Over at THE WEEK a few days ago, Damon Linker wrote an article titled “Why atheism doesn’t have the upper hand over religion.” In this article, Linker claims to have dealt a coup de grâce to atheism:
“The fact is that there 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.”
He goes on to list a few “atheistic” theories like rational choice theory and biological altruism as flawed explanations for radical sacrifice and concludes that the best explanation is that Jesus died on the cross and therefore radical sacrifice gives people “a fleeting glimpse of God.”
No, I’m not making that shit up.
He ends the article with a challenge:
“Don’t buy it? I dare you to come up with something better.”
Do you triple-dog dare me, Mr. Linker?? You’re on, dude!
Setting aside for a moment that Linker’s entire approach to this question is based on a false premise—atheism doesn’t seek to “explain” anything—I’ll provide a couple of explanations and challenges to his initial premise that don’t rely on the existence of God.
First, Linker conflates “radical sacrifice” with “altruism.” There is an implicit assumption in his article that sacrifice is always altruistic (it’s not). Of course, this all hinges on which definition of “altruism” Linker would like to use. In the colloquial sense, it refers to acts of kindness for which one does not gain a material benefit. We could certainly think of many examples of altruism that do not involve a sacrifice—and I would hope considering Linker’s dismissal of rational choice and economic theories in his article that he wouldn’t try to make an argument based on opportunity cost here.
Another issue I have with Linker’s premise is that I’m not convinced that “radical sacrifice” is a universal human experience. The very idea of “radical sacrifice” seems to be to be a cultural construction based in a religious mythos. So, of course Linker is more likely to see a religious explanation for “radical sacrifice” as his culture, with a deeply rooted Christianity, has ingrained him to think of it that way. I do think Euro-American cultures value sacrifice and altruism, at least for those who are closely related in some way (e.g., family and friends). But it’s just a tad short-sighted for Linker to assume that sacrifice is a human universal considering how often people stand by and watch horrible things happen to others. Perhaps the very idea of “sacrifice” for others does not exist for all cultural groups. It would be interesting to look through the ethnographic record to see if that sort of information is out there. Regardless, I am always hesitant to accept any moral values or beliefs as human universals.
Yet, even if I were to grant the premise that “radical sacrifice” is a universal human experience, I could certainly explain it in ways that do not require the invocation of a supernatural being as the cause. Linker even sort of lays out one of these explanations in his article when he notes that sacrifice could serve to strengthen kinship ties. The flaw with that argument is that it assumes that kinship ties are biological. In fact, kinship ties are sociocultural, not biological. So the argument that some kinds of sacrifice don’t help reproductive fitness does not actually have any bearing on the argument that sacrifice can strengthen kinship ties. Kinship ties can be formed and strengthened regardless of their bearing on reproductive fitness—yes, cultural practices can be both adaptive and maladaptive!
Another explanation could be belief itself. I don’t have to invoke the existence of God to argue that people with certain beliefs engage in radical sacrifice because they believe they catch a glimpse of God or are doing God’s work or what have you. It’s a perfectly acceptable explanation that the belief in belief is enough to get people to engage in radical sacrifice. A belief in God does not actually serve as evidence for God’s existence, Mr. Linker!
I have no doubt that there are lots of other possible explanations for altruism and “radical sacrifice.” What do you think? Can you come up with any?
(Edit: 4/22/2014 @ 1:50 p.m. Eastern Time: Fixed error in title, should not have said “Non-Atheistic.”)