Altruism Doesn't Just Stem From Religion

on November 1, 2008
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LiveScience: “Religion Not the Only Path to Altruism” It’s not our inner, inherent goodness that leads to morality and good deeds.

While that’s a page out of Christian theology, it’s also the conclusion of an anti-religion review by psychologists at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Two UBC psychologists reexamined studies that tried to understand the relationship between religious involvement and good deeds (or what the researchers term “prosocial behavior”). But according to the psychologists, religion might promote such behavior just because adherents believe an authority figure (i.e., God) is watching, or because they want to maintain their good standing in their religious order.

It sounds as though this review comes down on religion nearly as hard as is possible.

“We found little or no evidence that empathy plays any role in religious prosociality,” coauthor Azim Shariff reported. They also claimed that “courts, police, cameras, credit records and other justice-related authorities” can essentially replace religion’s role in upholding morality. “The fact that many non-religious people act as cooperatively as religious ones, and that many predominantly secular states are as (and often more) stable and functional as predominantly religious ones, attests to this,” coauthor Ara Norenzayan said. Furthermore, the psychologists point out that not all religion-inspired behavior is prosocial, citing suicide bombing as an example.

Richard Sloan of Columbia University Medical Center, a professor of behavioral medicine unaffiliated with the review, commented, “I don’t believe there is any evidence to support the necessity of religion for prosocial behavior.”

It sounds as though this review comes down on religion nearly as hard as is possible—in complete ignorance of the testimonies of literally thousands, and likely millions, of Christians who can attest to the change “religion” (or, actually, a relationship) has made in their attitudes about right and wrong, and about how much empathy they should show to others.

And while the review treats empathy and authority separately, Christian readers will probably recognize that they operate in conjunction when it comes to making a moral decision. We can empathize even while remembering that God knows our hearts and wants us to care for others. They are not contradictory, but rather complementary. Furthermore, there’s a big difference between doing something entirely out of fear (of imprisonment, for example) and doing something because you not only fear judgment, but also because you know what is objectively right and wrong.

Also, replacing religion with government could theoretically be as effective in “enforcing” prosocial behavior, but what if it undermines the objective basis for right and wrong? Sloan’s suggestion that prosocial behavior doesn’t need religion smacks of the idea that whatever helps the species is inherently good. But what about justice? And why is “prosocial” behavior good in the first place? If society tries to drive out religion, it risks driving out the very foundation for any objectivity in moral questions.

Besides, Christians already know that humans aren’t inherently good and that the fear of the Lord and a relationship with Christ are the basis for true morality. So in a sense, this review merely confirms the Bible’s teaching even while trying to write off religion.


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