Selfishness, selflessness and the necessity of divine

Selfishness, selflessness and the necessity of divine

Catalin Negru | Last modified: January 28, 2016 | 15:14

One of the major factors on which our existence depends, both as individuals and as a species, is the fight between selfishness and selflessness.

Selfishness, that is the self preservation instinct, is the most powerful instinct in all living beings. Selfishness drives us to protect ourselves in order to ensure our survival. It is also what drives males of a species to fight each other over females or resources in order to determine which genes are the strongest so that they can perpetuate and make the species stronger.

Selflessness on the other hand, is the instinct which accounts for the social character of human nature. It is the same as the species preservation instinct. In order to survive in their natural environment, humans had to hunt much bigger animals and had to face predators which easily outweigh the strength of an individual. Thus humans, along their multimillenary evolution, like many other species, came to work together and form groups in order to increase their chances of survival. So, selflessness drives the human individual to protect the group they are part of in order to ultimately protect themselves.

Morality is usually taken for selflessness while immorality is taken for selfishness.

Most of us equal selflessness with the good and selfishness with the evil because this is what religions promote. Morality is usually taken for selflessness or the desire to help others even at the cost of our own welfare, while immorality is taken for selfishness or the sacrificing of others in order to secure individual welfare. In reality, the good is the balance between the two.

A selfish individual does everything to ensure the best conditions to survive and develop even if this means endangering the existence of their fellow beings. Thus their actions and attitude can lead to removing the members of the group he is part of. The group becomes weaker and consequently more vulnerable to external dangers, which means that the selfish individual, unwillingly, endangers his own existence.

Selflessness inhibits initiative. If all members of a group would solely be driven by selflessness or the impulse of helping others, the group would not be coherent and would have no direction in its relation to the exterior.

Selfishness, by its nature, organizes, creates hierarchies and roles for each individual within the group. But selflessness is needed in order for the group to function properly and for each individual to obey the rules and fulfill their assigned role. Selfishness initiates directions and tendencies, but it is selflessness that makes them achievable. Thus, to become prosperous and evolve, individuals must create a stable society, and stability is not possible if the individuals are driven by extremes.

Animals and insects all but execute genetic instructions regardless of what goes on around them. The bee does not question why it has to work from birth until death for its queen and colony just as the great white shark does not question why it has to live and hunt alone. Humans, however, are endowed with intelligence, which, depending on education, genetics, practice and environment, allows them to keep or change the balance between instincts or their hierarchy.

Human societies have tried to reach and keep the balance between selflessness and selfishness.

Human societies have tried to reach and keep the balance between selflessness and selfishness by using three tools: law, morality and religion. And, given the fact that selfishness is undoubtedly a far more powerful instinct than selflessness, law, morality and religion have been most of the times conceived to encourage selflessness and discourage selfishness. Anti-social actions are condemned, while the selfless social actions are promoted. The individual who jeopardizes the safety and the unity of the group is isolated and, in extreme cases, exterminated. Historically, human societies have managed to function properly and evolve only when they successfully maintained a balance between the two instincts. And this balance meant encouraging and educating each individual to engage in useful activities both to themselves and those around them.

The problem lies in that the first two instruments – law and morality – have a limited scope. They only influence individuals who function in a socially ordered and prosperous context. For instance, in today’s developed societies, most members refrain from selfish impulses because they are aware that an antisocial, selfish action poses greater risks than it would bring benefits. Outer social order – manifested through good living standards – and/or inner social order – manifested through a well-educated individual – encourages a selfless behavior. Order gives humans the ability to predict their future, a well defined role within the group and the feeling that life makes sense. It is within this context that they are willing to enforce order and even to perfect it.

On the contrary, in contexts of disorder – outer and/or inner – humans have troubles anticipating their future and finding a meaning to their lives. This favors selfishness. During periods of social crisis (wars, epidemics, famine, catastrophes) or inner crisis (imminent death, personal tragedy) human laws and morality lose their value and influence on the human psyche. When humans cannot manage to find a meaning for living, they get to a point where they give course to actions which they would not otherwise do. Nonsense disrupts the balance between selfishness and selflessness, cancels out the distinction between right and wrong and deprives law and morality of any power. It is not so with religion.

So far, humanity has gone through countless crises and turning points, times when people killed each other without knowing exactly why or they had to cannibalize to survive famine. A look back at history can only make us shiver at the horrible ways our ancestors thought and acted: tragedy following tragedy, irrational actions and countless lives wasted. But even during such immoral times, what is it that made many of us remain moral, refrain from killing their fellow human beings when they knew there was nobody to witness or to kill at will when there was nothing to lose? Fear of the supernatural alone. Religion is the ultimate and the strongest mind frontier against nonsense.

Why must man be good when he has nothing to lose?

Concepts such as divine justice, afterlife, heaven, hell or final judgment are based on myths and legends which defy common sense. But these, as naive and absurd as they are, made many times the difference between life and death in the real world. At present, everywhere in the world, there is the perfectly justified trend to give up religion. But will the world be a better place when these concepts will have lost all credibility? What is a man capable of doing when confronted with the fact that his life is at an end and there is no meaning to it? What can stop him from killing the boss who humiliated him, rape the woman he secretly loves or set the planet on fire provided he has access to a nuclear bomb? In other words, what can stop an individual from turning into a supreme selfish person and endanger their own species?

If he is a believer, the only thing to really stop him is the idea of divinity. Nothing else; not his children, not other people’s opinion or the future of mankind. When this life makes no sense all his hopes and aspirations are channeled towards a possible future life. The human mind can survive an unbearable reality by running away from it. And religion comes to the rescue. Religion offers continuity to the immediate reality by projecting a future spiritual life. By diverting attention from the present to the future, the nonsense of the present life is replaced with the meaning of a future life and the fear of severe divine punishment in the afterlife prevents the individual from acting antisocially in this life.

But if he is an atheist, nothing and no one can stop him from turning into the supreme selfish being and endanger his own species. The atheist is certain that he came out of nothing, he will turn into nothing and there will be nothing after him. His children, his relatives, his friends or his work become completely devoid of meaning and importance as nothing ties him to this world and fellow human beings. The world is at an end for him. And nothing can help him cope with this unbearable reality. Everything boils down to here and now. His mind can very easily break and he is capable of acting in the worst antisocial way imaginable.

There is a crucial difference between the existence of divinity and the idea of divinity.

This is not about whether divinity exists or not, about one religion or another or about whether the holy books are truthful. It is about how the idea of supernatural resonates in people’s minds and how it affects social relations. The big question is if the idea of supernatural has resided for too long within us. We have never found a human society that did not have some form of religious observance. Hence, it is easy for some to conclude that human beings are “incurably religious” because God made them that way. But, let’s put it in another way: by perpetuating culinary habits on thousands of years, European people developed the genetic feature of lactose tolerance. Is it possible that, through a similar process, the idea of supernatural, might have become an intrinsic part of our human nature, of the manner in which our brain functions?

The supernatural might have evolved into a necessary element of human existence which guarantees the survival of the species by protecting the individuals and the others from ourselves. When people will cease to believe that there is an all-seeing eye, when they will no longer be afraid of divine punishment and they will have the opportunity to do harm without being held accountable by the human law, nothing will stop them from acting in a purely selfish way. And this means that, unless we discover ways to replace the divine barometer and the power of censorship of the supernatural on our minds, the survival of our species might become increasingly uncertain once religions disappear.

The paradox is that almost all scientific and technological breakthroughs humankind has achieved so far are not due to the fact that humans obeyed the divine but to the fact that they questioned it. Scientifically, the religious canons are flawed. Morally, they are irreplaceable.

The main role of the divinity has always been to regulate the individual’s destiny and behavior in their social and natural environment. The basis of morality can only be religious. Moral cannot exist alone; centuries of unsuccessful trials on the part of the philosophers to justify morality through human reason testify to this. Morality alone cannot keep the balance between selfishness and selflessness when the human individual has nothing to lose. Why should I be good to others? I am only me with myself and nothing more.

Does atheism endanger our species greater than religion?

In truth, religion is a double edged sword. And, until recently, humans mostly used the sharper edge. Fear of the divine pushed groups of people to kill other groups of people and restricted their access to knowledge. In the Old Testament the Jews exterminated neighboring people on God’s command, Christianity hindered cultural development in Europe for 1,000 years and initiated the crusades, Islam threw the Middle East in a dark era and it is a constant source of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. But, unlike atheism, religions of all kinds have never threatened the existence of the human species as a whole. They have always established two distinct sides and turned groups of people against other groups of people. They take the side of the groups which profess them and condemn those which reject them.

We do not believe we are wrong when we say that religion has brought mankind more prejudices than it did benefits. Even at the moment, if we look on the world’s map, we can see that the states dominated by secularism are stable and peaceful, while the ones dominated by certain religions are violent. But atheism is a far more dangerous religious extreme than religious fanaticism, especially now when mankind is in possession of nuclear power. Joseph Stalin was a proclaimed atheist and nothing stopped him from sending over 30 million people to certain death, most of his victims being his fellow countrymen. In the same way, Adolf Hitler was indifferent to the religious phenomenon and nothing stopped him from starting the Second World War. Thus, until a valid substitute for religion is found, one which would censor meaninglessness and selfishness as effectively, mankind must continue to rely on a morality based on the idea of divinity. And the key to a sustainable morality and our survival as a species lies in the balance between the idea of divinity and scientific knowledge. The divine is necessary to create the fear to stop humans from endangering their own species, while science must calibrate (or tone down) the fear so as it does not turn into fanaticism.

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  1. Let me get this straight: do you think belief in a divinity is a sort of a disease? I mean, do you think that all people who believe in a supreme being are idiots or something?

    • Of course not. As I said in the article, divinity (or better said the idea of divinity) might be a necessary integral part of our brain (or necessary at least for now).

  2. Catalin, you are a very smart person. Even though I am Muslim, I agree with some of your conclusions and thoughts. I have read some of your Quora answers that have lead me to your website. Nice work!

  3. I think you are conflating atheism with nihilism too much.

    More specifically, nihilism is the belief that nothing has intrinsic value; atheism is a radical form of religious skepticism which denies the possibility of a divinity or supernatural.

    Atheism does not necessarily lead to nihilism (and it fallacious to argue otherwise). For example, because an atheist does not believe in an afterlife, he may consequently consider life that much more precious. Case-in-point, Al Maarri, an 11th century Syrian freethinker and repudiator of religion, who was a strict vegan on account of his reverence for life.

    That being said, humanistic principles can be just as powerful as the provincial and utterly tribal mindset of supernaturalism: it is a matter of removing religion’s privileged status from our youth. You would not call your child a budding Anarcho-syndicalist, but you can call him a Christian or Jew or Muslim even though a child (let alone an adult) cannot comprehend the staggeringly complex worldview entertained by these religions. An example of this is the Arab Spring, where large segments of revolting populations yearned for civil, secular government built on humanistic principles, only to be crushed by Islamist authorities. These people were often religious themselves, but sought something more tangible than the afterlife.

    I will concede, however, that without religion, we would probably not have ancient, mathematically precise rock monuments.

    • You are right. This article was written well over a year ago and, believe it or not, I did not have the time to modify it according to my current view. Best.

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