Atheists, agnostics & charity

I just discovered that "three of the four greatest American philanthropists have been atheists or agnostics" thanks to the New York Times.  They are Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Andrew Carnegie.  John D. Rockefeller is the fourth and he’s the exception.

This struck me for two reasons.  One, I have Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion on my reading list because it has gotten so much publicity.  He argues there is no god and the reason I thought of it just now is because I listened to a radio show where he explains why atheists still contribute to charity.  I can’t off the top of my head recreate his argument for you, but once I’ve read the book, I’ll post again.  (The other reason I have Richard Dawkin’s book on my reading list is because I really like his book The Selfish Gene.  In it he argues that our bodies are just vessels for our genes and that evolution is all about propogating our genes – our intelligence, our humor, our survival rate is all related to how well our individual genes do not our whole being.  Until I read it I’d always thought all of our characteristics had evolved to make our whole being successful.  Thinking about it at the gene level turned everything upside down and inside out.)

The second reason this struck me is that I always have a hard time explaining why I volunteer.  I don’t volunteer because I think I’m supposed to do so for religious reasons.  I don’t volunteer because that’s what I think I’m supposed to for any reason.  I volunteer because I enjoy it.  I enjoy three things about volunteering:

  • learning new things.  I have learned how to train dogs, understand the battered woman’s mindset, build houses (sort of), etc.
  • meeting new people.  Other than work, family and classes, this is one of the main ways I meet people.
  • helping people.  What I can’t explain is why I enjoy helping people.  Why does it make me feel good to make somebody else feel good? 

I believe helping people makes everyone feel good even though a lot of people don’t know it!  I remember leaving a bar late one night with a friend and there was a guy in the parking lot with a car that obviously had problems.  I asked him if he needed a push start and when he did, I made my friend help.  My friend was amazed.  "You are so good!"  I told him at the time that once you’ve owned a car that needs push starting a lot you tend to notice people that need a push start.  But now that I think about it, I don’t think he realized that he felt good because he’d helped.  I can tell you all the times I’ve push started a stranger’s car (a lot!) and each time I felt really good afterwards. (I can also tell you all the times a complete stranger has stopped to help me with something and that made me feel really good too – even when I didn’t think I needed the help.)

But I still can’t tell you why it makes me feel good to help someone who needs it.