Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Defense of Lemmings

This article, by Ashley Sanchez in response to Sir Elton John, comes from (of all places!) The Austin American Spaceman Statesman. That is rather like finding a story on “Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, General and Hero” in Al Jazeera.

A defense of lemmings is required. Sir Elton John's words, reprinted in the American-Statesman on Nov. 12, were still fresh in my mind as I sat in the church pew: "Organized religion doesn't seem to work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings, and it's not really compassionate."

The Gospel reading that day was about the widow who gave her last two coins to charity. The priest reminded us to follow her example, and then he turned the pulpit over to two missionaries.

Those two lemmings have followed Christ right into poor villages in Guatemala and Mexico. They have built schools and clinics and fed the hungry.

"Not really compassionate?" The missionaries asked for our help, explaining that $500 (likely a fraction of the entertainer's lavish weekly budget) will provide a village family clean drinking water from a rainwater collection system installed at their home.

Not really compassionate? I suspect that many lemmings in the congregation that day followed Christ right into sacrificial giving, knowing that even if they can afford to give only $20, when 25 others do likewise, they will be giving water to the thirsty.

Not really compassionate? The empirical data prove otherwise. A report from the Independent Sector titled "Faith and Philanthropy: The Connection Between Charitable Behavior and Giving to Religion" found that in 2000, people who supported only secular charities donated an average of $623 annually, whereas those supporting only religious congregations gave $1,154. The most generous givers, however, were those who supported religious congregations as well as secular charities, averaging $2,247 in donations. Indeed, "over 87 percent of all giving comes from households that give to religion."

Similarly, religion provides powerful motivation to volunteer not just at church, but in the community as well. The same report found, "The small group of people (8.6 percent of the population) who volunteer to both congregations and secular organizations accounts for over 30 percent of all volunteering hours."

Not really compassionate? Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Christian lemmings can proudly recite their forebears' accomplishments that have made the world a better place - algebra, architecture, passive-resistance and impressive scholarship.

Lemmings are followers of their deity, but they are also leaders - fighting ignorance (churches and monasteries offered some of the only safe havens for scientific knowledge during the Dark Ages), slavery and racial oppression.

Yet for all the good that has come from these faiths, the Inquisition and Sept. 11 are evidence that religion and its followers aren't immune from evil.

Therefore, could banning religion (a move urged by Elton John) rid the world of horror? Not according to the evidence. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was responsible for a death toll estimated in tens of millions. Stalin's atrocities and those of Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot occurred in regimes in which religion was officially repressed and atheism was promoted.

So why, pray tell, are some celebrities and intellectuals committed to attacking religion and trying to prove it false?

Part of the answer lies in their belief in their Supreme Self: I consult only myself and believe only I know what's right for me.

Yet their hypocrisy betrays them.

What they really seem to say is "Religion is wrong not just for me, but for everyone else, too."

When they seek to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, we must oppose their narrow-minded judgment and appeal for tolerance (that is especially true at this time of year when the word "Christmas" or the sight of a crèche causes some folks to call for an inquisition).

Which is scarier - people claiming to know truth because they consulted themselves, or those who seek truth from religions that have grappled with the thorniest questions of morality and life's meaning in conversations spanning millennia? Although we should properly debate religious teachings, it's not possible to do that with people who myopically see only religion's flaws.

Indeed, even when religious leaders explain their teachings in terms of natural law and science, those who disagree with them sometimes inaccurately accuse them of relying on blind faith.

Let's debate the individual issues without making preposterous claims that condemn all aspects of religion.

The evidence is irrefutable: In this country, lemmings who worship Allah, Yahweh and Christ are more likely to give time and money that make the world a better place.

That is compassionate.

A recent book by Arthur C. Brooks of Syracuse University, titled Who Really Cares illustrates empirically what Ms. Sanchez describes anecdotally. Religious conservatives in America are the ones who support charities, while secular liberals talk a lot more but actually give far less – in everything from money to volunteer hours, to blood donations. Speaking from a personal level, a lot of the secularists I’ve met see themselves as anointed heroes whose job is to tell the rest of us what to do. Most of the conservative Christians I know (I don’t know many members of other faiths at the same level) see themselves as rescued sinners, obligated to help rescue others.

By the way, how can the Brits place “Sir” Elton in the same bunch of people as, say, Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Isaac Newton? What’s next? Sir Benny Hill? Shame on them.

One minor correction to Ms. Sanchez’s article: the death toll of Communism was in 9 figures, not 8 figures. The uncounted dead of the bloody Twentieth Century were largely sacrificed on altars to atheism and personality cults.