The Selfish Meme

I was feeling a bit sad this morning, so to cheer myself up I walked downtown to the post office and then sat in Heritage Square with a coffee, watching the children’s group of a local church perform a musical. It was great. Sadly God in his infinite wisdom didn’t deem it appropriate to quell the wind or ask Amtrak to shut the f**k up, but even so it was lovely. I adore watching people put their hearts and souls into things. It was like a mini episode of Fame!.


The message was very American – celebrate who you are, and help other people – which is admirable. But there was a strong underlying theme that pissed me off somewhat, which can best be illustrated by a line from the chorus of one of the songs: “We gotta work together for the Lord”.

The theme was all about how important it is to work together and help each other, for the glorification of God. What? Why? Why not just help each other for its own sake? Why does it have to be for God’s benefit?

When I’ve asked Christians about this in the past, their answer has usually been a carefully considered “Because”. “Because he’s God and that’s what ya do”. Presumably to thank him for creating such a nice world for us and filling it with so much pain. Or maybe it’s to make up for his incompetence, like needing to band together and organise a fire brigade because architects don’t know how to build fireproof houses.

But if you drill down further and listen to the messages in church it’s pretty obvious what the motivating factor is meant to be: you’d better do it because that way you’ll avoid Hell and damnation and buy yourself a ticket to the afterlife. In educational theory they call that “extrinsic motivation”.

Well that’s not very nice. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason.

Whether the Christian New Testament is really a collection of stories about a single person or not, it’s pretty clear that some time around the turn of the zeroth millennium there was a small but significant political uprising in the Middle East against the hypocrisy and cruelty of the way Judaic law was being implemented at the time – money lenders in temples, racism, an eye for an eye and that sort of thing. And the guy who is credited with a major part in that uprising is said to have spoken some very wise words, perhaps the wisest of which was “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you” (which was actually just an improved and re-emphasised Mosaic law that clearly wasn’t being adhered to at the time).

Now I think it’s an awful shame that morality ever got wrapped up with the supernatural in the first place but I have to say that was a brilliant piece of moral philosophy wherever it came from. I really don’t think anyone can better that. It stands alone as the axiomatic logical basis for morality and ethics. And it raises some important questions we haven’t yet satisfactorily answered (some of which, incidentally, motivate my work in artificial life).

You can look at Jesus’s (or Moses’) edict two ways, one selfish and one not. The selfish way, which is nevertheless vastly less selfish than the “ticket to eternity” motive, is to interpret it as saying “If you want people to be nice to you, then you have to be nice to them”. That’s great – it’s a really nice piece of self-referential reasoning and works very well as a basis for altruism. But personally I prefer a somewhat more selfless (but slightly less logically sound) interpretation, which is, “Whatever you want out of life, that tells you a good deal about what other people want, and since you have no right to think of yourself as special it is your responsibility to recognise this and act accordingly. And if that makes people be nice to you too then that’s a bonus.”

Either way it stands alone, and there is no reason whatsoever to invoke a deity to justify it (especially one who causes or permits such suffering that we need to band together and look after each other in the first place. F**k him).

I think it’s a shame that children are taught do “do right” for ulterior reasons like that. I know it was just an innocent musical, and encouraging children to think about their behaviour towards others at all is better than nothing, but I still think it’s a shame. But it also reminds me that those of us who don’t believe in the supernatural need to get our act together and make sure we can explain and justify our own moral principles (and principles, imho, are far superior to dogmatic, codified rules handed down from on high and executed blindly). I’m perfectly happy to adopt the “Do unto others” reasoning, no matter who first said it, and, apart from a few exceptions about inclusivity that my A-life work is partially meant to address, I think I have a self-consistent moral philosophy and set of ethical guidelines constructed upon it, but we atheists perhaps ought to be discussing these things openly a bit more. I think we can do better than those who incentivise people with fire and brimstone or the need to appease spirits.

The kids were great, though.


About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

16 Responses to The Selfish Meme

  1. Pius Agius says:

    Dear Steve

    Just last night I went with my family to the local baptist church to watch my mother in law on stage. She was very good by the way, funny and entertaining. After the show the pastor was at the refreshments table and my wife asked if I could get here a drink of water and I declined immediately.

    I tried to explain to her afterward that this would put me in a very uncomfortable position since I did not want to confront this particular pastor. Last year my daughter attended a summer camp that she loves to go to and I had a little talk with this pastor at the party they gave to the children at the end.

    I took the stand that the earth, based on radiological dating of the rocks that fossils were found in, was about four billion years old. Also that the fossils themselves were on the order of hundreds of million of years old. This person , nice and very polite, insisted that the earth was 6000 thousand years old and his source was the bible.

    These people believe in the actual literal translation of the bible. I could not believe it. These people are dead wrong and they live in this century. I feel like Richard Dawkins that this is scary in this day and age.

    One reason we are nice to others is that it serves to save the species. In nature it is rare that same species hurt the other creature who happens to be the same species. In early settlements those people around were most likely related and you would need their help to survive. It makes sense not to hurt them or your relationship to them.

    All my life I have questioned why and how, and when any one would not answer or point me in the direction of an answer it would raise my skepticism.

    We who think differently do so for a reason. It is because of reason and science that we have been enlightened. Those others are the ones still in the dark ages. You know I pity them and wish them well but please, please open your eyes and minds!!!

    Off of the soap box,

    Take care,


    • stevegrand says:

      Hah! 🙂 I really don’t blame you for avoiding another confrontation. Such people are very hard to deal with because almost nothing in their conceptual world matches ours and there’s little common ground. I know Richard Dawkins a little and I think he’s incredibly brave to attempt face to face discussion on subjects like that, although even he usually ends up completely nonplussed and boggled by their reasoning and beliefs. He did a nice little TV series in Britain recently on Darwin and his legacy, btw.

      > One reason we are nice to others is that it serves to save the species. In nature it is rare that same species hurt the other creature who happens to be the same species.

      Indeed. The snag with us humans is that our actions are no longer directly determined by our genes and we can “choose” how to act. Unfortunately few of us are as clever as four billion years of evolution so some of us choose to act selfishly, in a way that benefits us individually in the short term but damages the species as a whole. So we need morality – some kind of reasoning – to help us figure out what’s right. But not mindless rules. I think that with consciousness comes responsibility, and few other animals find themselves in that quandary. And like you say, our natural instincts worked fine when we were in small, isolated groups but we still tend to employ the same logic in circumstances where it no longer applies. We need to think better about these things now – even logic that made sense two thousand years ago often needs rethinking (although I think the “do unto others” principle still holds good).

      • James Brooks says:

        > The snag with us humans is that our actions are no
        > longer directly determined by our genes and we can
        > “choose” how to act. Unfortunately few of us are as
        > clever as four billion years of evolution so some of us
        > choose to act selfishly

        I think that it is advantageous to act selfishly if everyone else is acting altouristically. It may not be best for the species as a whole but for the genes of the individual it might just be good enough to remain in the gene pool.

        Then again, taking this as an excuse for acting selfish is wrong. We can change what we do, we can think reason and learn from others. This should mean that even if a reason can be found, as long as the person can understand why they are being punished/re-educated they should be.

      • stevegrand says:

        Hi James,

        On your first point I think it can be a bit complex. It depends partly on what you mean by “the genes of the individual”. Each of us shares a large proportion of our genes with every living thing on the planet, and members of the same species are almost genetically identical, statistically speaking. So if an individual acts selfishly and damages the success of his species or local community then his own genes (almost all of which he shares with the others) aren’t doing a great job of replicating themselves. From the perspective of the genes themselves, kin selection is an important factor. If our phenotypes look after each other in proportion to how closely related they are, they stand the best chance of passing us on to future generations, even if an individual dies to save a close relative. Richard Dawkins has a great deal more to say about this, of course.

        I completely agree that we shouldn’t use genetics as an excuse. As you say, we can change what we do – we’re free of those shackles – and freedom implies responsibility. And punishment can help us to learn, too. Even capital punishment teaches “les autres”, although I personally don’t think taking someone’s life is any more acceptable when society does it than when a murderer does it. Questions of culpability and punishment are very interesting and I might do a post on it some time (although it could run to book length…)

      • James Brooks says:

        Not completely sure (I’ve been reading a lot of Pinker and Dawkins recently) but I think it was in Steven Pinkers’ book The Blank Slate, where he talk about this in depth.

        It’s the idea that the more the group help each other out the better the advantages to be gained by not doing it. If everyone left a three car gap in traffic jams we would all be better; the best I could do as an individual is to exploit this and zig-zag between cars ignoring the rule.

        Not sure it does really apply to an evolutionary bias towards “becoming a sociopath only in a society where altruism is the norm” but it’s a possibility. Again the fact that it’s a possibility doesn’t give any excuses for sociopathic behavior.

      • stevegrand says:

        Interestingly, girls prefer nice guys, and vice-versa. People who take what they can get in human society can seem initially desirable, but we have an inbuilt dislike of selfishness and I reckon nice guys actually get more chance of their genes being replicated and cared for long enough to pass onto another generation. Who people find attractive and who they actually settle down with aren’t always the same thing, so sociopathy doesn’t necessarily have a high success rate. It might give you more chance of surviving, but less chance of passing on your genes, and sex is what counts.

        Supposing there is a single gene for sociopathy, and he who skips through gaps in the traffic is more likely to win a mate. That gene would certainly be favoured, all other things being equal. But it would lead to a society in which most people are selfish. Which means there are no gaps in the traffic any more (Italy?). Which means there’s no advantage in being selfish. In fact the resulting anarchy is likely to threaten everyone’s survival rate. So now there’s selection pressure for being nice again. So the system has an equilibrium point, probably in which most people are law-abiding and a few aren’t. Which is what we’ve got.

        Interestingly there’s some hysteresis in this: it’s easy to gain advantage from being antisocial in an ordered society, but much harder to be the first nice person in an anarchy, even though once you have a lot of nice people everyone’s fitness will benefit. So once the system has tipped too far towards anarchy it’s much harder to move it back again, even though the equilibrium point is far over towards the other end. Maybe this is how human societies have evolved so many mechanisms for ensuring niceness (inluding but not limited to the tendency to make laws and police them). Maybe societies that didn’t do that tended to swing past equilibrium into anarchy and never recover, but those that have cultural biases counter this hysteresis and stay closer to equilibrium? Certainly folklore supports this – look at the stereotypes attributed to the warlike Celts versus the civilised Romans. Who became the model for modern society?

  2. Alon says:

    Very well put, Steve. After being raised by a Jew and a Roman Catholic, I must agree with you 100%. I personally feel bad for those poor kids, being brainwashed like that…
    I can’t wait for the day when all our young ones are taught to be purely rational, moral thinkers. Hope you’re still in existence by then. 🙂

    Off topic: Oh Steve, Steve! Have you watched Home (the documentary) yet? Well, probably not, it just came out yesterday…
    Anyway, it’s free on YouTube and very well made, IMHO. I immediately thought of you when I finished watching it, as you have a great appreciation for the visual beauty of nature.

    • stevegrand says:

      Ooh, no, thanks, I hadn’t seen that! Looks and sounds really spectacular so far. I’m not getting a smooth enough stream at the moment so I only watched a minute or so – I’ll download it overnight and watch it tomorrow.

      > I can’t wait for the day when all our young ones are taught to be purely rational, moral thinkers. Hope you’re still in existence by then. 🙂

      Less of the ageism, youngster! 😉 But frankly I’ll be happy if the human species is still in existence by then…

  3. Stark says:

    Yes, believe me when I say I feel your pain. I grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness household. They take a pretty literal view of the Bible, and it doesn’t do them much good. 🙂

    It took about 20 years for me to realize this. I’d have to say your books among many others helped me progress towards a far fairer philosophy. To see life as yet another artifact/phenomenon of the universe rather than a special creation built for a purpose was a mind-blowing experience. 😉

  4. James Brooks says:

    I don’t really understand why religion underwent a change from advocating research, and having the intellectual upper classes to what we have now.

    I would like to know what a religious person would say when given the list of changes that have occurred to their religion. How there was often a great fight to keep the old ways, yet afterwards the change it didn’t hinder them at all. (e.g. Jesus, age of Earth, shape of earth, prime elements, evolution)

    That’s my main problem, religion as it is causes divides and hinders progress. If these were addressed I may be more accepting.

    • stevegrand says:

      Some of them haven’t accepted those things yet! There are still a good many Christians who understand so little about stratigraphy and paleontology that they think it’s defensible to argue that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old.

      That’s an interesting question, though. I suspect the intellectual upper classes used to be the champions of Christianity because it was a ready-made moral code that could be used to educate those less fortunate and stop them behaving like animals. You only have to go back a century or two to see that uneducated people (especially those under population pressure or undergoing social change) tended to behave very poorly, frequently to their own disadvantage, because they didn’t know any better – they had little access to accumulated wisdom. The Bible and especially its parables was pretty much designed in the first place to educate people about how to behave, and so it was almost inevitable that the Church was the root of the education movement. But that doesn’t mean the prepackaged moral code of the Bible is necessarily the best one or that we have to adopt the primitive supernatural explanations of the world that go with it.

      I guess the educated and privileged classes have moved on since then. We’ve realised that gods and demons aren’t very good explanations of nature. But understanding a lot of this is hard. For instance I can prove without a shadow of a doubt that the Earth is a great deal older than 6,000 years, but I’d have to take you out into the field and show you a lot of complex geological observations in order to do it. That sort of information and the luxury to interpret it isn’t available to everyone, so I guess they’re left with the superceded supernatural explanations that were handed down to them (with good motives) centuries ago.

      Which makes the modern clergy very culpable indeed, if you ask me. Many Men of the Cloth are perfectly capable of doing their research properly. They have even more luxury than I do to go out into the field, to study the sciences and to reason carefully about the facts. And yet they still peddle mystical hogwash to the Masses, who understandably trust what they say, especially when it’s mixed in with promises of personal salvation and a superficially encouraging gloss about “being good”. I think the further you go up the hierarchy the more doublethink you find. When I’ve talked to bishops I’ve been shocked by the degree to which they know, at a highly educated level, how most of the theology they spout in church is nothing like the truth, and yet they manage to convince themselves it’s the right thing to say, presumably to keep the story clean and easily digestible. I find that condescending and hypocritical of them. (Unfortunately science educators sometimes do the same thing.)

  5. Carlos Acosta says:

    Hi Steve,

    I agree with everthing you said. However, this isn’t
    save old England. In this country if you draw attention to yourself on the topic of atheism, some crazy person is liable to shoot you.

    Please be careful out there in the blogosphere.

    • stevegrand says:

      Hi Carlos,

      Thanks for the warning, but don’t worry. I’ve been discussing this topic for many years and I’m used to it. Anyone who is a scientist (and I’m particularly inspired by other rational, thoughtful people I’ve known, such as Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Douglas Adams) has a duty to stand up and state what the evidence leads them to conclude. Silence is a sin. Expressing your opinion thoughtfully, kindly and respectfully is what blogs are for. And I always publish every comment I receive, no matter how unfavorable, so people who disagree with me have an opportunity to say so publicly and discuss their position.

      Anyone who really Believes in Jesus (and I number several thoughtful Christians, some of whom are Creationists and maybe even Literalists, among my online friends) will come to me with open hands and a forgiving heart, as their Saviour commanded them to do. They, like me, are only interested in discovering the truth. Anyone who says they Believe in Jesus and tries to prove it with a gun is a hypocrite, and by their own logic should expect to burn in Hell.

  6. maninalift says:

    I don’t know. I think you are partially seeing what you expect to see. I think that for the most part the altruistic acts of Christians have the same motivations as anyone else, feelings of love, compassion, duty etc. The religious motivation is much more of a reminder, something that is very effective at prompting people to do what they know they should do. And not only to *do* things but to confront their attitudes, to understand and have love and compassion for people they are inclined to resent.

    Let me give the example of myself and my wife, she is a Christian and I am not. We hold similar moral views for example we both feel we have a duty to share our relative wealth. She is probably not less lazy or self-concerned than me and she is perhaps more naturally judgemental. But it is very easy for me to let my principles slip. For my wife who prays every day and goes though that process of accounting for her actions and confronting her attitudes it is not. Her moral actions are still based on compassion and so fourth, not fear of God. This process may be distasteful to an atheist, religious morality may even seem dangerous, but for the most part I don’t think it compromises the “purity” of the moral motivation.

    After all, if you read the new testament or go to (most) churches, you’ll see that the doctrine is remarkably holistic.

    e.g. All the law derives from “Love god, Love neighbour” who is neighbour? — good Samaritan parable suggesting everyone, or everyone in need or something of that sort.

    The famous 1 Corinthians 13: it’s all about love, you gain nothing by giving all of your possessions to the poor if you don’t do it out of love.

    …sorry about sloppyness of post, this is my lunch-break and I want to go and eat my lunch.

    • stevegrand says:

      Yes, I wouldn’t dream of disputing the inherent goodness in most individual Christians. I grew up in a Christian family and they’re all good people (and I hope I am too). My beef isn’t with Christians but religion in itself. I would prefer that people were encouraged to think for themselves, act on their own judgment and do good things for the real reasons, not superstitious ones. The dangers with extrinsic motivation and ulterior motives are complex and subtle and I don’t mean to oversimplify things. The problems tend to arise when people interpret what they see as the letter of the law and ignore or fail to see its spirit. I guess since you’re “maninalift” and not “maninanelevator” you don’t live in the US. I’ve spent the past two years living in the Bible Belt and have seen a very different form of Christianity than the one I grew up with and I think you are talking about, despite being ostensibly of the same group of denominations. The congregations are very different too. A lot of awful things are done in the name of one god or another, and a lot of harmful ignorance is perpetuated because of the way religious dogma fills the gap where rational enlightenment ought to be. This is a bad thing and on an international scale has done a great deal of harm over the past few years in particular. So I’m not knocking the goodness and kindness of individual Christians, I’m just saying that tying these things to a supernatural worldview is completely unnecessary and can have some serious side effects. I would rather children were taught to love each other because it’s right, proper and to everyone’s benefit, not because a man in the sky promises them sweeties if they do as they’re told.

      I haven’t thought this through but it just occurred to me that witch-doctors might be a good analogy. I’m quite sure witch-doctors are well-meaning, caring people, by the standards of their own societies. And through experience and handed-down wisdom they do a lot of good and cure a lot of people. But we now know that they do it for the wrong reasons, and because those reasons are devoid of logic they will often fail. So sick people will be treated in ways that fit the “logic” of shamanism perfectly, but don’t fit the logic of biochemistry, doing them harm. Modern doctors (up to a point) understand the REAL reasons why people get sick, and so their logic tends to apply more accurately than one based on the wrong assumptions that just happens to fit the facts some of the time. Does that make sense as an analogy for the difference between morality based on rational logic and morality based on worshipping a god or gods? For one thing the former would be universal, but the latter varies substantially according to whose god you consult.

  7. Pingback: To Be Happy « Steve Grand’s Blog

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