Religion, Altruism, and The Golden Rule
A few weeks ago I was driving along a rural Texas highway and went past a church that had this admonition on the sign by the side of the road: “Love your neighbor as yourself”–The Lord Jesus Christ. (The biblical reference is Matthew 22:39) If you ask most Christians to summarize the teachings of Jesus, they will probably give you an answer like that, some variation on the Golden Rule. The saying, however, did not originate with Jesus. He was quoting Leviticus 19:18, which was written at least six centuries before Jesus was born. So the sense that loving your neighbor was a good thing to do clearly predated Jesus by many years. Furthermore, most of the world’s major religions have some core teaching that is analogous to the Golden Rule; the idea is in no way unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
One of the most ridiculous and illogical charges against unbelief is that without the constraining force of religion people will just do whatever they want and society will descend into some kind of Lord of the Flies chaos. Religion is necessary for a good society (the same religion that brought us crusades, inquisitions and witch-hunts and mostly supported slavery into the mid-1800’s).
OK, so here is a reality that more people in America should find puzzling: If religion really is a source of great moral good in society and propels people to altruistic behavior, one could reasonably expect that metrics of social well-being would be much better in religious areas of this country than in less-religious areas. The Bible Belt (pretty much contiguous with the old Confederacy) would be a much better place to live than the relatively godless regions of the Pacific Northwest or New England.
But that is not the case at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. The most religious areas of our nation consistently have more drug use, more STD’s, more teen pregnancies, more violence, and more poverty than the less religious regions.
Did we ever really need religion to teach us the importance of the Golden Rule? Probably not because the origins of the Golden Rule predate any religion that’s around today. Both our tendencies towards selfish behavior and our tendencies towards altruism are heritable traits that took root hundreds of thousands of years ago in our ancestral past. Humans did not learn altruism from God. Early humans who had altruistic proclivities tended to live longer and produce more offspring. Religion did not invent goodness. Religion merely codified the goodness that was already there–along with a lot of bad stuff like slavery.