JR'S Free Thought Pages
Atheism and Altruism
The Case of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates
By Peter Singer
Australian-born philosopher Peter Singer is frequently acknowledged as a major force in modern bio-ethics. The publication of his book Animal Liberation in 1975 is credited with launching the animal rights movement. He is currently a professor of bio-ethics at Princeton University and has taught at, among other schools, Oxford University, The University of Colorado, University of California and New York University. His Practical Ethics is one of the most widely used texts in applied ethics, and Rethinking Life and Death received the 1995 National Book Council's Banjo Award for non-fiction. Peter Singer is also the co-editor of the journal Bioethics and a founding father of The International Association of Bioethics. His most recent book is Pushing Time Away. He currently lives in New York City and Princeton, New Jersey.
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." - [Matthew 19:24]
“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your MISERIES THAT SHALL COME UPON YOU. Your riches are corrupted…” - (James 5:1,2).
Warren Buffett is, according to Forbes Magazine, the second wealthiest person in the world with assets of $42 billion. He may not hold that ranking for long, because in June he made the largest philanthropic commitment in the history of the United States. He announced that he would give $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and another $7 billion to other charitable foundations. Even when the gifts made by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller are adjusted for inflation, Buffett's gift is greater.
Bill Gates Jr., the only person wealthier than Warren Buffett, also made a commitment in June. Having previously endowed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with close to $29 billion, he announced that in 2008 he would leave Microsoft to concentrate on working with the foundation.
As Marc Hauser and I indicated in a previous issue of Free Inquiry ("Morality without Religion," December 2005/ January 2006), many Americans think that, without religion, people have no reason to act ethically—or indeed have no grounds, other than self-interest, for doing anything. It is significant, therefore, that in a country in which 96 percent of the population says that it believes in a supreme being, neither of the two greatest American philanthropists of the modern era is religious. Buffett is described by his biographer, Roger Lowenstein, in the following terms: "He did not subscribe to his family's religion. Even at a young age he was too mathematical, too logical, to make the leap of faith. He adopted his father's ethical underpinnings, but not his belief in an unseen divinity" (Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist, Doubleday 1995).
Lowenstein says that even from youth, Buffett's mind was more suited to rationalism that to superstition:
Warren's exploits were always based on numbers, which he trusted above all else. In contrast, he did not subscribe to his family's religion. Even at a young age, he was too mathematical, and too logical, to make the leap of faith. He adopted his father's ethical underpinnings, but not his belief in an unseen divinity.
Buffett's skepticism caused friend Truman Wood to bait him:
Wood, intrigued that Buffet had read the Bible three or four times and remained agnostic, could not resist trying to convert him. They had the usual debates about faith and the afterlife, but Buffet was immovable. For every argument that Wood raised, Buffet had a deadly logical response.
Buffett was a fan of the mathematician, philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell. Lowenstein recounts Buffets sympathy with Russell's social agenda: "An atheist like Russell and deeply aware of his mortality, Buffett thought it was up to society, collectively, to protect the planet from dangers such as nuclear war."
 Roger Lowenstein. Buffett:
the making of an American capitalist. New York: Doubleday, 1995 (ISBN
0385484917), p. 13.
The following is also taken from Lowenstein’s biography: (p. 13)
Buffett's sharp divergence from conservative American religious belief is shown by his strong support for reproductive rights. Among the commitments he made in June was a donation of stock valued at about $3 billion to the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, named after his late wife, which has in the past given substantial support to abortion rights causes.
Bill Gates was asked in an interview in the January 13, 1997, issue of Time whether he thought that there was something special, perhaps even divine, about the human soul. He answered: "I don't have any evidence of that." Later in the same story, he is quoted as saying: 'Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning."
Another major contemporary American philanthropist, the financier George Soros, was admirably concise when questioned about his religious beliefs on 60 Minutes of December 20, 1998:
Steve Kroft: Are you a religious man?
Kroft: Do you believe in God?
We shouldn't be surprised. Andrew Carnegie, perhaps the greatest philanthropist in history prior to Buffett and Gates, openly denied believing in God. That means that three out of the four greatest American philanthropists have been atheists or agnostics. (The exception is John D. Rockefeller.)
The other notable feature about Buffett's and Gates's philanthropy, in addition to the sheer size of their donations, is that, unlike so many American donors, they do not give towards building monuments for themselves such as new hospitals, cancer research centers, or splendid architectural statements at elite universities. Instead, the bulk of the money is directed towards relieving human suffering. Consistent with his desire to use his Sunday mornings in a manner more effectively than going to church, Gates has directed most of his money towards finding cures for the diseases that do the most harm, not to people like him—citizens of the developed world—but to people as a whole. The prevailing pattern in medical research is that 90 percent of all research, worldwide, is directed towards medical conditions that account for only 10 percent of the global burden of disease. Pneumonia, diarrhea, tuberculosis, and malaria together are responsible for more than 20 percent of the global disease burden, but they receive less than 1 percent of the funds, public and private, devoted to health research. Or at least they did before Gates and now Buffett entered the picture. That percentage will increase because of the priorities, and resources, of the Gates Foundation.
So what motivates these nonreligious philanthropists? I don't really know for sure, and in a way it doesn't much matter, as long as their money does so much good. Some years ago, however, I put the same question to Henry Spira, another highly effective philanthropist and animal rights activist. Since he never had much money, Spira's form of philanthropy was to devote his time, energy and very considerable intellect to campaigning for the downtrodden and oppressed, irrespective of race or species.
When I put the question to him, Spira had cancer and knew he did not have long to live. As an atheist, he regarded death as the end of his existence. I asked him what had driven him to spend his life working for others. He replied: "I guess basically one wants to feel that one's life has amounted to more than just consuming products and generating garbage. I think that one likes to look back and say that one's done the best one can to make this a better place for others. You can look at it from this point of view: what greater motivation can there be than doing whatever one possibly can to reduce pain and suffering?"
Perhaps that is also what drives Buffett and Gates. It may be that simple, but many religious people just don't get it.
Peter Singer is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and the author of several books, of which the most relevant to this article is How Are We to Live? His most recent book, coauthored with Jim Mason, is The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter.