Altruism is defined as “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” Essentially, this means doing for others without getting anything in return for yourself. I bring this up because I saw someone claim on Twitter that atheists were incapable of being altruistic, presumably that only theists, and arguably in this case Christians could be and that made them superior.
I’d argue that altruism, as a concept, is something that is inherently beyond virtually all humans, especially the religious. I don’t think there’s anything that you can do for others that you get absolutely nothing out of for yourself. One of the biggest motivators for humanity is our ego. We want to feel good about what we do. Doing things for others strokes our ego, it makes us feel better about ourselves because we are performing social actions that aid other people and this is seen as a positive in most cultures. Right there, I think altruism goes out the window because we are directly benefiting from our charitable behavior and the more extreme our behavior happens to be, the more those around us tend to think better of us, increasing our social stature. That’s not a zero-sum game and most people do not act entirely in secret, they let people know what they’re doing. Stroke that ego!
But when it comes to religion, they go one step further! They’re really showing off to their imaginary friend in the sky. Now sure, they’ll try to couch it in selfless terms, but the reality is, they’re just going “Hey God! Look at me!” I did it when I was a Christian, so did everyone else who is willing to be honest. Therefore, not one religious person of any stripe is actually being altruistic when they’re kind to the needy, they’re trying to earn their way closer to God.
Anthropologists Adrian Jaeggi and Michael Gurven, writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal, has shown that true altruism simply doesn’t exist in humans or apes. No matter what is done, the person doing good works wants something in return. Both humans and apes are very good at keeping track of who owes them what and even when a relatively altruistic act is performed, where the helped individual is not expected to directly compensate the helper, the expectation that someone will pay them back for their act of kindness, even in a karmic fashion, is commonplace. When you throw enlightened self-interest into the mix, it becomes even more clear. People who perform kind acts for others hope that, should they find themselves in the same downtrodden situation, that someone will come along and reciprocate those kind acts for them. That’s not altruism, it’s paying it forward.
I’d really argue that when religious help the poor, when they volunteer in a soup kitchen, when they give money to their churches for charitable works, they are being even less altruistic than when an atheist does it. After all, an atheist or other secular person is doing it for help in the only world we actually have any evidence for. At least when we help people, we’re acknowledging that we’re in this life together and have to help each other through. It might not be altruistic but at least it’s realistic. The religious can’t even say that. They treat this life like an unimportant staging area for the next life. Whether people live or die here really doesn’t matter, what’s important is the afterlife. Any help that they provide to others here is just a feather in their God-cap and they’re hoping God is keeping track of how many unimportant but kind things you do here while you’re waiting to kick the bucket. That’s not only not caring, it’s terribly shallow.
We’re all playing this game together, we might as well try to help each other along as best we can. It’s not altruistic but it is the best sum option that we have. If I can help you and you can help me and we can all help each other, why not? If it makes you feel a little better inside because you paused for a minute or two and helped someone else out, where’s the harm in that? Just don’t pretend that it makes you a better person and for you religious folks who think that you’re showing off for God to get some brownie points, you’re not. In fact, you’re just showing how you don’t even understand the rules of the game.