Are the Faithful More Selfish Than Atheists?

Christopher Hitchens argued that religion makes humans "extremely self-centered."

Common complaints about atheism go like this: How could you think that all this is for no reason? Who are you to say that you know there is no God/plan/divine order? How much hubris are you filled with to make such a claim?


An inability to comprehend randomness and the quirks of natural selection—Daniel Dennett writes in his forthcoming book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, “evolution is a process that depends on amplifying things that almost never happen”—leaves the religious mind dumbfounded regarding the possibility of chance.

The first line of defense in such an argument is usually moral: there is no ethics without an overseer. Richard Dawkins shut that down in The God Delusion, detailing a number of studies that show when faced with moral conundrums, atheists and religionists respond in the exact same manner.

Most people come to the same decisions when faced with these dilemmas, and their agreement over the decisions themselves is stronger than their ability to articulate their reasons. This is what we should expect if we have a moral sense which is built into our brains, like our sexual instinct or our fear of heights.

Faithless or not, we are moral animals, at least in theory if not always in action. Dawkins also borrows from Dennett in differentiating between belief in God and belief in belief. Recognizing that belief in the latter has positive effects, including better immune functioning and psychological outlook, is not the same thing as knowing a divine creator. When logic is introduced, as Yuval Noah Harari attempts in Sapiens, the moral argument quickly falls apart. 

Monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe—and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.

Beyond ethics lies a fundamental biological reality. In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright argues that religion appears to be a spandrel, a term borrowed by Stephen Jay Gould denoting “a phenomenon supported by genes that had become part of the species by doing something other than supporting that phenomenon.” Spandrels are incidental to nature’s design process, not a direct product. There is no survival necessity inherent in religion, yet thanks to our unique neurochemistry it appeared.

Wright argues that every organism thinks itself special; survival depends on such a belief. Humans might be the only animal to dream, write down, and decree an elaborate ethics based on moral imagination, but biology inevitably wins out: in times of danger our survival mechanisms kick in. You might be peaceful, though when attacked an inherent viciousness emerges. This happens in thought as quickly as deed—we are the chosen species, chosen race, chosen religion, chosen individual.

In this self-congratulatory self-reward is embedded the deeply egotistic phenomenon called religion. Remove morals and ritual (two arguably necessary aspects of human social orders) and the metaphysics exploits our contemptible qualities. In God is Not Great Christopher Hitchens tackles this head-on:

Religion teaches people to be extremely self-centered and conceited. It assures them that god cares for them individually, and it claims that the cosmos was created with them specifically in mind.

While Dawkins is often attacked as curmudgeonly, he writes that he has no vested interest in taking down beliefs, but rather he is, as an evolutionary biologist, shocked that in the face of overwhelming evidence his opponents refuse the possibility of natural selection’s finer points.

For V.S. Ramachandran this dilemma requires a reframing our neural patterns. He invokes the beauty of evolution rather than a stark denial of the imagination. In Phantoms in the Brain he uses epic Indian mythology as an example of adjusting to the realities of biology:

If you think you’re something special in this world, engaging in a lofty inspection of the cosmos from a unique vantage point, your annihilation becomes unacceptable. But if you’re really part of the great cosmic dance of Shiva, rather than a mere spectator, then your inevitable death should be seen as a joyous reunion with nature rather than as a tragedy.

We all return to our maker in one form or another. Whether our ashes are scattered into an ocean or from atop a mountain or the slow decomposition of flesh nourishes worms and soil, we exit as we entered. The notion that some are granted an escape hatch for having a slightly different cognitive process than the next guy is the true danger, for religion initiates a potential for bigotry, xenophobia, racism, sexism, intolerance, and many other emotionally-stunted neuroses.

True, this mindset does not require religion, proven during this American election season. But that insidious thought process—we’re the chosen ones—underlies biological greed nature implanted in us. That is perhaps the real tragedy; as Wright concludes, the social issues we face today, such as climate change and abject poverty, are more important than individual fitness. He goes on,

Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.

Can a religion be inclusive of everyone? Thus far biology says no. Yet in some ways our imagination is also a spandrel. While a product of our brain’s default mode network, the ability to shape reality by imagining forward intentions is a powerful evolutionary quirk. It’s built cities and nations and machinery that flies beyond our planet’s boundaries to explore what was once beyond our wildest imagination.

Selfishness divides us, but it also restricts us. Many great triumphs—vaccines, shelter, complex food systems—involved thinking past our environment, for better and often worse. Perhaps we just need to get used to not calling this unitary force religion. Although the word is derived from a root meaning ‘to bind,’ it has often accomplished the opposite. Even getting into the dialectical weeds is too abrasive a goal. Maybe the place to start is simply getting over ourselves. 

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Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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