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