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The Corner

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Religion Leads to Altruism Only If People Believe



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The New York Times has another of those kinds of articles published lately declaring that human moral agency is merely evolution in action. Ironically, it is written by Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Lord Sacks says that religion has helped us survive as a species by creating habits of altruism. From the op-ed, entitled “The Moral Animal”:

It [religion] reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.

Well, not necessarily. Being in a foxhole under fire does the same thing, I am led to believe.  Besides, not all religions have promoted altruism.

And here’s a point I think needs pondering:

Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.

Why? Because we want to be altruistic? I don’t think that works.

So, should people go through the motions of religion if they no longer believe it is actually true? As a matter of tradition, perhaps, but people aren’t going to believe in God in order to become altruistic. They will believe in God because they receive the gift of faith. If religion inspires altruism –and plenty of people who don’t believe exhibit that virtue — it is the actual belief that is the cause, not the other way around.



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