Monthly Archives: May 2013

Religion Does Not Equal Compassion

Religion Does Not Equal Compassion

I have long found it interesting that religion attests so strongly to being compassionate, but needs a supernatural overseer to motivate its followers to do so. The more sensical path to generosity seems to be raw compassion and concern for one’s fellow human creatures, independent of the impression one will make on a supernatural god. Not only does this seem more practical, but also more honorable and truthful. 

So I was excited to find a study in which researchers at UC Berkeley conducted a series of experiments over a period of several years, and found that unreligious people tend to derive their compassion more from actual emotion and concern for someone who is suffering than do religious people, whose generosity is rooted more in “doctrine, communal identity, or reputational concerns.” 

In other words, nonreligious people tend to adhere to the suffering of others based on the very simple emotion of compassion and the concept of altruism. In contrast, the religious tend to to help their brothers and sisters more to impress the overlooking father figure that hovers invisibly in Heaven. 

It’s up to you to decide which is the more dignified, honorable source of generosity, but to me, the answer is clear. Why must our kindness and unselfishness be polluted with doctrine that demands obedience to an omnipotent dictator? It doesn’t. And while it is true that religion has inspired many good deeds, imagine if we stripped those deeds of the name of God and left them to stand on their own. Perhaps – no, not perhaps – undoubtedly, a staggering amount of violence would have been prevented. 

Christopher Hitchens said, “Either our convictions are enough in themselves, or they are not.” No supernatural attachment to these convictions is needed. And as this study from UC Berkeley reveals, true compassion is in fact more prevalent when we are free to connect with our fellow human beings, independent of the burden of pleasing an onlooking Big Brother. 


The Illusion of Freedom in America

Embedded in American society and ingrained in the minds of almost every American is the concept of Capitalism. The Communist paranoia of the 20th century may have passed, but don’t even consider bringing up Socialist ideas in conversation to someone in America. It’s one of our strongest cultural taboos.

And perhaps we’re right to dichotomize ourselves from the ideology of Karl Marx. It has failed every time it’s been attempted in a large-scale setting. It’s been marked by oppressive regimes and pervasively low standards of living. And after all, America prides itself on cherishing the values of choice, competition, and of course, freedom.

But what is freedom if a huge portion of the population don’t have the resources to use it? America is still struggling to regain its balance amidst the greatest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. 20% of children and 50 million people overall are living in poverty in the U.S., the most since 1960. The unemployment rate has not encountered the dip we’ve been hoping for for so long, and about half of all college graduates are working jobs that do not require a Bachelor’s Degree; 38% work jobs that don’t even require a high school diploma. One can imagine the minimal amount of graduates that are employed in an occupation that actually pertains to the degrees they spend thousands of dollars to earn.

And while the OCCUPY movement put the 99% in the spotlight for a while, the wealth continues to be hoarded by the 1% of mega-rich corporate executives, feeding off the toiled labor of the workforce.

Many have concocted their own diverse explanations of why this is happening and how it can be stopped. But the fact is, in Capitalism, these low points are to be expected. The cyclical nature of the forces at work render a system built upon perpetual inconsistency. One central feature of Capitalist economies is overproduction. Technology improves, making labor more efficient, and intense competition pushes companies to outproduce their competitors. This creates more supply than there is demand for. As a result, people lose work, consumers start spending money they don’t have, and banks dish out loans that don’t get paid back. Such patterns are inherent within the system and render it continuously insecure.

So what’s the remedy? Will the economy bounce back on its own? It might. There are so many potential variables in Capitalism that if a few happen go in our favor, a certain level of prosperity could be restored. But will that fix the long term issue? Must we simply live with the notion that the ebbs and flows of our system are inevitable? Or is it perhaps time for some significant, foundational changes to the socio-economic system we have all grown so accustomed to?

If you asked this question to a politician from either major party, they would probably brush off the idea of some sort of social revolution as absurd. But is this because it really is absurd? Or do the same corporations that are hogging that 1% also have their hand fully immersed in the political system? The presidential debates only ever include candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties. We barely ever see advertisements from any of the third party candidates. Television media only seems to cover third party candidates when they’re getting arrested. Is this because Democrats and Republicans harbor the only ideologies worth talking about? Or is it perhaps because money buys exposure and the big corporations intend on keeping public opinion at bay by narrowing popular discourse and attitudes to include two seemingly rival parties that essentially represent the same beliefs? Hmm…

I think it’s time that we identify the people who are truly in power in America. Powerhouse corporations and billionaire corporate executives effectively dictate public discourse to fit their fancy, and by funding political campaigns, ads, debates, etc. for two dominant parties, they are able to mute the voices that dare to challenge them. By funneling their excessive wealth into lobbying campaigns, they are able to influence public policy as well, and seduce politicians into meeting their demands. And of course they’ll listen; who else is going to fund their next campaign come election year? Essentially, they are able to manipulate the system in order to maintain their status and power. And since there are no legal obstacles to restrict them, they are able to do it all behind the scenes and Americans fall victim to the illusion of faulty freedom.

If we want to reclaim the freedom that is the hallmark of American values, we must take greater strides to ensure the equal opportunity of all. Because the fact is, today, social mobility in the U.S. is basically unheard of. Just because it’s technically possible to go from rags to riches doesn’t mean it’s pragmatically plausible. If you’re born poor, you’re very likely going to stay poor for the rest of your life. So instead of pretending that we’re still the beacon of freedom that the world exemplifies, let’s rebuild the broken structure that Ronald Reagan and the rise of the new conservatism initiated, in which billionaires serve as corporate dictators and the workforce serves as “wage slaves,” in the words of Marx. In order to do this, we have to take a stand against the two-party dictatorship and demand the incorporation of third parties, such as the Green Party, the Justice Party, and the Libertarian Party, in order to represent the voices of people outside the top 1%. The Green Party is the only one that does not accept corporate donations, ensuring that their name will not be placed alongside that of corruption. We need to integrate these marginalized voices into popular culture in order to give fair representation to a wider scope of opinions. Only when money stops shaping public discourse can we get real change.

But what would that change look like? The Green Party, the longtime platform of consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, and most recently for the talented and intelligent physician Jill Stein, who represented them last year for the presidential election, proposed a radical plan to revolutionize the socio-economic system in the U.S. and to promote true justice and national prosperity. Their most notable reform would be to end the costly bailouts of Wall Street and big banks that President Obama has imposed, which has cost us trillions of dollars in his presidency alone. The prosperity of the financial giants of the country will not lead to the prosperity for all; it will merely perpetuate the insane wealth inequality that already inflicts us. Heavy restrictions to corporate funding of political activities would be essential to this plan, as well as the institutionalization of some public services that are vital to human life but currently are denied to millions because of the precariousness of the free market. Universal health care, employment programs, free education from pre-K through college, and widespread public housing projects would be prominent elements to this government intervention. Significant cuts to the military budget and withdrawal of troops worldwide would further contribute to the restoration of the economy, and provide the money needed to relieve all college debt – another one of the party’s promises. In short, the big money corporations would have their power heavily restrained, creating greater opportunities for the wider public and establishing a platform for national harmony.

Capitalism has its upsides. It can be a catalyst for creativity and, when controlled effectively, can promote healthy competition. But in current-day America, it has become a tool for the exploitation of the masses, which is demonstrated in every corner of American life, from a grade-driven, creativity-stifling education system, to a meager job market that builds the wealth and power of a select few. Socialism is not the answer – at least not yet. But if we want to experience real freedom, rather than the phony illusion propagandized by the government and ingrained in our culture, then a serious restructuring of the political and economic system is well overdue.

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