Monday, July 16, 2012

Is belief in a higher power (such as God) required to motivate a person to do virtuous acts?

When I consider this question, my first response is that ethics do not require a person to believe in God or Gods or some transcendent source such as the Dao to motivate him or her to do virtuous acts. I say this because I know a few people who do not have any sort of belief in a God (that I know of) but they still seem to want to do ‘good things’ like help others out or donate money to charity. However, I do know that for two of these friends in particular, I have had conversations with them about what I believe and what they believe, and it seems like they both have what could be described as agnostic beliefs. They both feel like there is some sort of higher power, but there is no definite ‘being’ that they believe in. I am not sure if this belief motivates them to do these good deeds, or if it is simply because society looks positively upon such acts. I have also met someone who claims to be entirely atheist, having no belief in any God or Gods, but who still attends church mission trips because he likes the atmosphere (or something like that). In my brief conversations with him, he talked about how he feels like love is a good thing and likes to be in places and with people where love is common, but he doesn’t want anything to do with religion or belief in any sort of higher power. Again, I am not sure if he simply has some doubts about the non-existence of God or if he is absolutely sure about it and simply wants to help others, or extend some sort of love to other people. Personally, I feel like there is no reason to want to help others if you do not have any belief in God, Gods, or any higher power (and therefore any sort of judgment/accountability for your actions or an afterlife of some kind). To live as if there is no higher power or reason to act in a moral manner is to live as evolution teaches us to live: survival of the fittest. If the only benefit for being nice is to possibly make a friend and have that advantage in life, it does not help a person be more reproductively successful, which is the end goal of life (according to the idea of natural selection, as I understand it). If we are simply ‘meat computers’ (as I have heard it said) and nothing more, then our actions cease to matter after we have died. You can make the argument that doing something ‘big’ will change the course of human history, but every scientist (again, that I know of) agrees that the earth will not last forever, and after the sun expands and destroys this planet, what will be left of our lives? I feel that in a view that does not include God (or any higher power or afterlife), our lives are entirely meaningless. So, to follow that stream of thought would lead to the conclusion that you do need to believe in some sort of God, Gods, or higher power/moral order to be motivated to do virtuous acts. However, as I stated above, I have friends who do not express any belief in God or a higher power, yet still feel motivated to do good works. So either my logic is flawed at some point, or my friends have beliefs that I do not see. Either case seems equally likely in my opinion.