Challenge Accepted: Non-Theistic Explanations for Sacrifice

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.”)


Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at

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  1. I can think of a willing suicide to benefit others (is that the extreme case of what we are discussing?) as a purely rational choice. It is well known that everyone dies eventually. Knowing this, anything you do to help others for which you receive nothing other than the good feelings of helping them (maybe they are non-reciprocal jerks) is simply just part of your time on earth helping others for no gain. If you can spend your years bit-by-bit because you think it will help, why can’t you spend all your years at once, i.e. suicide, if you think the benefits for others will be large enough? Thus I can easily see a parent killing themselves to save their child, for example, as a rational choice.

    1. I immediately thought of the seniors who volunteered to help contain the Fukushima plant. Theirs was a selfless sacrifice that doesn’t appear to have been motivated by religion in any way. Furthermore, there was a rational argument that, while nuclear radiation exposure isn’t good for anyone, it’s less bad for them than it is for younger people. This wasn’t exactly Spock rushing into the reactor core level radical sacrifice, but selfless nonetheless.

  2. Before delving into the idea of examples of sacrifice that don’t involve religion – a task so easy that we are overwhelmed for choice – I’d like to pose this question: How does Damon Linker explain sacrifices that were made before Jesus ever appeared? Were they somehow an anticipation of Jesus’s ‘sacrifice’? If that were even possible, why would Jesus even have needed to be here – but I digress.

    This blind Christo-centrism is frustratingly typical of Linker. Frustrating because he seems to take up so much space in the world of commentary that could be better used by more SMBC, or ads, or ‘One weird trick that will amaze you with what happens next.’

  3. What arrogance. Linker says, “This is something that any father, atheist or believer, might do for his son. But only the believer can make sense of the deed.”

    Making sense of any act or deed — indeed, meaning-making at all — is a universal human experience. No religion is required to make meaning out of any act. If I — as an atheist — I choose to give up my life in order to save the life of my son or my daughter (which I would do in a heartbeat), I can make a variety of meanings (or sense) out of that act. Mr. Linker is simply proposing several strawmen arguments.

    Following jblumenfeld, Mr. Linker would do well to read about the Japanese tradition of Bushido. Or even Kamikaze.

  4. The sacrifice of Iphigenia was scarcely altruistic. She didn’t want to get the chop for a start and the Greeks were only doing it so that they could get good winds for their fleet to sail to a war that was ultimately pointless.

    So that particular sacrifice wasn’t altruistic on the part of either the sacrificer or the victim. And when you look at them, most religious sacrifices are really BDSM power plays.

    If you don’t believe me, take a look at the wares on this site:

    1. Haha! Yep you’re right. Clearly I should look up French phrases before I use them. I’ll fix it when I get a chance. ;)

  5. The game theory folks have talked to the anthropologists and cognitive scientists about this ( There are cases where proposing rational pay-offs and compromises paradoxically results in greater intransigence and greater willingness to make costly, self-improverishing, and not even altruistic sacrifices by your opponents ( The whole pulling down the pillars of the temple on your own head thing, taking innocents and allies with you as well as banging in the heads of a few enemies. And that’s scary. But that’s the human animal. Conflicts can be framed in ways that decrease attentiveness to cost-benefit payoffs. Communities may be bound together by the conviction that members are willing to make such costly sacrifices. And what are rationalists to do in this state of affairs …. wish I had a quick and easy answer for that one.

  6. Don’t forget the oft sacrifices to the death of many other animals for their young. I don’t think mama moles behaved any different before dude got nailed to the tree.

  7. Will,

    I think Evolution probably did play a huge role in making humans at least somewhat altruistic. After all parents who are willing to risk their lives for the well being of their children, may be more likely to have their children survive. A person who wouldn’t be willing to take even the slightest risk to protect their children, would be very unattractive to anyone who wanted to have kids.

    1. I don’t disagree that altruism is likely an evolved trait in humans, but I don’t think it’s a purely biologically evolved trait. It’s much more likely a bioculturally evolved trait for humans (cf. Jonathan Marks “The Biological Myth of Human Evolution”). At any rate, my point was not to dismiss the possibility of evolution playing a role in human alturism but to point out that it is possible to make an argument about the role of kinship without having to invoke bio-evolutionary explanations. ;)

  8. Read up on the anarchists of the Spanish Civil War (unless it’s written by a Bolshevik). Or just _For Whom the Bell Tolls_.

  9. Phillip… so very, very kinky those Opus Dei types…

    Self Immolation in protest is not something only religious people do. Ryszard Siwiec a Polish philosophy student self immolated to protest the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia… Nor Jan Palach who also lit himself on fire to protest the expansion of the Soviets into Eastern Europe to suppress liberation movements there…

    ““Palach was a quiet and rational person; he seemed like a philosopher – later we found out that he had actually wanted to study philosophy. He was serious-minded. He studied in order to understand things profoundly, not to excel in exams. He was always willing to help other people with their studies or with problems related to school. He primarily took part in debates connected with studies or political problems.”

    Pavel Bursa, Palach’s schoolmate from the University of Economics, Prague; 28 January 1969”

    Without getting too deep into whether or not Mah?y?na Buddhism is “theistic” Thích Qu?ng ??c’s self immolation was a specific protest about the suppression of the Buddhists… Jesus was not involved…

    Almost 100 copycat self immolations in protest of the Vietnam war followed. I am sure at least 10% of those were existentialists, or perhaps even….nihilists on bad drugs.

    Countless people have sacrificed themselves in literal war against Christianity, capitalism, environmental degradation – in self defense from all of these things because of having a commitment to the interconnection of all beings and the planet…No Jesus necessary.

    Over a hundred Tibetans in protest of Chinese annexation of Tibet are counted among the self-immolated.

    The idea that it’s only the Christians who act in self sacrifice….is really appalling when you think about it. Let us also not forget the suicide bombers…who of course, sacrifice themselves before they sacrifice others…

    And let us not forget Mohamed Bouazizi who lit himself on fire to protest harassment by extortion loving policemen and the inability to make a life for himself and his family in Tunisia another country dominated by an entrenched oligarchy…much like ours. Since apostasy is not allowed in countries dominated by Islam…there is no real knowing what his thoughts were on the matter of god or gods. We do know what he thought about injustice though.

    Those are just a few self-sacrifices not motivated by Christ.

  10. This sounds an awful lot like the frightening people who claim the only reason everyone isn’t an amoral psychopath is because of the fear of god.

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