Thursday, November 18, 2010

Captain of the Ship

In the wake of an historic electoral defeat two weeks ago congressional Democrats yesterday reelected Nancy Pelosi to be their leader in the next congress. Some people might have thought this was like giving the captain of the Titanic a vote of confidence, but, Ramirez asks, why shouldn't the Democrats stick with the captain of the ship?

Republicans don't deserve to be this lucky, but it seems like everything, at least in the House of Representatives, is going their way. For now.


Susan Jacoby, an atheist and secular humanist (secular humanists are almost always atheists), wonders why secularists are such tightwads. She writes this:
Tis the season when snailmail and e-mail boxes are filled with exhortations to give to charitable causes of every kind. If you go to religious services at least once a week, you will probably add a donation to a secular nonprofit on top of what you have already given to your church. But if you have few ties to religion (whether you are an atheist or simply a lapsed churchgoer), this may well be the only time when you write checks to charities. Giving — unless a natural disaster catches your attention — is an annual event rather than a part of your everyday budget.

As an atheist and secular humanist, I find this scenario basically accurate (although there are many exceptions) because it used to fit me perfectly. I have changed in recent years because, like many secularists, I became disturbed by the gap between my values and my erratic giving. There is no doubt — although the gap has been exaggerated by some on the religious right to support its view of secularists as morally inferior — that the nonreligious give less than religious Americans.

But even allowing for the fact that most Americans spend most of their charitable dollars close to home, the religious give a higher percentage of their income, and are about 25 percent more likely to give, than do secularists. Indeed, believers are 10 percent more likely than secularists to give to secular causes (although they do not support these programs as generously as they support religion).

The question is why.
Well, the answer is simple. Religious people have two motivations for helping people that secularists don't. First, they believe themselves morally obligated to care for the poor. A secularist has no moral obligation to do anything for anyone. They may choose to help someone because they just feel they should, but they have no real duty to do so.

Second, Christians, at least, give to others from of a sense of gratitude to God for what He has done for them in Christ. He has lavished an incomprehensible love upon us and asks only that we love what He loves. He loves people, especially the poor, so we should, too. For the secularist the poor are really losers in a Darwinian lottery of survival of the fittest. They drag the species down and there's no reason to help them continue to do it. People like Ms Jacoby might never think that way, but that is certainly one logical consequence of her atheism whether or not she realizes it. Just read Ayn Rand.

She continues:
Arthur C. Brooks, in a 2003 Policy Review essay on faith and charitable giving, connects liberal secular support for government programs with personal stinginess. Yet Brooks acknowledges that religious involvement, not political ideology, plays the dominant role. Religious liberals are 19 percentage points more likely to give than secular liberals, and religious conservatives 28 percent more likely than secular conservatives.

[B]ut the death of my longtime partner was a more powerful motivator. There is nothing like losing the person you love most to make you understand the truth of all of those clich├ęs about the finite time we have to make an impact in this world.
Yes, we have a finite time to make an impact, but worrying about it only makes sense if what we do here in this world matters for eternity. If our impact doesn't last more than a generation or two beyond our demise then what difference does it make? What will it matter once we're dead whether we gave money to feed the hungry in some far-off country so that those poor unfortunates could live a few more years until they die of something else? Why should Ms Jacoby, or anyone, care about the impact she makes if her life is really no more than a footprint in the sand at the edge of the surf?

If she wants to know why atheists are such scrooges the answer is that many of them simply live consistently, at least in this regard, with their fundamental assumptions that there is no God, there is no life after death, and there's no good reason why anyone should care about others, especially those who are in no position to return the favor.