Religious belief, I feel, is an inherently selfish thing. You are lead to believe that if you do good things you will go to heaven. Do what God wants you to and you will be rewarded, either in this life, the next life, or both.
The end result of all this is that the impetus to behave well, to do good things for others, is driven by the question, “what’s in it for me?”. Of course, most people don’t think of it this way. They think that if they help with a food drive, or work in a soup kitchen, God will reward them. They are racking up points in heaven. But really, when you get right down to it, the real reason they do these things is because they are expecting a reward.
This isn’t to say that they aren’t religious people who don’t do good things just because they feel it is the right thing to do, of course there are. I would bet, however, if you asked most believers why it is important to help the poor or tend to the sick, they will say something to the effect that it is because the Bible tells them to, or it is what God wants. I doubt you will hear many give the simple reason, “because”.
From a humanist point of view, we do good things “just because”. Just because it is the right thing to do. No one tells us to do good things. We aren’t expecting any reward except, perhaps. the reward of feeling good about doing good.
I find it interesting that of all the Christmas carols that I can think of, it is a secular one that gets at the heart of why we should do good and be good: for goodness sake.
As a humanist, I am motivated to help others because I feel empathy. I see someone in need and I feel their pain, as the saying goes.
Religious believers have empathy too, certainly. Because the motivation to help others, for them, is reward based however, I wonder if the emotional connection, the empathy, is somehow lessened. When I see people who can volunteer at a soup kitchen, but then call all welfare or Medicaid recipients moochers I have to wonder how they can justify that stance. I think it is because they feel that they have done their bit of good by volunteering, but there is no emotional connection, no real empathy, for the people who they are serving. They aren’t being good for goodness sake, they are being good because that’s what is expected or required. In their eyes they did their good deed and will get their reward, but poor who they fed don’t really exist at all for them, they are just part of the scenery.
Some people will say that it doesn’t matter why people do good, as long as they do something to help others. I disagree.
We have a huge issue in this country today where there are millions of people who are living at or below the poverty line and there is a large group of Americans who honestly believe that these people deserve it. They don’t connect these millions of people with the dozens or hundreds they see at their soup kitchens. I suspect that part of the reason is that they haven’t made an emotional connection with these people because instead of doing good just for the sake of goodness, they are doing good in expectation of a reward. They don’t make the emotional connection that they might otherwise make because doing good isn’t about the other guy, it’s about them.
When there is no idea of reward, we do good because it is the right thing to do.