Monday, March 17, 2008

Questions for Micah Cowan

In his criticism, Micah Cowan says,
While a Christian, I can think of specific instances when I performed acts of charity or helpfulness that I was very disinclined to do, but did anyway in the end because I realized “that’s what God would want me to do” (yeah, WWJD), and would not have done them apart from that. Things like cleaning up after a large group meeting, or setting up chairs, etc, before. Helping a bed-ridden acquaintance with their yard work. All of these are instances of good done that followed directly from religious belief.

I have also been on the receiving end of good done specifically for reasons that stem from religious belief. Including twice having been donated cars from church members, at two different times when we were without transportation or means to obtain it.

Some of these things I continue to do on occasion, but for different reasons. So obviously one can’t make the argument (though many do anyway) that only theists will go out of their way to do good. There are other things, though, that I’m less apt to do these days, partly because I now have a more balanced view of my own needs versus other peoples’ needs—and I doubt anyone that I’m not really close to will be giving me a car any time soon.
I have some questions, though.

The idea that these things were "what god wanted you to do" sounds like an evaluation, a determination about what was good, rather than a motivation. In what sense were you motivated to do what god wanted you to do? How does that differ from being motivated to do what you think is good?

Is it just a coincidence that you believed that god wanted you to do things that any rational, caring person would do because they truly valued the well-being of other people? If you had believed that god wanted you to rape, murder, pillage and burn, would you have done it equally cheerfully? To what extent were you — as I described in my original essay — simply assigning to your religious belief that which you already evaluated to be good?

If you believed that these actions were "what god wanted you to do", now that you don't believe in any god, why do you still consider them to be good? Likewise, if you are indeed less inclined to do these things now, in what sense do you now actually believe them to be good?

To what extent were you motivated by more prosaic issues, such as wanting to be a liked and respected member of a social community... and, perhaps, aware of the likelihood of actually receiving a couple of free cars? Again, to what extent were you hiding your self-interested motivation (Christian propaganda notwithstanding, there's nothing wrong with moderate and reasonable self-interest) with "religious" motivation?

The less dramatic examples are, of course, irrelevant. "Some of these things I continue to do on occasion." Indeed. You don't need be religious to be helpful or charitable, and, in fact, I've seen no evidence at all that religious people are more than ordinarily polite and helpful. If you subtract the vast sums of money given to transparently obvious parasites and con artists, I don't think religious people are any more charitable than anyone else. You need only to care about your fellow human beings, and realize that the more helpfulness you put into a society, the more helpful that society will be, and the more you can expect helpfulness in return when needed.

I also have to question whether the more dramatic example — the donation of the cars — is really all that good. (Or, perhaps, how dramatic it really was; I wouldn't be all that impressed if some rich guy donated the beater after the the dad bought a new Lexus and pushed the Camry down to his son.)

There's a persistent concept in Western civilization that an action is truly good only if it involves considerable personal sacrifice, or, if we take Kant at his word, only if it involves no personal benefit whatsoever. This idea is pure and utter bullshit. It's pure slave morality. I'd rather have Bill Gates give me $10,000 than some homeless person give me his last $10.

The rational, caring person knows that charity, when done correctly, helps both the recipient and the donor. The donor receives not only emotional satisfaction, which is important and valuable in itself, but also material benefits in the form of a calmer, more cooperative society: desperate people are dangerous.


  1. Hi Larry, thanks for the questions.

    The idea that these things were "what god wanted you to do" sounds like an evaluation, a determination about what was good, rather than a motivation.

    Sure, well I think it was both. Obviously, if it was good, then it was what God wanted me to do. And, likewise, if it was something God wanted me to do, then it was good. Your point about when God wants you to rape, pillage and murder is a good one, but that wasn't the "sort of god" I believed in. If I'd been taught that sort of god (by which I mean, if those aspects of the Christian god's character as demonstrated in the Bible had received appropriate attention—they weren't, obviously, which is par for the course in Christendom)—if that's the sort of god I'd been taught, then I'd either have rejected it much earlier on, or I would be a radically different person in character (it's hard to say which: brainwashing from childhood has a very powerful effect).

    If I'm reading you correctly, you're questioning whether I really wouldn't have done those things that I was already motivated to some degree to do, without the additional WWJD motivation (or that I'm dismissing other, more material motivations). The answer to this, I think, may be difficult to understand for people who have not themselves experienced cultism. The thing is, I really loved God. That's an understatement. I was absolutely, 100% in love with God (not in the South Park sense ;) ). I would go well out of my way to do something if I "knew" it was what God wanted.

    I can't really describe it. But I'm sure you've encountered it in some of the believers you've met. It's complete adoration and subservience. And yes, if I was 100% certain that God wanted me to kill someone, I would've done so. The Bible was, after all, full of people encountering such cognitive dissonances (cf Abram)—and I was not deluded enough to think that God was, at all times, a God of peace). It is, obviously, a potentially very dangerous mentality. But, yes, it was completely adequate motivation to do something I wouldn't otherwise do.

    Obviously, many Christians will question, since I don't "love" God now, how could what I say about being 100% devoted to Him possibly be true? Naturally, the answer is that, no matter how much you adore something, when you discover that it was in fact a torrid relationship with an imaginary friend, whose intimate conversations with you are much better explained by deceptive fabrications of your own mind (and a blind strength of will to believe it's coming from "someone else") than by an actual Person on the other side of the conversation, how can you possibly continue to "love" it? A cured psychotic will not lament the deep and intimate relationship he held with his bookshelf prior to his being cured, and the fact that he is cured does not negate the fact that his relationship (or his side of it, at any rate) had been deep and passionate.

    As to choosing what it is that "God wants me to do", well, when you spend large amounts of time reading the Bible, and in particular those portions that tell you to "love your neighbor as yourself", be a "good Samaritan", and actually actively seek the happiness of other people (a sentiment which is of course, still very worthy. The Dalai Lama does quite a bit to promote this concept, too), you have a heightened sensitivity to situations which match what you know about "what God wants". I consider this "heightened sensitivity" itself, which I still possess, to be a positive effect of the religion in which I was raised. You may argue that I would have had this disposition anyway, and of course I cannot prove you wrong, but I would doubt your argument, based on my personal experiences (which, however, are of course useless as a basis for argument).

    There are, of course, things "God wanted me to do [or be]", that I'm now questioning, and trying to evaluate more objectively. For instance, I still feel that humility is a virtue, but that it may possibly be overemphasized in the teachings of Christianity (and other religions); I'm not certain of this, but I'm trying to sort it out. And, of course, when I had premarital sex for the first time at age 21, with the woman who was shortly thereafter and is now my wife (glad that's still working for me!), God was "pissed", and I spent a couple of days absolutely wracked with guilt over how I'd broken God's heart. I mean really wracked: I was incapable of going to work on that day, so torn-to-pieces I was. It all seems such a shame now, knowing that if I were then who I am now, it wouldn't have bothered me in the least (and I'd have done it far sooner).

    To briefly address the cars: they came as surprises to me, so could not have motivated any of my behavior. As to whether they were "really all that good"... *shrug*. It was of great help to me, and could at least have been sold for financial benefit, so how else do you define "good"? I know that in one case, they arranged the donation through the church, which then donated it to me, so I'm sure they got tax benefits that way; but in the other case it was a direct donation that brought no benefit to the donor. The question, as I understood it, wasn't whether something "all that good" can follow from religious beliefs, but whether anything good at all can follow from a religious belief.

    To be honest, I'm a bit baffled as to why it's a difficult concept for you (and apparently, some others) to accept. I believe you and I have both firmly established that bad and/or evil can and does follow from religious belief; why then could not good also (even if they are in insufficient quantities to compensate for the bad)? Is there something qualitatively special about "good" that makes it impossible to stem from religious belief, in a way that differs from "bad"?

  2. Micah, this was very eloquently stated.

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  4. I have been reading this discussion, and only now have a moment to make a few comments. I see two large difficulties within this topic: 1) the ability to determine actual motives and 2) the inevitable use of anecdotal evidence to support one’s conclusions. Both result in a subjective take on the subject.

    For instance—why do people give blood? Is it to be truly altruistic? Is it to avoid guilt when they see a Red Cross drive? Is it a feeling of entitlement if they ever need blood? Is it because of heightened awareness (i.e. a member of the medical field?) Is it to kill a few minutes away from the desk? Probably not even the person who is doing it can quantitatively determine what motives themselves, and to what degree.

    Further, as humans, we may have a variety of motives. It may not be just one or two of these, but a combination which impels us to commit a certain act.

    Do we all agree theistic belief and/or religious belief can be a motivating factor—even a very powerful motivating factor? If so, I agree with Micah Cowan that if it can be a motivating factor for an immoral act; likewise it could be a motivating factor for a moral act. If it can be a motivating factor for impracticality; it can be for practicality as well.

    I would state we may have difficulty extracting our society, heredity and environment from what is theistic motivation. We may consider something to be moral and what a god would want us to do, whereas it is really more of our society’s determination. How many American Christians consider Americanized Christianity as what their god wants—not realizing they are intermingling the Constitution and Religion. No, the Christian God does NOT state you have a right to own a tax-free building. Believe it or not—it isn’t in the Bible.

    So from the exterior, we non-believers look at believers and say, “Hey, you are making determinations of moral vs. non-moral based upon what you feel, or what society says. You are not staying consistent with your own claims.” Examples of this include the genocides of the Tanakh, slavery and polygamy. The believers appear (at least to us) to be making independent determinations of moral vs. immoral—regardless of even what they think their own god says.

    Or another outstanding example is the justification “What would Jesus do?” I have seen arguments claiming since Jesus loved the prostitutes and sinners, so should believers. Likewise I have seen arguments since Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and Priests, so should believers. If the believer wants to “love” me, they lump me in with the prostitutes and sinners. If they want to rebuke me, they lump me in with the Pharisees and Priests. To me, both look more like using Jesus as a justification to do what a person wants to do anyway.

    One of the motivating factors for a person who believes in a god, IS that god-belief. Both for moral and immoral acts. It may not be the sole motivating factor, it certainly is not a necessary factor—but it still exists.

    The question then raised (to me) is this—is an untrue motivating factor necessarily an immoral motivating factor? Or, alternatively, is it “wrong”? (I hesitate to use the word “bad” since that word has too varied definitions) If a person gives blood because they think Jesus would give blood—does this make the motivation immoral or incorrect? We recognize Jesus (assuming he lived at all) has long since become dust and doesn’t care about anything—let alone whether one is a blood donor. But does that mean a person who gives blood because of a WWJD bracelet is performing an immoral act, whereas a person who gives blood to avoid guilt is performing a non-moral act?

  5. I see two large difficulties within this topic: 1) the ability to determine actual motives and 2) the inevitable use of anecdotal evidence to support one’s conclusions.

    Thanks, DagoodS; I actually meant to mention this. The truth is, of course, that neither Barefoot nor I can prove our beliefs in this matter (which makes them suspiciously like religious beliefs). I do happen to know (as much as anyone can know—we deceive ourselves about ourselves all the time) that it was a motivator for some good in my past. But then, there was a time when I "knew" that God existed because I spoke with Him on a daily basis. :p

    They are falsifiable claims, though: if we could get experimental groups (ideally, one for each major religion) and a control group, which differed substantially only in their religion or lack thereof, we could examine the effects. Even if they didn't vary quantitatively, but did qualitatively, that would demonstrate that that system of beliefs improved the output of some "goods" while suppressing others, indicating that some of the good "followed from" the religious beliefs. We might find some difficulty in finding such groups, though, as religion often doesn't come by itself, but as part of a package deal: but at least in America it might be possible to conduct a careful study of "good" (which one would have to consider how to define) between Christians and Freethinkers.

  6. I haven't forgotten you, Micah. I've just been super mega busy the last couple of days... and I'll continue to be busy today (Wed) and tomorrow.

    Naturally my real life heats up just as a good philosophical discussion heats up.


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