Atheism and Altruism

No predator ever survived by altruism.  No lioness has ever fed her cubs by taking the feelings of the wildebeest into account–never stopped to think, “She may be a mother, too.”

We’re predators, by evolution.  Our eyes are on the front of our faces and we can run long distances and throw things at whatever we can’t outrun. In some areas, we’ve become soft–our canines are almost useless for killing and serious tearing, but we’ve learned to chop and cook our food as a compromise.  Still, we’re predators.  We chase things that run, things that have brains, and we eat them.  I say this with all respect to my vegetarian friends.  And I fully agree, it’s nicer not to have to chase green beans and potatoes around the garden.  This is just the way things have evolved.  God did not make it this way.

Why that preface?  Because one of the things we have stopped doing is eating each other.  As far back as the time of Hobbes, social theorists reckoned that once upon a time when the food supply was short, we would settle for a member of the tribe across the river.  Hobbes called it, without any special reference to cannibalism, “the war of all against all.”

Freud believed that the primal horde was engaged in ritual people-eating from the start, beginning with sons feasting on the father as soon as the patriarch showed signs of loosening his grip on the clan.  Whether Freud (or any later theory) is right, we know that both early religion and early “social contracts” began as taboos against incest and cannibalism.  And we know that the persistence of these ancient customs in the sacrificial systems of early religion and the rationalized forms–in the Christian Eucharist, for example–eating the body and blood of the Lord–is an inadvertent and symbolic admission of the vile things we used to do out of habit and custom.  Every Catholic who takes the “Body of Christ” into his hands on Sunday is unwittingly confessing his cannibal past.

But unless we’re as far gone as Hannibal Lecter we are predators with a conscience.  Predators who suppress the instinct to kill, except in certain ritualized situations like war.  Even predators who ask questions like “Maybe she has children, too.” There is nothing especially Christian or religious about empathy or compassion.  There is something specifically human about it.

That’s why when I read a story this morning about the Texas senate passing legislation to permit the carrying of concealed weapons on college campuses–a right they’ll derive from the Second Amendment with salt from the First–my first thought was that Texas may be the first state to start the slow march of regression back to the primal horde.

Then I read another article in my inbox.  This one came from “Rational Public Radio,” the media organ of the Objectivist Ayn Rand Institute.

What is irritating about RPR is not its express atheism but what its distinctive form of atheism expresses.  For example after declaring that Christian morality is a slave ethic of subservience and empathy for others, the article proposes a better way:

Now, imagine a world where everyone is selfish. Each man wants to have the best life he can. He wants that in the long run, not just tomorrow. This would motivate everyone to be as productive and industrious as they could. They would go to school to learn valuable skills, they would invest and save for retirement. They wouldn’t violate the rights of anyone else, because they know it can only harm their own life in the long run. Such a world would ensure that everyone is working to maximize their own happiness. The overwhelming majority of them would get it too.  If life on this Earth is all we have, then improving and enjoying our own lives can be our only moral purpose. Without a supernatural god keeping score, man must judge actions as good or evil by how they help him and the people he cares about. Actions must be evaluated on their actual impact. Good intentions do not suffice.  There is no rational basis for altruism, and atheists should reject it. You abandoned god, don’t keep his moral commandments.

The seduction of this proposal is that it does something many “regular” atheists find worthwhile.  The ethics of the Bible are based on rules and customs rooted in the Bronze age.  Many of them are outmoded and some are offensive and illegal– speaking just of the Old Testament. Many of the “exhortations” of the New Testament are impractical;  I will never love my enemies or (at least literally) agree to be insulted (turn my cheek) seventy times seven times–and I don’t see the value in it.

On the other hand, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving comfort to those who hunger for justice and peace strike me as pretty good ideas, no matter where they come from.  I do not regard them as elements of a slave mentality.  I regard them as expressions of the same stirrings of mind and conscience that caused us to crawl out of the mud, stand up straight, and make something of ourselves.

The Objectivists have been fond of identifying Christian ethics (why they don’t see other religious systems as equally problematical I don’t know) as “altruistic,” as exercises in self-denial.

Ayn Rand

If you buy this view, then rejecting altruism, as a vestige of Christan ethics, is logically entailed in not believing in God.  It is immoral to try to embrace “logical and rational thought” and to hold on to the “moral indoctrination of childhood unquestioningly.”

“Why should atheists view altruism as the moral ideal? What scientific or theoretical evidence do you have to support it? Have you really examined the subject thoughtfully, or have you unintentionally kept Christian morality even after you rejected god?….There is a rational alternative. An alternative that actually improves human life on Earth. That alternative is rational self-interest. Selfishness. A word that is a smear to some and a badge of honor to others. Acting in rational self interest is the only morality that makes sense in the absence of a god to command you.”

For most atheists, the advantage of living without God is the freedom to love, choose and reflect without the constraints of rules thought to come from a higher power, a Divine Enforcer.

But unbelief does not logically lead to a new kind of determinism, an anthropology that puts individual self-interest above the social conditions that affect the happiness of others.

The glimmers of moral reflection that make sense in Christianity don’t make sense because they are biblical–since much of biblical morality is simply incomprehensible–but because we can see in the advocacy of love and forgiveness and generosity sentiments that are fully humanistic, even corrective of some of the bloodier and more violent passages of the Old Testament.

The Bible doesn’t tell us anything about God. It tells us what human beings think, or thought, about God.  As a human book, it tells us mainly about us, and  is also an important source for the development of the moral ideas of the species.  Rejecting its “supernatural” authority, unfortunately, can’t diminish its significance as a moral archive.  This is the basic fallacy underlying the Objectivist form of atheist thought.

In fact, Objectivism is strangely inconsistent on this point: it’s the New Testament it hates.  The Old Testament history of Israel, which is largely the history of selfish, territorial schemes against its enemies and persecutors, can only be regarded as objectionable to an Objectivist because it’s related to God. It’s core premises are basically exemplary: What could be less altruistic than the story of the Chosen People pursuing their national self-interest without regard for the life and limb of the Unchosen?  What is less altruistic than the events of the Middle Ages and the mid-Twentieth Century that sought to counter this assumption through the vigorous pursuit of national self interest? Empathy was not involved. Predation was.

Natural self interest

The existence of altruism is a hot  topic, almost as important to some people as the existence of God.  As a soft altruist, I believe that empathy, compassion and generosity are important survival skills that we have arrived at over about 50,000 years or so of the “modern” development of our species, which is about 200,000 years old.  Many anthropologists see the development of religion and law as a coordinate of this modern process–an acknowledgement that our distant ancestors could not usually be counted on to do the socially acceptable thing. The archaeological record supports the theory.

As religion declines, however, in terms of the principles of selection that still operate in the human community, it should be fairly evident that patterns of social adjustment that could once only be expressed religiously (or legally) continue to be expressed because they are socially advantageous.  That is to say, some forms of altruism are rational because they work.  They are conducive to happiness, the thing that both Aristotle and the American founding fathers who read him thought was ultimately important to human beings.  They provide cohesion, structure, and a sense of wellbeing superior to their opposites.

An atheism that is rational in this latter sense will reject the temptation to be swayed by the suggestion that “real” atheism means that we have to be guided by our predator instincts.  That isn’t what brought us out of the mud and made it possible for us to look each other in the eye.

20 thoughts on “Atheism and Altruism

  1. If people don’t feel empathy or compassion for others, there’s not much that one can say to them to convince them to care about others. One can only avoid them as much as possible.

    I’m not sure that telling people that it’s “moral” to be altruistic will make those who feel no empathy or compassion more concerned about others.

    In fact, I think that the thought of Ayn Rand generally serves as an ideological rationalization or justification for people who in their hearts feel no concern for others.

    In favor of the New Atheists, none of those whom I’m familiar with buys into Ayn Rand. Even those who are most ferocious with us soft Atheists are in favor of compassion towards those who suffer or have not done well in this often cruel world.

    • Yes i agree-I don’t think any of the leading lights among the Gnu are Randists. They’ve always had a bone to pick with other atheists and humanists.

  2. Boy, they certainly helped themselves to one very easy “because.”

    “They wouldn’t violate the rights of anyone else, because they know it can only harm their own life in the long run.”

    Oh really! It’s that easy, is it?

    Give me a f***ing break.

  3. As Woody Allen once said, “The lion and the calf shall lie down together but the calf won’t get much sleep.” But, I’m not sure predation is an inhibitor of altruism. The findings of the anthropologists/archeologists are not clear. Some bands of early humans were no doubt quite egalitarian, much like the !Kung tribe of the Serengeti is today; more than willing to share food, shelter and, well, let’s just say “other things” with passers-by. Then there were likely bands that were somewhat less hospitable to outsiders, such as the Jivaro Indians in the upper Amazon valley, known for their expertise in shrinking heads. Or, the Korowai in the western part of New Guinea, who are known for making human flesh taste like chicken, with a hint of Bar-B-Que.

    Ir seems to me that what we call altruism emerges only after our primary needs are met; plenty of food and water, shelter, strong family ties, a sense of safety. Some members of such societies, but certainly not all, offer to help others, but not as part of a survival strategy. They are simply predisposed to be do-gooders, Polly Annas, philanthropists. We don’t know for sure, but my guess is that the folks with these sunny goddamned dispositions have been around for at least 200,000 years or so. The motivation for this behavior may be nothing more than that the actors enjoy it, derive pleasure from it. No laws, no rules, no scriptures will change this basic personality trait.

    In my opinion, the real problem here is when the concept of property went from communal to proprietary. And that occurred with the age of agriculture; more stuff means more protection, and more protection means law and order and that takes an organization, call it government, to provide. So, now you got your laws, and your rules, and your edicts and your covenants with god. A man’s home became his castle — no trespassing, beware of dog, solicitors will be shot on sight. Today we have college kids carrying guns, concealed guns no less. With all this paranoia, conspiracy theories, retreat from personal responsibility, it’s no wonder altruism is in the crapper.

    Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse,) in an article that appeared in the May, 1987, issue of Discover magazine, titled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” makes the point:

    “Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny. Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.”

  4. It looks like your humanistic altruism has a strong family resemblance to rational self-interest, the difference being your meta-narrative, which assigns ultimate wisdom to a different theory of evolutionary success than the Objectivists.

    You write: “in terms of the principles of selection that still operate in the human community, it should be fairly evident that patterns of social adjustment that could once only be expressed religiously (or legally) continue to be expressed because they are socially advantageous.”

    Meanwhile I think the religious archive suggests that altruism was one of those “stirrings of mind and conscience” that did much more than simply cause us “to crawl out of the mud, stand up straight, and make something of ourselves” (as you imply).

    I think the true concept of altruism cannot be meaningfully appropriated to serve any utilitarian ethics – because altruism ought to be reserved as a qualifier of actions in regard to other persons as ends in themselves. This requires not merely a scheme for mutual advancement toward evolutionary success but a concrete element of self-sacrifice of the sort suggested by Jesus, which you call “incomprehensible”.

    Thanks again for another thought-provoking study of the humanist-atheist paradox.

    • “because altruism ought to be reserved as a qualifier of actions in regard to other persons as ends in themselves.” I agree. But I don’t agree that all of biblical ethics are comprehensible or that everything assigned to Jesus is biblical. I said some of NT ethics are impractical and strongly imply that the NT is corrective and closer to an altruistic ideal.

  5. A happy selfish person is an oxymoron, unless they don’t have a conscience or genuine friends.

    Altruism is not ‘subservience’ to others. It’s about helping, compassion and empathy for others. It’s more about ‘serving’ each other or sharing and caring and kindness. It’s a fundamental human value that has evolved as we have learned to live together in a social world. It has been adopted by religions and sometimes credited to a god idea, but it’s just a natural way of living together without seeking reward.

    “Altruism: An idea invented by Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century but anticipated in the ethical teaching of some religions, especially Christianity. Based on the belief that it is possible to intend to “do good” without promise of reward or fear of punishment, the concept properly belongs to evolutionary biology and behaviouralism rather than to theology. As an ethical ideal there is nothing in humanism that makes altruism an inappropriate symbol for personal conduct.” (July 2nd 2010, here)

    Perhaps it’s easier in some societies than others, but it’s an effective way to survive and thrive in a social environment. Many people preach it, some people practise and live it and have more fulfilling lives, generally. (And some of us have evolved from chasing things that run, and just pick and eat what we peacefully grow.)

    It’s all true. It’s about others.

  6. There I was thinking of kittens and having a wonderful day, and what happens? I come across your article and am horrified to see you talking about the most horrible of all human filth, Ayn Rosenbaum. ayn Rosenbaum, the woman that used to take young lovers and have them poo on her back. This woman that thought herself no better than a human toilet, certainly a creature with horrible self esteem. And you mentioned thei Rosenbaum over and over again, until I could take it no more and had to scream out. GET BEHIND ME SATIN!

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

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