* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Connection between Belief and Caring for Others

As a reminder, here are the big questions we want to address:

  1. How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?
  2. What am I passionate about? What personal life dream of mine creates greater wholeness in the world?
  3. Where do I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where do I find authentic community? 
  4. What fears get in my way? How can I dismantle those fears and understand what I actually want?
  5. How can I get what I most deeply want and need by creating less suffering and greater wholeness?

You'll notice that at least three of those questions include some perspective about how we influence the world around us toward greater well-being (or "wholeness"). This is a topic that keeps coming up when I talk with believers, who often have an impression of atheism that equates with utter self-absorption. In one conversation a friend told me that a large number of people only do good in the world because of their belief in a higher power, and that without belief in a higher power, people would be less inclined to help others. I've also heard people say, "You can't really be an atheist. You care about [the homeless/people going hungry in our city/etc.], and atheists don't have any reason to care about other people." First, it's worth taking a look at this idea that only people who believe in a higher power create greater wholeness in the world. Then, we'll see something even more interesting about people doing good in the world. We'll wind up someplace we've been before, a guiding principle that helps us answer our big questions with integrity.

To begin with, it doesn't take much education about world religions to notice that all of them have something to say about making a positive difference in other people's lives. If it was just one religion that promoted creating wholeness in the world, then we would have something to compare and contrast. In reality, contributing toward the well-being of others is something every belief system holds in common, even though some practitioners choose to draw narrow boundaries around who they feel responsible to. 

People can actually hold two opposing ideas in their heads at the same time. This creates a bit of anxiety and it certainly lacks integrity, but people do it all the time. So, a believer can claim that their loving supernatural wants its followers to be vessels of love and healing in the world and also proclaim hatred for people of a different religion or of a particular sexual orientation. How well practitioners of various religions carry out the mandate to care for other human beings varies widely, but the fact remains that every religious tradition expresses a concern for the well-being of others. This is true of monotheistic, polytheistic, and atheistic traditions.

This suggests that it isn't actually belief in a higher power that inspires people to care for others, but something inherent in human nature. Every religion invented by human beings includes this concern, so it's obviously a human concern. We know that it's important to care for others and to attend to their well-being. Our internal guidance system has naturally included this subroutine. 

We also seem to feel burdened enough by the magnitude of that task that we find ways to put fences up around who we're willing to care for. "We'll care for people who think like us, but we'll still hate those other people over there." Or even more predatory, "We'll meet your needs, if you convert to our religion." Our tendency to corrupt ideas because of our fear clearly plays a role in how we carry it out, but this idea that we ought to care for other people is inherent to every belief system human beings have constructed. Thus, we can reason that it's a human idea that can persist in the absence of belief in the supernatural.

We need not rely on reason alone, however. Research on altruistic behavior continues to affirm that helping other people is an inherently pleasurable human activity, regardless of one's faith identity. Even more intriguing is a study published late last year (in Current Biology vol. 25, issue 22), which discovered that children raised without a religious identity are more generous and have a greater sensitivity to justice than peers raised with a religious identity. The study observed primarily Christian, Muslim, and nonreligious families, in six different countries, including the United States. Across all cultures, children in religious households actually expressed less care for others in terms of generosity and justice, despite their belief in a higher power. Clearly, caring for other people is a human trait that exists strongly in the absence of belief in a supernatural. Why and how might belonging to a religious tradition dampen that human tendency?

The research does not delve into reasons why, so this is merely a hypothesis extrapolated from other things we know about how the mind works. Is it possible that when you believe human beings are corrupted and evil that you have less tendency to care about people -- especially people you don't know? Or is it possible that this serves as an excuse to behave as though you are corrupted and evil sometimes? After all, that's just "human nature", right?

Is it possible that believing that a higher power is in control of everything alleviates some sense of personal responsibility to do what is within your power to do in terms of helping others? Believers don't often say it out loud, but if a god is in control of reality, that god must want a significant number of people to be hungry, homeless, abused, and marginalized, since that is the reality we can clearly see. Is it possible that people let themselves be less vulnerably caring because of their belief in a supernatural?

Is is possible that you care less about the people around you if you believe in an afterlife that isn't dependent on one's health, wealth, or success in the real world? After all, if what "really" matters is that you are spiritually aligned with the right higher power, then suffering in this life is superficial and unimportant. So, you don't have to care for the real physical and emotional needs of people -- you just have to make sure that they have the opportunity to be admitted into a better existence when they die. Even as I type this, it seems absurd and mean-spirited, and yet I know of some believers and even some service organizations that are more interested in "saving souls" than they are in making sure people have their physical and emotional needs met.

In a nutshell, then, I invite you to wonder along with me whether religious beliefs about a supernatural and about human nature actually serve to dampen the natural human tendency to care for others. Consider whether a subtle sabotage on the human capacity to create wholeness emerges through ideas promoted in various religious traditions that "salvation is by divine grace and not by human works", or that suffering will be rewarded in an afterlife, or that we are only really responsible to care for people who believe what we believe, or even just that human beings are wicked by nature. If our beliefs form the foundation of our actions, then there is something about religious beliefs that fuels actions contrary to the mandate to care for others. There is some reason the research finds that the beliefs of children in nonreligious homes allow them to express greater generosity and empathy. Even if my suppositions are off base, there is obviously some connection between belief system and how well a person can live into the human tendency to contribute to the well-being of others.

As we consider meaningful answers to the big questions we're posing to ourselves, it's vital for us to recognize our interconnectedness with others. Our lives influence and are influenced by other people. There is no way around that fact. It helps to have at least one clear guiding principle that aligns with our natural tendency to care about other people's well-being -- a deep value that undergirds the questions we ask and the answers we explore. I would like to suggest the very basic idea that every person has inherent worth and dignity as a shared guiding principle that fuels a meaningful journey toward a best possible version of oneself.

That every person has inherent worth and dignity means that we don't choose who is worthy of our attention. It isn't just people who think like you, and it isn't just people who are part of your local community. Every person means every human being in existence. This doesn't mean that you are compelled to meet the specific needs of every person, and it doesn't mean that a person's inherent worth is going to be easy to see all the time. What it means is that you get to choose how you will honor the inherent value of the people around you. 

That every person has inherent worth and dignity means that their worth isn't in question. Your actions toward them are the part you get to decide. You never have to figure out why a person is important or worthy of your time and attention. You don't have to try to fix them or convince them to believe something different that what they currently believe. And you don't have to worry about what sort of afterlife they'll experience. You can focus instead on how your actions and decisions contribute to greater well-being in their lives.

That every person has inherent worth and dignity also interestingly means that you have inherent worth and dignity. Your value is a natural human quality that doesn't come from some external force or stem from your decisions. It just is. It's part of what it means to be human to have worth and dignity. This means that you can worry less about your own value and the sense of obligation that sometimes accompanies caring for others. You don't have to earn inherent worth and dignity, and nothing can take it away from you. Which means that you can boldly do those things that fuel your passions and influence the world around you toward wholeness -- that you can care about what you really want without apology, and you can trust yourself to find ways to connect what you most deeply want with your natural tendency to care about the well-being of others. 

People care about other people. You don't really gain anything in this arena by believing in a supernatural. Even if you think it's your faith that undergirds your contribution toward other people's well-being, it isn't. People of every faith tradition and of no faith tradition care about other people, and the people with no faith tradition might actually do it a little better, based on recent research. If you're willing, let the idea that every person has inherent worth and dignity steep in your mind for a bit. That one guiding principle can fund a lifetime of growing more confident in yourself and your ability to contribute to greater wholeness in the world. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Selfishness 3

One last little piece of the illusion of selfishness. We've seen that there is no credible evidence for an afterlife where people are rewarded or punished for anything, and we can see evidence all around us that supernaturals are not providing for the real needs of people. We can even see that the figures who serve as examples of behavior in various religious traditions habitually took responsibility for their own well-being, as they were able. Still, we encounter this idea that focusing on your own personal growth is selfish time and again, especially from religious leaders. Perhaps one final piece of the problem is our tendency toward either/or thinking.

Our brains still work in mysterious ways, even as science continues to reveal more and more about human thinking and tendencies. Thinking in either/or propositions is a common way to address issues. "Either I can exercise, or I can sit in front of a screen." "Either I'll be a leader, or I'll be a follower." "Either I can focus on my own well-being, or I can tend to the well-being of others." In logic, this kind of argument is called a fallacy -- a "false dichotomy". This flawed thinking isn't necessarily intentional, but it is lazy. There are so many more options than we usually choose to consider, and we often fail to seek out both/and solutions, maybe because they require a little more work. Our idea of selfishness is caught up in this flawed thinking.

If there really are only two options that we're willing to consider, it may be simply a matter of changing our thinking habits. "I want to exercise, and I also want to watch a movie. How can I figure out a way to do both?" If we really believe that focusing on our own well-being and tending to the well-being of others are competing goals, then we can change our habit of either/or thinking and ask something like, "How can I be personally responsible for my own life and tend to the well-being of others in a satisfying way?" We can re-frame what seems to be a choice between mutually exclusive options once we are willing to admit that our thinking is problematic.

The logical fallacy of our either/or thinking actually disguises something even deeper than the possibility that we can think in terms of both/and propositions. Those who decry selfishness might consider the options to be, "I can do what I want, or I can do what someone else wants." Obviously, to choose what you want is "selfish," and to choose what someone else wants is selfless. Religious traditions often mistakenly teach that selflessness is the preferred option. A more open-minded person might shift to a both/and formula and ask, "How we can we both get what we want?" The most honest question, though, is "What do I really want?"

All of this talk about selfishness only makes sense in terms of surface level desires. When we stay on the surface of our being, we might believe we want things we don't actually want. And we might think we don't want things we actually do want. We might say we don't want to do laundry or wash dishes, but we actually do want clean clothes and dishes. On the surface, we focus on avoiding pain or inconvenience or frustration, but when we get past that and ask what we really want, it becomes clear that doing the laundry and washing the dishes gets us what we actually want. It's a matter of more mature awareness of what we value, not merely a matter of "selfishness."

Likewise, we might say we want something awful to happen to a rude driver, or a malicious co-worker, or an incompetent retail clerk. When we think more deeply about our own lives and experiences, though, we have occasionally done something that inconvenienced (or even endangered) another driver on the road because we were in a hurry or we weren't paying attention. Perhaps we have also made decisions that other people didn't like because it was part of our job. We may even have been thrown off by a simple process because one little thing in our environment was different, or we were distracted by something else in our personal lives. 

As much as we may get angry or frustrated when other people's behavior inconveniences us or challenges us, we actually don't want to live in a world where a sort of vicious karma punishes our every mistake with misfortune. We actually want people to be graceful with us when we almost miss our exit on the freeway, or when we make a thoughtful decision that has painful consequences for someone, or when we just have a moment when our brains aren't firing on all cylinders. We want to be known and understood. We want other people to see our inherent worth and dignity -- and to acknowledge and respect our unique abilities and strengths that may have required a lot of hard work to cultivate. 

Our anxiety prompts us to hold ourselves apart, to demand something different for our own lives than we hope for in the lives of others. Our fear prompts us to defend our own difficult decisions by mocking the difficult decisions of others. Our fear prompts us to refuse rights to other people because we think their freedom will somehow jeopardize our own rights and freedom. Our fear prompts us toward scarcity thinking, believing that I can't have what I need if someone else gets what they need. Either/or propositions are fueled by our anxiety, just as the idea of "selfishness" is really a way of saying that we allow our fear to convince us that we want something we don't actually want -- our anxiety doesn't let us get past the surface level desires to what we most deeply value.

When we are able to connect with what we most deeply value, we begin to realize that what we want requires well-being in our own lives and well-being in the lives of those around us. When we are willing to cast a vision of wholeness for our lives -- or our neighborhoods, or our workplaces, or the world -- we see that our lives are interconnected with the lives of others, that we cannot experience wholeness and well-being in our lives without contributing to wholeness and well-being in the lives of others. Yet we cannot connect with what we most deeply value, what we most deeply want, without learning to manage our own anxiety and confronting our tendency toward lazy thinking. And we cannot learn to manage our own anxiety or confront our mental laziness by focusing on other people. We have to turn our gaze inward and develop our own selves if we want to maximize the meaningful contribution we are able to make in the world.

So, there is really no such thing as selfishness. There are degrees of emotional immaturity and maturity. There are habits of lazy, flawed thinking that we can change and develop into more mature, intentional thought processes. There are anxious, fear-driven reactions that keep us from living with integrity to what actually matters most to us. And there are more emotionally mature, self-aware actions that align with our deepest values and create greater wholeness in our own lives and the lives of others. Well-being is only an either/or proposition when we allow our flawed, surface level, anxious, scarcity thinking to run the show. When we are honest, we acknowledge that well-being in our own lives is inextricably connected to well-being in the lives of others. And when we focus on our own capacity to clarify our deepest values and live with integrity to those values, we transform the world.