Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Give Till It Hurts

The narrative that human beings are inherently selfish creatures, who require a certain amount of outside pressure to engage in actions that might be considered "altruistic" is an old one. But I've always wondered about it. The apparent default assumption, that charity and giving are religiously motivated is not unreasonable. Judaism and its descendents all have a certain focus on charity, and they are often quite vocal and/or visible in carrying out that work, as well as their religious affiliation.

I, conversely, am neither. My girlfriend and I had been dating for a number of years before she learned where I would occasionally disappear to on Sunday mornings. And when asked "What church group are you with?" I will answer, "I'm not with one," but I don't volunteer that I'm not religious.

Part of it is that I'm not a member of an organization that expects me to be charitable. Accordingly, since I'm not fulfilling an obligation, there is no reason for anyone to know what I'm doing or why I'm doing it. I don't need the recognition, and I have no use for it, so why advertise? Another part of it is that while I don't feel a need to actively hide the fact that I am an unbeliever, I have never really outgrown an unwillingness to volunteer the same in person, especially with strangers.

So I understand why Joe Klein, when he "stepped outside the line of his narrative" felt comfortable remarking: "funny how you don't see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals..." (Although, for the record, I'm not a secular humanist, either.) I don't see what point there would be in secular humanists drawing attention to their charity work or their secularism, except as a rebuttal of the idea that their lack of religiosity also translates into a lack of charity. (Which, honestly, I doubt would work in any event.)

Of course, the real point is much broader, as being charitable is really only a facet in a larger discussion. While Katherine Stewart's article in The Atlantic concerns itself with "the agendas and assumptions behind the idea that secularists aren't committed to relief efforts," the actual question being debated seems to be more are secularists invested in any of the commitments that we often perceive hold society together. Whether the concern is that the secular have simply exempted themselves from certain religiously-based obligations in the service of being free riders or that they are active (if perhaps unwitting) servants of a divine Adversary, the question of how much active religiosity is required to honestly be an American is still an open question.

And as long as we generally recognize a set of civic virtues that we expect people to adhere to (regardless of their necessity) and understand ourselves to be in danger of shortfall or poverty, people will search for reasons to declare that one group or another is lacking in said virtues, and thus is ineligible for the full panoply of rights, privileges and/or assistance that are due to "full citizens." The United States has never been as unified as we often imagine it to be, we tend to cover up the fault lines, even as we also try to trigger them.

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