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Selflessness: Are Atheists Only Concerned with Themselves?

Here’s a graphic one of my son’s sent me from their Facebook news feed:


As they read this, thousands of atheists hit head on table and mutter, really, this old canard? Let me kill this thinking in one, swift easy statement.  If selflessness is consistent with Evangelical Christianity, why are so many Christians selfish? Bam! Shut the door!

People who post things like this have the IQ of a walnut. Rather than THINK they post. No thinking Christian would EVER claim that selflessness is the domain of Christianity. All the Christian has to do is think about all the selfless non-Christians who have helped them over the years and all the selfish Christians who haven’t.

If the question is, can the morality taught in the Bible lead to a life if selflessness, then the answer is yes. But, the same could be said for humanism and other ethical and religious systems of belief. Christianity has no corner on the selflessness market. If anything, American Evangelical behavior often reveals a crass indifference to the plight and suffering of others. The Republican clown bus is rapidly filling up with men and women who want to be President in 2016. All of them profess to be a Christian, yet their policies are in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus and the Bible. Only one candidate for President, Bernie Williams, has dared to challenge the American capitalistic system, which is, by design, a heartless, selfish system of economics. Again, I am having a hard time seeing the Christianity selflessness connection.

Many Evangelicals wrongly think that atheism is a moral and ethical system of thought. It’s not. Atheism is, and will always remain the disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. That’s it. Me telling someone I am an atheist tells them nothing about my morals or ethics. The fact that I think evolution best explains the natural world says nothing about my morality or ethics. Evolution is a statement of fact. There are Christians who are evolutionists. A conundrum…Christian=selfless Evolutionist=selfishness. Just another two-cent reason why the whole Christians are selfless argument is groundless.

As a humanist, I live my life according to the principles of humanism. These principles are succinctly stated in the Humanist Manifesto III:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

  • Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.
  • Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.
  • Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.
  • Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.
  • Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.
  • Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

As I try to live by the humanist ideal, I am ever aware of how far from the ideal I am. I would never say to anyone that unless they become a humanist they have no capacity for selflessness. Humans are social creatures who thrive in interdependent relationships. Rare is the person who wants solitude and loneliness. Thousands of people read this blog because they want the sense of community and connections that comes from doing do. Facebook is a hit because we desire to connect with like-minded people. We want to belong. As part of a tribe or group, we help those we have a connection with. If I had a serious medical need and required $10,000 to save my life, I know that a mere mention of this by my fellow bloggers and Facebook friends would result in the need being met. Why would people who have never met me face to face selflessly help me? It is our humanness and the bond we have with one another that drives us to selflessly help others. Are we always selfless? Of course not. All of us, Christian or not, can be a selfish asshole, thinking only of what’s best for ourselves. But, more often than not, atheist, humanist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindi, pagan, or Buddhist, when called upon, will selflessly help others.

Years ago, I was at Sam’s Club checking out and in the line next to me was an Asian young man trying to buy some stuff for his Mom’s restaurant. The cashier wouldn’t let the man make a purchase because he was using his Mom’s membership card. The man spoke with broken English and was thoroughly embarrassed by how the cashier was treating him. I left my line and went over the cashier and gave her a piece of my mind. And then I told her to put his stuff on my card and he could pay me for it. Now she was the one thoroughly embarrassed, having been called out for her ill-treatment of the Asian man. She quickly corrected course and took care of the man’s order. As he left, he looked to me and said thanks. I said, no problem. Did I do what I did because I was a Christian? Of course not. I have no tolerance for those who berate and belittle others. In other words, I don’t like assholes and that’s why I came to the man’s defense.

When I come in contact with others, I do my best to be kind and considerate. A year or so ago, I had a meltdown at the local Meijer customer service desk. The young woman running the desk didn’t help me as I thought she should in the time I had allotted for her to do so. I told her, forget it, and walked away.  Everything was fine until I swiftly turned around and went back to the desk and shouted, and you don’t give a SHIT do you! Polly helplessly stood by while I made a public spectacle of myself. She didn’t say a word, but by the time we were half way home I realized that I had acted like a first class asshole. As soon as I got home I called the customer service desk and talked to the young woman who had been the subject of my anger. I apologized for my behavior. Several times she told me, that’s OK. I told her, no it’s not. No one should treat someone like I treated you. The next time I was at the store she let me know that she appreciated me apologizing.  She told me that she had never had a customer apologize for treating her like shit.

You see, I am a saint and a sinner. I can act selflessly and I can act selfishly. No one has the selfless market cornered. Take the drowning story in the graphic above.  Does any Christian REALLY believe that an atheist would idly sit by and so nothing while someone drowns? I am a cripple. Anyone who sees me knows I have problems getting around. I have had uncounted people extend kindness and courtesy to me as I try to navigate a store, stadium, or restaurant. Yes, I have met a few selfish people who wouldn’t offer me help if my life depended on it, but they are the exception to the rule. Even when I complain about how people often ignore someone in a wheelchair, I don’t think they are being selfish as much as lacking in instruction about people with disabilities.

The underlying issue is that many Christians, particularly Evangelicals, believe that morality comes from God and that without God a person cannot act morally and ethically. When challenged with examples of godless people who act morally and ethically, Christians often attack the motive for the godless person’s good behavior. The atheist is acting selflessly because they have an ulterior motive, they say. How can they know this? Can we really know the motives of others? Besides, isn’t the moral and ethical behavior of the Christian predicated on gaining a divine payoff, a mansion in heaven and eternal life? Whose the selfish person now?

As a humanist, I am deeply interested in seeing my progeny thrive. Because I love them and desire their company, I try to protect them from injury and harm. Because I desire to live in peace and harmony, I do my best to be a selfless member of the human race and the community I live in.  I don’t need the threat of hell and judgment or the promise of heaven and eternal life to motivate me to act according to the humanist ideal. My country, community, tribe, and family are important to me and because they are I act accordingly. Why is that so many Evangelicals fail to understand this? Why do they arrogantly think that morality, ethics, and selflessness are the domain of their religion alone? Why are they deliberately blind to overwhelming evidence that suggests that every person has within themselves the power to act morally, ethically, and selflessly?

Perhaps it is selfishness that drives their blindness? Imagine what would happen if people realized that living a moral,ethical, and selfless life does not require Christianity. Once the threat of hell and the promise of heaven is removed from the equation, people are less likely to join up with fundamentalist religious sects. Instead of looking for the one road that leads to heaven, they could choose one of the many road that lead to a virtuous, well-lived life. Imagine people doing good and acting selflessly because it is the right thing to do, not because they fear God or covetously desire a divine payoff after death.


    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Trying to test my infinite baseball knowledge? 🙂 Bernie WILLIAMS played for the Yanks. Great player, BTW. Bernie is no relation to Barry Sanders or Colonel Sanders. 🙂

  1. Avatar

    Did it make you feel better to help people when you knew that you served God by doing so? Was it different for you after saying no to God? I have had the opposite happen to me, a great wonder of reward in helping another biped because I was handy at the time and did what I thought I needed to do to help. God was actually in my way before, as any delusional construct would probably be….

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Yeah, I’d say, in some cases, God was an unneeded middle man that often complicated things. I was an “if it is in your power to do so, do it” kind of person. I had little love for people who could help others and wouldn’t because they were praying about it or waiting for God to lead them. I figured it was always right to help others. I didn’t need to pray about helping the homeless I met while preaching on the street. I did learn to not give them money. They would just drink or shoot it up. Hungry? I had them go to a nearby cafe where I had an open account.

      I much prefer how things are today. No need to parse things through the Bible. No wondering if I am doing the will of God. No worry about losing treasures in heaven. I am free to do what I want and not fear that I am disobeying God.

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    This is ‘Atheistic Darwinism’? These people have no idea what they are talking about. I was recently talking to a Fundamentalist colleague at work. He self-published a book, available now on Amazon, that attempts to demonstrate how modern ‘Darwinism’ is just a rehashing of the ancient creation myth of order from chaos. He was complaining that nobody was buying it, and he was concerned that it was too long to attract readership. It is 1100 pages of comparing his incredible misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Evolution with ancient creation myths. I asked him if he had read a single biology textbook, or anything by a biologist when he wrote his book. At least he was honest. He read not a single book on Evolution. Evolution is just a myth like all the others. He wrote an 1100 page refutation of a scientific theory that does not exist, and used nothing but Creationist propaganda as his source of information. And they wonder why we get upset when they claim we will not save a drowning man.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      *sigh* All that writing and he learned nothing. Even when I was a fundamentalist, I didn’t understand this kind of thinking. When I preached on Satanism I studied the Satanic bible. When I preached on cults, I read their books. Unfortunately, a lot of my colleagues thought that all they needed was the Bible. Their logic was truth exposes error, no need to read the oppositions books. Result? Guys preaching sermons against Calvinism without ever reading one word written by John Calvin. If they read books at all, they were texts that reinforced their presuppositions.

      I can’t tell you how many Evangelical commenters on this blog have attacked Bart Ehrman. When I ask what books of his they have read? None. No need. They have the Bible and a book review from their favorite preacher. No need to read anything else.

      I have often said Evangelicals often lack curiosity. Rarely do they look outside the box.

  3. Avatar

    On the Evangelical side though, to be fair, there is quite up-to-scruff knowledge about professional sports…. you need not suggest they are complete Philistines! My goodness, I couldn’t even name all the baseball teams in division to save my soul!
    My evangelical brother knows all the baseball, hockey, football and so forth teams and watches all their games and still gets to church on Sunday. Now that is a Christian on the way to glory. For me, it is a sad lack. “What do you think of those Leafs?” somebody asks and I answer something like, “I don’t really follow basketball…” Real men have to turn away from me to maintain their dignity.

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    Selflessness…hmm I don’t see a lot of Christians besides Ned Flanders donating their kidneys, yet people can live quite well on just one.
    One thing the misguided meme doesn’t get into is the various degrees of selflessness. In the example cited of saving someone from drowning there are various degrees of risk one could take with their own life. The least risky is throwing out a life preserver all the way up to the riskier diving in to save them.
    Humans are adapted to small groups (and to some degree humans have self-domesticated). One thing we have evolved is very robust facial recognition. Why is this? It is necessary to identify spoilers who would take advantage of the good will of another and not reciprocate. And of course it isn’t limited to humans, a great example is the vampire bat. Vampire bats will sometimes regurgitate blood for another group member who didn’t find a meal that night.
    So evolution explains why the non-religious would help someone in a group. If it wasn’t in our nature to act in selfless and helpful ways to others in the group no doubt the holy books would reflect that reality. (Iif humanity had to wait for Christianity to come into being before we developed altruism, humans would already be extinct.)

    As for social conservatives (political evangelical Christians in many cases) not wanting government programs to help others. In many cases this is because they see the government as a competitor to the social programs of religious organizations.

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    This may sound harsh but I have often thought that maybe people that are attracted to fundamentalism are at a lower level of moral development. Little kids do the “right” thing simply because they fear punishment. We are supposed to grow out of that when we get older. Makes me wonder.

    • Avatar
      Becky Wiren

      You may be right. What you are saying is actually a psychological principle. People who do the right thing because it is right ARE at a higher level of (at least) psychological development. (I don’t have time to look it up since I’m about to go to work.)

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Bruce Gerencser