The Drowning Stranger: A Problem for Secular Humanists

Here’s a thought experiment.

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Imagine that you’re a healthy, athletic, 20-year-old male. It’s the morning after a thunderstorm, and you’re standing on the banks of a flooded, violently churning river.

You notice an object floating downstream.

whitewater

As it moves closer, you suddenly realize that this object is a person. The head breaks the surface, and you see a panic-stricken elderly woman gasping for air. You’ve never met her before, but vaguely recognize her as an impoverished widow from a neighboring village.

You look around for help, but there’s no one in sight. You have only seconds to decide whether or not to jump in after her – recognizing that doing so will put your own life in significant peril.

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Is it rational for you to risk your life to save this stranger? Is it morally good to do so?

For the Christian, both of these questions can be answered with an emphatic “yes”.

The Christian is called to emulate the example set forth by Jesus, who not only risked, but sacrificed his life for the sake of others. The Christian believes that the soul is eternal, and that one’s existence doesn’t come to an abrupt end with death.  Additionally, he can point to the examples of countless Christian martyrs who have willingly sacrificed their own lives.

For the secular humanist, the answers to these questions are much more subjective. When I previously asked 23 self-identifying atheists, “Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?” only 4 of them responded with an unqualified “yes”.

Biologically speaking, the young man in our scenario has nothing to gain by jumping after the drowning woman. Since she’s poor and elderly, there are no conceivable financial or reproductive advantages involved. Evolutionary biologists often speak of “benefit to the tribe” as a motivation for self-sacrifice…yet the young man’s community would certainly place greater practical value on his life than that of a widow from a neighboring village.

Secular humanists argue that people are capable of making ethical decisions without any deity to serve as Moral Lawgiver. On a day-to-day basis, this is undeniably true. We all have non-religious friends and neighbors who live extremely moral and admirable lives.

In the scenario above, however, secular ethics break down. The secular humanist might recognize, intuitively, that diving into the river is a morally good action. But he has no rational basis for saying so. The young man’s decision is between empathy for a stranger (on the one hand) and utilitarian self-interest & community-interest (on the other).

In the end, there can be no binding moral imperatives in the absence of a Moral Lawgiver. If the young man decides to sit back and watch the woman drown, the secular humanist cannot criticize him. He’s only acting rationally.

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Does Religion “Poison Everything”?

Nope. Christopher Hitchens was way off.

I’ll begin with seven studies that highlight the benefits of religious belief. I can’t take credit for finding these. They were recently shared by the fantastic Facebook page “Libertarian Christian“.

(I’ll wait while you go like their page.)

1. People who believe in God are happier than agnostics or atheists. “Using data from Britain and Europe, the study found believers enjoyed higher levels of satisfaction and suffered less psychological damage from unemployment, divorce or the death of a partner.”

2. Faith and well-being. “[Actively] religious North Americans are much less likely than irreligious people to become delinquent, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to divorce, and to commit suicide…Among mothers of developmentally challenged children, those with a deep religious faith are less vulnerable to depression…For people later in life, according to one meta-analysis, the two best predictors of life satisfaction have been health and religiousness.”

3. Religion and mortality among the community-dwelling elderly.  “Persons who attended religious services had lower mortality than those who did not (age- and sex-adjusted relative hazard [RH] = 0.64; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.52, 0.78). Multivariate adjustment reduced this relationship only slightly (RH = 0.76; 95% CI = 0.62, 0.94), primarily by including physical functioning and social support…Lower mortality rates for those who attend religious services are only partly explained by the 6 possible confounders listed above.”

4. Research shows religion plays a major role in health, longevity. “The research showed that people who never attended services had an 87 percent higher risk of dying during the follow-up period than those who attended more than once a week. The research also revealed that women and blacks can enjoy especially longer lives if they are religiously active.”

5. Religion and spirituality among centenarians. “In his on going study Dr. Perls found a very large number of centenarians to be religious. Dr. Perls feels that centenarians do not “sweat the small stuff” when it comes to stress…[Almost] all centenarians [believe] it is “God’s will” that they have lived so long. In a lifetime of a century or more that often has a centenarian outliving relatives and close friends, a connection to God gives them something to hang on to, and a way to stay connected.”

6. The relationship between religious activities and blood pressure in older adults. “Among participants who both attended religious services and prayed or studied the Bible frequently, the likelihood of having a diastolic blood pressure of 90 mm Hg or higher was 40 percent lower than found in participants who attended religious services infrequently and prayed or studied the Bible infrequently (OR 0.60, 95% CI, 0.48-0.75, p < .0001).”

7. Spiritual well-being, depressive symptoms, and immune status among women living with HIV/AIDS. “Significant inverse associations were observed between depressive symptoms and spiritual well-being (r = -.55, p = .0001), and its components, existential well-being (r = -.62, p = .0001) and religious well-being (r = -.36, p = .0001). Significant positive associations were observed between existential well-being and CD4 cell count (r = .19, p < .05) and also between spiritual well-being (r = .24, p < .05), religious well-being (r = .21, p < .05), and existential well-being (r = .22, p < .05) and CD4 cell percentages.”

And beyond simple benefits to one’s own health and wellness:

Here’s an article describing the contributions of religious leaders in combating the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

“[The standard narrative] contains some important elements of truth: Pharmacological treatments in particular are transforming HIV from a death sentence into a manageable, chronic condition, at least for those with access to antiretrovirals. But most of the measured improvements in AIDS in Africa are actually the result of cumulative, widespread behavior change that has led to a reduction in new HIV infections. In other words, the standard narrative is wrong.

The narrative is wrong because it ignores local African responses to AIDS and characterizes religion and religious leaders as part of the problem. We have systematically studied the role of religious leaders in sub-Saharan Africa for about a decade. As a single class of people, local religious leaders sit at the very top of our list of who should receive credit for the behavior changes that have curbed the spread of HIV in Africa…

In congregations where AIDS and sexual mortality are discussed regularly, unmarried people are more likely to report being abstinent and married individuals faithful to their spouses.”

Matthew Parris, an atheist, writes on how “Africa needs God”.

“Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.”

Tim O’Neill, also an atheist, dispels the popular misconception that religion has historically been detrimental to scientific progress.

“I love to totally stump these propagators by asking them to present me with the name of one – just one – scientist burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists – like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa – and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents usually scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.”

Studies consistently show that religious people donate more to charity.

Couples who attend religious services together report higher levels of happiness and marital satisfaction.

Religious belief can provide a sufficient grounding for objective moral values.

It can offer rational justification for acts of heroism and self-sacrifice.

It can account for mankind’s appreciation of beauty and sense of longing.

It can coherently integrate the body and the soul, providing a higher ideal for romantic love than society’s “LGBTQIA” alphabet soup classification of genital urges.

And I could go on, but it’s time for me to go make dinner. If you want to drop additional links in the comments, I’ll add them to the list.

[Also, a tip of the hat to Wintery Knight and Neil Shenvi for pointing me toward a couple of the sources referenced above.]

Reckless Self-Endangerment and Christianly Courage

“The rise of the internet must ultimately kill off organized religion”…or so the common wisdom goes. Thanks to a new generation of fedora-clad Redditors equipped with Microsoft Paint and rich imaginations, new Bible loopholes are being uncovered that threaten to expose the absurdity of Christianity. These Valiant Defenders of Truth and Reason are sagely raising critiques that somehow escaped the attention of two thousand years of systematic theology. Or something. Take this gem:

20090223reckless

The image makes three implicit assertions. I’ll respond to each.

1. The Christian belief in heaven ought to entail an eagerness to die. (Corollary: Since most Christians don’t appear eager to die, their belief in heaven lacks sincerity.)

This assertion baldly ignores Scripture’s robust teachings on virtue, suffering, sacrifice, and meekness – opting instead to project a simplistic brand of secular hedonism onto the Christian’s conception of heaven. The idea seems to be something along the lines of, “heaven will be pleasurable, therefore Christians should be trying to seize this pleasure as quickly and directly as possible.” This kind of reasoning may be the marching song of our modern age, but it is so bluntly at-odds with the teachings of Jesus as to be an absurdity.

2. A Christian can conceal his motives from God. (Corollary: Reckless self-endangerment with the sole intent of achieving death isn’t, therefore, equivalent to suicide.)

Psalm 139:1-6. And I think that about covers it.

3. Scripture is silent on the matter of “reckless self-endangerment”. (Corollary: Reckless self-endangerment isn’t immoral.)

Scripture actually does touch on this issue (Matthew 4:5-7).

Tightrope walking over shark-infested waters for the purpose of dying cannot be justified on the Christian view. Even so, this assertion raises some interesting questions. Under what conditions, if any, can reckless self-endangerment be morally justified? How do these conditions differ from those of an individual who lacks a belief in the afterlife?

Again, Scripture provides us with answers. Christians are called to emulate Christ (Matthew 16:24-25), who himself laid down his life for humanity (Mark 10:45). In stark contrast with the man who believes that existence ceases with death, the Christian actually has rational justification for placing his life in peril to aid his fellow man. He feels compelled – joyously compelled – to throw himself into a churning river to save the life of a stranger. He fights for noble causes and he bears the burden lightly, knowing that life is a precious yet fleeting thing, and that everyone will ultimately be held accountable for their actions. The Christian must, in the words of Chesterton, “desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”

Many are quick to point out how faith can be perverted (“religion flies planes into buildings” and so forth), but slow to acknowledge the abundant examples of faith being harnessed to advance the causes of liberty, justice, and equality. Genuine faith entails a love of life and peace with death. Hence the soft-spoken Christian woman who casually purchases a one-way ticket to a leper colony.

Of course, none of this is to say that nonbelievers can’t also act heroically (or that Christians will always act heroically). What it does show is that Christianity, by its very nature, lends itself to heroism.

And speaking of heroism, happy Independence Day!