The Other I

November 20, 2015

Are we doomed without religion?

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.



  1. Interesting argument. Would like to see how a person from religion responds.

    My take: There may be a certain altruistic tendencies exhibited by humans and even across species as cited in the post. May be religion attempts to make it happen as a learned/willed response more often than as a natural response.


    Comment by tskraghu — November 20, 2015 @ 5:41 pm | Reply

    • My questions too — I’d love to see more well-executed research on this subject. Seems potentially important to me. Particularly I wonder if the emphasis on the carrot & stick motivation leads to a different kind of altruism than an emphasis on discovering what is intrinsically rewarding about loving others. I remember, for instance, as a child saying that I didn’t want people to love me because God dwelt inside us all. I said I wanted to be loved for myself. I suspect that the carrot & stick approach might increase our tendency to see charity in this way — ie: not really loving the other for him/herself. But perhaps not. Perhaps as children we all go through that reward/punishment stage before we mature.

      Thank you for your thoughts on this. As you can see, I find them stimulating.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by theotheri — November 21, 2015 @ 9:42 am | Reply

  2. Education may acieve the same objective as well. May be the carrot/stick paradigm of religion is more successful at it.


    Comment by tskraghu — November 20, 2015 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

    • Comment by theotheri — November 21, 2015 @ 9:29 am | Reply

  3. When I hear that someone is religious, I’m not sure what is means.

    I think for many, it means they attend a church, believe in God, pray to that God, and (maybe) live an altruistic life, trying to follow the golden rule.

    Unfortunately sometimes being religious means believing in a set of dogmas, which if you do not follow them, you are inferior or a sinner.

    If being religious men’s being altruistic and a good person, that is good, but why do I need a set of dogmas to do that?

    I think religion and altruism can exist together or apart. I think they are orthogonal.


    Comment by rayvoith — November 22, 2015 @ 3:06 am | Reply

    • I’m so glad to read your comment – I was hoping to hear your perspective. It looks to me as if religion & altruism can exist together or apart, because they both represent aspects of human nature – they seem to me to both arise out of our needs to survive, for a sense of community, of identity, for power, for security, for meaning, etc. And so what “religious” means has just about as many different meanings as what “being human” means. So in the event, they may be parallel or in positive opposition.

      Above all, what I agree with you most emphatically about is the problems posed by making dogma the defining difference between the saved or the damned. I am astonished at how old I was before I realized how awful this assumption is. I’d stopped believing decades before I began to reflect on how this emphasis on dogma elevates what we think way above the way we behave. But St. Paul didn’t say “and the greatest of these is what you think or what you believe.” Even “faith” in the original Hebrew is apparently better translated as “faithfulness,” rather than “belief.” (I think sometimes that Pope Francis understands this but can only go so far within the structure of the RC Church.)

      Thank you for your comment. Given our shared backgrounds, as I said, I am particularly interested in your viewpoint.


      Comment by theotheri — November 22, 2015 @ 4:01 pm | Reply

  4. […] Are we doomed without religion? […]


    Pingback by Exclusivity And Religion | Sanmargam — November 22, 2015 @ 11:45 am | Reply

  5. I have ‘reblogged’ the two posts at, a blog secular in parts.

    Thank you.


    Comment by tskraghu — November 22, 2015 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

  6. I hope you don’t mind.


    Comment by tskraghu — November 22, 2015 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

    • I certainly don’t mind! On the contrary, thank you. And thank you too for introducing me to the website. I’m going to learn a lot reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by theotheri — November 22, 2015 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

  7. Thanks for these thoughts, Terry. I find them stimulating, as usual.

    Ernest Renan in his lecture on the “Jewish People” (republished by the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand in his latest book) points out that the prophets Isaiah (the “original Jesus”) et al. demanded in the name of Yaweh that we love one another and stop offering useless burnt offerings and other empty rituals. And he did so without offering any hope of reward or dread of punishment in an afterlife but just because Elohim wants it that way.

    Contrast that with the terrors of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and even of Buddhism.

    Nietzsche said the last Christian was the one who died on the cross. But I think there are always the same number of Isaiahs, Jesuses or Muhammeds in any generation. Whether it’s an evolutionary phenomenon seems almost like begging the question. Isn’t everything an evolutionary development?


    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — December 1, 2015 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

    • Tom – Thank you so muchfor this insight into Isaiah. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the ancient prophets (a very long time), but when I did, it did not occur to me that the burnt offerings and empty rituals had anything to do with the religious rituals with which I was engaged. The failure to recognize myself for so long is rather frightening.

      Isn’t everything an evolutionary development? Yes, of course. But even committed scientists have for centuries thought that many of our human abilities are unique to us. We are only now discovering just how broadly intelligence, altruism, a sense of fairness, and community reaches back in the evolutionary chain. The extent of our capacity for abstract thought may be unique to us humans. But even how far that stretches is a matter of doubt, I think.

      On Tue, Dec 1, 2015 at 2:53 PM, The Other I wrote:



      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 3, 2015 @ 9:07 pm | Reply

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