The Good, The Bad, and The Noble Conceptions of God: Understanding How Religion Can Affect Understandings of Altruism

by Mahendra Prasad3 min read24th Sep 20213 comments

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ReligionEffective altruism educationOther moral theoriesMoral philosophy
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Effective Altruism seeks to promote altruism regardless of religious identity. That said, it is important to be aware that as of 2020, approximately five-sixths of the world population is religious. For many people, their conception of altruism is highly tied into their religion. Even if you are non-religious, better understanding conceptions of God will help you better understand and work with others. 

                A few disclaimers before we proceed. First, this is not a survey of God, but a survey of how people conceive of God. Second, this is not a comprehensive survey of conceptions of God, Gods, or Goddesses; only a discussion of a few. Finally, this is a rudimentary summary meant for the pedagogical purposes of an intro to effective altruism course at UC Berkeley, and should not be overgeneralized beyond use as a heuristic for effective altruists to better understand common moral perspectives.   

 

The Good

                This is the belief that there exists some entity (or entities who collectively) are all powerful and all good. Most religious people, and even some who are in positions of political/economic/social power, at some level truly believe in this concept of God, though as we will mention, there are those who proclaim to have this view, but in fact don’t. This is not to deny that many religious people doubt this belief at times. One of Leibniz’s most important works focused on this doubt, the theodicy problem, of how there could exist evil in this world if God is all good and all powerful.  

 

The Bad

                Probably, the most famous proponent of the “bad” conception of God is Karl Marx who said “Religion is the opium of the masses”.  In this view, God is a fiction created by elites to make the masses behave in a manner that benefits the elites at the expense of the masses. For example, elites might put forth religious edicts saying things to the effect of “if you behave in manners that do not challenge elite superior power and resources, then you will be rewarded with eternal bliss in the afterlife.” Typically, elites who take this view will publicly express belief in God, but will privately understand God as a tool to manipulate the masses.

 

The Noble

                Plato argued that getting masses to do what was necessary for the good of the masses required telling the masses a lie, a noble lie. Speaking of noble lies generally, beyond just Plato's context, presumably the lie is noble because it is used to convince masses to do things they would not otherwise do, but are presumably in the interest of those masses. Ostensibly, elites lie to the masses saying there is a God that rewards and punishes individuals based on how well the individual acts in accordance with religious rules. Publicly, elites claim God is real but in private understand this is a lie.

                In the 20th century, some game theorists have argued that God and religion is a means of overcoming collective action problems, such as the tragedy of the commons. Anthropologists have put forth the moralizing gods hypothesis that contends that once societies grew into multiethnic groups, the only multiethnic groups which could survive the pressures of collective action problems were societies that adopted the belief of moralizing gods that omnisciently observed and punished bad social behavior and rewarded good social behavior. With these multiethnic religious societies being larger than single ethnic societies, they were able to overrun the single ethnic societies unless they also adopted belief of moralizing gods. Thus, some anthropologists argue that there is evolutionary pressure for the prevalence of religion as virtually every documented society has some form of religions or ideologies.

 

Question

Suppose you encounter a person with a good/bad/noble conception of God. For a person with each type of conception of God, how would you try to convince them to take an action that promotes altruism?  

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For someone with a good conception of God, I would try to find a message from the God that promotes altruistic action. For those with a bad conception of God, I would try to persuade ways in which altruistic behavior would benefit the masses, not just the elites. Lastly, the person with a noble conception of God would be confronted about a noble truth that benefits the masses.

To a person who uses religion to manipulate people or a person into behaving a certain way (i.e. a person with a bad conception of God), I'd probably try to first understand how they understand altruism. Then, I'd ask how they came to accept their particular conception of altruism. Afterward, I'd ask them if a better conception of altruism exists than the one they hold and, if so, would they choose to act according to the better conception. If they express they would not, then I'd ask why not and continue the conversation with the aim of convincing them that selflessly serving people is a better conception of altruism than their original view and this new view actually benefits them too, so they should follow it. I'm assuming this person wants to personally benefit from their altruistic acts based on their previous experiences with manipulating people to achieve a certain result. 

For someone with a good conception of God, I do not really think you would need to convince them to take any action that promotes altruism. Perhaps you would have to remind them that altruistic acts are in line with what God desires because God is good. Actualizing what God desires, therefore, promotes goodness. So it would follow to do altruistic things. 

For someone with a bad conception of God, the best way to demonstrate that an altruistic act is worth doing is to prove to them that it is truly altruistic. As long as the act does not specifically benefit solely the group in power then they should be on board.

Much like the person with the good conception of God, I think that the person with the noble sense of God is already altruistic. The noble God is a lie told to benefit everyone, by establishing an agreed-upon story. Convincing them to do another altruistic act would appear to be on board with their previously established mission which is to benefit the people.