Altruism is difficult for atheists to explain within their worldview. This can be seen in their reaction to the modern icon of altruism, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
The famous sociobiologist E. O. Wilson argued that goodness was the result of “lying, pretense, and deceit, including self-deceit, because the actor is most convincing who believes that his performance is real.” He attributed Blessed Teresa’s altruism to self-interest. She was just “in it” just to get to heaven: “Mother Teresa is an extraordinary person but it should not be forgotten that she is secure in the service of Christ and the knowledge of her Church’s immortality.”
Wilson’s comments are mild compared to Christopher Hitchens recent comment during an interview with Dennis Miller (here). I have edited some of Hitchen’s crudity:
"Mother Theresa spent her whole life saying (that what Calcutta needs) is a huge campaign against family planning. I mean, who comes to that conclusion who isn’t a complete fanatic? She took – and I would directly say stole…millions and millions of dollars and spent all the money not on the poor, but on the building of nearly 200 convents in her own name around the world to glorify herself and to continue to spread the doctrine that, as she put it — when she got her absurd Nobel Peace Prize — that the main threat to world peace is abortion and contraception. The woman was a fanatic and a fundamentalist and a fraud, and millions of people are much worse off because of her life, and it’s a shame there is no hell for your b**** to go to."
As offensive and erroneous as Wilson’s and Hitchen’s remarks are, I think there is some benefit to reflecting on them, especially in this month of November as we contemplate the saints, the faithful departed, the final judgment, and the Last Things generally.
First, the venom of Hitchen’s remarks reminds me of the response Jesus received from the Pharisees with regard to his healing ministry. In the face of direct evidence of divine power and obvious goodness (miracles of healing), the Pharisees attribute Jesus’ powers to Satan. Likewise, Hitchens thinks Blessed Teresa is worthy of hell, if there was such a place. Sometimes the Gospels seem distant from us because we cannot relate to the social dynamic in some of the stories. Hitchens helps us close the gap between reader and text by showing us up close the twisted logic that can lead people to consider some of the clearest examples of goodness as evil.
Both Hitchens and the Pharisees are confronted with people who challenge their worldview, people who—according to their Weltanschauung—ought not to exist and do what they do. The reaction is violent revulsion, because nothing is more threatening to a person than to have their entire worldview threatened.
Secondly, Wilson’s attribution of Blessed Teresa’s goodness to self-interest based on her hope in heaven actually sheds light on a fact that has somewhat distressed me. Many of you know that after Bl. Teresa’s death her memoirs revealed that, in fact, she frequently did not have spiritual consolations nor a sense of the assurance of her salvation. She worked for long periods in spiritual dryness. When this information came to light, I was troubled personally, because I could not understand why God would not have granted such a selfless person the spiritual consolations that I felt she deserved.
The story of Job comes to mind. Like Wilson, Satan in the beginning of the Book of Job attributes Job’s goodness to self-interest. “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (Job 1:9). This is the “hermeneutic of suspicion,” the same hermeneutic Wilson and Hitchens employ. No one does good for goodness sake; everyone is “in it” because of something “for them.” Does any one do good only for the sake of good? Which is the same as asking, does anyone serve God for the sake of God alone?
Perhaps this is why God permitted Blessed Teresa to serve without spiritual consolations: to silence the Adversary. Her diaries showed E.O. Wilson to be wrong. Blessed Teresa was not some sanguine simpleton serving God for “pie in the sky by and by.” She was not continually consoled with assurance of heaven. Yet she continued to love both God and neighbor without guarantee of any return for herself. Thus her love was perfected and purified, because it was enabled to be without any self-interest. Her spiritual dryness enabled Blessed Teresa to make a perfect self-offering. God gave Bl. Theresa the opportunity to make a pure self-gift. We ought not to be surprised if at some point in our walk with God, we are given a similar opportunity.
(I originally wrote this post on All Saints Day, but it has taken a while to get it proofread and online.)