Can the concept of ‘altruism’ serve as useful category for the study of religion? Does the idea of altruism provide a universal common ground between the world’s religions that can be the basis for academic dialogue? This book affirms that altruism is universally considered to be a virtue, although framed differently in each religion (p. vii). It takes as its first task the definition of ‘religion’ and ‘altruism’. Religion is defined as ‘an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings’ (p. x). This definition captures the holistic influence of religion in human life, although it may incorrectly universalize the presence of superhuman beings in the world’s religions. Religion affects speech, writing, art, music, dance, politics, economics, etc. Religions have cosmologies and eschatologies. In other words, religion is a framework that is used to interpret all experiences of a person’s life. Altruism is defined, minimally, as an ‘intentional action intended ultimately for the welfare of others that entails at least the possibility of either no benefit or a loss to the actor’ (p. xiii). From these definitions, three questions emerge that will help focus each chapter: how does a given religion understand acting for the welfare of others, how is this action assessed by the religion (based on impact, or intentionality, or some other characteristic), and does the religion make it possible for actions of welfare for other to have a negative or neutral consequence on the actor?
As a collection of essay from multiple authors, this book brings a multifaceted approach to the subject. There seems to be general consensus that the category of altruism does not serve as a universal category in a way that no other can or would. ‘There is broad agreement among the contributors to this volume that he contemporary understanding of altruism used for this experiment either does not apply or is otherwise unsuited to the classical materials of the religions under study’ (p. 191). Even so, the very act of addressing this question has
brought together essays that ‘collectively reveal the resources for benevolence, charity, and human caring in the foundation texts of the religions they study’ (p. 191). Part of the reason that it will not work as a unifying concept is that the idea of what ‘welfare’ means varies greatly from religion to religion. While the book does not limit the idea of ‘beneficial consequences’ to this worldly rewards (it includes the possibility of otherworldly rewards), just what counts as a ‘reward’ is the question. There is also the troubling problem of whether it is even possible to act in a way that benefits others and has absolutely no benefit, or an actually harmful result (all things considered and in the long run), for the actor.
The motivation for this book can be seen in the supposition that ‘all religions teach the importance of caring for others in one fashion or another’ (p. 191), that all agree that this is a virtue (p. vii). The concern is to find common ground between all religions.
And yet each essay seems to conclude that altruism, as defined by this book, is not a useful interpretive concept. For instance, in their chapter on Classical Judaism, Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck say:
The concept of altruism can have made no sense to the authorities whose texts are before us because they understood at base that God’s justice, rather than intrinsic traits of humanity, in all cases shapes human action … Because the rabbis did not and could not explain human actions within the framework of the theoretical issues that surround the question of altruism, we must be clear that by asking about their theory of selfless behavior we reveal more about ourselves and our own expectations than about them and their world. (p. 51)
Similarly, in his chapter on Christianity, Bruce Chilton says:
Jesus’ distinctive perspective presses us to see altruism in a fresh light, perceiving that care for the other is crucial to the care of oneself. For that reason, the possibility of ‘action on behalf of others’ with ‘no beneficial consequence for the actor’ at all, as in William Scott Green’s definition (see introduction to this volume), does not arise. Yet this ‘beneficial con sequence’ is not in the terms of this world but a function of the presence of God. (p. 65)
The conclusions about Islam and Buddhism are similar: ‘given such a restrictive definition, there can be no altruism whatsoever in Islam because God has promised in the Qur’an to reward every good deed done by any person’ (p. 84), and ‘the early Buddhists seemed to understand clearly that given the interrelatedness of all beings, if the prosperity of a society was not sincerely and generously dedicated to serve the common good, the spiritual vitality of the community’s elite inevitably would be impaired’ (p. 110).
The problem seems to be found in the idea of an action that has absolutely no benefit, or an entirely neutral benefit, for the actor. Each religious system affirms that through helping others there is a benefit of some kind to the actor. And this seems to open up prospective avenues for common ground between religions. Each of those considered in this volume share the idea of the good. This category is common, although the content and identity of the good may be different in each system. The obvious question is: what is the good? Answering this involves knowing what it is to be a human so that it can be understood what is good for a human. If the good cannot be known, then there can be no responsibility to hold to one view of the good over another. But if the good can be known, then this can serve not only as an interpretive concept for the study of world religions, but as a source of unity between the world’s religions. This does not necessarily mean an affirmation of the good while continuing to maintain contrary perspectives of reality, but that the good can be a source of evaluating a given worldview for its ability to account for what is good.
This book succeeded in its purpose of evaluating the concept of altruism in the world’s religions. There is a respect in which it succeeded beyond its own expectations. It opens up possible avenues for further discussion on unity between the world’s religions. The questions ‘what does it mean to be a human?’ and ‘what is good for a human’ require answers. If it is maintained that humans are responsible to know what is good, then we should be able to answer these questions. And this is a worthy pursuit both in terms of answering these questions in themselves and in applying the answers to settling the long-standing disputes between the world’s religions.