Is God Needed For Us To Care About Starving Kids A World Away?

Is God Needed For Us To Care About Starving Kids A World Away? July 19, 2009

A few weeks ago now, I wrote a post, Commitment To Value Without God, in which I discussed how even when I was a Christian, I realized that I did not need to make reference to God in order to either psychologically recognize the value of sumptuous food or good friendship or any of various causes about which I was passionate.  And similarly I would still be responsive to my conscience.

In reply, Chris wrote me.  Chris and I were Christian camp counselors together in the summer of 1999 and when I rejected faith the following autumn, we traded some e-mails on the subject.  He just wrote me the following:

I remember talking with you about nihilism…if death really is the end of existence, why bother? Your words in this post about value make sense. Yes, without God, the tuna sub that I just dusted off tasted good and was worth eating – that’s why I bothered. But, I also got an email while I was eating about extreme poverty in Africa and I want to help…that’s the “why bother?” that your response doesn’t address. Why bother with compassion? And love: real love seems best expressed when it doesn’t feel good…when everything in you is saying “stop, you don’t need this…it’s too hard and not worth it.” In a world filled with a meaning that I give it, why compassion? Why love?

There are two major aspects to the question “Why bother?”  One is the psychological question—what will make us care enough to bother ourselves about those who are suffering far out of sight and out of mind and the other is the normative question—“Why should we bother?” or more technically put: “What reasons are there to which our wills should be responsive in order to be properly dutiful, and what makes any duty obligatory for us in the first place?”  In this post, I will only have room to focus on the psychological question of motivation to care, rather than the justification of why we should care.  The psychology of caring and recognizing value was the focus of my previous post and of your rejoinder, so that’s where I will focus in here.

Psychologically, you are exactly right to raise extreme poverty across the world as your paradigm challenge to the notion that our recognition of value and our ethical motivation come to us naturally.  Decades ago, Peter Singer pointed out the inconsistency between the urgency with which we would treat the imperative to save a drowning child we happened across, even at the cost of ruining an expensive  pair of pants we might be wearing, and the lack of sense of urgency we have about children equally on the verge of death across the world. Singer argues in a utilitarian fashion that we are obligated to do as much as it takes financially, short of failing in our obligations to our dependents and to our own most basic needs, to alleviate suffering around the world.

This means that if all those around me are not chipping in enough, then I need to forgo every unnecessary good and send all my expendable resources to those starving across the world until every one around the world has had their basic subsistence needs met.  Until then, I am choosing a movie over a human being’s life when I go to the theater, I am choosing a fancy dinner over a human being’s life when I go to a restaurant and spend more than necessary for my food, etc.  While nearly all of us abstractly “care” about the poverty around the world, the logic of this argument very rarely leads people to commit to sending all of their resources to saving people, the way that they would commit to saving a drowning child in front of them.

The reasons for this, though, are in significant part likely psychological in a deep way.  There are experiments wherein people are asked to designate any amount of money they want to give to a generic stranger.  When that stranger is identified with something as simple as a numerical designation (as in, “your gift will be going to person #4”) they give significantly more than to an unnamed stranger.  There are numerous tests like these which you can read about in Joshua Greene’s essay “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul” which is the single most impressive, eye opening (and Nietzsche confirming) piece on moral psychology which I have ever read.  So, I encourage everyone to make the time to read it.  It can also be found in book form as one of the essays collected in Moral Psychology, Volume 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Brain Disorders, and Development.  All three volumes of that series are required reading for anyone interested in the psychological roots of morality.  The volumes were released just last year and feature both psychologists and philosophers collaborating in incredibly insightful and boundary pushing ways.  Also, or instead, you can get a verbal summation of many of Greene’s key ideas from this video of Greene in dialogue with Joshua Knobe.

Based on years of discussions about ethics with my student and on formal research such as Greene’s, I think of our psychological responsiveness to others’ suffering as following something like concentric circles of intimacy.  In each further circle out, we identify with the others less and have feel less immediate inclination to help them.  This even translates into many people’s moral reasoning  as people tend to defend notions that we are more obliged to our family than to friends, to close friends than to casual ones, to casual friends than to mere acquaintances, to acquaintances than to mere fellow citizens, to fellow citizens than to the globe, etc. (with other circles in there which I skipped—some of which we now rightly take to be repellent and immoral.)  We are psychologically responsive in proportion to our intimacy.  The more closely I identify with you the more responsive I am to you.  “Stranger #4” is more identifiable than “A stranger” and so I am more inclined to help stranger #4.

This, as far as I can tell, is simple human psychology as developed in an evolutionary context in which survival depended on local bonds far more than on a generalized interest in humanity itself or a particular interest in strangers.  Human history and plenty of psychological, anthropological, and sociological research attests that our psychology is naturally tribal.  We naturally split the world into the in-group and the out-group and both form our allegiances and interpret our obligations accordingly.  We talk a good game about altruism and self-sacrifice but when a small band of people each start donating kidneys as a group effort, we suspect them of being brainwashed rather than saintly.

Now, can belief in God overcome this psychological hard wiring?  There are numerous problems with that thesis.  First of all, supposedly roughly 90% of Americans believe in God and yet we do not live in an altruist’s paradise in which we funnel our every last penny into alleviating world hunger.  And from a world history perspective, such a paradise has never existed in the past either.  If there is a God and he is the Christian God, he did such a better job of hard-wiring us to tribally prefer our own circles of intimates than to love the foreigner that when his  European representatives set out on their most gung ho efforts to “Christianize” Latin America, Africa, and Asia, they took this as an opportunity for devastating exploitation and plunder, as they divided, conquered, and baptized those they deemed mere savages.

Believing in God usually does not overcome tribal thinking.  Despite some seeds of universalism in The Great Commission and despite the decoupling of religion and national identity which happened when the Jews retained their gods while under foreign occupation, the in-group/out-group dynamic is as rife in Christianity as anywhere else in human psychology.  There is a solid wall between believers and unbelievers, the saved and the unsaved, the good Christian and the godless heathen.  Originally gods were part and parcel of cultural hostility.  In the Old Testament, differences in gods is the explicit justification for genocides.  And we all know the long history of factions within Christianity itself which have splintered allegiances sometimes according to national boundaries and sometimes cross-cutting them.

Being part of a proselytizing religion like Christianity does not decrease your disinterest in he who is unlike you, it makes you want to convert them to be like you.  But Christianity will always have its enemies, its sinners, its reprobates damned before the foundations of the earth, in order to retain its identity as the community of those specially beloved by God—the repentant, the saved, those made righteous by the work of the Holy Spirit.

So I do not see any reason to think that belief in God in general is the trick to overcoming our evolutionarily selected indifferences and outright hostilities to those outside our groups.  What I do see is a wall of dogma that resists seeing us all as common humans in a common endeavor.  In religion there are claims to special knowledge revealed only to one’s special group in the group’s special books.  People must accept these books and this supposed knowledge simply on faith—not by appeal to conclusive evidence, science, experience, etc.  Christianity in particular then ups the ante by threatening those who do not believe without justification with eternal torture.  The logic of your faith, Chris, is that if I do not accept things for which there is neither conclusive nor compelling reason and which outright contradict our best understanding of how the world works, then I face eternal torture.

Any one who devises such a system of thought is not the least bit compassionate.

And it is not compassion that finds this morally acceptable or compatible with a concept like that of a “good God” who is love itself.  This sort of thinking is simple tribalistic thinking of the most basic order.  Join the community by participating in our rites, subjugating your reason to our dogmas, and our God will accept you.  Otherwise you are dead to us, er, Him and only you will be responsible for the torment you suffer.  This isn’t the model of compassion, it’s the model of the mafia.

And let’s think through other implications for Africa of your religious belief in God:  if you sincerely hope that the tenets of your faith are true as you likely understand them, then you are hoping that there is a God who did not reveal himself to Africa for thousands of years, leaving them no hope of salvation until rapacious colonialists showed up with the gospel.  You find it spirtually and ethically edifying and desirable to believe in a God who would damn people like me for refusing to believe on insufficient evidence.  And if God is love and God commanded genocides at some point, then it is wholly consistent with love to command genocides.  And you think that a compassionate, loving God is a reasonable (and preferable) hypothesis when you see billions of people living in poverty.

Quite frankly, when I see extreme poverty, not only do I want to help, I do not want to fantasize that there is a God who structured a world where this was the way of things.  And I certainly hope fervently that there is no place of eternal torment for anyone. I think it is repulsive to desire Christianity to be true out of hopes for one’s own possibility of eternal life if the corrollary to that hope is that others are tortured forever.  If we were designing worlds and you gave me a choice:  annhilation for everyone or everlasting paradise for some and everlasting torture for the others, it is my compassion which would request our annihilation.  The only thing that finds my own paradise sufficient is the same thing that allows me to forget about the world’s starving—indifference to the out-group.

What can psychologically motivate me to care about those starving in the third world—not as potential subjects of conversion but as people with material needs—is if I stop drawing extra unnecessary boundaries of in-group/out-group by joining a religion that will separate me from my fellow human being.  What will help is if I am exposed to pictures and artwork which puts recognizable faces on the Other such that I can identify with her and my brain can activate its compassion for the more immediately recognizable.

What can psychologically motivate is if we train ourselves against our inherent psychological drifts towards racism and understand ourselves as fundamentally more alike than different regardless of color or ethnicity.  What can psychologically motivate is the rejection of all myths that suffering worldwide comes from karma or original sin or any other cruel attempt to blame the victims for the evil they suffer. Psychologically we can be motivated to help by exposure and by training in reason against dogmatic presumptuousness that reinforces tribal myths of superiority.

Psychologically we can be motivated by the very real interests many of us already have in seeing humanity be its best and by cultivating such attitudes in others as their highest ethical priorities.  Cultivating that spirit helps motivate us to more daring and difficult virtues and in the cause of helping others cultivate their own virtues and the minimum material sufficiency which is the precondition of so much spiritual activity.  By examining how our psychologies work scientifically and honestly—not by thinking about it in terms of ancient myths, not by overdoing it and calling our minds “totally depraved”, not by flattering ourselves as having minds “made in the image of God, but soberly and scientifically—we can then look to ways to reeducate our minds within the terms of their own natural working to care as much as possible about those as far away as possible.  This is a task for psychologists and moral educators, not for tribalistic superstition peddlers.

And what can help us alleviate suffering is if we stop thinking dogmatically and tribally but instead think scientifically.  We can stop AIDS in Africa not by moralistically, condescendingly, and religiously demanding abstinence but by using technology like condoms.  Africa needs infrastructure, it needs to overcome barriers of tribalism, it needs borders not drawn by colonial powers, it needs economists and political stability.  It needs all sorts of technology and modern political innovations, both of which are the fruit of intellectual scrupulousness and universalism at odds with religious habits of dogmatic tribal thinking has far more potential for elevating human lives than empty platitudes about “spiritual” meaning and its alleged superiority over mere material prosperity.  Africa needs less superstition, not an influx of our own.

In closing, I suggest a look at this series of critical posts on Christian missionary work in Africa from Greg Laden: Forget the Maginot Line, What About the Beer Line? >< Our Research Camp as a Mission Station >< The Great White Missionary >< Attack of the Hound of Malembi. Or, “Whose are these people, anyway?” >< Don’t be a Jew >< The good book >< Dirty Poor People Living In Slime: Missionaries and American Idol

And also see my follow up to this post in response to Marianne’s comment below.

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