Sunday, 20 March 2011

Fukushima altruism Dawkins and common grace

In a recent article in the Independent Johann Hari described the extraordinary tendency of men and women to behave selflessly in a crisis.
The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organise spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. When the social scientist Enrico Quarantelli tried to write a thesis on how people descend into chaos and panic after disasters, he concluded: "My God! I can't find any instances of it." On the contrary, he wrote, in disasters "the social order does not break down... Co-operative rather than selfish behaviour predominates". The Blitz Spirit wasn't unique to London: it is universal.
Rather unsatisfactorily he goes on to explain this behaviour (with inspiration I suspect) from the arch- atheist Richard Dawkins,
We now know that 60,000 years ago, the entire human race was reduced to a single tribe of 2,000 human beings wandering the savannahs of Africa. That was it. That was us. If they – our ancestors – didn't have a strong impulse to look out for each other in a crisis, you wouldn't be reading this now.

Or as Dawkins put it in The Blind Watchmaker
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.
 In this view, gene survival and not God is the ultimate source of our moral instincts. But can such behaviour be so simplistically explained. Are we just programmed to behave in this way?

Many writers have challenged this mechanistic view of human behaviour. As David Robertson points out in his helping Dawkins Letters 
What ever happened to free will? If my will is not free then you cannot blame me if I only do what I am genetically programmed to do. What would you say to a rapist who used that argument? On the other hand if I am free and responsible for what I do then I cannot be genetically programmed. I do not doubt that there are genetic factors in all aspects of human behaviour but I cannot believe that every human being and their actions are governed by such determinism. A crucial part of being human is having the ability to choose.
Anyway back to altruism. Although Christian teaching is clear that all of mankind is inherently sinful (with a bias away from God), and in need of the saving act of God, I think that altruism can be thought of as an echo of an original goodness, which is now so sadly spoiled but not totally ruined. I believe it is an example of God's 'common grace'. You may not be familiar with this concept, but take a listen to an interview with Charles Colson and his explanation of the sheer kindness of God to all mankind-whether Christian believer or not.
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