“The Point of Most Religions is the Betterment of Mankind”

(About a four minute read)

“The point of most religions is the betterment of mankind.”  — Posted on an internet religious forum.

A dear friend of mine is a kind, sweet lady who, with her husband, belongs to a fundamentalist church in the Midwestern county I grew up in. Her church means everything to her.

Besides that she’s retired now and spends most of her time doing one thing or another for her church community, her church community presents to her a sort of oasis of love, charity, kindness, compassion, and all around goodness in an otherwise rather disturbing larger world whose values are often alien to hers.

I suspect she would largely agree with the above quote. From where she’s at, the quote must make a lot of sense. She only needs to look at the way her church community took up a collection for the family whose breadwinners were out of work, or the way her pastor visits and comforts the sick, or how most of her church buddies believe in the ideal of treating each other with loving kindness — she only needs to look at those things to agree the point of her religion is the betterment of mankind.

Of course, her church is officially a busybody that’s intolerant of premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and many other private things it has no real business being intolerant of. Its pastor is also a staunch supporter of neocons in general, Bush and Cheney in particular, the War in Iraq, the War on Terror, and his side in the so called “Culture Wars”. And many of the people in her church community are bigoted, narrow-minded folk who would never vote for a Black, a Muslim, or a woman to be president. So, to an outsider, her church might appear anything but an oasis of love, charity, kindness, compassion, and all around goodness — let alone dedicated to the betterment of mankind.

Yet, how is she expected to stand back from her church community — which occupies her days and means nearly everything to her — and clearly see the moral ugliness of people who reserve their best “Christian” behavior for insiders just like themselves, while damning and condemning every outsider from scientists to liberals and beyond?

She would much rather help her elderly neighbor get out and about, or bake something to raise money for a needy family, than to consider her pastor’s outrageous notion that homosexuals undermine and destroy the sanctity of her marriage.

I recall a young fundamentalist here in town a while back who I overheard blithely telling her friend that when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor”, he meant love those who belong to your church.

She was certain she was thereby realizing the highest Christian principle of universal love — because, after all, most of the people who belonged to her church were strangers to her, and hence her love for them was “altruistic”.

Yet, even the Bible says there is nothing remarkable about loving only those who are members of our own group.

Humans evolved as a social animal living in small groups. Most of us need little prompting to treat the members of our group with respect, compassion, kindness — even love. After all, we evolved to do that. It’s to a large extent instinctual. We’re almost always ready to “better mankind” so long as “mankind” is the group of people we hang out with.

On the other hand, there are very few Gandhis, very few Martin Luther Kings, very few people like Jesus — very few people who somehow realize in practice the notion the whole world should be treated with kindness, compassion, respect, and love. To most of us, such a notion is “wild”, suspect, perhaps even immoral.

Today, the world — the entire world — is involved in a grand experiment. An experiment to see whether we can all get along together in dignity, freedom, peace and sustainable prosperity. No one seems to have wanted that extraordinarily daring and risky experiment, but it’s now imposed upon all of us nonetheless.

So, what’s going to be the outcome? Will the world descend into endless wars as some think likely? Will it sink into corporate fascism as some others think likely? Will it be the birth of a new golden age for humanity — as very few seem to think likely? Or will something else happen?

More to the point, just what is going to be the role of the world’s religions in bringing about the “New World Order” — whatever that Order actually turns out to be? Are religions going to finally live up to their own professed ideals of universal compassion, kindness, charity, love, generosity, etc.? Will they ever, really, make “the betterment of mankind” their honest “point”?

Frankly, I strongly suspect that any sustained progress towards a world in which most people live in dignity, freedom, peace and sustainable prosperity will ultimately come — not from religions for the most part — but from Humanism. If such progress comes at all.


Originally published on this blog January 15, 2008.  Lightly edited May 6, 2017 to better reflect my current views.

16 thoughts on ““The Point of Most Religions is the Betterment of Mankind”

  1. I don’t see anything wrong with people having an allegiance to a group smaller than the whole world even to groups no larger than their immediate families. This gives individuals in those smaller groups a chance to serve their particular groups better.

    Some of these groups may accuse outsiders of going to some version of a hell that they believe exists. If you are an outsider, this doesn’t matter. By defining a hell, the members of the group are identifying the boundaries of their groups so insiders aren’t disloyal. Besides, when a liberal calls members of some religious group “fundamentalists” hasn’t the liberal condemned those people to the worst version of hell that the liberal acknowledges to exist as well? And isn’t the intent of that scorn of the outsider to make sure other liberals don’t defect from the group and join the big, bad fundamentalists whoever they may be?

    We need groups small enough so that we can serve our groups effectively, because, I think, in spite of what people tell me, we are fundamentally altruistic. We are not selfish. All we need is to be able to fulfill our innate desire to serve. These smaller groups give us that opportunity.

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    • With respect, i humbly disagree that we are not selfish but are truly altruistic at our core.
      My reasoning is as follows. If we are in a group of one we are entirely fundamentally selfish – seeking only our own best interest. This may require activities such as planting seed and caring for it or gathering to ourselves animals and caring for them, all ultimately for our own self interest.

      If we are in a larger, but small, group we simply extend the selfishness to members of our group: group selfishness. We’re mostly in it for ourselves but can see we can benefit if we keep the others on board and share common goals. We will then (out of fear of loss) compete rather than co-operate with similar sized groupings unless they almost exactly have standards of behaviour that agree with our own groups and we can gain benefit by joining with, or not fighting against, them. And so on for city sized, county sized, country sized and someday planetary sized when we finally make contact with alien species and have to compete or co-operate with them.

      Basically, for the majority of us, our primary desire to serve applies to serving our self ( or our self group) first, others (neighbours) a distant second. (Sadly).

      love.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t think there exists a group of one individual. if one is “planting seed and caring for it” that is an altruistic activity for both human and seed. The individual and the seed form a partnership of two. Beyond that example, the very act of using words puts us into groups of speakers and listeners for language to be possible at all.

        The ideas of an “individual” and “selfishness” are fictions. They are useful for a reductionistic model of society because of their simplicity, but society can be modeled on groups and altruism as well. That would lead to a more realistic model.

        Liked by 1 person

      • No Man is an Island! That does not mean he can’t be solitary from time to time! :-).

        WEW may not have grown up that way as individuals or as societies but all of us can only really ever know our own selfish mind and ego. We project our thoughts and feelings onto others more than actually understand what another is thinking 🙂

        love.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The very idea of “selfish” being negative suggests we prefer the positive “altruistic” alternative as the way we should live. To reduce societies to individuals who are selfish brings up the question where that altruistic ideal that Paul described in his post comes from? Is it a mass delusion? Or, does the existence of that altruism falsify the selfish individual model? I think the model has been falsified.

        I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”. He argues for a six-component innate moral foundation and presents a Darwinian group selection process to explain it. (He is also a liberal so the politics should not be an issue.) He does retain the selfish individual model, but I think that is unnecessary given his data on moral foundations. He would be a midway point between our two perspectives.

        If one uses an altruism group model rather than a selfish individual model one can explain selfishness as an inappropriate allocation of altruism to the wrong group for which one can be criticized. The selfish individual model can’t explain the existence of altruism without trying to reduce it to selfishness, that is, arguing that altruism is still an individual selfishly getting pleasure from doing good. In the group model, the individual is supposed to gain pleasure from the individual’s altruistic act because doing good to the group does good to each member of the group including the altruistic individual.

        Best wishes, Iwbut. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this. I sort of agree with you that we can only know our own specific perspectives on subjectivity, but then there is empathy which might bridge the gap.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you Frank – and you’re welcome. You have given me some thoughts to ponder and we might revisit the topic at a future time – or not. I have to admit though, given your statements about the selfish model being falsified and selfishness being a fiction, that i am really struggling to think of even a single instance of a purely altruistic group anywhere in human history. It might not have been clear in my comments but i would prefer to live in an altruistic than a selfish society as i would my altruistic self, but i can’t see me as being more altruistic than selfish if i am honest. I think almost all individuals are capable of both modes of behaviour but ‘favour’ (slip into) one over the other and that one is more generally the selfish one. Maybe Dawkins was more right than he knew when he wrote of the Selfish Gene? 🙂 Our genes may be selfish but our human consciousness/intelligence might attempt to rise above it at times – with somewhat limited, i suggest, success.

        love.

        Liked by 1 person

      • According to Haidt we don’t reason, we rationalize our prior choices. So if you choose to believe in selfish individuals (or genes), Iwbut, then your reason will rationalize–justify–what you believe and that is what you will see. I see only groups supported by altruistic individuals. For me, selfishness is in the eye of the beholder. Selfishness is an illusion of outsiders who do not like how insiders of a particular group are using their altruism. So my rationalizations go the other way.

        As far as the existence of altruism goes, Paul gave an example of a woman in a group he labeled as fundamentalist. She is altruistically supporting her group. For other examples, our parents altruistically allowed both of us to survive. My view doesn’t need to rationalize away that altruism in order to support a reductionist theory. I simply reject the reductionist theory because the existence of that altruism empirically falsifies it. This allows me to take altruism at face value.

        I also don’t think that our human consciousness needs to rise above selfishness. Altruism is not something peculiar to humans nor is it something we have to strive to do. We do need to strive to direct our altruism toward the best goals we have available to us. We need to make the right choices. Furthermore all of nature is altruistic. We would not have evolved to where we are today if it were not. That is another insight I picked up from Haidt, but I think I carry it even further than he does.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Paul, valuable post – however i thought your comment: ” Yet, even the Bible says there is nothing remarkable about loving only those who are members of our own group.” came across as somehow implying the Bible grudgingly recognised this rather than was the book that most powerfully delivered this to a considerable percentage of the world’s population as a key message from the Principle subject of the second part of the whole book. Apologies if this was not intended in your post, but was the way i read it first 🙂

    As to: “Will they ever, really, make “the betterment of mankind” their honest “point”?” I don’t see that the religion i feel closest to – Christianity – actually has that as their ‘point’. Some Christians may very well not agree with me on this but i see Christianity as a group of people who are attempting to live their individual lives in such a fashion as to align themselves with something far greater than themselves or the rest of humanity that they have been given a guide to by people who have tried to do the same thing a long time before they existed and see value in perpetuating most of the guide’s instructions or comments largely unchanged and not modify it to current day trends but keep a commonality through eternity for the ultimate good. If the rest of humanity cannot see the benefit in this and do as they do then so be it. It is not up to Christians to tell others what to do (although most would think life would be so much easier and ‘nicer’ if all did what they do – or were supposed to do – as many don’t fully follow it themselves.)

    It is up to each individual Christ-follower to do as Christ did: live peaceably as possible with all men, Love your neighbour as yourself but first, and most importantly, love God – a thing that encompasses everything that ever existed or will exist and is far greater than your own egotistically-occupied, diminutive self. Oh, and share this information to as many as you meet who are able to accept it freely.

    Each part of Humanity is free to do as it chooses and, ultimately, get just recompensation for it.

    I think most religions see it much that way? Some might be a little bit more uptight about our freedom to choose to believe in God or not perhaps?? And the consequences of such a choice.

    love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Miles! Your statement really opens a can of worms for me! I agree with it in someways and disagree with it in others — which is generally true whenever I hear a sweeping generalization about anything, leave alone religion. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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  3. Hey Paul, could I repost this on my site? I think it is an inspiring and thoughtful piece. (All credit will of course be given to you) (I would just love to include this essay as part of my growing collection of pieces I find online that fit my message – my message being all about learning different perspectives, reading thoughtfully written work and being critical of the world while also showing compassion, generosity and open mindedness)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: “The Point of Most Religions is the Betterment of Mankind” by Paul Sunstone on Cafe Philos – My Writes

  5. Atheist: So you think the talking snake was literal, but ‘love your neighbour’ was just Jesus being metaphorical?

    This was a post in an atheist group, and your post just kinda reminded me of that.
    Anyway, I’d just like to quote Hitchens ‘A good person will do good and a bad person will do bad. But to make a good person do bad, you need religion.’
    I wouldn’t say only religion can do that, but religion does provide a superficial sense of moral superiority that allows one to justify his or her actions.

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