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Posts Tagged ‘selfishness’

Whenever there is a media debate about morality, social values, the culture wars, etc, it’s often assumed that the religious voice is a so-called ‘conservative’ one. But the recent Faithful Citizens report from the think-tank Demos presents evidence that people who belong to religious groups are instead more likely to take a left-of-centre position on a range of political issues. There are implications for Cameron’s Big Society too, as people of faith are more likely to volunteer and be politically engaged.

This is from the Demos website:

Religiosity has always been closely associated with conservatism: the Church of England is sometimes described as ‘the Conservative party at prayer’. In the United States, the Republican party and the religious right have become increasingly interdependent, but a similar trend has not occurred on this side of the Atlantic. This report, based on original analysis of the Citizenship Survey and the European Values Survey, investigates the different relationship between religion and politics in the UK and Europe.

The report presents two key findings. First, religious people are more active citizens – they volunteer more, donate more to charity and are more likely to campaign on political issues. Second, and more counter-intuitively, religious people are more likely to be politically progressive. They put a greater value on equality than the non-religious, are more likely to be welcoming of immigrants as neighbours and when asked are more likely to put themselves on the left of the political spectrum.

Based on this, Faithful Citizens recommends that progressive politicians should work with faith groups on issues which they are particularly engaged, including immigration, women’s rights, international development, the environment and youth work. Faith group members, the report argues, will be key to any future, election-winning, progressive coalition.

Jamie Doward writes:

The report found that 55% of people with faith placed themselves on the left of politics, compared with 40% who placed themselves on the right. The report also suggests that people with faith are more likely to value equality over freedom than their non-religious counterparts. It discloses that 41% of people with religious views prioritise equality over freedom, compared with 36% of those without faith.

The report, based on an analysis of the European Values Study, also finds evidence that people who belong to a religious organisation are more likely to say they are very interested in politics, to have signed a petition and to have participated in a demonstration.

The psychologist Oliver James got the debate going by suggesting that religious people are less likely to be left-wing than others, but this doesn’t seem to follow.

The writer and philosopher Alain de Botton – whose latest book, Religion for Atheists, examines the consolations of faith for those who do not believe – argues that the internal dynamics of religions often confer progressive views on their followers, who find themselves at odds with today’s free-market society.

“The progressive side of religion springs from their frequent reminders to live for others and to concentrate more on the wellbeing of the group than on the happiness of the individual,” de Botton said. “In this sense, religions run counter to the implicit philosophy of modern consumer capitalism.”

I haven’t read the de Botton book. He seems to be saying, putting it more simply, that religious people are on the whole less selfish than non-religious people, and that less selfish people are more likely to be progressive/left-leaning/anti-capitalist. Do you agree?  I’m sure there are one or two non-religious people, and one or two conservative/right-leaning/pro-capitalist people, who would like to take issue with these assumptions.

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Following on from my previous post about how to prise a few pennies from my friends for good causes, Jonathan Ruffer writes here about the joy of giving.

[Last year Jonathan Ruffer paid £15 million to save 12 paintings by Francisco Zurbaran in Bishop Auckland castle. He plans to spend a further £18 million turning the castle into a centre re-telling the history of Christianity in the Northeast.]

Not many of us will have the problem of what to do with a great amount of wealth; but his thoughts about how to free oneself from the ‘burden’ of riches are a healthy challenge to any of us who have any savings stashed away for a rainy day.

The great calling to mankind is that we love one another, and it is in giving that we find its clearest expression. It is more blessed to give than to receive — and the reason is that ‘where your treasure is, there is your heart also’. We have the capacity to love — to have treasure — but we can’t be trusted to treasure the right thing. Personal giving releases our grasp on material things, and gives us compassion for people, and they become our treasure.

What does this mean in practice? There are only three things we can do with money — spend it, save it or give it away. For the rich, saving is more dangerous than the emptiness of spending: big money not only defines a person, it shackles him. We are not designed as creatures to store our wealth, or for that matter, our food. They are there to pass through, and if there is a blockage, the goodness turns to poison. Currency is a Miltonic word from the Latin, currere, to flow. So don’t hoard it — give it away!

And this has to be done by example. It’s no good a poor man telling a rich man to change his behaviour — he cannot match his words with actions. So it has to be the rich — the very rich — who must state this blindingly obvious truth if it is to have any force. But the words have no meaning without the action; it is the rich who have to give it away. And if their wealth is fabulous, that probably means most of it.

This sounds as much fun as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or a Methodist sermon, but, believe me, it is the most wonderfully releasing thing — life as a colour film after black and white: life in all its abundance. If this sounds strange, it is worth remembering that wealth has all the character of a bully: whack it away, and it turns out to be a very insipid adversary. I know that at first hand! There is no sacrifice in it at all. I once asked one of the great northern wealth-creators why so few people followed his example of beneficence. His answer, with cheesy grin, was that people had no idea what fun it was. Saying boo to the bully is a great freedom, and keeps the money circulating.

In today’s world, a lot of good can come from this. One rich man giving it away has all the feel of a futile act, but it’s not. The demonstration of a truth always has power; moreover, it can show others the way. It is lack of imagination, not meanness, which shackles the common-or-garden multi-millionaire. Show a better way, and a trickle, perhaps a flood of givers will emerge, blinking from the dungeon darkness.

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Sometimes you hear this argument: Generosity, altruism, and self-giving are really just different forms of selfishness. Even if we are being truly generous, and making a real sacrifice in order to help someone else, the underlying motive will be one of the self-interest. Not because we are sly or manipulative, but simply because we are programmed to do what is ultimately in our best interests. This might include a degree of altruism, of caring for our family or friends, of going out of our way to help others. But deep down we are always thinking about what we will gain — even if that gain is the satisfaction of knowing that we are a noble person, or the pleasure of seeing other people given help.

There is some truth in this. It’s good to acknowledge that even when we do something for others, even when we are acting in a completely selfless manner, there is still an element of ‘myself’ involved. I am still choosing, freely, to do this deed. I am deciding, in some sense, that it is important to me, that I value what I’m doing. I can’t say ‘I don’t care about this’. The very fact that I want to give myself generously shows that I have an interest in giving myself — it matters to me. To this extent, there is no such thing as pure altruism. Put it another way: If I love someone, even by giving up everything for them, it is still because I love them. And if I choose to care for someone I do not love, it is still because I want to care for them.

But it’s not quite true to say that all self-giving is simply another form of selfishness — because it blurs some of the distinctions that we rightly make in ordinary life; distinctions that are crucial in moral thinking and in the choices we make about how to live. We come face to face with moments when we are called to be more generous than we have been, to put others first, to make a sacrifice that costs us some time or energy or personal satisfaction. Now and then we face a fork in the road, and we have to choose between selfishness or self-giving. We know they are not the same.

Yes, the self-giving needs to be a personal choice, it needs to be something I make a commitment to. In this sense it is still part of my own search for meaning and fulfilment. But it is nevertheless a kind of meaning and fulfilment radically different from the selfishness that seeks happiness locked up in one’s own introverted satisfactions. There is a selfishness which limits me and traps me; and there is another kind of self-concern that allows me to go beyond myself, that opens me up to others, and takes me beyond myself.

mother theresa kickin ass by messtiza.

I mention all this because yesterday evening I was in Kilburn with the Missionaries of Charity, the Sisters of Mother Theresa. During Mass in their convent chapel, three of the sisters renewed their religious vows. As well as taking the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Missionaries of Charity take an additional fourth vow. It goes something like this (I’m writing from memory): ‘I promise to give myself in wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor’.

What promise to make! A promise to make of one’s life a pure gift, to give oneself completely to those in most need, to those who will probably be unable to pay anything back. A promise to live for others in love. Of course, this has a religious meaning — it’s to do with knowing the love of Christ, and wanting to share that love with others. But even on a purely human or ‘philosophical’ level, it is a wonderful example of how self-giving is possible for the human person. Not a generosity that denies our own needs, but one which allows us to find a deeper kind of fulfilment in giving our lives joyfully for others. It’s a model not just for religious sisters, but for all of us.

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