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Why Are We Good?

Why Are We Good?

How an Atheist and a Believer Answer


Why do we feel wrenching compassion when we see an orphaned child weeping, or an old widow in lonely despair, or an animal whimpering in pain? What gives us the powerful urge to send an anonymous gift of money or clothes to tsunami victims on the other side of the world whom we'll never meet and who are highly unlikely to return the favor?

With these powerful questions, Richard Dawkins begin his chapter entitled "The Roots of Morality—Why Are We Good."

Dawkins is an atheist. And a self-proclaimed proud one. He is very vocal about his "deeply religious non-belief" and longs for others to follow his example.

His book, The God Delusion, surprisingly sold 2 million copies. Surprising because, though he claims religion is illogical and dogmatic, his book dogmatically pokes fun at religion and belief in G‑d by ascribing to it numerous epithets and insulting adjectives with what could only be termed "religious" zealotry. In his rant, he also cites some of the stupidest acts committed by religious people, thereby merely proving that intellectual acuity, or a lack thereof, is not reserved to atheists.

There are many qualified scientists who systematically prove the many holes in the theory of evolution. This article is not about those scientific proofs.

What caught my interest is how Dawkins dealt with the question of morality. At the outset, Dawkins admits that "the Darwinian idea that evolution is driven by natural selection seems ill-suited to explain such goodness as we possess, or our feelings of morality, decency, empathy and pity."

This got me nodding in agreement. When our world is merely a matter of random acts of "natural selection" without any Designer or apparent purpose or direction, and creations are simply individual organisms fighting for their survival, what should cause us to selflessly pursue acts of goodness or morality, at the expense of our own personal needs or pleasures?

Dawkins answers this by explaining that there are four motivators for "altruistic behavior" (his term) in a Darwinian, evolutionary society:

1) Kinship: Acts of altruism would be programmed towards one's genetic kin—such as one's children—in order to increase the pool of one's own genes.

2) Reciprocal altruism or symbiosis: In simple words, "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." An act of kindness may be performed in order to demand reciprocation for it at a later date.

3) Reputation of goodness: A generous act may be performed in order to foster a calculated and advantageous reputation of goodness that will benefit the individual at a later date.

4) Advertisement of dominance or superiority: Altruistic giving may be an advertisement of dominance or superiority. Only a genuinely superior individual can afford to advertise the fact through a costly gift.

Dawkins goes on to explain that even if some of these original motivators no longer apply in today's society, they may have become part of our evolved self to the point that these acts are now common.

He writes: "Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler's parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo?

"In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators. Nowadays that restriction is no longer there but the rule of thumb persists…We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate)."

To Dawkins and Darwinians, kindness, generosity, empathy or acts of altruism are simply evolved, self-serving reactions. Anything more is, as he puts it, "misfirings, Darwinian mistakes," which he nevertheless acknowledges are "blessed, precious mistakes."

Altruism is merely a calculated manipulation geared towards self-aggrandizement, or smart investments that will lead to interest-laden results. In the best case scenario in a Darwinian-Dawkins society, any act of goodness beyond these parameters is simply a "misfired mistake," perhaps blessed, but nevertheless a mistake!

To a believer, on the other hand, our time in this world is not accidental, nor is it a random happening of natural selection based on the survival of the fittest. It is rather a benevolent gift bequeathed to us from our Creator entrusting us with the incredible opportunity, and responsibility, to use our time productively by transforming our world into a more G‑dly and goodly place.

To a believer, a fellow human being is not simply a random pool of organisms from whom we can milk the greatest reciprocation or whom we can manipulate or dominate for our own self-interests. Fellow human beings are creations of G‑d with their own G‑dly mission that they alone can uniquely accomplish.

The believer looks into the eyes of his child and does not see a mere random act of copulation, or someone to whom to demonstrate kinship as a means of increasing his own gene pool. He sees instead a precious and miraculous gift of life that has been entrusted to his care, to teach and inspire, to love and cherish.

So, where an atheist sees natural selection of the strongest or fittest, a believer sees a design and Designer.

While the atheist sees randomness and purposelessness, a believer sees a world with meaning and direction.

While an atheist sees altruism as an evolutionary "misfiring," a believer sees his moral conscience as the guidance of his G‑dly soul.

The question of "why be good" is answered very differently by the atheist and the believer. In fact, morality and altruism, goodness and kindness acquire entirely different worlds of meaning.

Because where an atheist views creation as an evolved pool of genes, the believer sees every part of creation – from the blade of grass to his fellow human being – as a spark of the Divine.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of five popular books.
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Doreet Eugene Oregon August 4, 2013

"somewhere you need a chicken" the idea that "the universe cannot make itself", any more than an egg can make itself, is according to OUR limited physics. "Higher physics" as we have been finding out, often does not go by the same rules as common physics. Because we have such limited brains, thoughts and ideas, we probably cannot comprehend a universe making it self somehow without the chicken.. Isn't God and the creator itself, beyond our physics and comprehension? Who laid the egg that became God? Ha ha. Quite a tangle isn't it? Reply

Doreet Eugene Oregon August 4, 2013

reply: Tehillim 14 is correct; if you truthfully look at the majority of humans, everywhere, you will find they need motivations for doing anything.doing charity, kindness, and trying to heal the world. it is true "they are all corrupt." But that has always been true, through one knows better than I, who have had a very bad, often horrible, and difficult life. If I were to act as one of the corrupt, and say "I do not believe in God, I only believe in money, materialism and wealth and power" that would be easy.

Being able to find God, in yourself and in the world, is never easy. The worse cynic, like me, must work really hard to find meaning in life, and find some God in everything. No one has faith or believes in God, easily is what Tehillim 14 means;human beings are very imperfect, and self-serving. We do have to work hard to find God, and believe in him and his teachings. No, it is not easy, but "if it were easy everyone would do it." Reply

BA Rahway, NJ July 19, 2011

I wouldn't say that altruistic behaviors are from evolutionary 'misfirings.' There's no such thing as an evolutionary 'misfire.' Either selective factors were involved that led to altruistic behavior--or no selective factors were involved and humans just developed that way. Perhaps its a side effect of higher mental functioning and is not strongly affected by selective pressures.

It also isn't very even-handed to say that there are many 'qualified' scientists that point out holes in evolution. I don't see you applying that argument to your own beliefs. After all, there are many scientists, believers in other religions and even *Jews* that do not agree with you.

I'd like to point out that there's a difference between pointing out a 'hole' in a theory and disproving one. Pointing out shortcomings of theories and modifying them is how science progresses. There are many accepted scientific explanations out there that have 'holes' in them. Your statement is naive or intended to deceive. Reply

Peter Spiro Stevenson, WA March 20, 2011

The reason we are good ... ... is because God is good.

And God pours forth his goodness to all of creation, whether you believe God exists or not.

The rejection of God isn't so much in the rejection of the ideas about God, but in the way that Cain rejected God after murdering his brother by embracing his evil and flaunting it as an act of rebellion against God:

"Is my iniquity too great to be borne?" Gen 4:13
And with this he leaves the presence of the Lord with his authority for vengeance.

Athiests are good because they are formed from the goodness of God like every creature in creation.

And the reasons people are bad is because they follow in the ways of Cain, killing, and flaunting this evil as a moral good.

"My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" Psalm 22:2
This is the cry of the athiest.

"Is my iniquity to great to be borne?" Gen 4:13
This is the appeal of the wicked. Reply

CR March 2, 2011

Why are we good? Only because we are made in the image of G-d is there any hint of goodness in humans. Check out the charities in the world and you'll see they are religious (Jews and Christians mainly). My evaluation of mankind, agrees The Tanak which says, in Tehilim 14, "there is none that doeth good. G-d looked forth from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any man of understanding, that did seek after G-d. They are all corrupt, they are together become impure; there is none that doeth good, no, not one." We are good only when we learn and know our maker and begin to act like Him and even then, being good is often for self satisfaction only rarely in selflessness. Mankind desperately needs the TRUE G-d influencing his life for there to be generosity and charity poured out from them. Any honest person knows we are basically self serving and uninterested in the plight of others. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel February 28, 2011

Being Good Surely this involves more than following one ideal. As Hillel asked:

If I am not for myself, who is for me?

But in being for myself alone, what am I?

And if not now, when?

Being good must include a serious response to all of these three answers and consequently our personalities are somewhat more complicated than simply following one line of activity. Reply

CR February 22, 2011

Why are we 'good'? The altruistic atheist will choose to kill the deformed child rather than give his selfless love to care for that child. The altruistic atheist will abort the child conceived of rape or incest rather than humble himself to care and love that child.. An atheist can 'call' himself 'good'' ,but the Atheist is not 'good'. He is self centered, at best, and his wincing at another's pain is only the thought that it could be himself. G-d knows, there is none 'Good' but G-d and the one in whom G-d's spirit dwells! Reply

Moshe David Los Angeles, CA December 14, 2010

Amazing To Mr. Fox: it's amazing only because G-d, the creator made it so. the universe can't create itself anymore than an egg lays itself. at some point you need a chicken. Reply

scott fox warren, mi December 14, 2010

No ONE person is the same! I too am a non believer. But, I experience the world around me and the people in it to be nothing less than sacred and beautiful. Although I dont believe in a God does not mean that cant see the sacredness in life. I am not a scientist nor a theologian but I know that this is an amazing place we life and it is amazing the fact that I am even here at all. When I watch the sunrise or breath in the fall air, I feel the greatness of this earth, and the greatness of being alive to experience it. When I imagine the world and the universe I see myself as a little piece of somethings that is whole and complete and incomprehensible. I do not believe in God, I just believe that it is all just amazing and believe that anyone can believe anything they want, because whether God made us or the universe made us I dont believe it is my right to police anyone in anything. I treat people with respect and love as best I can not because I respect and love the fact that I exist. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel October 27, 2010

my mistake I meant to write DARWIN, but my finger slipped!

Charles Darwin was the first person to think and to write about the various species of animals and humans as subject to a process of evolution. His book called "The Ascent of Man" caused a revolution in those thinking circles of his day (about 1860).

Dawkins was/in also a writer in biology, whose themes seem to describe the way that this process occurs. He has two books named "The Blind Watchmaker" and "The Selfish Gene" which deal with the more physical side of this evolution process from a reproduction point of view. Reply

MP October 26, 2010

Perhaps Dawkins was correct - as he speaks for himself. Not all of humanity is equally as altruistic. Reply

Moshe David Los Angeles, CA September 16, 2010

Language, or, what's in a name? if we take a small liberty with letters and languages.... some word scrambles: Dawkins: Daw Skin, Daw= Hebrew for "know" can only know his "skin" the material, not the spiritual and beyond. Darwin: Daw Nir, "nir=near" only knows that which is near, which is observable, therefore theory of evolution Reply

Jeannette Carmel, CA July 5, 2010

If Dawkins was right your cogent article would be a mighty misfiring of intellectual generousity.
Thank you for your perspective and insights. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel May 25, 2010

Basic Reasoning The subject of purpose for existance surely calls for an answer to the most basic question: If our existance was not for a purpose, then why should we want to continue with it. Why not all stop procreating and why not commit communial suicide?

The answer can only be that because of our beliefs of existance for a purpose, G-D's purpose, can we claim that we want to continue living and growing in numbers. This subject is then followed by Dawkins arguements not preceded by them. Reply

Anonymous la ca, us May 23, 2010

I didn't quite get the flow of this piece. Kinship by us can be called "areivim ze le zeh" (we are all responsible for one another) but this wasn't well delineated here. This is a HUGE subject and this was a single bullet across its bow. Reply

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Chana Weisberg is the author of Tending the Garden: The Unique Gifts of the Jewish Woman and four other books. Weisberg is a noted educator and columnist and lectures worldwide on issues relating to women, faith, relationships and the Jewish soul.
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