Damon Linker fails to spot the nightjar; says human altruism proves Jesus

I’m not really sure who Damon Linker is, but this recommendation on his website doesn’t give me a lot of confidence:

Damon Linker is one of the most arresting and honest writers of his generation  on the subjects of faith and politics.
—Andrew Sullivan

And if you Google “Damon Linker”, the second hit you get, after his own website, is a critique I wrote on this site.

Linker clearly doesn’t like me because I make Baby Jesus Cry, and, as you’ll see, he harbors a great deal of love for Jesus. In fact, in his latest piece at The Week,Why atheism doesn’t have the upper hand over religion,” he gives the Saviour credit for human altruism and for the fact that we humans admire it so much. But what it does is not do is show any advantage of religion over atheism. Rather, Linker proves beyond any doubt that he understands neither evolutionary biology nor science in general.

Linker begins with a gratuitous slap at yours truly, for I supposedly instantiate the philosophical dimwitedness of New Atheism:

In my last column, I examined some of the challenges facing religion today. Those challenges are serious. But that doesn’t mean that atheism has the upper hand. On the contrary, as I’ve argued many times before, atheism in its currently fashionable form is an intellectual sham. As Exhibit 653, I give you Jerry Coyne’s latest diatribe in TheNew Republic, which amounts to a little more than an inadvertent confession that he’s incapable of following a philosophical argument.

My “diatribe” was a critique of David Bentley Hart’s new book, which Linker has promoted furiously as the kind of stuff we New Atheists need to deal with because its Srs Bsns. But if I instantiated intellectual sham, Linker does it in spades, for his piece simply makes a God-of-the-gaps argument for human altruism. This, says Linker, is something that atheism simply can’t explain:

Atheism shouldn’t be wholly identified with the confusions of its weakest exponents any more than we should reduce religious belief to the fulminations of fundamentalists. Yet when it comes to certain issues, the quality of the arguments doesn’t much matter. The fact is that there are specific human experiences that atheism in any form simply cannot explain or account for. One of those experiences is radical sacrifice — and the feelings it elicits in us.

Think of a soldier who throws herself on a live grenade to save her comrades. Or a firefighter who enters a blaze to rescue a child knowing that he will likely perish in the effort.

Or consider Thomas S. Vander Woude, the subject of an unforgettable 2011 article by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. One day in September 2008, Vander Woude’s 20-year-old son Josie, who has Down syndrome, fell through a broken septic tank cover in their yard. The tank was eight feet deep and filled with sewage. After trying and failing to rescue his son by pulling on his arm from above, Vander Woude jumped into the tank, held his breath, dove under the surface of the waste, and hoisted his son onto his shoulders. Josie was rescued a few minutes later. By then his 66-year-old father was dead.

This is something that any father, atheist or believer, might do for his son. But only the believer can make sense of the deed.

First error: it’s not atheism that has to explain or account for altruism, altruistic feelings, or our approbation of altruism. It’s science that must do that—and sociology (which, properly conducted, is a form of science). For atheism is simply denying belief in Gods. It doesn’t have to explain anything about nature, but only denies that there’s convincing evidence for the divine. Since human morality is surely a joint product of evolution and acculturation, those disciplines are where we should look for clarity.

And, of course, altruism is not a complete mystery to scientists. “True” altruism, in which animals sacrifice their lives (or rather, their reproductive fitness) to help unrelated members of the same species, is vanishingly rare among animals. (Don’t mention vampire bats regurgitating blood to other’s offspring, for that result has not been replicated, and is questionable.) And that’s exactly what you expect under Darwinian individual selection, for no animal could be selected to sacrifice itself without getting some reproductive payback. (The rarity of “true” altruism in nature, by the way, also argues against its production by group selection, for group selection can supposedly overcome the disadvantages of individual altruism if such acts are beneficial for the persistence of the group. But that apparently hasn’t happened, for we see almost no true altruism in nature. In fact, I know of no such cases. In contrast, the way altruism and cooperation play out in human society strongly implicates individual rather than group selection.)

Kin selection is not “true” altruism, for the sacrificing individual gains genetically by saving copies of the gene that promotes sacrificial behavior. If your expected genetic benefit (discounted by the degree of relatedness to those you’re saving) exceeds the genetic cost, then the behavior will evolve. In other words, you’d be willing to voluntarily and certainly sacrifice your life to save more than two children—each of whom shares half your genes.  And if your chance of dying (or loss of reproduction) is less than certain, then you’d try to save even one child. This, of course, is the rationale for why parents care more about their own kids than other people’s. And it’s a good explanation for why Thomas Vander Woude would try to save his child. He didn’t know that he would die, he simply had the impulse to try to save his child—something that’s certainly built into us by natural selection.

There are also cases of reciprocal altruism, in which you’ll sacrifice a certain amount because you expect reciprocity from those you help. You might, for instance, share food with others if you have a surfeit, knowing that they’ll remember and reciprocate when it’s your turn to go hungry. That kind of altruism can be shown to evolve in small groups in which individuals recognize and remember each other—precisely the situation that obtained over millions of years of human evolution. So surely some of our altruistic feelings come from evolution acting on individuals in the small groups of our ancestors.

But those instinctive and evolved feelings can also be highjacked, for they rest on certain cues that can be mimicked by other situations. Soldiers, for instance, form bonds with their platoons: it’s not for nothing that they call each other “brother” (i.e., “Band of Brothers.”) In such cases your feeling of solidarity may piggyback on your evolved feelings for either kin or groupmates, and cause you to, say, fall on a grenade, or take horrific chances in wartime to save your “brothers.” Remember, the cue for helping is likely to be familiarity with others, not explicit recognition of a genetic relationship.

Remember the video I showed a few weeks ago of a mother cat suckling a brood of ducklings? Explain that one, atheists! But of course we can: the ducklings happened to be around when the cat, infused with motherly hormones by her own impending litter, was willing to take care of anything. Does that constitute proof of God for Linker? Is it The Argument from Suckling Ducklings? I suppose that the frequent phenomenon of human adoption, something that’s deeply altruistic yet evolutionarily maladaptive, also constitutes evidence for God!

We highjack evolutionary feelings in a maladaptive way all the time.  When you don a condom before sex, you are deliberately doing what evolution doesn’t “want” you to do: sacrificing your reproduction. But you’re doing that because you like the cue that evolution has given us to reproduce: the pleasure of the orgasm and the sheer wonderfulness of sex. We don’t impute condoms to God; we impute them to the fact that we’ve evolved to be wily enough to overcome our evolved tendencies: to get the sizzle without the steak.

Finally, as Peter Singer and Steve Pinker have noted, morality can be—and certainly is—culturally inculcated. As we become more and more familiar with other cultures, their inhabitants become more “brotherlike”: we see that we stand in no special moral position with respect to them, and so will help them, especially when it doesn’t cost much. (Really, how much of our reproduction do we sacrifice by giving $100 to Doctors Without Borders?) Therefore we will help them, and our feeling of satisfaction accompanying that help can also be explained either by evolution—reciprocal altruism could depend on a cue of approving of sacrificial acts—or by culture (we’ve learned that people behave better when they are rewarded for sacrifice, and that depends on the approbation of people who see that altruism). In fact, people are more likely to be altruistic when other people are around to see it; “free-riding” (benefitting from other’s sacrifices without paying back) is more common when you can do it undetected.

Linker shows his abysmal ignorance of all this when briefly considering, and then dismissing, the alternative explanations:

Other atheistic theories similarly deny the possibility of genuine altruism, reject the possibility of free will, or else, like some forms of evolutionary psychology, posit that when people sacrifice themselves for others (especially, as in the Vander Woude case, for their offspring) they do so in order to strengthen kinship ties, and in so doing maximize the spread of their genes throughout the gene pool.

But of course, as someone with Down syndrome, Vander Woude’s son is probably sterile and possesses defective genes that, judged from a purely evolutionary standpoint, deserve to die off anyway. So Vander Woude’s sacrifice of himself seems to make him, once again, a fool.

Things are no better in less extreme cases. If Josie were a genius, his father’s sacrifice might be partially explicable in evolutionary terms — as an act designed to ensure that his own and his son’s genes survive and live on beyond them both. But the egoistic explanation would drain the act of its nobility, which is precisely what needs to be explained.

We feel moved by Vander Woude’s sacrifice precisely because it seems selfless — the antithesis of evolutionary self-interestedness.

Oh, my dear Mr. Linker, we save our children based on inborn impulses that just say “save your kids”. Those impulses don’t include a brain module that says “but first make sure your kid isn’t sterile, and it would help if he were a genius.” In the same way, putting on a condom doesn’t eliminate the possibility of having an orgasm. It’s the cue that’s important—whatever cue evolved over 6 million years to guarantee an evolutionarily beneficial result.  And over those six million years, the chances that a child would one day be fertile were very high.

And yes, we feel moved by that sacrifice, but, as I’ve said, the emotions of approbation for sacrifice can also be explained in both evolutionary and cultural terms. Culture, by the way, is surely an important source of moral feelings. As developmental psychologist Paul Bloom explains in his recent book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (recommended), babies start off being pretty selfish towards strangers and then must be taught to help others. As I wrote about Bloom’s views when I reviewed his book:

The empathy that seems inherent in “human nature” is directed only towards those the infants are familiar with, like family. It is not directed at strangers. In fact, infants are spiteful little things, and do not like even equality with strangers. They will, for example, prefer to have one cookie while another infant nearby gets none, over the alternative where both infants get two cookies. In other words, infants sacrifice their own well-being just to affirm their superiority in the acquisition of goods.  Several other studies show the same thing.  Infants are empathic but not altruistic.

Bloom argues, then, that the altruism comes from education, an argument also made by Peter Singer in his superb book The Expanding Circle. I quote Bloom:

“And so there is no support for the view that a transcendent moral kindness is part of our nature. Now, I don’t doubt that many adults, in the here and now, are capable of agape.

. . . When you bring together these observations about adults with the findings from babies and young children, the conclusion is clear: We have an enhanced morality but it is the product of culture, not biology. Indeed, there might be little difference in the moral life of a human baby and a chimpanzee; we are creatures of Charles Darwin, not C.S. Lewis.”

Of course Linker has his alternative theory: altruism comes from God, and it’s instilled in us divinely by the Christian God. I am not making up this conclusion from his piece:

What is it about the story of a man who willingly embraces a revolting, horrifying death in order to save his son that moves us to tears? Why does it seem somehow, like a beautiful painting or piece of music, a fleeting glimpse of perfection in an imperfect world?

I’d say that only theism offers an adequate explanation — and that Christianity might do the best job of all.

Christianity teaches that the creator of the universe became incarnate as a human being, taught humanity (through carefully constructed lessons and examples of his own behavior) how to become like God, and then allowed himself to be unjustly tried, convicted, punished, and killed in the most painful and humiliating manner possible — all as an act of gratuitous love for the very people who did the deed.

Why does Vander Woude’s act of sacrifice move us? Maybe because in freely dying for his son, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Which is to say, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of God.

That might sound outlandish to atheists. But for my money, it comes closer to the truth, and does more to explain the otherwise irreducibly mysterious experience of noble sacrifice than any competing account.

Don’t buy it? I dare you to come up with something better.

I just did in the post above, Mr. Linker. And your theory doesn’t explain altruism in non-Christians, does it?

To close, I’ll simply repeat the words of Linker’s hero, David Bentley Hart:

If my salad at lunch were suddenly to deliver itself of such an opinion, my only thought would be “What a very stupid salad.” 

Linker nightjar


  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    It seems that Linker is using the argument from ignorant arrogance.

    • Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink


      And his misunderstanding of altruism isn’t the only argument from ignorance in there. It’s only a passing point, but he briefly invokes art in an attempt to strengthen his conclusion that emotions and empathy must come from god. As a musician, I hate, hate, hate this argument: “I don’t know how music works, ergo Jesus.”

      • Robert Bray
        Posted May 5, 2014 at 5:13 am | Permalink

        And which music? Bach’s from God, Death Metal’s from Satan?

    • Posted May 4, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      AKA the Argument from Dunning-Kruger.

    • Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      Actually, I think all these guys who refuse to acknowledge to the fact that all their arguments have been thoroughly and repeatedly refuted, are employing the Argument from Paul Simon: A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest…

      • pulseteresa
        Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        Technically that’s confirmation bias, but I always enjoy funny names for argumentation and logical fallacies as well of fallacies of thought.

        A friend of mine, rather than in invoking Godwin’s Law when Hitler or Nazis are brought up in an argument she instead refers to it as argumentum ad Hitlerum. 🙂

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 5, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

          That’s a good one. I’ll have to remember that!

  2. Bric
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Isn’t saying altruism is an exclusively Christian trait at least a little bit anti-Semitic? (Amongst other things).

    • Posted May 4, 2014 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s anti-Semitic. It’s more of an Old Testament v New Testament thing. It’s probably fair to associate altruism with more recent, less primitive societies. This is also a problem for religions, though, because if moral virtues are God-given, why do they take time to develop?

      • Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink

        Yes, exactly. I especially like your last statement in particular if it is viewed not in terms of childhood development but in terms of how the Zeitgeist of societies have taken time to improve – to move away from monarchy to democracy, from human slavery to human rights.

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        “It’s probably fair to associate altruism with more recent, less primitive societies”

        If you mean altruism in all forms, I’m not sure this is true. Certainly primitive cultures take care of children, the elderly, and the sick as best they can, and have friendships and family ties.

        If you mean “pure” altruism in the sense of altruism beyond looking out for friends and family, this seems almost tautological to me. There’s no shortage of kin-based and reciprocal altruism in the most “primitive” of cultures. But in such cultures, there’s very few interactions with people who are not friends and relatives. Interactions outside these relationships are likely to be territorial and necessarily hostile.

        If by “less primitive” we mean having social structures of a larger scale that allow people without such intimate relationships to work together to create infrastructure, cities, high art, law, technology, armies, etc. then people in these cultures have new opportunities to be altruistic beyond the friends and family.

        Large social organization both requires altruism to become more abstract and enables it to become more abstract. And as the scale of social organization grows, the level of abstraction in altruism needs to grow as well.

        • Posted May 4, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          I suppose I was referring to what you term “pure” altruism. I’m not sure it’s tautological to point out that this is more prevalent in larger social structures, which tend to be more recent. Perhaps you mean it’s obvious but were too polite to say!

      • Posted May 4, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        Except that he specifically mentions Jesus being the most important part.

      • Bric
        Posted May 4, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        I’m not exactly sure what you mean by more recent less primitive societies, but one of the Buddha’s (c500BC) titles is ‘the compassionate one’; and ‘ren’ is the Confucian virtue denoting the good feeling a virtuous human experiences when being altruistic.

        • bric
          Posted May 4, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          Also, it’s worth considering the Bodhisattva vow: in Mahayana Buddhism a Bodhisattva is a human who has attained enlightenment, but vows not to enter Nirvana until all beings have been brought to the same state, they will work tirelessly and selflessly to this end. Within the context of the Buddhist conception of existence this is an altruistic sacrifice on a par with that of Jesus in the Christian’s equivalent myth, and is often used to inspire the faithful in exactly the same way

        • Posted May 4, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          Would you take me by the hand

          • Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

            One of my favorite Steely Dan songs. Donald Fagen’s memoir is great by the way. Highly recommended. Also he explains why he wrote a song about a gang of assassins sent to heaven to kill god because based on the evidence, god’s a completely fucking sadistic asshole who deserves to murdered.

  3. Posted May 4, 2014 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    To assert that sacrificial altruism is evidence of the divine is just as erroneous as assuming that Thomas Michael Overton is evidence of Satan. Once again, this explains nothing as to the real motivations of human behavior. Try ethology instead of theology, Linker.

  4. Vaal
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    “Why does Vander Woude’s act of sacrifice move us? Maybe because in freely dying for his son, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

    Do you mean, Mr. Linker, the homicidal God who also drowns almost every many, woman and child in the bible? Who condones beating of slaves? The God who allows every horror and catastrophe that ever existed, the God who oversees earthquakes, famine, plagues wiping out millions of people at a time?

    A glimpse of THAT God?

    It seems God provides vastly more examples of His callousness – and on your logic would warrant mimicking with our own moral callousness – but of course not cherry-picking your version of God would get in the way of making a “point” against atheists.


    • Dermot C
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      Vaal, had the Christians adopted Marcionism, which specifically differentiated between the brutal God of the OT and the loving God of the NT, and which at one point was extremely widespread and influential, you wouldn’t have been able to make the point about God’s caprice. A strategic error on their part.

      On cherry-picking, you’re right, and the act is indicative of a real historiographical problem in Jesus studies, illustrated by Linker’s proto-hippie Jesus. How much does my Jesus reflect my own cultural assumptions and pre-formed opinions?

      Take the only quotation ascribed to the Jesus figure which I think is a genuinely new idea: turning the other cheek, I cannot think of a similar idea in Greek thought and certainly not in Hebrew tradition. 92% of the Jesus Seminar, mainly because of its novelty and the counter-intuitiveness of its ideology, thought that Jesus really did say some of that speech. They may be right. But I can think of a reason why Jesus may not have said it, why it might have been put on Jesus’ lips by the evangelists.

      It seems to me reasonable to posit that it is an after-the-fact justification for the Jewish anti-Seleucid martyrs, 200 years before. The Jews seem to have invented martyrdom then. If one views the Jesus figure as of his time (of course!) then somebody had to present arguments in favour of martyrdom. It would not be so contrary to the cultural milieu for someone in 1st century Palestine to advance the rationalization. But not necessarily a historical Jesus: perhaps an evangelist, after the catastrophe of the Jewish revolt of 66-74 BCE.

      Again, we are back to cherry-picking, and the difficulty inherent in the study of what Jesus actually said – that of circular reasoning.

      I still tend to think that if Jesus existed he would have been an apocalypticist, the most likely type for him to have been in that environment, if he really was as charismatic as he must have been for stories to accrete around him. And that therefore the most likely quotations of a real Jesus would be those of an apocalyptic nature: it is extremely difficult to understand why the evangelists, writing 40 or 50 years after the death would ascribe citations to him warning of the End Times within the lifetime of his own generation. But again you can construct arguments against that point.

      In any case, Linker seems to know exactly what the all-loving Jesus said and to conveniently ignore his more disgusting phrases: how he can know is beyond me. Unless Jesus happens to be very much like him, his cultural assumptions and pre-formed opinions.


      • Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        “Loving god of the NT”?

        Only if all sorts of conditions are met. I, a mere mortal, am capable of something closer to unconditional love than the god of the NT seems to be. And not just capable – that’s the kind of love I want to have for my fellow inhabitants of Earth.

        • Dermot C
          Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

          It was Marcionism did the differentiating, not me, MB!


          • Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

            Well, my point was that Marcionism’s distinction is in reality not all that… distinct, so Vaal would still be able to make his point had Christianity gone in that direction.

            • Dermot C
              Posted May 4, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

              I see, MB. Marcionism does indeed appear to have drawn a big distinction between the brutal OT God and a new NT God whose character had been transformed: that appears to be why it was condemned as heresy.

              Briefly, all we know of Marcionism is seen through the lens of the proto-orthodox. But Marcion was the first Christian to compile a Christian canon: a Gospel of Luke (with the nativity story removed) and 10 epistles of St. Paul (we don’t know which ones and at least 3 of which must have been forgeries).

              According to the proto-orthodox, Marcion specifically rejected the brutal God of the OT: Marcion promoted some sort of loving, less capricious God, though what he meant by that I don’t know, perhaps Hell still played a part.

              It was in response to Marcion that possibly Justin Martyr, but definitely his students, first proposed the 4 Gospels we have now as scripture.

              The early Christians could see Christ in themselves as much as Linker can. If you want to be fancy about it, the Germans call it ‘Sitz im Leben’. It’s still cherry-picking.


        • Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

          Indeed. Love gods most emphatically do not condemn to infinite torture all men who look admiringly at an attractive woman and fail to immediately chop off their own hands and gouge out their own eyes. They also don’t come to bring a sword and to rip families asunder; nor do they command their followers to make human sacrifices of all non-followers.

          If Jesus is a love god, Hitler was the greatest humanitarian of all time. Yeah, sure, you can wrest a couple pleasant-seeming deepities from the depths of the putrescence that is the New Testament, but you can do so with Mein Kampf as well.



  5. Mattapult
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    I seriously doubt the man jumping into the septic tank thought, “I will kill myself to save my son.” The more likely trade-off, or sacrifice, was “I’ll suffer through this yucky stuff to save my son.” If he knew he would die, a better option would have been running after a ladder.

    That scenario is different than the soldier and the grenade. The soldier probably knows many will die, but by sacrificing himself the others will live. I don’t discount the bravery or heroics of the action, but the soldiers life was already lost before he takes that action.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      A ladder may be a slightly better option, but one that likely had killed him as certainly. Septic tanks are famous for killing whoever falls in and their rescuers, because (AFAIU) the oxygen is consumed to low levels. People suffocate about as quickly in them as having been dunked into the sewage itself.

      E.g. you need an oxygen supply such as rescue units have. I’ll bet it isn’t regulated equipment around septic tanks. (But it should be, and the problem would not start in the first place.)

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 4, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        Septic tanks are famous for killing whoever falls in and their rescuers, because (AFAIU) the oxygen is consumed to low levels.

        Tank entry work is highly regulated because of (1) the difficulty of access (and egress carrying an immobile body) and (2) the common presence of asphyxiating atmospheres (no oxygen), flammable atmospheres (e.g. normal-ish air plus 4.5 to 70% of methane, derived from fermentation of the contents of the tank), or actively toxic atmospheres (normal-ish air plus anything more than 0.05% H2S). Tank entry has a long and inglorious history of multiple fatalities : the week before my first offshore survival course (including “don’t do tank entry without these precautions), three people died in a tank entry at Stonehaven distillery (one went in and didn’t come out ; a second went in to help the first and didn’t come out ; a third went in and didn’t come out ; the 4th did what the first should have done and called for a team with body-hauling equipment and breathing apparatus) ; two weeks before my most recent offshore survival refresher (same course components, less repetitive background) there were three killed doing tank entry on a far in Northern Ireland (father and two sons if I recall ; everything else similar except that they had to call the fire brigade, who took an additional half-hour to get there, not that it would have made the slightest difference).
        Though this was an un-planned tank entry, frankly the blame for that probably falls on the person responsible for the maintenance of the roof to the tank, particularly with irresponsible personnel in the vicinity. That person appears dead, from the cited example, so further castigation is probably inappropriate.
        The particular problem with septic tanks, and other places with mixtures of organic matter, water, and restricted ventilation, is production of hydrogen sulphide. If you’re not familiar with it, take it as read that it’s the most toxic substance that you’re likely to meet. If you do meet anything more toxic, there’s a good chance that it has been designed to be toxic, and if you’re not in protective equipment already, then you’d better get your will updated. At 0.05% or higher, you’ve got about one breath to set your affairs in order ; two breaths if you’re lucky.
        Far, far better to have maintained the tank roof properly in the first place. But the person to blame for that (most likely) is dead already. There are times when it is appropriate to speak ill of the dead, and this is one of them.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted May 4, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

          Ah, yes, H2S is even quicker.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted May 6, 2014 at 5:56 am | Permalink

            Certainly can be ; but if you do survive a hit, there’s a high probability of serious neurological/ psychological after effects. Of the bad sort.

      • Mattapult
        Posted May 4, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        Good point about the ladder, there are low-laying invisible gasses that can incapacitate a rescuer.

        That’s a little beside the point I was trying to make. It’s certainly possible to get yourself killed during a rescue attempt, but there is no point in intentionally getting yourself killed as Damon Linker seems to imply. Intentionally getting killed means you likely wouldn’t see the conclusion of the rescue, and therefore your assistance to the original victim would come to a premature end. At that point, you’ve guaranteed at least one victim, without guaranteeing one rescue.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted May 6, 2014 at 5:59 am | Permalink

          Absolutely no point in getting yourself killed in a rescue effort. A large part of safety training is to get you to go through the “what ifs” before you find yourself in a real situation. So that you don’t do the silly (but emotionally appealing) ineffective things.
          Look before you leap, and all that jazz.

  6. kraut
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    How can christian not realize that their god – who once was undisputed creator and responsible for all has become something that can only be glimpsed in the gaps of what seems so far unexplainable by scientific investigation?

    This god can only be sustained by the concentrated efforts of twisting logic, denying reality and outright lying…this has become of an enterprise – christian religion – that once ruled over the thinking of generations. A rather pathetic downfall.

  7. Andrew B.
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Inventing supernatural explanations for unresolved scientific questions is disgracefully stupid.

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      Ah, but viewing life, the Universe and everything through the lens of belief distorts the field of vision so much that it allows, or, rather, demands such stupidity. They have to learn to put the lens down first.

  8. Tulse
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    So Jesus was “killed in the most painful and humiliating manner possible”? My mother-in-law had pancreatic cancer that filled her insides with a huge excruciating tumour, requiring her to lay in bed in agony while her basic bodily functions had to be handled by others — and she was like this for weeks. So pardon me if I’m not impressed at the level of “sacrifice” of an omnipotent god who had a bad weekend.

    • Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      Well said. Christians often puff up the “sacrifice” even though many, many people were crucified for treason against Rome. This one crucifixion is turned up to 11 for propaganda purposes.

      • Stephen P
        Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        And according to some (most?) Christians, a very much larger number of people will be tortured for all eternity, which renders the “sacrifice” of Jesus infinitesimally insignificant in comparison.

        • Joe L
          Posted May 4, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

          Great point!

          And the one before this

          And the initial one!

      • Vaal
        Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        Oh but don’t you know? Their response to this is that it was so much worse for God…infinitely worse…to have to go through the suffering of the flesh.

        Sure, a God who still partly existed in heaven (Trinity), who was partly on the cross for an amount of time that is unfathomably short in light of his eternal existence, and who knew that part of Him would zip right back up to heaven again.

        The suffering of, say, an atheist who has no such such Godly constitution, and no expectation of surviving his suffering, just can’t compare.


  9. francis
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink


  10. Cremnomaniac
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    I grow weary of the Linkers in this world. The ignorance, oh, the ignorance. My first reaction was you had given this moron far too much attention, aside from the fact he may have achieved recognition from others of his ilk.

    To linker, it probably his fairy friend that causes his toilet to backup. I have a better explanation.

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink


  12. darrelle
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    After reading dross like that it is difficult to maintain any level of even basic respect for Linker. Either he is seriously challenged cognitively speaking, or he thinks his audience is composed largely of idiots and is being blatantly disingenuous.

    If you are as ignorant of something, like what the sciences have to offer, are capable of offering, in explanation of human behavior, as he demonstrates in this article it is best to just keep quiet and listen lest you make a fool of yourself.

    In that last block you quoted from Linker’s article he is channeling good ole Moma ‘T’. And really, his gushing over the nobleness of drowning in sewage becomes unseemly and verges on disgusting. Yes, such sacrifice is very moving, but the fixation that chistianity has with such horrible sacrifice is one of its more disgusting attributes.

    • Posted May 4, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      “…the fixation that chistianity has with such horrible sacrifice is one of its more disgusting attributes.”

      True. One gets the impression that a lot of xians would be very disappointed if somehow everything was just fine for everybody and there was no need for such sacrifice. It’s as if they’d rather treat symptoms than cure the illness. In fact it’s exactly like that, given their opposition to stem cell research.

      Mother Theresa is a perfect example of this mentality.

    • eric
      Posted May 5, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      The fixation is kind of built into the theology; the only way to make sense of the Jesus story is if you posit that such karmic paybacks are metaphysically necessary. If they aren’t, then God could’ve just snapped his fingers and fixed the world at any time, without the need for a visit. To justify the visit, Christians must insist that it was necessary.

  13. Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    As Exhibit 653, I give you Jerry Coyne’s latest diatribe in TheNew Republic, which amounts to a little more than an inadvertent confession that he’s incapable of following a philosophical argument.

    More like, Jerry and the rest of us aren’t willing to be grabbed by the nose and led through the thicket.


  14. Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    That’s a fairly comprehensive dressing down, I’d say. What an illogical mess he presents.

  15. inkydisaster
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Why would a loving god throw a guy down a well in the first place?

    • Prof.Pedant
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      So that Damon Linker could write an article explaining how God is the source of altruism. But don’t worry, God was with the unfortunate in his time of agony, experiencing his pain with him, so it is all good and we should all be happy.

      [I wonder if Damon Linker has considered the possibility that God finds the pain of those who are altruistically sacrificing themselves to be particularly piquant.]

    • Joe L
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      It’s God’s idea of a fun pwn. He can be one sick dude at times.

      • cornbread_r2
        Posted May 4, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

        “Well, look at it this way: if you want to make a baby cry, first you give it a lollipop. Then you take it away. If you never give it a lollipop to begin with, then it would have nothin’ to cry about. That’s like God, who gives us life and love and help just so that he can tear it all away and make us cry, so he can drink the sweet milk of our tears. You see, it’s our tears, Stan, that give God his great power.” — Chef, South Park

  16. John Crisp
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    This is a bit worrying, from a review of a book by Linker on his website: “Is it true, however, that a candidate’s religious convictions should be off-limits to public scrutiny? Damon Linker doesn’t think so, and in this book, he outlines the various elements of religious belief—including radical atheism—that are simply incompatible with high office, and sometimes even active citizenship, in a democracy.”

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      Figures. He joins O’Reilly as a fascist.

  17. John Crisp
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    But bizarrely, he seems to have written another book, called “The Theocons” which, according to the blurb, argues the opposite.

    • Achrachno
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      Your beliefs have to be “just right” if you’re to have the rights of citizenship. Too far away, in any direction, from the views of Damon and you’re unworthy.

  18. Barbara
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    You wrote: “human adoption, something that’s deeply altruistic yet evolutionarily maladaptive . . .”.

    Human adoption as we do it in this country now may be evolutionarily maladaptive. The adoptive parents satisfy our need to care for little ones by taking in unrelated children who will be a sink for our resources for nearly two decades. However, ’twas not always so.

    Aside from the issue that adoption in small groups usually meant adopting a genetic relative, until recently children became actually useful — sources of resources — at a young age. In hunter-gatherer societies and on small farms, a child of five or six can at least collect some of its own food (frogs, nestling birds, fruits, eggs), watch over smaller children or domestic animals, clean up, weed crops, etc.

    (I was amazed at the competence of small kids in when I was in Peace Corps in the society of small-scale farmers.)

    When those orphan trains took children from New York to the Midwest, the farm families who took in the orphans weren’t just being altruistic. They were getting little farm hands and servants, who would grow in usefulness until ready to go out on their own.

    Therefore, adopting non-related children did have the potential to increase the success of the adoptive family and contribute to the reproductive success of adoptive parents or their close relatives.

    • Dermot C
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Given the emotional and financial drain of my two adolescent adopted daughters, I wonder if I’m in some mad parallel universe of evolution in reverse.


  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Our new weekend fun: look at the stupidest theology and/or religious spewage out there!

    Linker’s problem is that he has been erroneously indoctrinated (taught) that “good” stuff comes from his magical agent of choice. That’s why he isn’t even looking for that night jar, or why he won’t understand the science even though he is dimly aware of its existence.

    A generic theist is a dimwitted animal, an animal with wits dimmed by “evil” social practices. Linker is a perfect example.

    the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

    Even Newton didn’t believe that deepity.

  20. Faustus
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    When the Lusitania was sunk in 1915, killing 1198 people, there was international moral outrage. In cities throughout the UK many innocent Germans were attacked (e.g. http://liverpoolremembrance.weebly.com/anti-german-riots.html ) as a result of this.

    Our morality, as in this case, can lead us to do terrible things as well as noble. If you are going to argue morality is from God then why can our moral emotions be so capricious, and lead to harm as well as good? An evolutionary basis for morality accounts for this very well.

    • Rob
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      If you are going to argue morality is from God then why can our moral emotions be so capricious

      Loving god, destroyed the planet once, many cities, gets POed at someone building a skyscraper and makes people unable to communicate.

      I don’t think your argument holds, at least for the Abrahamic religions.

      • Faustus
        Posted May 5, 2014 at 5:28 am | Permalink

        Agreed, when you put it like that!

        However the apologist using this argument is
        trying to give some sort of cast-iron backing
        to a pure and objective morality, they’ll wave away your above examples as metaphor. At this point my argument will be effective.

        • Rob
          Posted May 5, 2014 at 5:51 am | Permalink

          Then there’s Adam and Eve and the punishment for the fruit. If that’s metaphor, the basis of christianity is shot. No original sin, no need for redemption.

          • Dermot C
            Posted May 5, 2014 at 6:07 am | Permalink

            The word ‘sin’ doesn’t appear in the Genesis Adam and Eve fruit shenanigans story. Neither does Jesus even mention original sin. Which makes you wonder what he thought he was dying for, because it certainly wasn’t atonement for it.

            The original sin interpretation of Adam and Eve’s fall only reached completion 1,000 years after the original legend, in St. Augustine. Jesus ben Sirach, around 200 BCE, kicked off the analysis: St. Paul and Irenaeus of Lyons also interpreted the story in a similar way.

            Original sin evolved.


  21. JimV
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    That was a cogent and well-put case for the evolution of altruism – thanks. Which Mr. Linker will never understand, because he is blind to the fact that his own “explanation” (god did it) is not an explanation at all and so apparently he does not understand what an “explanation” is. Perhaps to him, an explanation is something that makes him feel good when he states it. You have shown how, given evolution exists, altruism would evolve. Mr. Linker has not shown how, given his god exists, that altruism would be instilled in creatures with free will.

    On a side note, I think Mr. Hart’s aphorism could be slightly approved by adding “word” ahead of “salad”, something like, “If I wrote a word salad like those of Linker and Hart it would be a very stupid word salad.”

  22. DrDroid
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    “Is it The Argument from Suckling Ducklings?”


  23. Sastra
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Theists who make this sort of argument seem to dance back and forth between the larger question (“where might the human capacity for altruism have come from?”) and the smaller question (“why should I personally make a choice to be altruistic?”) I think that’s one reason why the evolutionary explanation — which answers the first question by showing how a certain behavioral tendency might have slowly accumulated over times in certain lines of living species — will be rejected. They’re really asking the second question, you see.

    But if you try to explain why atheists have good reasons to choose to be loving and generous as individuals, it will turn out that no, it was really the first question which was being asked. Until you go for it and now we’re back again.

    It’s possible that this constant shift in goalposts is unconscious. Religious thinking is sloppy thinking, habits of approach and explanation which blur different concepts and ideas together on the blithe assumption that this is what it means to discover deep connections. Like comes from like: we get our capacity to sacrifice from a Being which is the very essential nature of sacrifice. Got that? No, they don’t really get it either, but it’s satisfactorily simplistic.

    The interesting thing about the concept of “agape” though is that if you look closely at what’s going on it’s only the ATHEIST who is capable of choosing and exhibiting a ‘love that passeth understanding.” If you believe that you will never die and that all sacrifices will be made up a hundredfold, then isn’t a leap on a hand grenade much more comprehensible from a cost-benefit analysis? Nothing is really lost. You don’t die.

    But someone who lacks this sense of cosmic justice and eternal life really DOES make an ultimate sacrifice in this situation, one with no expectation of later reward. Even the humanist choice to value humanity for its own sake — warts and all — makes the theist who snipes that humans only have value if and only if they were created in the image of a Perfect God pale in comparison.

    Agape? Atheists have it and theists do not because the way they’ve set the situation up, they can not.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted May 5, 2014 at 5:41 am | Permalink

      A splendid analysis! And on the other side of your coin is the theist’s execrable habit of cheapening others’ lives–indeed, human life itself–by comparing the earth-we-have to the heaven-to-come. How many millions of people have been sent into battle, and to their deaths, under the standard of this Big Lie, so blithely (or solemnly) endorsed by generations of feckless Sky Pilots!

  24. Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    I thought this was a great description of the various forms and evolutionary origin of altruistic-like behavior versus true altruism, and the possible biological basis of true altruism. I had been considering true altruism as being a kind of spandrel, but I am not sure if that is an appropriate category.

    In any case, this would be a good essay for Salon or some other place.

    • eric
      Posted May 5, 2014 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      I think spandrel is an apt description of what Jerry is describing. Evolution selects for kin-support, but gets a sloppy version of it that is easily co-opted for other uses.

  25. Jonathan Houser
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Even if science couldn’t explain human altruism, why would altruism be evidence of anything?

    If I claim “why are human’s so sadistic? You don’t get sadism in the animal world. They only kill for survival. Sadism is obviously evidence for Aka Manah, god of evil intent.” That somehow wouldn’t convince any christian. If they insist it is evidence for Satan or mankind’s sin, one only has to ask “Why not Aka Manah?” There is no reason to assume Satan instead. There is no reason to assume sadism is evidence for any super natural entity, but apparently altruism is.

    Why is altruism any different? Sadism inspires all kinds of feelings in both those that perpetrate it and those that experience it. Feelings that animals just aren’t capable of. Thus Aka Manah.

    • H.H.
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

      They explain human evil with Satan, and human goodness with God.

  26. Pliny the in Between
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Damon obviously doesn’t get the bottom up approach of science. We have a lot of empirical avenues to pursue regarding altruism before we have to seriously entertain the notion of a magic sky daddy.

  27. Achrachno
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Damon Linker fails to spot the white pelican would be better: no one spots the nightjar!

    • Scote
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 11:39 pm | Permalink


      Yes, the metaphor is a bit garbled. It needs to be for something that is obvious to all but a few who are obstinate. The night jar photos made finding Waldo seem like a breeze.

      I like mocking the very stupid salad remark though. I think that Official Phrase is a winner.

  28. Grayguardian
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I like that Linker either (a) forgot that he believes in heaven, (b) doesn’t believe in heaven, or (c) heaven is a terrible place to be avoided for as long as possible. Isn’t the real story about a guy that risked going to heaven to stop his son from definitely going to heaven? He didn’t mention heaven once. Did I miss something?

  29. David Miller
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    So let’s sum up this argument.

    A child is born with Downs Syndrome. Several years later, he accidentally falls into a sceptic tank. His father drowns in sewage saving his son’s life. Therefore, we should reasonably conclude that a perfectly loving, all-powerful and all-knowing God controls the universe.

    This guy not only failed to spot the nightjar, he didn’t even look at the big picture.

  30. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Or a firefighter who enters a blaze to rescue a child knowing that he will likely perish in the effort.

    That is a bloody stupid example to choose. The fireman has accomplished nothing but to get himself dead as well as the child.
    Fortunately, the fire training that I’ve received, and which is decidedly less than a full time firefighter gets, emphasises thinking before acting. Evidently, this Damon Linker doesn’t believe in thinking before acting.
    (Why do we get more fire training then the man on the Clapham Omnibus? Because it could take tens of hours to several days for the fire service to get to the boat. If, of course, there is a maritime fire service in the country that we’re in. If not … we have lifeboats and liferafts.)

    • reasonshark
      Posted May 5, 2014 at 6:02 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I was just thinking that. The first thing you learn in life-saving training is NOT to put yourself in danger unless the situation is utterly desperate, lest you create two casualties instead of only one.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 6, 2014 at 6:03 am | Permalink

        Why make things harder for the second wave of responders.

  31. Steve Gerrard
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    “Why does Vander Woude’s act of sacrifice move us? Maybe because in freely dying for his son, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

    The question Linker does not come to terms with, and needs to, is whether he would still admire this selfless act if it turns out there is no God.

    He has claimed that Jesus set an example of how to do it, but does not claim that we are bound by his God to do so ourselves – it is still up to each of us, individually.

    How does the presence or absence of his God change anything here? Whether we do so because of the cited example of Jesus, or for some other sense of devotion to family, is it not still a good thing, equally worthy of our admiration?

    I am reminded of that claim by Oprah that you can’t feel awe if you are an atheist. Pigliucci would call such a claim “nonsense on stilts.”

  32. Posted May 4, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    The Archbishop of Canterbury is reading from the same playbook:

    Returning to the debate, Archbishop Welby said the UK’s “systems of justice and health, the way we value people, the basic way we look at the human being and the dignity of the human being, reflects the values of Jesus Christ”.


  33. Michael Scally
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Has anyone seen the following? I am unable to find the study or cite. I am already finding creationists latching onto this finding.

    Doubting Darwin: Algae Findings Surprise Scientists

  34. Posted May 4, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Theism does nothing to explain this sort if sacrifice. If a person believing that they were about to receive eternal reward for sacrificing themselves to save another, it is an inherently selfish act. They are getting eternal reward while leaving another person on Earth to inevitably at some point go through some suffering and then potentially risk losing the chance at eternal reward themselves (assuming a Heaven/Hell).

    The ultimate sacrifice would be to let the other person die, ask that God grant them mercy and then risk your own eternal fate for having allowed this to happen. Sending someone to eternal paradise while risking eternal damnation for yourself would be true selflessness.

    Any Christian account that fails to consider this scenario is failing to reason properly and has done nothing to explain genuine altruism. Frankly I don’t see a way out if this conundrum even if you allow for the assertion that we can’t judge that the other person would be saved.

    • reasonshark
      Posted May 5, 2014 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      “We feel moved by Vander Woude’s sacrifice precisely because it seems selfless — the antithesis of evolutionary self-interestedness.”

      Clearly someone else who never read The Selfish Gene beyond its title. And who can’t tell the difference between genes and organisms.

  35. hank_says
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Being nice to each other was invented by Jesus?

    Well, that would explain why literally all pre-Christian societies across the planet were mired in endless cycles of apathetic hatred and why none of them ever constructed or codified systems of morality, law or common decency. Things like the Code of Hammurabi and ancient Greek hospitality customs were clearly aberrations (or lucky guesses by ancient gods).

    I guess, then, that every single crime against humanity committed by Jesus’ Church during the centuries it ruled Europe, every scientist, philosopher or “witch” imprisoned, tortured or burned at the stake, every single crime against children committed by JC’s field agents, every single butchered African child accused of witchcraft, every single preventable STD infection, every unplanned teen pregnancy and every single instance of Christian homophobia, racism and misogyny from the individual level to the legislative are also aberrations.


    I sometimes wonder if theopologists like Linker ever read more than one book.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      Well said. Of course also worth mentioning: chivalry. If one thinks it is about courtly love and not a justification for killing infidels and such, one truly lives in a medieval poem. I suspect Linker probably does.

    • H.H.
      Posted May 4, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      It’s amazing how many Christians really do seem to think Christianity invented goodness.

      • Dermot C
        Posted May 5, 2014 at 2:55 am | Permalink

        Rich man to Socrates: How do I get a reputation for being virtuous?

        Socrates: By being virtuous.


  36. lkr
    Posted May 4, 2014 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    True story for Damon Linker: Grew up on a dairy farm. When I was 11, I was tasked to supervise a breeding procedure in the barnyard while my father worked on plumbing in the adjacent barn. Bull decided to go for me, and tossed me in the air. Landed in quagmire and sank out of sight, at least to the bull that was thundering around trying to finish me off. So when my father came after the bull with a pipe wrench, I was still in one piece.

    So, Damon, did it matter to the Creator that I would have a vasectomy 25 years later and never reproduce? That I was 11 and still cute? Did my father calculate that I was adopted and therefore only God would make him go after the bull? Was it Gods providence that the neighbor who owned the bull didn’t believe in removing horns because God makes bulls that way? ..Inquiring minds note that s**t happens, sometimes for the better..

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] I’m not really sure who Damon Linker is, but this recommendation on his website doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. And if you Google “Damon Linker”, the second hit you get, after his own website, is a critique I wrote on this site. Linker clearly doesn’t like me because I make Baby Jesus Cry, and, as you’ll see, he harbors a great deal of love for Jesus. In fact, in his latest piece at The Week, “Why atheism doesn’t have the upper hand over religion,” he gives the Saviour credit for human altruism and for the fact that we humans admire it so much. But what it does is not do is show any advantage of religion over atheism. [Read more] […]

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