Why Do Atheists Care About the Lives of Others?

This guest post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the American Humanist Association. He usually blogs at Rant & Reason.

After Andrew Sullivan reposted the disturbing video from a 2006 Answers in Genesis campaign, it caused quite a stir. It turns out that AIG still has a page explaining it:

Every day we are inundated with evolution-based messages intended to remove the Creator from the fabric of our society, our lives, our thoughts. But if we evolved from lower life forms, then the Bible can’t be trusted and life’s supposed billion-year history is one of continual death and struggle. If the Bible isn’t true, then why should we be fair and kind and love our fellow human beings, as the Bible teaches? After all, evolution relies on survival of the fittest—no matter who gets in the way.

It bears pointing out that while the history of life involves death and struggle, there’s so much more to it than that. There’s love and happiness and waffles!

So here’s where I get confused: Even if God told us how he wanted us to act, we still get to decide whether to obey. It’s often noted that if a person is choosing to act morally in an effort to stay out of hell, that’s not exactly altruistic. What I’ve heard more often is that people decide to obey because they feel gratitude and respect for God. Because of that gratitude and respect, they consider His will when deciding how to act.

Well, I feel gratitude to my friends, neighbors, and family. I respect the inherent worth of conscious, sentient life. Because of that gratitude and respect, I act in ways that take their feelings and their wellbeing into account. I don’t need an ancient book to “teach me” to be fair and kind.

The AIG page also says: “Those who feel that neither they nor their actions matter to God lose their motivation to care for the lives of others or for their own life.”

I can vouch from personal experience that they’re wrong. I suspect that most of you can, too.

Why do we care about the lives of others?

There are different answers we can give: we have an evolved drive to care, we were raised to care in a social context, we get something out it… But the bottom line is that we do care about each other. We don’t believe that our actions matter to God but we believe our actions matter to each other.

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • RJC

    I can’t remember where, but I recently read that “survival of the fittest” isn’t even an good description of natural selection, because it makes it sound like the “fittest” is always going to be the biggest, strongest, meanest S.O.B. around. If you really think about it, that’s not what spreads your genes. Many species have evolved traits where they work with each other to keep the group alive, and thus keep their genes around. If humans show concern for their family, we are much more likely to survive.

    That’s the evolutionary basis for our most basic level of morality. All other human morality throughout history has either been derived from that or faulty.

  • Ethanol

    Humans have an extraordinary ability for doing things without understanding why, and coming up with explanations for that behavior that have nothing to do with the real motivations. I’ve always suspected that Christians who assert that without god people would do whatever they wanted do not understand their own morality. But I don’t believe I can truly explain my own moral (or immoral) behavior beyond how that behavior makes me feel.

    Great post by the way

  • flawedprefect

    The worse thing about the AIG article is rife throughout their entire logic on any topic: anyone who does not believe in their christian god has no morals. We need to show how the world is not that black and white.

    This article offers a good premise, but we need to begin amassing evidence to show how more atheists are friendly.

  • http://curiousatheist.blogspot.com Daniel

    The proof is in the world. Non-Christian societies, Japan for instance, manage to have morality, ethics, and generally good behavior. And the history of Christianity is not free of bad behavior.

    Which shows nothing more than individuals and groups vary, which is hardly a revelation.

    But AIG is, I hope, not representative of mainstream Christianity.

  • http://betapwned.com Tanya

    Blar… here we go again insinuating that the Columbine High School shootings wouldn’t have happened if only those boys had known god loved them.

    As I understand it, Eric and Dylan both went to Sunday school as children. (My ex’s niece and nephew knew them fairly well.) Why isn’t the church getting the blame for not instilling godly love and worth in the boys? Are god’s servants so ineffective that a couple of biology classes undid years of indoctrination?

  • The Rebel Teapot

    Unfortunately, Daniel, you might find some still argue that the Japanese are only moral because the Christian code was somehow introduced to them, or somehow exists as an Absolute Truth in the world (therefore, God exists, etc.) and that’s how apparently non-Christian societies and individuals aren’t degenerate.

    I hope that showing people that atheists can be good, too, accomplishes something other than proving to some that God really does work in our lives despite us denying him.

    On a note to the original post: frankly, it scares me when people say that without God there is no reason to be good. It’s not because I go “Oh, hey, you’re right… oh, must be him, then!” but because they seem to strongly imply that, without their religion, they have no morals. And I don’t want to be around when they lose it.

    What I’m thinking: how much better is doing something out of fear/love of an ultimate authority and consequences than doing it out of (not-divinely-inspired) compassion and empathy for others? And I see that’s pretty much what you say in one of your paragraphs.

    And I think it’s logically incorrect to go “Well, there exist some good moral practices, and there exists a code that tells me to do some of these things, therefore these things are moral because the code says so.”

  • The Rebel Teapot

    Tanya:

    Science is Just That Evil. Sorry.

  • http://tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich, FCD

    After all, evolution relies on survival of the fittest—no matter who gets in the way.

    Nice post, Jessie. I think ignorance of what evolution “relies on” (whether willful or not) is a hallmark of AIG. Survival of the fittest is really just a term invented by Spencer but it causes a great deal of confusion. Group cohesion and protection for many species of life among all of the ‘kingdoms’ ensures continued survival of the species.

    It is interesting that religion, supposed to be the guardian of morals, is pretty good at greasing the skids of xenophobia. Of course this leads to a great deal of war and nice stuff like that (I am not sure if there have been any “righteous wars” started in the name of evolution.

  • Ryan

    I can’t remember where, but I recently read that “survival of the fittest” isn’t even an good description of natural selection, because it makes it sound like the “fittest” is always going to be the biggest, strongest, meanest S.O.B. around. If you really think about it, that’s not what spreads your genes. Many species have evolved traits where they work with each other to keep the group alive, and thus keep their genes around. If humans show concern for their family, we are much more likely to survive.

    That’s the evolutionary basis for our most basic level of morality. All other human morality throughout history has either been derived from that or faulty.

    I want to say that I read this in the latest edition of Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, although I’m positive it’s been in other books and journals.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Sigh.

    There’s a line from Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” that’s always stuck with me, and it’s very pertinent to this topic. (I’m going to have to paraphrase, since I’m at work and don’t have the book in front of me.) Two people are arguing about altruism: one is arguing that all atruism is fake and nobody really cares about anyone but themselves, and she says something about how the law of nature says that the strongest survives.

    And the other person replies:

    “Yes, and in a social species, the strongest is the most social. In moral terms, the most ethical.”

    We are a social species. The strongest people are the most social, the most ethical. Some people will always survive and thrive by breaking rules of morality and getting away with it… but for the most part, the strongest people are the ones who are the best at getting along with others, at balancing their needs with the needs of other people.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    P.S. And, of course, as many of us have pointed out many many times: Regardless of wehter this theory would make sense in a vaccuum, it is in flat contradiction with the facts.

    Largely godless countries such as France and Holland and the Scandinavian countries aren’t rife with crime and violence. If anything, their sense of social responsibility is hyper- developed, maybe even over-developed. (And religion is clearly no guarantee of morality. Just look at Ted Haggard and company.)

    But, of course, the people making these arguments have no interest in being confused with the facts…

  • Eliza

    Nice article, Jesse. As you say, “Why do we care about the lives of others?” can be addressed at many levels.

    One fairly recent, interesting, discovery in neurobiology which may explain some of the “how” aspect of “why”: Mirror neurons (involved in empathy, even in infants)

    This strikes me as a more interesting & testable explanation than, say, the Bible. The ten commandments are a list of “do nots”, except for “remember the Sabbath” and “honor your mother and father”, and then there’s the urging to (paraphrased here) “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as you would love yourself.” Neither of these suggest to me a reason or mechanism by which someone would necessarily actually care about other people (or even ones self).

  • zoo

    Thank you AiG for explaining to me that I use evolutionary theory [a description of what's happening in the world now and a prediction of what has happened and will happen. . . not a command] as a moral guide. I didn’t know that! Please. I don’t know what god they’re talking about, but if it’s the one that says to hate people and prevent them from living their own lives (that’s what he says, right? ’cause that’s how a lot of the outspoken people I see are living…), I think I’m better off with the golden rule (even the selfish way some people use it) than him.

    I care because I want to, rather than being told to.

    RJC:

    I recently read that “survival of the fittest” isn’t even an good description of natural selection, because it makes it sound like the “fittest” is always going to be the biggest, strongest, meanest S.O.B. around.

    Actually, if you understand fitness as science defines it, it’s a perfect fit [no pun]. The problem comes in when you unleash such a phrase on people with no background, which apparently includes AiG, or explain it to said people in such a way as to leave that impression.

  • llewelly

    Satan works constantly to lead believers away from the One True Faith. Thus He has endowed Atheists, His servants, with a False Front of Christian Compassion in order to conceal the Horrors of Atheism, and acceptance of Atheism will increase, thus serving His ends.

    Just like dinosaur fossils.

    • bulshitalkin

      bulshitalkin

  • Twin-Skies

    @llewelly

    I do hope that was a Poe

    @Greta Christina

    From my experience, religion has been used as an excuse; a convenient means of masking one’s intolerance and bigotry.

  • Justin jm

    I repeat what I said on an earlier comment thread about the people at AiG having no understanding of morality. The idea that survival of the fittest, as a fact in nature, entails how we ought to act towards each other is falling for the naturalistic fallacy. zoo made essentially the same point.

    Values can exist without a God; they just need another anchor, such as human compassion in order to motivate people to uphold the values. And, we can determine which values are moral by seeing if their implementation achieves the goal of morality (which I view as creating the ideal social environment for all people).

  • Ashleigh

    When people say things like this:

    After all, evolution relies on survival of the fittest—no matter who gets in the way.

    It shows they actually do not understand the very basic principles of evolution.

  • Ido

    To be honest, every reason I can come up with for why I care is irrational, but the one which states it’s beneficial to society. The problem is that I can’t fully explain how that’s so, and I end up grinding my teeth at this subject when it comes up in debates.

    Whenever I do try to use an irrational reason, I end up asked “So why do you do irrational things?”. How do you circumvent this problem?

  • Kiera

    Bonding and pairing, social structure, family units, village survival? We tend to care about the people and groups that we are close to or relate/connect to on some level whether this be blood relatives or your baseball team, though to different levels. I’m not sure we’ll ever get to the bottom of this question, though, given the bendiness of psychological and social science. Technical term.

    I guess I’m not entirely sure why it even matters WHY we care about the lives of others. I do and I can tell if others do by their general demeanor, not their faith. My kneejerk response to this was “…because I’m a good person?”

    Plus, the explanation is going to be sciencey anyway, so if they can’t grasp evolution, how in the hedge would they ever grasp this conjecture?

  • http://www.beginningwithi.com/comments/ Deirdré Straughan

    I care about other living things because a life that contains people, kittens, horses, turtles, tigers, roses, tadpoles, asparagus, artichokes, etc., is a lot more fun than a life without them would be. So it behooves me to be good to them and try to keep them around.

    I don’t think it really needs to be any more complicated than that.

  • gmcfly

    Evolution describes what happens to genes over time. It is not a guideline. It’s not a moral value. It’s not a personal goal.

    It’s like saying, “If the second law of thermodynamics is true, then why should we build houses? After all, the Second Law relies on increasing entropy — no matter who gets in the way.”

    Just because it happens due to natural causes doesn’t mean it’s desirable.

    How many ways can I say this?

    Maximizing genetic survival is not a reason to do something. The reason you do it is in order to be fulfilled/be happy/avoid pain/satisfy needs.

  • Tom

    I’ve had this question come up twice in the last few years in conversations with people I know. I have three potential responses.

    Response 1, for people who I have some respect for:
    Really, I know you too well, I know you are an inherently moral person, I do not believe you are a psychopath held in check only by fear of eternal damnation. You should recognize these feelings of empathy and compassion in yourself and know better than to need to ask.

    Response 2, for people who I respect a bit but who don’t know me well:
    The question is inherently ridiculous. There are plenty of atheists who obviously care about others, it’s clearly in our genes to do so.

    Response 3, for people I don’t respect:
    The fact that you even have to ask that question is frightening. That you do not already know the answer demonstrates that you are a psychopathic monster without normal human feelings of compassion and empathy, and that you are held in check only by the belief of eternal damnation. I am going to leave now, please stay very far away from me.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Atheists have the capacity to care more about others (than religious people) because atheists hold that this is the one and only life and all efforts and actions must be dedicated to the here and now.

    Religious people split their activities between the here and now and what they believe to be the “afterlife”. Some of these “afterlife” activities run counter to the interests of the here and now. (bigotry, persecution, fear mongering, religious killings, anti-science, lack of environmental stewardship).

    Of course, since atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods, atheists have the responsibility (just like everybody else) to develop a responsible moral philosophy of how to interact with the world.

  • http://www.BlueNine.info Blue Nine

    From the page linked:

    Those who feel that neither they nor their actions matter to God lose their motivation to care for the lives of others or for their own life.

    Doesn’t evolution imply a survival instinct? So yes, without god you can still care for your own life.

  • gribblethemunchkin

    I think one of the big confusions with muppets like AIG is that they see the world through their religion. When something appears which challenges their religion (such as evolution challenging how all life came to its current state) they see it as, not an explanation but a rival to their religion. They then say to themselves “But christianity tells us to love each other and evolution is bloody and violent, therefore our system is better”.

    At no point do they consider that Evolution is not a challenge to Christianity. It simply exists. If certain parts of the bible are proved wrong by it, that doesn’t mean that evolution is a competing world view.

    So then they get into arguing that evolution has some kind of violent and bloody moral code, which is ridiculous. Evolution is a description of events that is comprehensive enough to allow us to mak future predictions in a very narrow field of existence (i.e. species changing over time).

    Its like arguing that changing the tires on your car is a bad activity since it does not further the glory of god.

    Of course AIG don’t get this. They also apparently don’t read their bible that often as they are on shakey ground when they say the bible tells us to love one another. It also tells us to stone guys that shave their beards but they seem to gloss over that bit.

  • Skeptimal

    I know this is off topic, but why does Scientology have a banner ad right above this article (dianetics)? This is an organization with an organized criminal background. They also routinely malign legitimate scientists in favor of the writings of a failed science fiction writer. They believe all our negative thoughts come from space aliens blown up on Hawaii 74 million years ago by Xenu, the galactic overlord. What gives?

  • Josha

    My friend cannot understand how atheists can be motivated to be good, ethical people. He considers me an exception to the rule, an outlier. So no matter what I tell him he still isn’t convinced that society as a whole would act morally without a god-belief. His main reason is that he respects humans because god gave them a soul, made them unique. He sees no reason to respect humankind if they aren’t specially made by a supernatural being and given a soul (whatever that is).

    I’m kind of worried by that.

  • Emily

    “Survival of the fittest” is a very simplistic view of evolution. In species with a high level of social interaction and complex relationships, altruism has evolved both to protect the species in general and also to get other organisms (in this case, people) to think you are nice and therefore be more likely to do nice things for you.

    But really, does any of that even matter? I care about people because i love them. That’s all it needs to be.

  • Jason R

    Why do we care about the lives of others?

    It’s an evolutionary advantage, animals that have emotional feedback in regards to the harm of other animals leads to easier survival as DNA pools aren’t unnecessarily wasted on non-survival related killing. As the population grows the DNA responsible expands to more organisms and populations become safer. Combine that with knowledge retention and the continual advancement of logical reasoning. The feedback mechanism expands.

    (extremely simplified explanation)

  • Godless Heathen

    ‘survival of the fittest’ is a much misunderstood term. The problem comes with the word ‘fit’. In this context it is defined as ‘Suitable’ as in ‘fit for a king’. survival of the most suitable doesn’t have the same sound-bite quality to it though.


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