Can an atheist really be altruistic? A common claim made by religious fundamentalists, including haredi kiruv rabbis and Chabad shluchim is that without God and religion, people would not be kind, helpful and giving to others. We wouldn't support a children's cancer charity or an old age home, or help feed the poor if there wasn't a religious basis for doing so. But is that claim true? Science has studied altruism and found several reasons that cause people to act kindly, even without religion to guide them. In other words, the proper question might really be, are people who give in the name of religion really acting on inherent altruistic impulses all living creatures seem to have, impulses that have an evolutionary basis?
"I have mentioned kinship and reciprocation as the twin pillars of altruism in a Darwinian world, but there are secondary structures which rest atop those main pillars. Especially in human society, with language and gossip, reputation is important. One individual may have a reputation for kindness and generosity. Another individual may have a reputation for unreliability, for cheating and reneging on deals. Another may have a reputation for generosity when trust has been built up, but for ruthless punishment of cheating. The unadorned theory of reciprocal altruism expects animals of any species to base their behaviour upon unconscious responsiveness to such traits in their fellows. In human societies we add the power of language to spread reputations, usually in the form of gossip. You don't need to have suffered personally from X's failure to buy his round at the pub. You hear 'on the grapevine' that X is a tightwad, or -- to add an ironic complication to the example -- that Y is a terrible gossip. Reputation is important, and biologists can acknowledge a Darwinian survival value in not just being a good reciprocator but fostering a reputation as a good reciprocator too. Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue, as well as being a lucid account of the whole field of Darwinian morality, is especially good on reputation.
"The Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen and, in a rather different way, the Israeli zoologist Amotz Zahavi have added a further fascinating idea. Altruistic giving may be an advertisement of dominance or superiority. Anthropologists know it as the Potlatch Effect, named after the custom whereby rival chieftains of Pacific north-west tribes vie with each other in duels of ruinously generous feasts. In extreme cases, bouts of retaliatory entertaining continue until one side is reduced to penury, leaving the winner not much better off. Veblen's concept of 'conspicuous consumption' strikes a chord with many observers of the modern scene. Zahavi's contribution, unregarded by biologists for many years until vindicated by brilliant mathematical models from the evolutionary theorist Alan Grafen, has been to provide an evolutionary version of the potlatch idea. Zahavi studies Arabian babblers, little brown, birds who live in social groups and breed cooperatively. Like many small birds, babblers give warning cries, and they also donate food to each other. A standard Darwinian investigation of such altruistic acts would look, first, for reciprocation and kinship relationships among the birds. When a babbler feeds a companion, is it in the expectation of being fed at a later date?
"Or is the recipient of the favour a close genetic relative? Zahavi's interpretation is radically unexpected. Dominant babblers assert their dominance by feeding subordinates. To use the sort of anthropomorphic language Zahavi delights in, the dominant bird is saying the equivalent of, 'Look how superior I am to you, I can afford to give you food.' Or 'Look how superior I am, I can afford to make myself vulnerable to hawks by sitting on a high branch, acting as a sentinel to warn the rest of the flock feeding on the ground.' The observations of Zahavi and his colleagues suggest that babblers actively compete for the dangerous role of sentinel. And when a subordinate babbler attempts to offer food to a dominant individual, the apparent generosity is violently rebuffed. The essence of Zahavi's idea is that advertisements of superiority are authenticated by their cost. Only a genuinely superior individual can afford to advertise the fact by means of a costly gift. Individuals buy success, for example in attracting mates, through costly demonstrations of superiority, including ostentatious generosity and public-spirited risk-taking.
"We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or 'moral' towards each other. First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in 'anticipation' of payback. Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising."
What I would add is that by demographic, in the US I believe Evangelical Christians donate the most money per capita. That's because their religion stresses it. But some of that donated money is really money earmarked for missionizing, not true charity. Orthodox and haredi Jews have that same issue, except the missionizing is internal to the Jewish community and is called "outreach" or "kiruv." With that missionizing money stripped out, I'm not sure how high up on the donation chain these groups actually rank.
A recent study also showed that religious kids are less kind and less able to share than atheists' kids, likely because the religious kids develop a belief that the specific religious things they do – like, for example, prayer, hymn-singing, going to church or synagogue, putting on tefillin, etc. – give them Divine credit that can make up for their otherwise selfish behavior. That type of moral licensing would seem to indicate that what religion adds to altruism it adds only when that altruism is ritualized and emphasized by a religion.
In other words, if the Torah specifically said that sharing your toys is a mitzvah and rabbis repeatedly spoke about that mitzvah and encouraged it, then maybe Orthodox kids would more easily share their toys. But when a particular altruistic act is not specifically mandated and emphasized, it tends to fall by the wayside because of moral licensing.
The basis for altruism exists without religion, and when religion is removed from the mix the result appears to be greater – not lesser – altruism, something science seems to be well on the way to conclusively showing.