Is Religion a Prerequisite of Altruism?

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Over the past few years we have often heard conservative politicians speak of the decline of so-called “family values” in America, to the point that the very term has become cliché. In most cases this longing to return to family values is a thinly veiled reference to religion, specifically Christianity, and the belief that the United States of America was established upon the tenets of Christian dogma and has somehow fallen away from its beliefs. This apostasy has resulted, they reason, in virtually all of the bad things that happen in our world, from increases in violent crime to decreases in church attendance and revenues. If only America once again embraced its Christian roots, all would be well. At least that is what we are led to believe. This romantic notion is, of course, frivolous. But it does give rise to the question of whether religion is a prerequisite to altruism? Can people, as both individuals and societies, be inherently good without religion? The very notion of living life without the moral compass of religion is anathema to ardent believers in America. They are convinced that the motto, “In God We Trust”, printed on our currency is evidence of a mandate by the founding fathers to be religious, and if we ignore that mandate we will surely imperil our existence as a free nation. Ironically, it was George Washington himself who said in 1796, “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” On June 19, 2000 the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed in a 6-3 decision (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, 99-62) the importance of the separation of church and state, by prohibiting student led prayers at public school functions. Will this governmenta... ... middle of paper ... ...ith me in Paradise.” For the Hindu or Buddhist eternal life is slightly different. They believe that through reincarnation the spirit lives on to enter another being. This phenomenon repeats itself ad infinitum, and even allows the spirit to better itself in the process, if the believer is worthy. Not a bad enticement; eternal, ever-improving life for your soul. The theological common denominator always seems to be a promise of reward or a threat of punishment as the incentive or motivation for following a religion and being a good person. To me, altruism—an unselfish regard for the welfare of others—is its own reward because it truly makes you a better person, in this life, and the only reward is perhaps the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are doing what is right, kind, and human. No promise of Heaven. No threat of Hell. No religion necessary.

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