Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Heartless Atheists

A standard response, when somebody asserts, “Those people in that group that you dislike are better than the people in the group that you are a member of at accomplishing X,” is to get defensive and say, “No they’re not.” The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that there is something wrong with the data, and to immediately accept as true anything that hints at a problem with the research, simply because one does not like the conclusion.

Knowing this, I try to respond to research that shows conclusions that I do not like with a prejudice towards accepting it, giving it some bonus points in terms of credibility that must be overcome, and to see what it implies.

The specific research that I am referring to here is research that shows that theists are more charitable (give significantly more time and money) than unbelievers. See, for example, Religious Faith and Social Giving. This research suggests that the degree to which we have reason to promote charitable desires in others, we have a reason to promote religion in America. Correspondingly, to the degree that we challenge religion, to that degree we are responsible for the reduction in charitable contributions that would result from the secularization of the country.

The human response for most of my readers, if they were to go to the study and read it, would be to go hunting for flaws, ready to find any and all flaws that exist, real or imagined. Actually, I came up with a few dozen possibilities off of the top of my head, all of which I was willing to assume must be true unless and until the article provided me with overwhelming evidence that the issue had been dealt with.

Ultimately, however, I compare this approach to that of assuming that the Bible must be literally true and taking any hint of a flaw in the evidence to the contrary as a disproof, or the assumption that Saddam Hussein must have weapons of mass destruction and that evidence to the contrary must be flawed in some way.

Let’s take the conclusion at face value – religious Americans contribute far more than secular Americans to charity (in terms of both time and money).

By the way, the researchers excluded specifically religious contributions. Religious Americans, for example, are far more likely to give blood than secular Americans.

I would then argue that I should not encourage others to do things that I am not willing to do myself. It would be hypocritical of me to say, “Hey, you, give more to charity,” if I am not willing to do the same thing myself.

Here, I encounter a problem. Using the concepts that were used in this study, I am not a very charitable person. I do not give much money to traditional charities, nor do I contribute much of my available time. So, within the terms used in the study, I am bringing down the average for secular Americans.

On the other hand, I decided at the age of 16 to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been. This motivated me to spend 12 years in college studying different theories and ideas as to what the “best thing” might be. My decision to go to graduate school meant turning down a very lucrative job offer. After leaving college, I have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to communicate the things that I have learned to a general audience. This costs me in terms of my job because, if I were more devoted to my job I would certainly be getting more money and recognition than I get as a result of working on this blog. Yet, the blog is what gives my life meaning.

I do not even own a car, relying solely on public transportation to get around, I spend extra money on my energy bill to purchase wind power.

For all of this, in the terms of the survey that shows that religious people are more charitable than unbelievers, the survey would have put me down as somebody who scarcely contributes anything to charity at all.

Actually, I am not only dragging down the atheist average for charity, I am encouraging others to do the same. When a member of the studio audience asked me to present atheist charities, I answered by suggesting that traditional charity might not be the most efficient use of one’s resources. Particularly when we are working against contributions of the magnitude made by (atheists) Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. They not only have the means for making substantial contributions, but also have the resources to make sure that the money is spent where it promises to provide the greatest return.

At this point, I want to make clear that nothing in what I have just written refutes the findings of the studies in question. It may be the case that, even in this type of giving, theists are more willing to contribute to promoting well-being than (other) atheists. Or it may be that this blog is merely an excuse that I use for not engaging in other types of charity – that it is not charitable at all. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that these concerns have disproved the original proposition.

Yet, it does identify a potential problem.

Those years studying theories of value taught me a distinction between desires to fulfill the desires of others, and desires that fulfill the desires of others.

Traditional charity would fit in the first category. A person with a desire to fulfill the desires of others makes a contribution to a traditional charity precisely because it results in directly contributing to fulfilling the desires of others. A person with a desire that fulfills the desires of others might not have the fulfillment of other desires in mind, but his actions fulfill the desires of others nonetheless.

I bring this up because of the way that scientific investigation might be reflected in research that shows that atheists may be less charitable than theists. For example, do we count the work done by the researcher trying to discover new cures for disease, to understand (and predict) hurricanes, or to discover drought-resistant crops as “charitable contributions.” These agents might be motivated in part by a desire to fulfill the desires of others. However, they may well be motivated by a love of the subject matter itself, where the fulfillment of the desires of others is an unintended side-effect.

It is still the case that those ‘others’ whose desires are fulfilled by these types of concerns have reason to promote those concerns. It is still the case that, to the degree that our desires are fulfilled by these interests that benefit others as a side effect, we have reason to promote these desires through (moral) praise. These are still good people, and they are good people precisely because they have desires we have reason to promote.

The scientist who is truly passionate in his work, as I am in my studies of moral philosophy, if he has a few extra hours to spend, will not likely donate it to a traditional charity. He would likely spend it doing a few more hours of research in his favorite field of study. It is good that he do so, since this passion is what enables him to be so good at what he does, and makes it more likely that he will make discoveries that would then be useful to others.

At the same time, the contemporary complaint against religion is not that religious individuals lack charity. It’s that they engage in actions that cause more people to need charity – actions that tend to thwart the desires of others.

A letter last year written by several religious leaders protested any focus on global warming because it distracted from the religious goals of blocking homosexual marriage and forcing mothers to complete unwanted pregnancies. They are struggling to teach mythology in science classes and viciously protect the practice of denigrating those who do not support ‘one nation under God’ or who do not trust in God. They block stem-cell research that has the potential to treat countless injuries and illnesses. They promote habits of intellectual recklessness that conceal the truth under a heavy cloak of lies and deception (like the lies associated with Presidential Candidate Obama’s ‘refusal’ to say the Pledge of Allegiance).

The same intellectual habits that block recognition of the errors in scripture are also put to good use by people who sought to block acceptance of the hazards of tobacco, greenhouse gas emissions, and to promote false beliefs about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. All of these have had consequences that significantly subtract from the benefits that one might find from religiously motivated charity.

Finally, we should consider the fact that a great many religious statements are simply false. Following the formula that we seek to fulfill our desires, but act to fulfill our desires given our beliefs, false beliefs threaten to thwart our capacity to fulfill our desires. They cause us to act in ways that will fail to make true the propositions that are the objects of our desires. To the degree that promoting religion involves promoting false beliefs, we obtain the better fulfillment of some desires by weakening our ability to fulfill others.

So, does this distinction between desires to fulfill (thwart) the desires of others and desires that fulfill (thwart) the desires of others defeat the original proposition?

No. Absolutely not.

I have not demonstrated that secularists are better at “desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others” than theists. Theists may be better in this area as well. Their tendency to embrace false beliefs and faulty reasoning would certainly handicap them in this area. However, just because a person does not believe in God, this does not imply that he is immune to fictions that are as costly as those of any religion.

More importantly, I have not provided any argument that says that we cannot have both a flourishing of desires that fulfill the desires of others, and desires to fulfill the desires of others. To the degree that we have reason to promote those desires that result in charitable actions, to that degree we may have something to learn from the theists – something we may have reason to copy.

Using the theist’s greater tendency to be charitable as a reason to promote theism (in one form or another) suggests that we have to make a tradeoff. It says that we can have truth without charity, or charity without truth, but we cannot have both truth and charity.

At this moment, I have not seen any evidence that this is the case. Even the research cited above does not tell us that we must choose “truth or charity.” It simply says that we have some work to do if we are to get both. The best time and place to start doing that work is here and now.


Unknown said...

Excellent post. While this is merely my opinion, I also think that in a more secular society, the need for charity is lesser than in a religious one.

Aaron said...

Why does anyone need a belief in a God to compel them to be charitable in any way?

What about being charitable simply because it's nice? Or because it's good? Or (if you're a utilitarian) because someday it may help you out?

I agree that there are many forms of unspoken charity -- look at grade school education in public schools: Those teachers are WAY underpaid for what they do. Or people who work the crappy jobs so that you and I can enjoy the things we enjoy.