Monday, May 30, 2011

Religion, Atheism, and Altruism

When dealing with Christians, I am often confronted with the statement "Altruism in an atheist = mental disorder" or some similar offensive and silly remark. In fact, I have just encountered that silly accusation (passed incidentally not as a matter of religious conviction but as a scientifically sound fact) on a blog I follow. The foundational assumption that allows such a statement to be mad is as clear as it is flawed: Atheists all believe in evolution; scratch that: Atheists believe in Darwinism, which is all about selfishness, so any atheist who acts in an altruistic fashion is doing so in opposition to natural selfishness and is, to oversimplify, mentally ill. This is such a simplistic, incorrect, and demeaning view of atheists (and of the scientific theory of evolution) that I don't even know where to begin in rebutting it. In fact, it assumes so many wrong preconceived notions that I am not sure it is even worth trying to do it. So, on careful consideration, I have decided not to. Instead, I would like to ask the following questions:

Consider the following definitions:
  1. "Altruism is acting out of concern for others with no concern for oneself. As opposed to Egoism, which is to act only in ones own, rational, self-interest." (From The Arrogant Atheist Forum)
  2. Unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others. (Merriam-Webster, definition 1)
  3. Behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species. (Merriam-Webster, definition 2)

Which of the definitions above best approaches your view of altruism and its existence?

Also, when dealing with Christians I am often given examples of altruistic, why, completely selfless behavior that some Christians have been capable of, as if at that point my natural reaction should be "Really? Oh my! I am a believer now that I have been faced with such incontrovertible evidence of the existence of your god."

On a deeper level, though, I wonder if you can call an act that benefits others with no regard for the effects it may have on yourself an altruistic act, when such an act is performed under the conviction that it is what your god would want you to do to honor him, his desires, and his teachings. Not to mention that there could be horrific negative consequences for defying that god's wishes. I wonder if a Christian can be justified in acting as morally superior to an atheist, or in believing that he is acting in a healthy manner, as opposed to the "mentally defective" manner that he would attribute to an atheist performing the same act(s) of selflessness.

Notice that, in reality, both the Christian and the atheist can expect future benefits from the performance of an altruistic act: The Christian can combine his faith with good deeds to expect rewards in the afterlife that he takes as a given; the atheist in all likelihood will assume that, while selfless behavior may have dramatic consequences for him and his family, up to and including his own death, he will leave the world a better place, both by setting an example for others to follow, and by performing an act that, while detrimental to himself in the immediate, may yield a better future for the species.

It is my firm conviction that Christians who demand that altruism, moral order, and justice, among many positive societal values, should by necessity descend from divinity are guilty of denying those traits in human nature that have led to benefits for the human race as a whole throughout millenia. But why shouldn't Christians reason as they do? After all the believe in the fall of mankind from grace, and that alone requires that we should be saved in spite of ourselves.

Consider all the humans that lived before the Hebrew and Christian god decided, in his assumed infinite generosity and goodness, to reveal himself to a small subset of the human population, leaving all others at the mercy of missionaries and preachers for centuries. Were their lives doomed to selfishness, completely devoid of altruism? Of course not. Imagine this scenario: Members of different tribes come face to face with a deadly predator. The predator attacks a member of one tribe. While members of his own tribe stand frozen in fear, incapable of defending their fellow tribesman, members of the other tribe unite in attacking the predator, ultimately killing it. What motivated them to act in defense of the member of a competing tribe, an individual that on any other day they would have been glad to see die: Altruism? An overwhelming instinct for self-preservation? The expectation of a future potential benefit? Was the man who led the attack (an atheist, perhaps) affected by a mental defect? Most importantly, does any of it matter? Shouldn't the real question be: Was the performance of an act that would appear to be, to a large extent, selfless represent a step backward or a step forward for mankind?

The Christian will contend that my imaginary scenario has nothing to do with altruism in his sense of the word, because no moral judgment was necessary or present in the scenario I have given. Really? Whose morals? Christian morals? If we know anything about morals and moral judgement is that they are not written in stone. Why, we know that even from how Christians handle morality themselves. With the exception of a few biblical literalists and Christian fundamentalists, aren't Christians very flexible in their application and interpretation of morality and moral law? When was the last time you saw an adulteress stoned to death, for example? Oh, but my objection shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world changed with the first coming of Christ. And that's where I lose any interest in debating them or arguing with them. They can always have the last word, in any situation, in any conversation. It's a 3-letter word that ends all doubt, all debate, all honest attempt at advancing the understanding of human nature, behavior and interaction. And no, it's not ego.

1 comment:

razlich said...
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