way gives him license to lie and deceive others into taking actions that are harmful to them. If given an choice, we have much more reason to prefer the hero who would rescue the family without selling snake oil on the side over one who rescues the family and also sells snake oil on the side.

We also may be grateful for the person who rescues the family because he cares that others not suffer, rather than because he cares to profit from his actions.

Look at the religious institutions who put their company logo on their good deeds, who use them to advertize rather than out of a simple concern for the well-being of those who are suffering.

We are often asked the question, “Why don’t atheists build hospitals?”

In fact, atheists do build hospitals. They contribute huge quantities of money to medical research, and they lobby for more money to be contributed. They lament the resources that are diverted from curing disease and feeding the hungry that, instead, go to advertizing the snake oil being sold by those who claim to be concerned with curing disease and feeding the hungry.

The reason that there are so few atheist hospitals and atheist charities is because atheists have not used their good deeds to advertize atheism, the way religious institutions use their good deeds to advertize their religion. The atheist who runs into the burning building to save the family is almost certainly not thinking, “Imagine what the publicity from this is going to do to the market share of atheism.” We know this because atheists do not put an atheist flag on their good deeds.

That is changing to some extent. Malicious deceivers have used the fact that atheists do not put an atheist flag on their good deeds – that they do not tend to exploit the suffering as opportunities to market atheism – to claim that atheists do not do good deeds. Apparently, they do not think it is even possible for a person to do a good deed out of kindness or concern, so that a deed that does not come with an advertisement for snake oil on it is a good deed that simply did not happen.

To some extent, many atheists today have decided that it is necessary to an atheist brand on atheist good deeds, simply to let people know that atheist good deeds exist. To some extent, there is reason to worry whether an atheist, like many theists, is performing his good deeds out of a concern for others, or out of a desire to advertise his beliefs.

This blog fits into that category. I do not argue for or against the existence of a God because it is substantially irrelevant. If a particular type of action is immoral, then it is something that no moral person may do. But, it is also something that no moral God may do. The study of morality is as much a study of what gods may or may not do (if any were to exist) as it is a study of what people may or may not do.

The only reason that I mentioned atheism in the title of this blog is to counter the propaganda of hate-mongers who say that because atheists do not put an atheist logo on their good deeds that they do no good deeds.

Perhaps the practice of putting philosophical brand names on good deeds is not a bad thing. If the results in people doing more good deeds, so that they can have more actions that carry their church’s brand name, then the poor, at least, are better off. I am certain that the beneficiary of needed food, clothing, shelter, or medical care does not care too much that their benefits come with brand religious brand names attached.

Yet, the original question was what sort of values might Jesus come to symbolize in a few thousand years, in the same sense that the Roman goddess Justitia came to symbolize justice. And, in this respect, the problem of doing good deeds for the sake of advertizing one’s religion, and the malicious deception of claiming that those who do not advertize their beliefs with their good deeds do no good deeds, suggest that the image will be one of exploitation and malicious deception, rather than genuine kindness and concern.

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