The Pew Research Center recently released data on the differences between religious and non-religious people when it comes to everyday life activities. One of the findings I find very interesting is the answer to the question “In the past week, did you donate money, time or goods to help the poor.” 65% of highly religious people, 41% not highly religious people, 34% of the “nothing in particular” group and 28 percent of Atheists answered yes. It seems to be that the more religious one is the more likely one is to spend time, money or goods helping the poor.
I think there are at least two explanations for this, one is sociological and the other theological. The sociological one is hinted at in the definition of “highly religious.” the poll defined “highly religious” as those who say the pray daily and attend religious services at least once a week. This tells us that individuals, who normally wouldn’t spend time together, are meeting, perhaps from different social and class backgrounds, at least once a week. It also tells us that they are meeting for a completely non-utilitarian, non-economic purpose; they are meeting to worship, to participate in a shared appreciation of religious learning, communion and praise. This is extremely important; much of modern interaction is economic and utilitarian, buying and selling, working for a salary, or interacting on the basis of some economic contract.
The logic of market interactions is that of inherent and assumed self-interest, and mutual exploitation. Each individual is assumed (in an economic relationship) to be trying to get the most while giving the least (at least in the liberal concept of the homo-economicus). Each relationship in the economic sphere is temporary and only for a specific purpose, economic exchange, and contract, which is designed in a way to ensure the independence, and self-interest of each participant. There is no room for compassion in that kind of relationship, since the very nature of a market exchange is assumed to be potentially exploitative and self-interested. There is no higher cause, other than profit and self-interest.
Church association doesn’t follow that logic, it’s a space where (at least in the Christian tradition) economic self-interested relationship is not expected, rather the opposite is expected. People are tied together for a non-utilitarian purpose, worship, in which each individual is put in a humbled position, and (in the Christian tradition at least) considered to be dependant, not independent. Those from different classes spend time together, not as employers and employees trying to maximize profit or wages, not as buyers and sellers trying to get the most while giving the least, but rather as fellow worshipers of God.
Having a tiny break from economic relationships that dominate Capitalist societies once a week in Church, by itself would explain why highly religious people show more compassion and help the needy more than non-religious people. But the nature of the worship of the dominant religion in the United States, Christianity, explains the difference further. In the Abrahamic faiths, unlike others, fellow worshipers are not “clients” of a Temple, or a religious teacher, rather they are members of a community, often talked about in familial terms. This is not only people spending time together, but also spending time together in the context of being tied to each other as equals in a community of faith. Worship, at least in the Christian faith, is often about praise and thankfulness for grace and mercy of God. By its very nature, this kind of worship would enforce the ideas of grace, mercy and compassion from God, which might manifest itself in other areas of life.
In the modern Capitalist world, there are very few spaces for community left. Political communities are by definition about power, and thus often lead to the community being reduced to mere tactical alliances rather than a true community. Market interactions, almost by definition, cannot become communities based on the exploitative nature and the self-interest and profit motive inherent in them. Communities based on a common struggle only exist as long as that struggle exists, in a sense it dies if it wins. Communities based on culture and neighbourhood do exist, but depend on cultural hegemony and neighbourhood solidarity, these things are becoming increasingly fragile in todays globalized world. So what’s left? I would say the “ecclesia” is one of the last bastions of true community.
It’s a community not based on mutual interest, other than spiritual interests, it’s not based on maximizing self-interest, and in fact, self-interest is discouraged. In Christianity at least, culture, language and other categories are transcended, the bases for community is not dependant on those things. The community is not utilitarian, its’ transcendental. The community is tied together by a transcendental authority, God, scripture, doctrine, faith and so on, not a political program or a common struggle.
When you have this kind of community, then you have the space to be truly compassionate and build solidarity.
Of course, there are atheists who hold moral positions that put importance on compassion and solidarity, however, what those atheists lack is a higher authority holding them together in a community where those principles have a space to manifest. What Atheists also lack is the theology.
The fact that Pelagianism died out, one cannot “work” ones way to salvation, is a theological concept we need to look at here. It’s not that Christians want to be compassionate and build solidarity in order to get to heaven, if it was that we would have an economic exchange on our hands, I do such and such, God gets me to heaven, in that case all one would have to do is the least amount necessary. Almost no Christian tradition follows that soteriology. Rather it’s as Max Weber puts it in “The protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”:
The religious believer can make himself sure of his state of grace either in that he feels himself to be the vessel of the Holy Spirit or the tool of the divine will.
Max Webber was speaking of Calvinism here, but the logic applies to all Christianity. All Christian ethics follow a similar logic, i.e. Christs gave the free gift of his human life for our sins in order that they may be freely forgiven, without any merit from us, and thus we are to serve God and to freely forgive and sacrifice for each other. The fact that one can never merit salvation means there is almost more pressure to imitate the compassion and grace of God. Slavoj Zizek illustrates it well in his lecture “The Superego and the Act”:
“Let’s say that you are a small child and one Sunday afternoon you have to do the boring duty of visiting your old senile grandmother. If you have a good old–fashioned authoritarian father, what will he tell you? ‘I don’t care how you feel, just go there and behave properly. Do your duty.’ A modern permissive totalitarian father will tell you something else: ‘You know how much your grandmother would love to see you. But do go and visit her only if you really want to.’ Now every idiot knows the catch. Beneath the appearance of this free choice, there is an even more oppressive order. You seem to have a choice, but there is no choice, because the order is not only you must visit your grandmother, you must even enjoy it. If you don’t believe me, just try to say ‘I have a choice, I will not do it.’ I promise your father will say ‘What did your grandmother ever do to you? Don’t you know how much she loves you? How could you do this to her?
Apply the same logic to Christianity and it explains a lot. In the Pagan religions, God demanded to be appeased and then the client would get what he wanted, one gave exactly what was needed for appeasement, and that’s it. In Christianity one gets the salvation as a free gift, and then one is expected to show appreciation by good works, not that the appreciation gets you anything, but rather, it’s that if you don’t show appreciation, maybe it’s that you haven’t accepted salvation or are one of the elected (depending on your soteriology). Thus, there is the constant drive to show, to yourself, and to others, that you truly are appreciative of Christ and thus truly a saved Christian, among the ways to do that is showing compassion and solidarity to the poor.
The short of the matter is that community is important, theology matters, and Christianity and the rejection of it has real life social consequences.