Atheism and Selfishness

Let’s look at the relationship between atheism and selfishness. Let’s be clear: I am not discussing atheists and accusing them of selfishness. Many of my secular friends are generous, kind, hospitable, friendly folks. I don’t think, in general, that they view the world strictly through the prism of evolutionary logic. But what I do want to make clear is how atheism, if followed strictly, is an inevitably selfish worldview. (Please notice how I define atheism).

For instance, here’s a comment on an atheist forum that sums up the problem:

It’s important to remember that a cooperating group of humans is vastly more effective than non-cooperating individuals. Keeping that in mind, it’s possible to extend the boundaries of selfishness to be not only me but also all those in my cooperative group. Seen this way, it’s advantageous for me to assist others because not only does it increase their fitness and their ability to return the favor, it also elevates me in the eyes of others in my group and increases the chance that they will lend me more assistance should I need it. Even helping total strangers can be seen as a selfish act because it may win me additional friends. For a social species, acts of apparent altruism may simply be wise investments.

Here’s how Sam Harris discusses the same idea:

Clearly, our selfish and selfless interests do not always conflict. In fact, the well-being of others, especially those closest to us, is one of our primary (and, indeed, most selfish) interests. While much remains to be understood about the biology of our moral impulses, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and sexual selection explain how we have evolved to be, not merely atomized selves in thrall to our self-interest, but social selves disposed to serve a common interest with others.

In other words, the genes that reproduce themselves the best, by definition, will be the ones that continue into the future and have the most influence on the population. Genes located in cooperative families or societies do better than those located in selfish families or societies. Therefore, the evolutionary argument is that it is rational to prefer cooperative action for the sake of propagating our genes to the next generation. (And no full-blown atheist is going to reject evolution! It’s the only naturalistic way to explain how we got here).

The first question anyone considering atheism should ask is: why should I be motivated to propagate my genes? After all, I’m not the one who will be around in the future! This life is the only one I have. The rational strategy is, instead, to maximize my own happiness! If doing so replicates my genes, that is an unintended byproduct of achieving my real goal: enjoying my life.

Indeed, it would require a strange and almost faith-based devotion to “the species” to willingly make sacrifices for the sake of “the genes.” We could even use the language of worship to describe this evolutionary religion. We could vow together, “I commit myself to the furtherance of the human species, particularly to my own genetic replication and those who are genetically similar to me.”

This is a fatal flaw. Atheism requires us to first commit ourselves to valuing the future of the species or the genes, and then we have the motivation to cooperate with others to replicate our common genetic heritage. But there’s no obvious reason why we should buy into this arbitrary value, especially if doing so might lead to sacrifice and hardship in our own lives. The argument that our selfish genes can lead us into becoming a cooperative, altruistic society depends upon us being tricked into valuing the future existence of our unconscious genes more than our own, very present, conscious happiness.

The second problem is that, even if we adopt this value, we are still acting selfishly. The behavior may appear to be cooperative, but our deeper goal is a selfish one: we want our particular genes, and those who share them, to do better than other genes. We haven’t found an escape from selfishness itself; we’ve just explained how selfishness might lead us to make ‘wise investments’ in the lives of others.

Finally, a third problem is the rational limit this explanation places upon our cooperation. Let’s say that we can’t help but want our genes, and those who have similar genes to us, to out-compete their genetic competitors. So we band together with genetically relevant segments of the population and help one another out.

Isn’t genetic tribalism a bit of a problem? All we need is a fairly cheap and quick test so that we can easily identify how genetically connected we are to someone else. Or we could simply resort to the traditional shortcut: phenotypic expression. We could revert to using skin color, nose shape, hair type, or other physical markers to decide who is “the other.”

In this regard, perhaps we should learn from the chimps. As a “groundbreaking ten-year study on the behaviors of chimpanzees” reports:

The chimp warfare described by this study, and previously by famed primatologist Jane Goodall, includes all the behaviors that we as humans consider to be the very worst: killing, torture, cannibalism, rape, and perhaps even genocide. The adult males of a social group, which usually number about 30 to 50 in size, daily patrol the edge of their group’s territory. They will often kill any male or young chimpanzees they find, sometimes eating or physically brutalizing their victims in a manner that some researchers liken to torture. In some instances, one group will “invade” and annex the territory of another, killing all but the adult females, who are forced to incorporate into the dominant group.

That is, in chimpanzee society, sometimes a stronger tribe invades a weaker tribe’s territory, kills the males, enslaves and habitually rapes the adult females, and thereby gets more land, food, and progeny. This is how natural selection works in the species to which we are most genetically similar. This is the means by which the stronger genes, working together in their tribal grouping, overpower the weaker genes.

So why not imitate this in human society? The only argument is, “because that is wrong.” But what does that even mean when the only goal is genetic propagation? In this situation, to choose to be moral, rather than to choose genetic replication, is to choose some kind of personal happiness instead of what is best for your genes and your group.

Therefore, atheism, when paired with evolutionary theory, faces three problems with selfishness:

  1. We either selfishly pursue our own happiness or we get tricked into selfishly pursuing the replication of our genes.
  2. Even cooperative behavior at the group level, when properly analyzed, is only an expression of selfishness at a more basic level.
  3. To fully pursue the success of our genes, and the genes of our group, may lead us to choose behaviors that are clearly wrong.

Together, these implications amount to a serious ethical challenge for atheism.