Can You Have A Heart Without Having “The Heart of God”?

Can You Have A Heart Without Having “The Heart of God”? July 19, 2009

In reply to my post on whether we need God to care about the poor around the world, Marianne offers this challenge:

I have observed that atheists discuss and analyze poverty, but do very little about it.

Most of the charities in the world are christian in foundation. You will find very few atheist charities that help the poor.

They believe in taxing people to an extreme, and then spending the money in a bureaucratic fashion. But the message is not about caring. It is about getting votes and re-elected.

So, removing the erudite mental stuff, it does take the heart of God in a person to really care about someone else, enough to DO something about it.

Thanks for your reply, Marianne, but are you presuming that YOU have the “heart of God?” Not having the heart of God myself but only “erudite discussion”, I must admit that that sounds much more like the heart of arrogance to me.

Most of the charities in the West may be nominally Christian but that’s because most of the West is nominally Christian.  So most of the doctors, most of the criminals, most of the rapacious capitalists are nominally Christian.  It has very little to do with the “heart of God.”

But the one group of Americans most in favor of our government’s torture practices is Evangelical Christians.  Is that the heart of God or the same heart that dehumanizes the Other, which I described as a universal human challenge from time immemorial due to the structures of our brains?  When Christian America enslaved Africans by the shipload, was that that difference making heart of God at work?  And the legacy of global exploitation by Christian governments and Christian churches in the third world through colonialism suggests a good deal humility is in order.

And atheism—not being necessarily or historically a basis for community but rather simply a particular view on a metaphysical and religious question—itself is not an organizing principle.  That does not mean that atheists are not or would not be as charitable as anyone else, but it does mean they’re not being formally cultivated or organized QUA atheists.   When secular charities do for people they don’t act with propaganda that they act “in the name of atheism”.

But there are plenty of secular charities and insofar as they are secular they are “godless” and the people there are expected to provide their own motivations whether religious or otherwise and they get by just fine that way—without dogma and superstition or presumptions to have “the heart of God.”
And, of course, as Europe has secularized it has not abandoned the poor or the oppressed but it has institutionalized concern for economic and social equality.   It is those who claim they have the “heart of God” the most furiously who want to disenfranchise and stigmatize the gays with the cruelest indifference.  In American conservatism the dogma that any checks on capitalism and any government activity that does not torture or kill terrorists or communists is evil has practically become a religious tenet among the hard religious right such that it would be heretical to suggest the slightest drop in GDP is worth an increase in economic equality.

Now there might be (and I think there are) reasons to think that capitalism can and needs to help the poor more through market techniques rather than through direct charity.   But those of us who suspect, with good reasons, that unfettered capitalism creates systemic injustices and needs to be systematically countered with socialistic elements of government that correct for its drift towards oligarchy have the interests of widespread human flourishing at heart as much as anyone else.  You may argue and produce evidence that, as a pragmatic matter, in various contexts, governmental means of creating that flourishing is going to be counterproductive in meeting those goals.  That’s fine.  That’s a debate about means for economists to have and I’m not an economist, so I’m open to looking at the facts and best theories about what creates the widest spread prosperity and to implement whatever mechanisms will do that.

But the idea that Christians have the heart of God and that deep down we secularists are just huge fans of clumsy bureaucracy is just nonsense.  Those who want secular government to take an active interest in spreading economic benefits more widely across the country and the world just believe that government can more systematically address poverty and injustice and correct for the unforgiving vicissitudes of pure market capitalism.  And while the balance is hard to strike, the combination of free markets and social safety nets in the West has had unprecedented overall benefits for economic prosperity in the West for the last 80 years.

And, finally, I know when I vote for higher taxes that I see the government merely as a means for producing goods and balancing inequalities in ways that private individuals cannot and which free corporations have no incentive to do.  I do not confuse the government with the source of all meaning or truth or take its own bureaucracy to be a good in itself.  Whereas, religious institutions do not see themselves as mere servants of the public good but as the end in themselves and the source of all meaning and truth.  People who give to churches do support the bureaucracy itself as a good in itself.

I am all for atheist groups specifically focusing on ethical education so people do not go to churches as the only recognized game in town for linking them to moral community.  I am all for secular groups that become explicitly atheistic charities, that are not merely secular and do not merely do the job without demanding everyone be godless, but which also counter religious propaganda about the need for religion to be compassionate by emphasizing their atheism.  But in the meantime, secular means—secular economies, secular governments, and secular charities alike have do plenty of good without any concern for proselytizing or mythologizing.

And it your arrogance and religiously inspired self-righteousness that makes you assume that all that interests me when I am concerned about the poor or the outcasts that my heart must be set on bureaucracy.  We have a disagreement about means and we have differences in instutional organization (namely, atheists qua atheists have barely any and we’re a significant minority).

Finally, I want to stress my thesis in both of these posts is not that atheism magically makes people better than religion does.  My points are that religion is not a necessity for charitability beyond one’s borders, that religion comes with downsides of dogma and tribalistic thinking that are counter-productive to universal understanding, identification, and compassion.  My point is that through psychology and moral education we can work towards the goal of broadening human minds, atheist and irreligious alike in their openness towards those outside their borders.  That’s what is necessary, not atheism alone as some moral panacea nor religious superstition that will magically change human patterns of group formation along hostile and indifferent lines.

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