So faith, hope and love abide, these three.
But the greatest of these is love. -- I Corinthians 13: 13
"Nature red in tooth and claw." Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote that in the mid 1800s, when Britain was conquering India and man-eating tigers were killing colonists. He wrote that not because he believed it to be the final word on how our universe works, but in contradistinction to the law of Christian love. It was Christian love which prompted zealous Christian missionaries to follow British soldiers and tax assessors down to the dark continent and set up leper colonies, hospitals, schools, and, yes, churches to the benighted peoples.
It is only in hindsight we see that Hinduism is actually a benign religion. It may not be good from a western view, in the sense that it tolerates the caste system, but the good side of the religion is its amazing flexibility, especially its accommodation of western technology and medical practices.
So Christians came with the best of intentions, bringing with them medical missionaries who healed people and gave them hope. Christianity thought Hinduism caused poverty, malnourishment, the caste system, lack of education and technology, but it did nothing of the sort. My understanding of Indian history and Hinduism is that at worst it induced a tolerance of the human condition. The complacency of rulers and of the population created a stoicism to these things. The people were taught the fatalism of Alexander Pope who wrote, "whatever is, is right."
As an atheist who grew up in the Christian tradition, my feelings toward religion see-saw. History is replete with killings in the name of God. Many religions do not tolerate science and technology, competing as they do for God's mindshare. The smallpox vaccine, an attenuated version of cowpox, was decried by Christian pastors who said from their pulpits that life and death, health and sickness was only God's provenance, not man's. The efficacy of medicine and science was undeniable, however, and religion, retreating from its stubbornness, made accommodations for the new reality.
Intelligent design is just the latest line in the sand. Christian intellectuals are necessarily worried that complete acceptance of the theory of evolution will permit believers to question whether God took a role in the creation of life on earth.
The see-saw swings both ways, however. On days like today, the fourth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings, and the crashes of two other aircraft which hit the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm, respectively.
I am utterly convinced of the explanatory power of science. I am even convinced that human behaviors are caused by routine biochemical things like neuron behavior. But this isn't true science until theories are developed and fully and rigorously tested. We're beginning, but we're far from there yet. This idea provides cold comfort.
In the meantime, what sustains me is an irrational love for poetry and for basic tenets of religion, like unconditional agape love. I do not know why the pleasure centers of my brain enjoy a good poem, nor do I know why, when I stand within an I.M Pei building, like the National Gallery of Art's East Wing in Washington, D.C., do I feel a serenity that rivals that of the most majestic cathedrals of Europe. These feelings of transcendence are very personal, however, and there is something too selfish about enjoying them that prevents me from a fully realized happiness.
Love, however, is such an emotion. Love for others causes behavioral changes that are greater than the sum of their parts. When we love, it is more than just you and I. Love causes us to do irrational, stupid, hopeless things that decrease our personal survival utility function. Love causes us to practice medicine in Africa, where horrendous diseases catalyze and mutate faster than our medicines can adapt. Love causes us to open up our homes and share our shelter with people who have nothing. Love causes us to deny ourselves and think of other people before us.
Love is patient and kind.
Love is not jealous or boastful.
It is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way.
It is not irritable or resentful.
It does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. -- I Corinthians 13: 4-8
Altruism is not rational. Altruistic behavior, from a game theoretic point of view, does not cause winning outcomes except in barely metastable situations. Love cannot be codified. Love is not amenable to mathematical analysis. I cannot explain it. But it's a good thing.