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October 17, 2004

Self-Interest in God

In yesterday's Corner, Jonah Goldberg posted an email from a Georgetown freshman who characterizes himself as an "agnostic nontheist" (an atheist wishing to cover his bets?) and who makes a hobby of attempting to construct morality without the use of a Supreme Being:

The linchpin is self-interest.

Everyone does, for better or for worse, what they believe is in their own self-interest. However, us being more advanced cerebrally than animals, we've discovered that forming social covenants (i.e. government) that cause us to pledge to respect, in a variety of ways, the self-interest of others, is in all of our self-interests. Because, given the uncertainty of the future, even if we're strong today, we could be weak tomorrow -- or given our biological urge to procreate and pass on our genetic code, our offspring generations from now could be oppressed by those who are stronger in the future, if we do not form a society to protect their freedoms.

And thus, from self-interest, are derived concepts such as Fairness, Equality, Liberty, and Freedom.

In rapid succession, three responses followed. A sophomore at UPenn provides the first instinct of a theist:

Self-interest does not account for any of the most important things in life. Why do soldiers die for their country? Why would anyone die for anything, if self-interest reigned? A parent for a child? A husband for a wife? Sane people will acknowledge that these actions are "good". But they glorify a radical rejection of self-interest for a higher purpose.

Another reader incorporates the reality of self-interest into theism:

For me, the salient point is that God challenges His people to define self-interest in a new way, apart from secular standards of morality. If I act according to self-interest as God defines it, I will inevitably act against self-interest as the secular world defines it.

And yet another speculates about the dangers of an atheist regime:

He identifies precisely why I don't trust atheists: the only reason he will support my freedom is his self-interest, and I have rather less confidence than he does that his perception of his self-interest won't change someday to accommodate enslaving me. I rely for my freedom on those who believe that freedom is God-given, and will not take it away no matter how advantageous they would find the prospect.

These three are all great points, and as one who now, after conversion from my own version of "agnostic nontheism," Orthodox Intellectualism, finds them all correct and persuasive, I still must admit that they are not adequate. Our Georgetown student and many others who share his frame of mind will eventually think to reply as follows:

Human beings realized, at some point, that individual sacrifice was necessary for community perpetuation. It is in each individual's interest to admit that some individuals will have to sacrifice themselves to keep the society going. Therefore, out of self-interest, the members of the society conspired to cultivate an irrational morality — whether an unrooted emphasis on honor or some other higher priority deriving from the Divine — that helps the individuals with the misfortune to be on the front line to see their ultimate rejection of self-interest as actually serving it in a more profound way. (And of course, the powerful and privileged will rig the system to lower their odds, which also grants them leeway to question the irrational morality itself.)

Such a scenario has been easy to espouse, over the past centuries, as science has progressed apace while standing before a backdrop of majority Christianity. A problem arises over time, however, when more and more people figure out the game. And we're currently seeing the effects of this idea's escape from ivory towers.

Show me a laborer who would articulate a morality according to long-term self-interest. Show me a poor man who would respect the abstraction of property rights against his own needs and desires. Show me a soldier who would lay down his life in full awareness that he has merely lost the lottery in a necessary cultural illusion.

It remains in the interest of aggregated individuals, therefore, to cultivate a society that ensures some significant percentage of members who believe there to be more to life than self-interest. Over long histories, with the odds that the ultimate sacrifice will be required, the "more" advisably promises an afterlife payoff. To wit, it is in everybody's interest — even the intellectuals' — to behave as if God exists. Even if the atheists are right, in other words, it behooves them not to promote their view.

Now, accepting this argument, we have a choice to make — a choice that strikes me as purposefully unavoidable, even approached from infinite angles. Some people will look at a theist and say, "You desire meaning and immortality, so you have created God to answer your emotional need; I have understood this, so because I desire God's existence, I do not believe in Him." Some theists might reply that their desire for God is evidence of Him.

Just so, the individual and communal instinct to pursue self-interest, leading us to the imperative of belief in God, stands as evidence of His hand at work in our formation, as well as in the way that we, in turn, form our societies. Personally, I have come to feel that humankind will never discover evidence nor invent argument that demands acceptance of either theism or atheism. Still, God must either exist or not exist, without regard to our belief, and if He does, accepting that reality would be a matter of self-interest in countless respects.

A power failure delayed this posting (requiring that I rewrite it in substantial part), and in the interim, Andrew Stuttaford raised the question of an "altruism gene" that ensures an instinctual morality regardless of its philosophical bases' stability. When such arguments branch into genetics, it has seemed to me that the ground on which theists stand becomes even more firm — although again we have the irreducible choice about faith.

Whatever the case, one could argue that our ability to "transcend" instinct is a defining characteristic of humanity. Women are supposed to have a strong instinct to protect their young, including in the womb, after all. Thus, we return to the need for a philosophy — a theology — that preempts our "transcending" the instinct to behave as if we will one day be judged apart from this life.

Posted by Justin Katz at October 17, 2004 3:32 PM


"Even if the atheists are right, in other words, it behooves them not to promote their view."

Some conservative intellectuals have this view, such as Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard. (can't remember where I read this, though)

"You desire meaning and immortality, so you have created God to answer your emotional need; I have understood this, so because I desire God's existence, I do not believe in Him." Some theists might reply that their desire for God is evidence of Him.

I always think that when this point is made by atheists/agnostics, they are simply begging the question. They assume that if belief in God assuages feelings of meaninglessness or impotence, that that in itself is evidence of the falsity of the belief. As if it would only be logical to believe in God if that belief were contrary to what one wants to believe. One can just as easily apply this argument to their beliefs: they don't believe in God because it makes them uncomfortable to think they have moral claims on their behavior. Christian's, at least, claim both sides: we are created in God's image, and thus seek after Him; but we are also fallen, and constantly subject to our own desires, which lead us away from God.

This argument stems from the atheistic view that they are nobly and courageously facing the randomness and meaninglessness of life. Religious believers comfort themselves with the thought that God cares for them, while the atheist is boldly facing up to the reality that God does not exist, and that life has no external meaning - thus one must create meaning, give one's own life meaning. They never address the irrationality of this position, however.

I agree that there will never be an empirical or logical proof or disproof of God. What would be nice would be more atheists/agnostics who have at least attempted to understand Christian philosophy and theology, and can explain it coherently. Michael Ruse is the only one I've read who does this. Most of the objections that people raise against religious belief have been around for centuries, if not millenia, and the Church has answered them in a variety of ways.

It's akin to when new people come to Dust in the Light with arguments in favor of SSM, without having read any of the archives...

Posted by: Mike S. at October 18, 2004 11:18 AM
It's akin to when new people come to Dust in the Light with arguments in favor of SSM, without having read any of the archives...

Perhaps taking the statement too seriously, I should note that I don't really expect people to read the archives before commenting. Moreover, I'd love to have the ability to reformulate my argument each time, because it could only become stronger. Similarly, I think apologists need never tire of remaking the same arguments... as long as they're being demanded by different people.

Would be nice if everybody didn't have to reinvent the wheel for themselves, but it's human nature; it's certainly my human nature!

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 18, 2004 4:42 PM

Self-interest or what I call "expanded self-interest" can certainly be a viable moral compass for non-theists.

Self-interest is not just interest for the self. The urge to procreate extends self-interest toward our spouses and children. This is why parents willingly give up a great deal, including body organs in some cases, for the well being of their children. Beyond the immediate family is interest toward the person's clan, or whatever group they belong to. This is why soldiers give up their lives for their countries.

During World War II, thousands of Russian soldiers gave up their lives to liberate their homeland from the Nazi invaders. While it is impossible to know how many of these soldiers subscribed the official atheist beliefs, certainly many of them were, and they didn't require a belief in God to give up their lives for their families and communities.

The problem with using only religion as the moral compass is that there are almost as many versions of religious morality as there are religions. The assumption that many people arguing in favor of theism make is that important moral values are derived from religion, and can only be derived from religion. But what happens when a religion, or someone's interpretation of it, interprets moral values differently. Osama bin Laden's religion interprets the death of 3000 people on 9/11 as God's plan. It's ALL moral relativism, and in the case of religious believers morality is relative to one's religion and one's interpretation of it. That's why I believe religion is a reflection of the person who practices it.

Another way of looking at this would be what I call "moral maturity." A morally immature person acts in narrow self interest only. If he wants to do something, the question is "Is it allowed?" If not, he asks "What are the chances of getting caught?" For the morally immature, the only factor moderating behavior is the fear of punishment.

Religion is useful for moderating the behavior of the morally immature. If you parents, teacher, or the police are not watching you, but you believe in an omniscient God that watches you all the time, you may think twice about doing something forbidden, even if punishment may be deferred until the afterlife.

But for the morally mature, behavior choices are not on fear of punishment, but on principals. For me, these principals are based on respect for others, and acting as much as possible as if the world was the way I'd want it to be. If I find a lost wallet containing cash, I will make every possible effort to return it to it's owner, because in my vision of the perfect world, that's what anyone finding my lost wallet would do. If I kept the cash and threw away the wallet, I wouldn't fear God's wrath, but I would feel hypocritical for not extending a courtesy to others that I expect them to extend to me.

Posted by: Dan Carvin at February 23, 2005 3:57 PM

I've responded to Dan here.

Posted by: Justin Katz at March 1, 2005 12:00 PM