In yesterday’s post I described some recent research suggesting the possibility that religion might paradoxically result in our being not more but less generous towards those less fortunate than we.
Following on from that somewhat surprising outcome, I wonder if children who are raised without being taught any particular religious ideology might actually be naturally more altruistic.
One of the surprising findings in science in the last 50 years or so is the extent of altruism that seems apparent in other species. We’ve seen examples of dolphins saving humans from attack by killer sharks, for instance, a lion protecting a baby rhino, a bear sharing his dish of food with a hungry cat that entered its cage in the zoo. There are thousands of examples. If you have a pet dog or cat or bird, you may yourself have benefited from this kind of altruism.
Where does this altruism come from? In non-humans, it obviously does not originate in religious belief. Some theories argue that all species, individuals will sacrifice their own lives in order to protect those who share our genes. It is, they say, basically a selfish response, in that I am really trying to maintain my own genes in the lives of future generations. But this theory breaks down when we are dealing with altruism toward those who do not share our genes, who are not even of the same species.
Is altruism, then, a result of evolution in all living creatures? Do we all have the potential to care about other life, not simply our own or those closest to us?
If so, might we then find greater altruism among those who are taught to understand and care about all life – without the additions of threats and rewards?
Religions typically exhort us to love others in order to gain an eternal reward and avoid eternal punishment. But if altruism is a natural response, then it is diminished by suggesting that caring about all other life is not intrinsically fulfilling in itself, as if we need to be bribed to love others.
We don’t need to bribe our children to enjoy playing with their train sets or i-pads, their toy dolls or pet animals. We don’t need to bribe them to do any of the million things they enjoy.
Why do we assume that caring about the life around us isn’t something we do naturally?
Actually, we probably often do that because, although we are capable of selfless love, we are also capable of incredible cruelty, of sadism, or even taking enjoyment in making others suffer.
But since religion does not seem to eliminate those negative impulses, and often even seems to encourage and justify them, perhaps we should explore whether religion actually does more harm than good.
Could we survive without religion? could we survive without the certainty religious belief offers so many?
As I look around the world today, I don’t see the answer. I don’t know if or when religion make things better or worse. Religion does not do a lot for me these days. I prefer to live in the mystery of a universe which constantly astonishes, exults and sometimes frightens me but which I know ultimately is beyond complete human understanding. Yet I know people who are more generous and courageous than I have ever been who are deeply religious.
I don’t know. I would be interested to know what you think.