Naturalists will often try to “explain away” religion by reducing it to a more advanced form of the altruism also found amongst animals. They argue that groups of people who worked together instead of only existing in a state of ruthless competition were more likely to survive, and so passed on the genes and cultural practices, transforming humanity from selfish cavemen to charitable gentlemen. This seems logical, and from experience we know that we cannot only rely on ourselves if we are to survive. And we do indeed see animals help one another: penguins huddle together to keep warm and take turns being on the outside of the huddle, gorillas groom each other, and many mammals care for their young with what appears to be almost human intimacy. It appears that religion is simply a natural phenomenon if religion is essentially altruism.
However, religion in general is not simply a more advanced form of altruism, including Christianity, despite its focus on serving the poor and loving one’s neighbor. At the root of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the idea that one must trust in God, and “submit” to him, as the word “Islam” literally means. Without a God who transcends nature, the Church is simply a large charity organization that is good only insofar as it distributes resources efficiently and effectively.
However, the point of religion is not to have a well-run society: although that may be a byproduct of the larger endeavor, the point of religious practice is to worship God in a community. This is why the Bible is not simply an instruction manual, but a series of accounts of faith. Jesus wants his disciples to understand the nature of faith beyond the Mosaic Law. He tells them “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:25-27).
Jesus asks us to trust God, to actively use faith instead of planning for the future and trying to control every aspect of our existence. This is exactly the opposite sentiment from that which the utilitarian would support. It simply does not lay the groundwork for a well-run society, it is not practical advice that would help a group of people survive long enough to pass on their genes and customs, and yet Christianity is one of the largest and most widespread religions in the world. To not worry about the future is to ignore our natural instincts and anxieties and to trust completely in God’s plan.
Even though Jesus gives animals as an example of creatures that also don’t worry about the future, many animals, birds included, do indeed plan for the future. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, since animals that are adept at storing food for the winter or building nests would have a better chance at surviving. The point, of course, is that animals seem to live rather carefree lives as compared to people in Jesus’ time who farmed and stored food, and compared to contemporary people who spend most of their time worrying about building an impressive resumé and making money. This lifestyle is diametrically opposed to Jesus’ and his disciples’. They refused permanent home, choosing to travel and live off of the kindness of strangers. If a bear were to forgo storing up food for the winter and expected other bears to come to aid during hibernation he would be sorely disappointed.
Religion without faith may indeed simply be altruism, and the Catholic Church a successful experiment in wealth redistribution, and has been very helpful to society. But religion is more than this, and is sometimes quite impractical or inconvenient from a modern standpoint.