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.