I’ve just finished reading “On Rock or Sand?: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future”: a collection of essays by expert thinkers on the challenges facing Britain (and many other countries) and how we should be considering them: for example education, poverty, jobs, health, political disengagement, business. The essays were selected, and prefaced by Archbishop John Sentamu and carries a strong Christian message, sometimes more emphatically and sometimes less.
On the whole, I found the collection excellent, full of worthwhile perspective. I don’t agree with all the proposals, and I disagree even with some of the broader principles (in my opinion, education is a means to becoming a well-rounded person/citizen, and to contributing to the world – it isn’t an end in itself).
But my biggest criticism was one that I’m becoming increasingly sensitive to: the assumption by many Christians that only Christian beliefs lead to good moral judgements – that non-Christian beliefs only promote individualism, hedonism and selfishness. Some people, when pushed, will acknowledge that some non-Christians display selfless behaviour, but diagnose that as incoherent and a fortunate consequence of our society’s Christian foundations.
While I value the input of Christian thinkers on many social issues, Christianity is not the only basis for a loving, caring morality that works for the common good. And those that are so absorbed in their own faith that they can’t see any truth beyond their own perspective, shouldn’t be surprised when others ignore even their worthwhile input.
So, if seeking the common good doesn’t just come from the Bible, where does it come from? I think it is messy – identifying motivation is more complicated than most people think. I’ve identified a number of sources, but these aren’t independent, and in almost every case people’s reasons for seeking the common good will be somewhat subconscious and will combine a mix of these.
- Belief in God (and not just the Christian God) can make believers genuinely love others and want the best for them – perhaps recognising and appreciating the worth in others (ideally all others, though in some cases that love will be limited to a selected group – say other believers).
- In addition, belief in God can directly inspire people to act in a caring way towards others, not for the sake of the other person but for their God’s sake, or because it is what God commands.
- Individuals may recognise that it is rational from an economic perspective to care about others, and so cultivate a caring approach. We never know when helping others will be rewarded, or hurting them punished, so it is best to care and help. It may appear at first that this is overkill – that surely just appearing to care is sufficient. However, I’d argue that genuinely caring is often easier and safer than trying to care and risking getting caught.
- I also believe many people care, rationally, even when it is not economically rational, out of a knowledge that it makes them happier to develop relationships with others, or to feel themselves a caring person.
As well as these conscious motivations, it appears that most people will care for others subconsciously. Some would claim this tendency is God-given, but it is also possible to explain it on more scientific grounds: through parenting and evolution. For example, it isn’t difficult to conceive that those that care for others (and are seen to) may have an evolutionary advantage over others, but also that groups of caring, cooperative individuals would have an advantage over other groups.
I believe the world, and society, is massively better for all these reasons that people care for others, and taking a too-narrow definition of altruism weakens our society. Not only do Christians appear factually wrong in assuming their kind of caring is the only kind that counts, but they miss an opportunity to strengthen what should be acknowledged as a positive and near-universal force.