ethics

When Good Intentions Cross Ethical Lines

HAAM’s VP Pat Morrow recently contacted Southland Church (Steinbach) to express his concerns about their association with organizations whose conduct in Uganda is unethical. Below, he explains those concerns and then discusses Southland’s response.

An Ethical Question

When the actions of a person or organization include both good and bad, when does the good outweigh the bad? At what point does the bad become so intolerable that the person or organization is not worth associating with?

HAAM as an organization has existed for over 20 years, and during that time we’ve formed partnerships or associations with other organizations that mirror our beliefs and understanding of the world. We are also willing to end those partnerships if the actions of these organizations conflict with what Humanists understand as good, moral, and ethical behavior. However, this is often not so with religious groups, especially those practicing more evangelical/ fundamentalist types of religion.

southlandAccording to the Hartford Institute, Southland Church in Steinbach is Manitoba’s second largest mega-church, with a weekly attendance of over 3000. Through Tupendane Africana (a mission of Southland Church) and Back to the Bible Truth Ministries, Southland Church (along with their partner churches in Africa) has done some good work in Uganda. They have sent shipping containers of farm equipment, printing presses, and other goods to the Christians of Uganda, and have helped build an orphanage and one of the largest commercial farms in the country. While spreading religion is not something Humanists would consider good, teaching people better farming practices and more efficient ways to feed themselves is.

But here’s the ethical rub: when should an organization step back and ask itself “is what we are doing really good?”

The Problem

alex-mitala

Alex Mitala

Setting aside the propensity of evangelicals/fundamentalists to support creationism, reject science, and promote ideas that are proven not to work (such as abstinence-only sex education), Southland is partnered with Back to the Bible Truth Ministries and its president, a man known as the Apostle Alex Mitala. Mitala is also past president of the National Fellowship of Born-again Pentecostal Churches (NFBPC) in Uganda, a coalition of 18,000 churches and one of the many virulent homophobic organizations in Africa. In order to understand just how ethically questionable this partnership is, a little background is necessary.

sodomyUganda is one of the most religious and homophobic nations of modern times, due to the predominance of evangelical/fundamentalist religious beliefs, a sizable chunk of which are imported from the west.

Martin Ssempa

Martin Ssempa

Between 2009 and 2014, the Ugandan government attempted to pass the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which came to be known as the “kill the gays bill“. This bill would have allowed the death penalty for what they called “aggravated homosexuality”; in other words, you could be killed for being gay. The bill was written by government minister David Bahati and supported by a large coalition of churches and church leaders, including Martin Ssempa and Alex Mitala.  Fortunately, in 2014 the penalty was amended to “life in prison for aggravated homosexuality”, but this change was due to immense international pressure, not because the churches suddenly changed their collective minds.

hang-themIn Uganda today if you are LGBT and you are outed you could be beaten up or even killed. This is the legacy of the “kill the gays bill”. In 2010 one Ugandan newspaper ran an edition naming the top 100 “homos” in Uganda, with pictures and the caption “hang them”. More recently in 2014, another tabloid released an 200 additional names, which resulted in many gay Ugandans being killed, and others being driven into hiding where they remain to this day. This is the nature of life in Uganda. Religion has cheapened life; many of its adherents have sold out their humanity and made good, decent, loving, gay folks cheap and disposable.

Which brings me back to Southland.

The Manitoba Connection

southland-fb-postWhy would a church which claims the moral high ground of Jesus’s peace and love have such close ties to a man and organizations that advocate for a law that would see gay people put to death? I have a difficult time believing they didn’t know about it. Promoting the “kill the gays” bill by Uganda’s churches began around 2006. Southland has been involved with Mr. Mitala and his 18,000 churches in Uganda since 2007, and has had missionaries in the country on several occasions. Mitala himself has preached at Southland.

As a Humanist, my involvement with a man like Alex Mitala would be limited to attempting to change his mind and rid him of his harmful ideas. To engage with this “man of god” in any goertzen-page2professional sense would be for me what Canadian General Roméo Dallaire described as “shaking hands with the devil”. Endorsement would be out of the question, but endorse him they did. Mitala even secured an endorsement from MLA Kelvin Goertzen, who is now Manitoba’s health minister. Goertzen endorsed Mitala on Southland’s website, and praised him in the legislature (see page 144 of this transcript). Since receiving my letter, Southland has removed most of the content from the Tupandane section of their website, but the page with Goertzen’s endorsement of Mitala can be viewed in archive here, and in this screenshot.

This is not to say the folks at Southland want to kill gay people. In fact, I would venture most don’t, but it does inspire us to ask – why partner with people who do? I can only conclude that the good folks at Southland are either ignorant of the situation in Uganda, apathetic, or worse, ok with it.

The ugliness of this form of Christianity is well supported by scripture. If Southland wants to take credit for the good works it does in Uganda through the organizations it supports (and so it should), then the church should also bear at least a modicum of responsibility for the damage that organizations like the NFBPC have done (and continue to do) to the LGBT community in Uganda. A community that to this day lives in fear and is largely in hiding.

An Appeal

It is time for good people everywhere, atheists and theists alike, to hold Southland Church to a higher moral standard and request that Southland Church sever all ties with organizations that would support the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act. We hope they will seek more moderate partner churches or NGOs for their charitable endeavors in Africa.

Southland’s Response

Kris Duerksen, the executive pastor of Southland Church, agreed to meet with me to discuss the concerns expressed in my letter. For the record, he stated that Southland does not support either the death penalty or life imprisonment for homosexuals. “Jesus tells us to love one another”, he said. But unfortunately, Pastor Duerksen can’t see (or doesn’t believe) that the evidence supports a different conclusion.

Southland Church feeds and clothes some 2000 orphans, according to Duerksen. Simple demographics would indicate that at least a few of those children will come to identify as gay, yet at least some of the people raising them think they deserve jail or death. This presents a problem for people who supposedly love everybody. Southland Church sends money, supplies, and farm equipment by the container load, the cost of which surely totals well into six figures, to Uganda; but Duerksen would have us believe that Southland has little to do with day-to-day operations once it arrives. Those are run by Alex Mitala and his churches – churches that apparently have a different theology, one that allows capitol punishment for gay people and the imprisonment of those who aid them.

uganda-protestersThe relationship between Alex Mitala and Southland Church has grown and developed over the last ten years, with many visits and exchanges between Southland and its mission. One would think that during that time, Southland’s leadership would have uncovered Mitala’s organizations’ support for the “kill the gays” bill. With the support of the NFBPC (of which Mitala was leader) for the Anti-Homosexuality Act being well-known; all the massive press attention given to the bill in both Uganda and internationally, and the massive pressure brought to bear by western countries to stop it, it seems logical that someone should have heard about it. But according to Duerksen, the issue never came up; it was never raised by Tupendane, Mitala, or any of the 3300 parishioners at Southland.

Finally, I asked about the Tupendane website, and why it was pulled down shortly after I emailed Southland. Duerksen told me it was “down for updating”; the timing seems a little coincidental.

The Bottom Line

In the end, we’re back to the beginning. Southland is still stuck with the ethical and moral problem of supporting something they (and almost all Canadians) believe is abhorrent. But at least they can’t plead ignorance anymore. They will have to either fix the problem or choose to ignore it, because when you believe a book that tells you to love gay folks and at the same time put them to death, both options become equally acceptable.

July 2016 Newsletter

bigotryIn this issue:

  • Outreach report from our first Summer in the City
  • Bigotry is a lifestyle choice
  • Commenting on social media? Think twice!
  • Is blasphemy a victimless crime? Stand up for free speech!
  • and more…

July newsletter

 

Is it Ethical to Talk Someone Out of their Faith?

Arthur SchaferThe Presentation:

At our May meeting, University of Manitoba philosophy Professor Arthur Schafer was asked whether it is ethical to try to talk people out of their religion if it gives them comfort. He answered the question decisively by emphatically stating that not only is it ethical to talk people out of superstitious beliefs; it is actually unethical to be religious.

In the excellent presentation that followed, Professor Schafer explained his answer in much more detail, but the gist of it is this: A populace that doesn’t think critically is a big risk to society. When people allow themselves to believe whatever makes them feel comfortable without examining and testing the evidence, they will be led to make decisions that are wildly irrational. False beliefs lead to actions based on those false beliefs, which in turn causes harm to ourselves and/or others. Poor decision making can occur in relation to all sorts of issues besides religion – medical treatment, politics and government, finances, lifestyle choices, and more. People who are gullible seldom limit their gullibility to one area or belief. However, in societies that experience prejudice and persecution, these attitudes are almost always based on false beliefs – usually based in religion.

Regarding the reasons that people turn to religion, Professor Schafer noted that it is most likely because they fear chaos and disorder, and seek security and comfort. However, there is much more disharmony in the universe than harmony, and certainly no evidence for an all-loving deity. Nevertheless, the fact that there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe doesn’t mean that we have no meaning in our lives; it’s up to us to create our own meaning. We have to learn to live with some uncertainty, and learn to make the best decisions we can based on the available evidence. We CAN live without illusions and old superstitions, even ones that give us comfort.
If you missed that meeting, the entire speech can be viewed here.

Response from a Christian:

Professor Schafer’s presentation prompted the following response from Michael Zwaagstra, a high school teacher and city councillor in Steinbach, Manitoba. It appeared in his weekly column “Think Again” in the local newspaper, The Carillon.

Earlier this year, someone sent me the YouTube link to a lecture given by Dr Arthur Schafer, an ethicist at the University of Manitoba. This lecture was delivered to the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba (HAAM) at their May meeting, and was entitled “Is it unethical to talk someone out of their faith?”
Schafer began by saying that not only was it ethical to talk someone out of their faith, it was unethical to be religious at all. This was obviously a bold claim and I was curious to hear what evidence he had to back it up.
The examples he put forward were interesting. First, he described the Trudeau government’s decision to enact the War Measures Act in 1970 even though the evidence later revealed that this was an unnecessary intrusion of civil liberties. He then outlined the cases of two Aboriginal girls whose parents removed them from chemotherapy to pursue alternative treatments. One of those girls later died.
Schafer claimed that even though these two scenarios were very different from each other, they had one thing in common – belief in the absence of evidence. In other words, it is morally wrong to believe in something when the evidence does not support it. Since Schafer believes that religious faith lacks evidence, it is unethical to be religious.
It’s certainly a neat and tidy proposition when you put it that way. However, it suffers from two fatal flaws – an incorrect definition of faith, and unsubstantiated allegations about what the evidence actually shows. Let’s take a look at both in turn.
The Christian definition of faith can be found in Hebrews 11:1, which states “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. So while it is true that faith requires belief in something we have not yet seen, it is not correct to say we are expected to believe in things with no evidence. In fact, each of the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews had solid reasons to trust God.
For example, Moses was commended for leading the Israelites out of Egypt by faith. However, we also see quite clearly in Exodus 3 that God gave Moses good reasons to believe. From the burning bush to the staff that turned into a serpent, God provided Moses with plenty of evidence before sending him out to free the Israelites. So even though Moses needed faith to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, it was not a blind or irrational faith. It was built on a solid foundation.
The second major flaw with Schafer’s argument is that he incorrectly summarizes the evidence. To categorically state that there is no evidence for religious faith is not only an exaggeration, it is demonstrably false. From solid philosophical arguments for the existence of God to concrete archaeological evidence supporting the accuracy of the Bible, to a strong historical case for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there are many reasons to accept Christianity.
The evidence for Christianity may not convince skeptics like Schafer. Even one of Jesus’ own disciples, Thomas, refused to believe that Jesus rose from the dead until he saw him in person (John 20:24-29). However, by doing so Thomas rejected a significant amount of eyewitness testimony from the other disciples that was corroborated by an empty tomb. In other words, he chose not to accept the evidence that was available to him.
It takes faith to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. But that does not mean there is no evidence that it happened.
Thus, Schafer is wrong to conclude that faith is unethical. To the contrary, it makes sense to have it.

Rebuttal from HAAM:

HAAM’s Vice President and Outreach coordinator, Pat Morrow, provided this rebuttal in a letter to the editor which was also printed in The Carillon:

Depending on who you talk to, there are many different definitions of faith. In Mr. Zwaagstra’s column “Think Again”, he offers us a definition of faith from Hebrews 11:1, and he agrees that faith is belief without seeing but not belief without evidence. This is simply a distinction without a difference.

Mr. Zwaagstra offers the story of Exodus from the Bible as evidence. Dr. William Dever (ret) and Dr. Israel Finkelstein (University of Tel Aviv) are just two of many, many Biblical and Middle East archaeologists who, after exhaustive research, consider the Exodus never to have happened and the story to be an entirely fictional narrative. Archaeologists have been coming to the desert since the 19th Century and have simply found no evidence of the biblical Exodus. It seems that Mr Zwaagstra has demonstrated that Dr Schafer’s definition of faith coincides with the Bible’s definition of faith, since he believes the story of the Exodus without evidence.

Zwaagstra mentions the “solid philosophical arguments for the existence of God” and “the concrete archaeological evidence that supports the accuracy of the Bible”. He must be privy to arguments that I am not aware of, as without fail, all the major arguments for the existence of God since the time before Aquinas have fallen apart under the weight of their own built-in logical fallacies. As far as concrete evidence and accuracy is concerned, there is none that would prove the bible to be true to any great degree. I wonder if Mr. Zwaagstra gives as much weight to the archaeological and historical evidence that demonstrates many of the stories of the Bible are completely inaccurate and couldn’t have happened.

In the end, not only is faith belief without evidence, it is also belief in spite of evidence. Faith is not a path to truth – in fact it very often gets in the way of truth. Faith is what we rely on when we have no good evidence. And that is why it is, as Dr Schafer explained, not ethical.

Second Response from Mr Zwaagstra:

After Pat’s letter appeared, Zwaagstra responded again in his next weekly column:

Looks like my previous column got the attention of the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba (HAAM). In a letter to the editor last week, HAAM’s vice-president, Patrick Morrow, challenged my definition of faith and said there is no difference between belief without seeing and belief without evidence. In his words, “This is simply a distinction without a difference.”
However, there is a very big difference indeed. Suppose for a moment that the resurrection of Jesus initially appears to all of the disciples except for one – Thomas. Since Thomas had not yet seen Jesus, he needed faith in order to believe in the resurrection. But does this mean there was no evidence available?
No, it doesn’t. Thomas had eyewitness testimony from his fellow disciples as well as independent confirmation from several women who also followed Jesus. He had an empty tomb he could visit and specific predictions from Jesus himself that he would rise from the dead. Thus, while Thomas needed faith in order to believe, it most certainly was not a blind faith. There was plenty of evidence for him to consider.
To take a more contemporary example, anyone who has attended a wedding has seen faith in action. The bride and groom pledge to be faithful to each other until death, and, by all accounts, believe that the other person will keep this promise. This is a leap of faith since neither the bride nor the groom has actually seen how the other person will live for the rest of their lives.
But that doesn’t mean it is blind faith. Assuming the bride and groom dated before their wedding, they spent time getting to know each other before deciding to get married. In other words, they gathered a lot of evidence and it helped them determine whether or not to put their faith in that person. In contrast, blind faith would be two random people getting married without knowing a single thing about each other – generally not a good strategy.
Now I recognize that Morrow and other members of HAAM believe there is no evidence for the reliability of the Bible. Obviously I disagree with them. As a case in point, Morrow says there is no evidence for the biblical account of the Exodus and he cites two archaeologists who hold the same view. He then concludes that I am exercising blind faith by believing in the story of the Exodus.
What Morrow doesn’t mention is that scholars are split on this issue. Some advocate for an early Exodus date (c. 1446 BC), some argue for a later date (c. 1250 BC), while others believe the Exodus never happened at all. Morrow selectively references two archaeologists who happen to agree with his position and leaves the false impression that the scholarly debate is over. It isn’t.
Incidentally, Morrow provides a good example of faith in his letter. He trusts the word of two archaeologists who say there is no evidence to support the story of the Exodus. Now I suspect that Morrow has not personally reviewed every piece of evidence that these archaeologists examined. Instead, he has faith in what these archaeologists have written, despite not seeing all the evidence himself.
The reality is that all people, even members of HAAM, exercise faith at times. We cannot make many decisions in life without it. Instead of condemning all faith as unethical, HAAM members would do better to recognize the difference between reasonable faith and blind faith.
Not all faith is the same. On this point at least, we should be able to agree.

Second Rebuttal from Pat:

I could agree with Mr Zwaagstra that not all faith is the same. In fact, in talking to the religious, I’ve found that the definitions of faith are about as varied as religious believers. Faith as described by Mr Zwaagstra in Hebrews 11:1 is “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV).

If seeing is a form of evidence, than that makes the biblical definition of faith, belief without evidence. In the world outside of the more, shall we say, devout believers of any religion, faith with evidence is not faith – it’s evidence.

Of course not all evidence is the same. On the high-value end we have empirical or scientific evidence; evidence that can be demonstrated and tested. On the other end of the scale we have evidence that is hearsay or stories of a personal nature. Often this evidence is so weak that we give it a different label – anecdote. Anecdotes may or may not have a seed of truth to them; however teasing out this truth is often impossible and renders the anecdote essentially useless as a source of evidence for evaluating truth claims.

Mr Zwaagstra offers us yet another biblical anecdote to demonstrate that faith is belief with evidence, and in doing so he displays the exact opposite. Outside the Bible there are no contemporaneous extra-biblical written accounts that could offer any evidence that this Jesus figure ever existed, let alone that he was resurrected. Even if the Bible could be considered an account of the resurrection, the stories were written later, and we have no originals, just copies of copies, and they contain many points of contradiction. Zwaagstra believes those stories without good evidence; that is to say, he believes on faith.

The doubting Thomas story is an interesting choice. Maybe Thomas understood that the empty tomb was not evidence of the resurrection, but evidence only of an empty tomb. He wasn’t swayed by the personal testimonies of the other disciples. He waited for the evidence, then tested it before believing. A true skeptic?

Zwaagstra’s second or modern example doesn’t get much better. The couple getting married obviously would have a history together, over time developing a bond of trustworthy of a life-long union. Maybe this couple has witnessed other successful lifelong unions. This would not make their marriage a leap of faith, but rather a reasonable expectation based on evidence. Of course, for the couple that have never met, marrying would be a true leap of faith. In this, Zwaagstra and I are in agreement.

It’s unfortunate that in the last half of his letter, Mr Zwaagstra has to resort using equivocation and generally misrepresenting my argument. I “say” there is no evidence for the Exodus and confine my argument to the scientific pursuit of archaeology, its scholarship and what it has to say about the Exodus. It is the general archaeological consensus that there is simply no empirical evidence that the Exodus ever occurred. I can furnish him with plenty more names of archeologists if he likes. I suggest he read “The Bible Unearthed” by noted archaeologists Finkelstein & Silberman. Or check out Dr Baruch Halpern – Talmudic scholar, archaeologist, and Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia. His lecture on the Exodus can be found here:

There are also many other problems with the story itself, such as how it doesn’t fit into Egyptian history (or reality for that matter).

I can assure Mr Zwaagstra that anyone basing their beliefs about the Exodus on just two renowned biblical archaeologists would be rather silly and is a gross misrepresentation of my argument. He claims that scholars are split on the date of the Exodus, or even if it happened, implying that there is a division within the archaeological community. This is simply incorrect; the multiple dates offered for the Exodus are unscientific and largely (if not totally) theological, with just a smattering of historical markers to make them interesting. Theological evidence is of little value due to its unfalsifiable nature. To test this, one just has to ask a Christian the value of theological evidence offered by Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs.

Finally, Zwaagstra insists that we all have faith and that we “cannot make many decisions in life without it”. I would disagree. As Humanists and rationalists, we base our decisions and our beliefs on the best evidence we can find, not on faith. Faith is something most Humanists seek to rid themselves of. Apologists can call faith what they like – reasonable, justified, strong, or blind – but one doesn’t have to look far to see results of faith based thinking; it can cause the faithful to fly aircraft into buildings or believe ancient myths as truth. And that is why faith – belief without evidence – remains unethical.

 

 

June 2015 Newsletter

church and state  HAAM has a busy summer ahead! In our June newsletter:

  •   Updates on the stories we’ve been following on religion in our public institutions,
  •   Details about all our upcoming events (including speakers who will be appearing at our River City Reasonfest conference in September), and
  •   A link to view the presentation on the Ethics of Religion if you missed it at our May meeting.

June newsletter

May 2015 Newsletter

River City Reasonfest logo 3 20Spring is sprung! And HAAM is buzzing with activity. Registration is now open for HAAM’s very first conference…. River City Reasonfest, September 19 and 20, 2015. Buy your tickets now for the low, early bird rate of only $99 for the entire weekend. http://rivercityreasonfest.org/
In this issue: upcoming events including the Pride Parade, our Solstice Party, and a Summer Book Club; a special announcement will be forthcoming from our Humanist Celebrant; updates on religion in public schools and in the workplace; and more!

May newsletter

Messy Muddled Morality

 

For many religiousnothing-written-in-stone-relative-morality people there is comfort in the belief that moral questions have all been answered by their holy books. I can see the appeal of rules and structure, in that following a recipe will lead to the desired outcome. It must be nice for them to be able to open a book and find a specific commandment to suit the situation. From my perspective, life as a religious person must be similar to a trip to Ikea, walking a one-way path with every problem a flat-packed box of building materials and a set of instructions on how to solve it. Even in difficult situations where there is no clear answer, the fallback position is that even though they may not know the correct answer, there is a god who does and at some point, in the afterlife they will know it as well.

Of course, for those of us on the outside of religion we can see that this certainty is misplaced. The evidence for this is the many different religious beliefs and practices even from those who are reading from the same book of instructions. It’s unlikely that in any church, mosque or synagogue that we would find even two believers who have identical views on all moral questions. In addition, it’s a surprisingly pleasant coincidence for the believers that they seem to find a god who agrees with all of their own moral positions. How convenient is that?

For atheists though, morality is not quite so simple. We understand that there is no instruction book and so we look elsewhere for a foundation to build our lives on. For many of us, we recognize that atheism itself is nothing more than a lack of belief in god and so we must go elsewhere for guidance. Whether we identify as atheists, skeptics, or humanists, one thing that we all seem to have in common is a commitment to following the evidence where it leads us. We acknowledge that using science has the best track record for discovering what is true about the world and so we put our trust in science to help us discover those truths.

Science has been wonderful for helping us to answer many questions. Particularly in the types of questions that hinge on finding out hard facts. It’s a no-brainer for us to accept that evolution is a fact, that disease is not cured by prayer. These are the easy questions. And on these types of questions, the atheist community is pretty much united in our positions once sufficient evidence has been examined.

But when it comes to questions of morality, of how we should live, science is not always so helpful. At the very least, not always so certain. When we discuss issues around politics, economics, equality, or justice, sometimes it seems as if the atheist community is just as divided as the People’s Front of Judea. Many of us would identify as believing that a diversity of views is a good thing. In theory, anyway, much more difficult in practise. When questions arise that involve our values, or our identities, it’s very hard to examine the issues objectively, when we personally are the objects of examination.

It’s not that science has nothing to say about these moral questions, as there are domains of science that ask these questions and try to find answers, but the sciences that are best suited to address these questions, are often considered the “softer sciences”, such as sociology or psychology, that don’t seem to get the same level of respect as the sciences that give us more concrete answers. These are the types of sciences that can give us answers about the very issues that seem to cloud discussions of morality or ethics. For example there are studies conducted that demonstrate our human tendencies toward confirmation bias that serve to reinforce what we already think is true. This is quite easy to agree with in theory, even more so, when attributing this tendency to the other person, not so easy to accept when we turn it to ourselves.

Among many atheists that I know, another common value that seems to unite them, that doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in the religious community, is the acceptance of not knowing the answer. When it comes to questions such as how the universe began, or what happens after we die, we seem to be fairly comfortable with accepting that we don’t know, and quite possibly may never know. But when it comes to moral questions, we aren’t as comfortable with ambivalent positions.

With the recent horrific murders of the employees of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that occurred in Paris, murders committed for the imaginary sin of blasphemy, the atheist community responded with vociferous condemnation of the attacks. But even in their unified position, it appears that the devil is in the details, as arguments went back and forth over questions regarding how to show solidarity for contentious free speech. Talking about a fundamental human right and our responsibilities to each other requires us to examine our values, things that are held very personally and intertwined with our identity and our own perspective, not easily looked at with the same objective rationality that we are accustomed to using with other types of questions. And yet we feel compelled to take a position, even when the answer is not so clear.

A few years ago, Sam Harris wrote a book called “The Moral Landscape” in which he put forward a case for using science to help us answer moral questions. These questions, about human wants and needs, happiness and suffering, have traditionally not been something that appeared amenable to scientific inquiry. Morality has historically been in the unique position of being so complex as to keep the philosophers busy for ages and yet also been so easily solved by each one of us as we negotiate living together in community, convinced that we have the right answers. For myself, I believe that Harris is right, that as we explore the frontiers of neuroscience, adding to the work done in other fields of inquiry in psychology, sociology and biology, and with the commitment to following the evidence where it leads, that we will get closer to the answers that we seek. The only instruction manual that we will have is the one we write ourselves.

– Diana Goods

 

Gifts, Giving and Goodness

Giving charity picRecently, some of the members of the HAAM executive were having a discussion about how we, as a group, could encourage and promote more activities related to giving back to our communities, volunteerism and charitable works. Last year HAAM started an informal process of highlighting a charity of the month and doing something to promote the activities of the charity. Our promotion included activities such as collecting donations for Agape Table, D’Arcy’s ARC and volunteering as a group and individually for Lunches With Love, making healthy lunches to help some of the homeless people in our community. I personally have been quite enthusiastic about having these opportunities to put my humanist values into practice and I believe others in the group feel the same way.

This topic, though, made me consider some issues related to charitable giving in general. I think that most of us like to believe that we are doing good when we give to a charity, and I have seen many people will bring this up when trying to argue with religionists about being good without God, often citing work done by non-religious organizations like the Red Cross, or charitable organizations founded by non-believers like Bill Gates.

There is no doubt that giving and volunteering is a worthwhile thing to do, a concrete way to put our humanist values into practise and one that has its own rewards built right in. Most of us would probably agree that it just plain feels good to help. Being empathetic and compassionate is built into us and we recognize the rational utilitarian aspect of the golden rule. We help others in the hopes that they will help us when we need it. Everyone wins.

But does everyone really win? I have a good friend who will argue quite vociferously against the concept of the charity model really being effective at changing anything in the status quo. That it is a big waste of resources to rely on individual giving to actually fix anything. For example giving to a food bank does nothing to address the grave inequalities that create the need for it in the first place. That what we need is better government, tax supported programs that actually provide the people in need with enough money to buy food in the first place. That supporting these charities only props up an unfair system that keeps the disadvantaged down, while allowing the privileged to feel good about helping one day and then the next day to complain that their taxes are too high. And don’t get her going about the big business feel of some charities, like breast cancer research, that somehow selling a bunch of pink crap manufactured in countries with atrocious records on workers’ rights is a good thing. Countries where it’s not unlikely that the woman making that pink T-shirt can’t get the time off work to go and have a mammogram. While I offer these arguments as examples that my friend uses, I admit that I am sympathetic to them as well.

Another issue regarding the charity model relates to the issue of deserving and undeserving recipients. For example, I have noticed that it is much easier to give to those who we see as not being responsible for their own circumstances. People are often very motivated to help animals, seen as innocent, children with cancer, or to donate to disaster relief caused by some horrific natural disaster. But helping out a drug-addicted homeless person who doesn’t show a proper amount of gratitude? Not so much.

Looking at these two example of charitable giving with a critical eye, I have to wonder what role religious influence plays in this. First, regarding creating a more fair and equal society. Despite protestations to the contrary from those who see their religion as an inspiration to work towards social justice, I don’t actually see any concept of fairness or equality actually being taught consistently in the Bible. This is probably a reflection of the time that it was written, when there was no concept of democratic rule, basic equality or human rights. But for those who think it was divinely inspired, I would hope for something better from the Lord of the universe than quotes like this found in Matthew 26:11 “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have me”. What a way to inspire people to not actually look at root causes or solutions. But a great message to encourage tithing.

The second example of people being more inclined to help those that they perceive as innocent, I think draws even more parallels with themes in the Bible. Concepts that are held up as worthy and honourable include innocence and purity. Jesus was seen as the perfect sacrifice because he was innocent of sin. Keeping yourself sheltered and ignorant of the world is seen as a desirable path for many in this mind set. People are divided into saved and unsaved. Commit one sin or ten, damnation follows. There is not a lot of nuance in the core message. The idea of suffering being the result of sin, something you must have brought on yourself is actually a very common answer to be found to the problem of pain. It shows little recognition for the complexities of life, or for the recognition that sometimes chance, circumstance and degree of privilege play a bigger role than we realize in where we end up.

I am not drawing any definite conclusions here regarding religion being the ultimate cause of why we act this way. It is entirely possible that humans already have a built in tendency to find ways to “other” one another. It could be that religion simply latched on to a natural tendency. At any rate, at the least it offers reinforcement for these ideas. When religious people are convinced that the Bible is the last word on everything, and the ultimate answer to all of our problems, it stops us from using our compassion and creativity to find other ways. I think we can do better than that.

– Diana Goods

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