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.

“Who was You?” On Hiding from What You Are

The Boston Lowells knew who they were. From their perch on Beacon Hill they enjoyed a perspective that encouraged them to believe in the Unitarian credo: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the neighborhood of Boston. When William Filene opened a discount store in the basement of his father’s store to sell overstock and closeout merchandise through his “automatic bargain basement” (off the rack, serve yourself), Beacon Hill was a swarm of indignation. The son of a (Jewish!) peddler would throw Boston society into disarray. Cheap clothes that looked like finery? Now even Irish women who worked as chambermaids could look respectable. That is, if you didn’t look too closely.

Never to be persuaded without a firsthand look, Anna Parker Lowell walked into Filene’s downtown store near Washington Street, coiffed and umbrellad, sought directions “to the so-called Basement” and took the steps with the polish of someone who was used to grand staircases. Once aground she saw women flipping through racks of dresses like playing cards–choosing, refusing, playing tug-a-war, even threatening bodily harm if a latecomer tried to prise her find away from someone with a prior claim. “Disgusting,” Mrs Lowell tsked to herself. “Just look at them.”

Just when she had satisfied herself that Edward Filene’s brainstorm would mean the end of high society in Boston her eyes lit on a beautiful taffeta gown that looked just the thing for the spring ball at Harvard. She moved closer for a better look. As she reached to collect her prize, a woman of questionable pedigree snapped it from the rack and headed for the till. “Not so fast my dear,” said Mrs Lowell. “I was about to have that dress.” “You was,” said the woman without slowing. “I don’t think you understand.” I had chosen that dress. I was just about to collect it.” “You was,” said the woman, unable to evade Mrs Lowell’s pursuit because of a crowded aisle. “Look here, madam. I didn’t want to tell you who I was, but I will if you persist.” The woman stopped, turned, looked Mrs Lowell in the eye, and said “Ok dearie: Who was you?”

I have always wondered what people mean when they say “That’s who I am,” but usually they mean something silly and parochial: I’m a Catholic, a democrat, a creationist, a car dealer, an ex-con, a neo-con. It’s the substitution of code for argument, a conversation stopper rather than an invitation to discuss a position or idea. Clearly identity matters, but the twentieth century was distinctive in breaking down the sorts of identities that isolated people from majority communities and power structures.

There are big identities and small identities, weak and strong. Part of this has to do with the nature of language and part with the nature of things. Being a democrat or a used car salesman are weak identities: you can change those things tomorrow if you change your mind or lose your job. Being an African-American or a male, despite the fact that we know a lot more about race and sexuality now than we did fifty years ago, still have a lot to do with properties and are much more difficult to change. To say, “I’m gay,” is not just to say “I’m not straight” but to challenge the idea of straight as normative and authoritative. That’s different from saying, “I’m Catholic,” if by that you mean you’re on your way to heaven and the guy you’re talking to is going the opposite way. Beware of anyone who says “That’s who/what I am” with a smile on his face.

Identities can be a great source of fun, as when Ambrose Bierce (the Devil’s Dictionary, 1925) defines a bride as “a woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her” and “Brute” as husband, or a “minister as “An agent of a higher power with a lower responsibility.” Too bad that in Bierce’s day the Vegan craze wasn’t what it is in the twenty first century, but he did have this to say about clairvoyants: “A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron, namely, that he is a blockhead.”

The weakest identities of all are the ones that have to do with what we believe to be the meaning of life. I can remember in college three distinct phases of change: being a socialist at seventeen, a half-hearted anarchist at twenty, and an existentialist at twenty one. I recovered from these infatuations by not permitting myself to stop reading and never reading Camus after thirty. With confusion intact, I went to Divinity School and emerged as confused and doubtful as ever. Voltaire said it was only his skepticism that prevented him from being an atheist. That was me, too.

I can’t doubt that there are “meaning-of-life” identities that one holds passionately and therefore appear to qualify for the “That’s who I am” category of identification. I have known people whose non-belief is as fervent as the belief of a twice born Baptist or Mormon elder, people who say “I am an atheist” as proudly as an evangelical says “I’m born again.” It’s tempting to say, isn’t it, that the difference between these two statements is that the atheist is smart and the Born again needs his intelligence quotient checked. But we all know that identity statements are code for a whole range of ideas that need to be unpacked and call for explanation. An atheist who felt his non-belief in God entitled him to murder children because of the absence of divine commands to the contrary would be no better than a cult member who believed that disobedient sons can be stoned because it says they can in the Bible.

I feel my Atheist Reader squirming, because while you liked the Bright-Dim difference, you don’t like equivalences. When Katherine Hepburn turns out to be an atheist people say, “I just knew it. Such a strong woman.” When Pol-Pot says God is bunk, we think “Well that’s different, isn’t it—and so far away?”

Personally, I don’t like people who say “That’s who I am,” or “That’s what we are,” or “We need to be honest about who we are.” At a crude level I want to say WTF? It’s eerily metaphysical when atheists do it—not only because it’s the language God uses when he introduces himself to Moses on Sinai. You remember, right?: Moses hasn’t been properly introduced and God says, “That’s who I am,” and when pressed after Moses accuses God of being slippery says “I am what I am.”

I reckon what he really means is, “You know—God—the one who does firmament, landscaping, Leviathan, floods, human beings God.” In fairness, however, the Hebrew Bible insisted that God was not just a proposition but an actor on the human stage. I don’t believe that God did any of the things ascribed to him in the Bible, but to believe in a doer and deeds is a perfectly legitimate way to establish an identity—even if it’s a fictional identity. That’s why Jewish atheists begin by denying the deeds and then the doer. None of this silly ontological stuff: too Christian, too mental.

But I find it a lot harder to know who I am or what we are on the basis of not believing something.

“We need to be honest about who we are” coming from an atheist doesn’t translate easily into the propertied descriptions of being black, gay, female or physically challenged–things over which people have no choice and no control.

It’s tempting, I know, to think the things we believe or don’t believe have the same status as the things that constitute us as persons or collectives of persons. But you would laugh at a used car salesman saying at dinner, “Dammit, Mother, I’m tired of hiding from who I am. Tomorrow I’m going right into the boss’s office and say to him, ‘Mr Jones: I am Bill Smith and I’m an atheist.” You would not laugh at someone who said, “Mr Jones: I haven’t had a raise in two years. Is it because I’m black?”

Atheists often complain when religious groups claim special treatment on the pretext that any speech against religion is defamatory while claiming equivalent protection for their own beliefs. But atheists need to be very careful about traveling the road of victimization and minority rights or simply adopting the legal definitions supplied under non-discrimination laws. Especially when racial, sexual orientation and gender provisions do not apply to atheism and the protection accorded to religious beliefs, if embraced by atheists, creates a stew of issues–not the least of which is that there is no settled definition of atheism and if there were a true freethinker would reject it.

Difference is deceptive, especially when it comes to self-definition. Is coming out atheist like coming out gay, an act of courage? On what basis–the fact that terms like “minority,” “unpopular” and “misunderstood” can be applied to both categories? But simply to embrace a minority position toward a “divine being” based on denying a premise is not an act of bravery. It doesn’t make you who you are or what you are. It’s neither race, profession nor party platform—not even a philosophical position or scientific theory. It’s not something to be ashamed of or proud of. It’s just about an idea—even if it’s a really Big idea.