Life Will Answer – The Book: Altruism Examined



An interesting and occasional contentious online debate has been taking place over the course of the past few months * between Jerry A. Coyne [a professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True] and Damon Linker [author of The Theocons, and The Religious Test. He is also a senior correspondent at, as well as a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, and a contributing editor at The New Republic] on the respective merits and weaknesses of arguments supporting/disputing atheism and religion.

Since the subject is a prime topic of my own book, I thought I’d dive in to that discussion and offer my two cents’ worth. I’ll begin by stating a basic premise of my own book: Something clearly played a role in the creation/origin of Everything. Whether one chooses to define or name that Source God or anything else is in the end irrelevant. What is fundamental is that Life Will Answer whatever it is we choose.

Whatever mysterious or unknowable Entity responsible for putting us here on Planet Earth does not then mandate we follow certain rules or obey certain guidelines or honor It or worship It. Certainly It is not to be feared.

What It is for is to be used by us as we choose. The course of our lives is the product of choices we do and do not make. By the level of our commitment to those choices, our continuing focus and efforts in support of achieving our ambitions and purposes, and our understanding that the Process of Life necessarily presents us with challenges and obstacles along the way all factor in to the lives we lead. We even choose how to define whatever Deity we may choose to incorporate into our lives. We are also free to do no such thing.

Through it all, Life Will Answer, and it will do so without judgments or condemnations or anything else. Life is for us to live as we decide—good or bad. Choices and actions create results and open up possibilities. The integrity and decency of our choices and efforts will determine to a large extent the successes and setbacks of our lives.

One glaring contradiction to the premises stated above jumped out at me in the most recent offering by Linker. The premise of his article—and the primary theme of his contributions to the religion-atheism debate, was that there are certain experiences occurring in our lives for which atheism has no explanation. In that regard, he is correct. But his choice of defense tactics supporting religion as the satisfactory explanation leaves much to be desired.

He begins with that primary assertion:

[T]here are specific human experiences that atheism in any form simply cannot explain or account for. One of those experiences is radical sacrifice — and the feelings it elicits in us. Think of a soldier who throws herself on a live grenade to save her comrades. Or a firefighter who enters a blaze to rescue a child knowing that he will likely perish in the effort.

Linker then details a tragic, yet awe-inspiring account of Thomas S. Vander Woude, who died a rather horrible death while saving the life of his son, who has Down Syndrome. He ends the re-telling of the story with this comment:

This is something that any father, atheist or believer, might do for his son. But only the believer can make sense of the deed.

Really? “Make sense of the deed” according to whose standards and definitions of making sense? He goes into a spirited assessment of motivations which atheists might rely upon to make such sacrifices—among them “economically based” rationales or biological imperatives to expand the “gene pool”. As he notes:

Other atheistic theories similarly deny the possibility of genuine altruism.

Really, again? Atheists will engage in some bizarre cost-benefit analysis, or call up their best evolution-based conclusions before deciding to jump into a pool to save a child, or rush into a neighbor’s home to save them from a fire, or fulfill their professional responsibilities as first-responders? It’s certainly convenient to pin all sorts of non-humane attributes on atheists, and while that may offer comfort to fellow believers, it’s more of the same style of “thinking” and analysis used by climate change deniers, Republican Party economic principle advocates, and others of their ilk.

Have the conclusion in hand, and then work backwards to fill in the holes with whatever is available.  

Why do his attempts to explain this devolve to the God as customarily understood – why not just some mystery of the Universe or science? Why do such examples of incredible bravery and sacrifice have to be attributed to a God? Are atheists incapable of behaving in the same manner or for the same fundamentally human concerns and emotions? Are we to extend that rationale just a bit more and assume that all atheists are simply incapable of behaving altruistically without some economic justification in hand?

Perhaps Mr. Linker might want to take a longer look at some of this nation’s most vocal Christians and try to defend away their less-than-honorable-humane-altruistic behaviors. Good luck with that!

His own explanation for Mr. Vander Woude’s astounding display of selflessness and love for his child comes up a bit lame.

What is it about the story of a man who willingly embraces a revolting, horrifying death in order to save his son that moves us to tears? Why does it seem somehow, like a beautiful painting or piece of music, a fleeting glimpse of perfection in an imperfect world?
I’d say that only theism offers an adequate explanation — and that Christianity might do the best job of all.

Why? His added commentary of support, explaining how his God offered up His son, who was then “unjustly tried, convicted, punished, and killed in the most painful and humiliating manner possible — all as an act of gratuitous love for the very people who did the deed” assumes everyone buys into that fiction first of all. It’s apparently supposed to be a given that this is what happened, because others said it did and fellow believers happen to agree.

Nice if you can get away with that as your strongest argument, but that example has been blessed with a primacy it may not necessarily deserve. All of the inhumane and indecent, purely evil actions of so many others in the course of our history—subtle or overt—and this God hasn’t seen fit to pop back into the picture and rectify a few things?

The Donald Sterlings of the world are allowed to thrive—fabulously so—but we’re expected to expend a whole lot of energy and effort condemning devoted gay couples or making sure we don’t ruffle the sensitive feelings of corporations by making them do horrible things like respecting the private decisions of employees or existing laws? Good to have priorities!

Perhaps Mr. Linker needs a better understanding of what motivates we godless, despicable atheists to love our spouses and children, and devote time to our communities, or help our neighbors. Amazing what opening one’s eyes or prying open a closed mind can produce!


~ My Photo: sunrise at Long Beach, Rockport, MA – 08.22.05