The Altruistic Impulse: Evidence of God’s Existence? by Christina Knowles

Courtesy of Google Images
Courtesy of Google Images

All my life I have been drawn to stories of martyrdom and altruism. Braveheart is one of my favorite movies, and I have two favorite scenes in that movie. The first is when Robert the Bruce, in a very powerful and emotional scene, tells his corrupt father that he will never be on the wrong side of the battle again. The right side is the losing side, yet he knows it is the right thing to choose the losing side, not because they will lose, but because they are morally right. This goes against his own interests and puts his survival in jeopardy. The other scene is when William Wallace courageously endures his torture and execution with his dying shout of “Freedom.”

Another wonderful movie is Sommersby. In this movie, a man (Richard Gere) takes on the identity of a dead man, Jack Sommersby, right after the Civil War. Gere’s character was known as a coward and deserter during the war. However, the person, whose identity he acquired, had his own troubles. Sommersby was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. Everyone believes he (Gere) is Sommersby with the exception of a few people with suspicions, including Sommersby’s wife. Although he looks just like her husband, he doesn’t act like him. This man is loving, gentle, and forgiving. In the end, (Spoiler Alert!) Gere’s character willingly hangs, refusing to admit he is not Sommersby. Why? Because he became the person he always wanted to be. He became a loving husband, father, loyal friend to many, and he became courageous. He died to protect his wife and her son from shame and to prevent his neighbors from going bankrupt on a seed deal he had made under Sommersby’s name. He could have admitted he wasn’t Sommersby and lived, but he made the hard choice, selflessly sacrificing himself for others. We want to cheer for him, even as our hearts break for him, in the end when he is hanged.

One more example is Les Miserables. I love, love, LOVE this movie and the book! I love the new musical, but I also love the 1998 version starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean. You are probably familiar with this story, so I’ll just say that this story is about a hard and heartless man who is transformed completely by an act of mercy. He so utterly changes that his life forever after is defined by this act of mercy. He goes on to help countless people, acting selflessly over and over. He is contrasted with the antagonist, Inspector Javert, who is unable to accept mercy and forgiveness. Many people see this story as an allegory of the Christian salvation message. But my point here is that the viewer inherently knows that Valjean is right in risking his own freedom to pay forward the mercy extended to him when he was yet undeserving.

But this instinctive response to altruism goes beyond the movies. In real life, we always hope we will be able to do the right thing under pressure. To stand strong for what we believe is right even if it means great suffering or death. Or to give our lives for another if required. Most of us believe we would at least do this for our children. We never know what we will do until faced with this decision. However, we can all relate to the feeling we get when we witness a selfless act of heroism. It is poignant and profound, and very few ever question if the person who gave himself up to save another did the right thing. We know he did the most righteous thing a person could ever do. Think about seeing someone rush into a burning building to save strangers from a fire. What about the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his platoon? We sense that this behavior is the best that anyone could ever hope to do in this life.

This automatic response from ordinarily self-absorbed and often unkind humans has always made me question evolutionary theory’s ability to explain our behavior. Joseph Campbell struggled with the idea of our need for these stories and these characters in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and his other mythological theory books. He thought there might be an evolutionary cause, but he also mentions a “divinely imparted purpose;” however, in most of his writing he seems to reduce it down to evolutionary theory (Campbell).

To think about this more clearly, I guess I should define these impulses to which I am referring more exactly. The definition of martyrdom is the act of making “great sacrifices or suffer[ing] much in order to further a belief, cause, or principle” (Freedictionary Online). According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource, the moral definition of altruism is “An ultimate motivation of assisting another regardless of one’s direct or indirect self-benefit [and it] is necessary for it to be altruistic in the ordinary sense ─ for what we might call moral altruism” (ICP, online). Also, according to this site there is a biological definition, which attempts to explain away the impulse for self-sacrifice by saying it is an evolutionary instinct to further the group to which one belongs. I do not believe this makes sense. In general, most likely statistically as well, although I haven’t done a study, giving up your own life for someone else does not promote “survival of the fittest” behavior. The person needing help is obviously not the “fittest.” Further, I do not see how dying for an unpopular cause would ensure survival of the group. Quite the contrary. Another point of dispute in this theory is the question of how an unconscious system of evolution would determine that these acts would promote survival of the group. How, then, would it distinguish between acts that would most likely harm the perpetuation of the group from those that would further its existence? I don’t believe it can. I don’t believe it has anything to do with evolution.

If evolution is not the cause of this altruistic impulse, then it leads me to look outside of science to explain it, at least outside of known science. I do not necessarily dismiss all evolutionary theory based on this conundrum, but I am certain I do not believe it is responsible for all of who we are. Nor do I believe that our environment is responsible for all of our behavior. This phenomenon exists across cultures. When examining this predisposition of humanity, I couldn’t help but notice the parallelism to Christianity. The archetype of Christ, as God, taking on the sins of the world, allowing himself to be crucified, taking the place of mankind as a sacrifice to atone for grievous acts since the beginning of time is the same behavior we inherently judge as good, righteous, and the best of all behavior. This leads me to believe that if God saw this as good, this is why we see it as good. Perhaps this altruistic impulse was divinely imparted to all of humanity. We may smother it, we may overcome it with selfishness, but we know it is right, at least on an emotional level.

Of course, I have considered the possibility that we have created God in our image, that we have made a savior who would sacrifice himself for us in order to fulfill our need for his ultimate goodness, and since we already had this impulse, we gave it also to God, as we did in other myths (although this behavior is rare in mythology). But in answer to this conjecture, I would argue, that this impulse is more likely to have been given to us by God because it is not evolutionarily viable, and therefore, having it already within us, it finds its way into our stories and myths throughout history, before finally being realized at Calvary, the culmination of our inner knowledge of goodness. And the fact that Jesus Christ was a historical figure and not a fictional character further reduces the likelihood of his sacrifice on the cross being a man-created myth.

I know this is not proof-positive of the truth of Christianity, but I find that the preponderance of the evidence is in its favor. All of this is clearly philosophical in nature, and there are other reasons why I believe Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, but for me questioning everything comes naturally. For some, I know accepting by faith and by personal experience comes easier than it does for me. I envy this; however, I do think it is important to reason these things out and be able to explain why one believes what one believes. I have never accepted “Because the Bible says so,” as an adequate answer. Even if the Bible is true, one cannot prove something by the thing itself without outside corroboration. As I investigate these things, I do find an outstanding amount is actually corroborated. But that is another subject.

As for me, I find that I do have some measure of faith, and I do believe. I am a Christian, but I still have questions. As I continue to ponder the universe, I find answers, and sometimes more questions. Thanks for pondering it with me.–Christina Knowles

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1st edition, Bollingen Foundation, 1949. 2nd edition, Princeton University Press. 3rd edition, New World Library, 2008.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed: 4/4/14

Freedictionary Online. Accessed: 4/4/14

UPDATE: A year later, and after a great deal more study and contemplation, I think evolution may be responsible for the altruistic impulse. I currently identify as an atheist; however, I am open to the idea of a creator, but I wholeheartedly believe that if there is a creator, it is not the god of the bible (4-17-15). Until I have sufficient evidence of such a being, I will assume there is not one.


One thought on “The Altruistic Impulse: Evidence of God’s Existence? by Christina Knowles

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  1. Christina, thank you for a thoughtful essay that touches on so many possibilities. I do not find faith and science to be inherently incompatible. Science can only deal with what can be observed and tested objectively, while aspects of the human experience, such as self-sacrifice, cannot be tested objectively, or at least not so easily.


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