Be Good For Goodness Sake

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.

Atheists Raise $180,000 for Charity

It is said that this is the season of giving, and you don’t have to be religious to do good by giving.  It was reported the other day that atheists have used crowdsourcing to raise $180,000 for Doctors Without Borders. I bring this up because there is this prevalent belief that atheists are amoral, hedonistic, and only concerned with their own self interests.  I want to show that this belief is false.

I’m not going to try to pretend that atheists are more giving than their religious brethren, I just want people to realize that we, as a group in general, put a very high value on doing what is morally and ethically right.  Our understanding that this in the only life we have leads us to cherish it and, since we don’t believe in any finally judgement where the bad will be punished and the good rewarded, we are greatly appalled at the suffering of others in the here and now.  We see the huge injustice that millions are living lives of desperation, with no hope of relief, unless we, as fellow human beings do something about it, today.  Nothing is more terrible than the thought that so many innocent people suffer and that a painful death is all that many of them have to look forward to.  The waste of human life, of human potential is overwhelming.  When you know that this time on earth is all that each of us has, this kind horrible waste and suffering is unconscionable.

The fact that this suffering of millions is often brushed aside because people delude themselves into believing that those who suffer will find peace some other future existence is what makes us so angry.  We aren’t angry with god, or with believers in general.  We are angry that human suffering is often minimized by reference to some insubstantial afterlife, or worse, justified by the whim of some invisible deity.

We give what we can to help those who suffer, not because we are told to by a holy book, or a church, but because we are moved by a shared sense of humanity to do what is right simply because it is the right thing to do.

There are plenty of charities that you can give to, if you are, like me, uncomfortable with the idea of giving to a religious charity, such as the Salvation Army, which espouses homophobic and bigoted beliefs, or a church where most of the money stays in the church rather than going to where it is really needed.  My personal choice is Doctors Without Borders, which I believe is a great charity since they provide needed medical care anywhere in the world that it is needed, with no religious, ideological, or political agenda or strings attached.

Where ever you decide to give to, don’t do it because you expect some ineffable reward in a nebulous, unlikely afterlife, or to please your pastor.  Do it because it is the right thing to do.