Saturday, 6 February 2010

What should atheist aid look like?

(You have to know about the atheist bus campaign to get this.)
A few days ago, Professor Richard Dawkins published a swingeing attack on Christians for their attitude towards disasters in general and the Haitian earthquake in particular. At the end of his article, he added a link to a website for “Non-Believers Giving Aid”, a coalition for “freethought groups or associates, to collect donations to non-religious relief organizations”.
As something of a thought experiment, I decided to see if, from (as far as possible) an entirely atheist perspective, this was actually itself a strictly rational response to the situation. In it, I suggested that there is a degree of unwarranted ‘anthropomorphising’ in Professor Dawkins’ language and a strong element of anthropocentrism in his world view.
This continues not only in his article, but in his appeal for aid:
Earthquakes and tsunamis are caused not by ‘sin’ but by tectonic plate movements, and tectonic plates, like everything else in the physical world, are supremely indifferent to human affairs and sadly indifferent to human suffering.
To say that an earthquake is ‘indifferent’ to human suffering, however, is to ascribe to it a quality which, in actuality, it does not possess. It sounds as though we have said something, when in fact we have said nothing. Or rather, we have simply used emotive language to subvert a viewpoint with which we disagree (that there are some potentially ‘sympathetic’ forces behind natural events). However, if we know that such forces do not exist, we cannot then go on to say that an earthquake is ‘indifferent’ about us —much less “supremely indifferent”, as if it had its nose emphatically in the air! It is rather like saying it is ‘humourless’ (or “completely humourless”). It is simply a non-statement within an atheist frame of reference.
As to earthquakes being “sadly indifferent to human suffering”, this rather presumes that human suffering matters. Now of course, human beings find human suffering ‘sad’, but then that is because we are programmed to. Professor Dawkins writes,
Those of us who understand this reality [that the human suffering caused by earthquakes is just the result of natural phenomena] are sometimes accused of being indifferent to that suffering ourselves.
And indeed people do sometimes falsely accuse atheists of lacking feeling, but of course, being human, atheists will have the full range of human feelings. That is not to be denied. However, atheists also claim to have something which they believe not all other human beings have, which is a proper understanding of the world in general and human nature in particular.
In Richard Dawkins’ case, I have suggested this includes three specific convictions: first, that there are no ‘gods’, secondly, that the material realm is all that there is, and thirdly that the evolutionary perspective he advocates is correct.
What he derives from that evolutionary perspective is what he calls “four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ [sic] towards each other” (The God Delusion, p251):
1. Genetic kinship (thus promoting the group genes).
2. ‘Tit for Tat’ reciprocation of favours.
3. Acquiring a reputation for ‘goodness’
4. Advertising onself through conspicuous generosity.
These are the raw ‘Darwinian’ principles behind moral behaviour. But, as Professor Dawkins argues, what arose from evolutionary pressures now finds itself in a new context: in the modern era, we no longer face those same pressures and, moreover, although “even now full understanding is confined to a minority of scientific specialists” (Ibid, p252), we can understand cognitively that we are being driven by natural (might one say “supremely indifferent”?) inclinations which no longer strictly apply:
In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators. Nowadays that restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb [i.e. the natural instinct] persists. Why would it not? It is just like sexual desire. We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). (Ibid, p253)
Of course atheists feel for the sufferings of the Haitians. We cannot help it! But at least the atheist understands that these feelings are what Dawkins calls ‘misfirings’ of an evolutionary mechanism. In that respect, our response to seeing suffering Haitian children on the television is no different from the feelings evoked by seeing a beautiful naked woman or man on the same screen. The sorrow and the erection are essentially the same. The question for the atheists is this: knowing what is actually going on in themselves what should they do? As Professor Dawkins says on his website,
... we do not hide behind the notion that earthly suffering will be rewarded in a heavenly paradise, nor do we expect a heavenly reward for our generosity ...
Quite so — but more than that, the atheist knows that the Haitian he sees on the television is not going to reciprocate when he himself is off work with ’flu. Professor Dawkins clearly thinks that we should, nevertheless, be motivated to relieve the circumstances of the Haitian:
... the understanding that this is the only life any of us have makes the need to alleviate suffering even more urgent.
But as we are increasingly being made aware, the ultimate way to put an end to suffering is through death. If we are to alleviate suffering in the short term, we must think through why, and what we are to do. The question is, knowing our true circumstances — that we are being moved by our instincts to have inappropriate feelings about strangers with whom we have no relationship and who will never themselves be in a position to reciprocate — how, rationally, should we respond?
The best answer, based on Professor Dawkins’ four criteria for moral behaviour, would seem to be to consider the effect of our response on our collective, national, status in the world. It is as a nation that we are likely to receive reciprocal benefits, and it is as a nation that we can enhance our reputation. As it happens, President Obama has recently given a speech (full of unfortunate religious references) part of which (whether deliberately or not) illustrates exactly this principle:
Last month, God’s grace, God’s mercy, seemed far away from our neighbors in Haiti. And yet I believe that grace was not absent in the midst of tragedy. ... It was felt in the presence of relief workers and medics; translators; servicemen and women, bringing water and food and aid to the injured.
One such translator was an American of Haitian descent, representative of the extraordinary work that our men and women in uniform do all around the world —Navy Corpsman Christian [sic] Brossard. And lying on a gurney aboard the USNS Comfort, a woman asked Christopher: “Where do you come from? What country? After my operation,” she said, “I will pray for that country.” And in Creole, Corpsman Brossard responded, “Etazini.” The United States of America.
The atheist will rightly scoff at the President’s theology. And the atheist may not be too impressed by the reciprocity on offer —we send you our navy with medicines, you give us your (meaningless) prayers. Nevertheless, as President Obama’s words hint, the useful thing is to have a high profile for your country:
God’s grace, and the compassion and decency of the American people is expressed through the men and women like Corpsman Brossard. It’s expressed through the efforts of our Armed Forces, through the efforts of our entire government, through similar efforts from Spain and other countries around the world.
Here we have something like a rational reason for aid, though it is not the reason put forward on Professor Dawkins’ website. His own suggested motivations are rather less clear and rather more mixed:
Non-Believers Giving Aid is ... an easy conduit for the non-religious to help those in desperate need, whilst simultaneously giving the lie to the canard that you need God to be good.
The question this begs, of course, is what we mean by ‘being good’. The atheist knows it is not what the religious believe —misled as they are by their ignorance at many levels. That being the case, however, the important thing is to make clear what we do mean, and how it is expressed through what we do. Atheist aid, I suggest, should look like this:

John Richardson
6 February 2010
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  1. TLDNR - being succinct would be a blessing!! Your suggestion that atheists are less rational because they ascribe no emotion to a natural disaster whilst religious types struggle to justify the merciful/judgemental god bit cannot make sense even to you??

    PS. I love the fact that the word to verify this post was mentl??!!? Divine intervention??

  2. Donald, I am not saying "atheists are less rational because they ascribe no emotion to a natural disaster".

    Also, I am emphatically not saying they are "less rational" than religious people in this regard.

    If I may direct you back to the first post, I wrote, "What I will seek to show ... is that, far from being the ‘rationalist’ he claims, Professor Dawkins is nowhere near rational enough. But I am not going to use religion as a counter-argument. Thus, although I hope others will feel free to contribute their comments, I will be inclined to delete anything (even from the good Professor himself) which attempts to refute what I am saying by attacking religion."

    The aim is to keep the discussion strictly to what atheism is and what it entails, not to get sidetracked into an exercise in comparative philosophies.

  3. G'day John

    Richard Dawkins was interviewed for an Australian TV program about famous older people [called Elders] and in the course of the interview he said he tries to live by the Golden Rule.

    He said that the Golden Rule is not doing to others what you wouldn't want them to do to you.

    Seeing that he has the Golden Rule back to front, I mused whether he has the rest of the Christian message equally topsy-turvy, and also wondered if he is telling us stuff about science and philosophy which is also askew.

  4. Hi David, how bizarre. Still, with 9 billion people in the world, most of them untouched by me, I reckon I'm well ahead on keeping the rule!

  5. Where did the other 3 billion come from, John?

  6. Sorry, thought we'd hit 9 already - apparently it is only 6.6, but climbing. ;-)

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