A take on religion and doing good.
|Every Saturday morning during my sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school, I put my hair up in a bun, laced on my tennis shoes, and drove out to the Apache Junction Food Bank to volunteer. I often dreaded the “beep, beep, beep, beep” of my six o’clock alarm, so early on a weekend, but for me getting up was worth it when I realized I was helping to make a positive difference in others’ lives.
The Food Bank serves the underprivileged populations in my Arizona community. My tasks varied weekly and could be anything from mopping the warehouse floors to cleaning shelves, packing and distributing food boxes, or riding on the truck to pick up expired perishables from local grocery stores. The other volunteers were mostly retired folks and teenagers completing court-ordered community service hours. Every once in a while a company or church group would volunteer, but typically a group of seven or eight regulars completed the daily duties.
One Saturday last winter, a short septuagenarian, Joyce, pulled up to the door to drop off some food for the upcoming holidays. Her old Cadillac brimmed with boxes of cornbread stuffing and canned yams, green beans, and cranberry sauce donated by a nearby snowbird trailer park. We chatted a little while about the weather, the food bank, and her yippy Yorkshire terrier, who was in the front seat. Then she asked, “So what church are you here volunteering with?”
I was taken aback by her question. It wasn’t too personal, but the fact that she automatically assumed I was affiliated with a particular church since I was volunteering caught me off-guard. I responded with a short spiel about how I had been extremely fortunate in my life and enjoyed giving back to the community, and also made it a point to mention that I was, in fact, not part of any religious group. I thanked her for the donation, and Joyce and her dog continued on their way. Even after she was long gone, Joyce’s question stuck with me. I pondered it for days, counter questioning her inquiry and occasionally answering myself. Does volunteering have some religious connotation that I don’t know about? Does everyone assume I’m with a church group? Should I be offended…? Nah, it’s not that big of a deal. She’s just old. Why do I think it’s so weird? Dude, like it’s one question. Not that weird. But really, does everyone but me put religion and helping others, and on a greater scale being a “good” person, together?
I do not believe one has to belong to a religious institution to be an ethical or moral person. Some people might consider me an inherently “bad” person or a “sinner” because I am an atheist, but morals and religion truly are separate matters. Yes, many religions, like Christianity and Islam, emphasize being a good person, which has a reward of eternal salvation for those who follow through, and spots reserved in hell for the immoral. However, the rewards and punishments of heaven and hell are not prerequisites for making a positive difference in the world. I am fully capable of helping others and have the desire to do so because of the emphasis my (secular) parents placed on bettering the lives of those around me, lessons I’ve also learned in school over the years and in being a human being around other human beings, empathizing with them and their situations.
The linking of religion to doing good reminds me of the reasoning of a young child. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed a theory detailing six stages of moral development, organized into three levels. The first of these three, the pre-conventional level, corresponds to a small child’s moral judgment. This level consists of two stages: punishment-centered and self-regard-centered judgments on morality. Those who are religious are much like the children in these two stages of moral development. Many of their lives consist of actions and decisions based on avoiding punishment, which in their case would be eternal damnation in a hell. If a kid knows they will be placed in time out for taking a peer’s toy, they specifically do not do that action and deem it wrong because of the punishment. Many religious people blindly follow moral guidelines of their respective institutions and do whatever their leaders say is necessary to prevent spending the afterlife in hell.
Avoiding damnation is all good and well, but what’s the positive benefit of doing good? This is the kind of question a child in the second stage of moral development would ask. The child looks at the trade-off for doing something: what do they get in return? Religious patrons too consider the benefits to being a devout, moral follower. When they die, God will be waiting for them to reflect on how they have spent their life, and admit them into heaven for their good deeds. They know it is in their best interest to lead a righteous to reap the reward later on just as a child finds it in their best interest to do the dishes without complaining to be rewarded with their favorite television show.
Religion does have a place in the world for some people, but I am not one of them. If religion does lead someone to work at being a better person, that is by no means negative. However, I myself do not need an eternal salvation/damnation dynamic to go serve others. Empathizing and lending a hand are some of the few principles that transcend all differences, and function on a fundamental level—human being to human being. You do not need defined religious views, or, like me, any religious views at all, to be a stand-up person.