The argument, as I understand it from a variety of sources, is that "good" people (which is often synonymous with believers of a particular religious tradition) ought not concern themselves with their own wants and needs, but ought instead to concern themselves with the wants and needs of others. Their reasoning involves a version of some or all of the following points: (1) Good people will be rewarded in an afterlife for suffering here on earth, so demonstrating your goodness by being self-sacrificial in this life will result in your needs and wants being satisfied for eternity. (2) Their scriptures affirm that their supernatural will provide what they need, so they need not worry about their own needs. (3) Insisting on what you want causes harm to others because you can only get what you want at the expense of someone else. In other words, everyone cannot simultaneously have their wants and needs met, so your gain means someone else's loss. (4) The example of Jesus (for Christians) or another legendary spiritual leader reflects a model of self-sacrificial living.
There may be other points offered in support of self-sacrifice and in opposition to selfishness, but these four are the ones I read and hear most often. We should consider each of these arguments in turn, and then consider whether living into a "personal creative life dream" or focusing on what you really want is actually a selfish act. Let's take our time with this over a few weeks rather than brushing past what seems like an important criticism.
First, though, we can brush past the first point. We've already dispensed with the idea of an afterlife. Being self-sacrificial in this life will get you the experience of self-sacrifice in this life. And maybe it will get you a false sense of superiority or piety. Most likely, it will get you a sense of resentment and frustrated entitlement. What it won't get you is your needs met. No one else is responsible for your life but you. It's nice when other people meet our needs and attend to our wants, but it isn't ultimately their responsibility. Likewise, it isn't your responsibility to meet other people's needs or wants. It's nice when you do, and we'll see why it's important that we connect what we want and need with what other people want and need. Meeting other people's needs at the expense of your own, though, doesn't earn you any points with a supernatural, it just creates voluntary suffering on your part. If you're alright with that, that's your prerogative, but it won't result in a better afterlife for you.
The next point is more concerning, because there is some serious potential for harm in living by a belief that you needn't worry about your own well-being because a supernatural will provide everything you need. What does one say about the people of faith who are starving or going without clean water or dying from curable diseases and treatable health conditions? If all of those people were atheists, then it would be a powerful motivator to believe in a god, but this isn't the case. Some suffering people wind up believing that they must have done something wrong, and that their god is now punishing them. Some people believe that others suffer so that there is someone to care for, as if their god causes suffering in some people's lives so that other people can extend care. If this is the case, believers are doing a pretty poor job of it, and their god operates out of a rather twisted morality.
While it's true that we don't really need that much to live a happy and healthy life, it's also true that those basic necessities are not guaranteed. The ample evidence indicates that people cannot expect a supernatural to provide for their needs. We are responsible for our own lives. And what people cannot provide for themselves, it falls to other human beings to provide. If people continue to go without food or clean water, that's not on a supernatural who made a promise to provide -- it's on us, the rest of humanity who continue on with more comfortable lives instead of attending to the basic needs of other human beings. More specifically, it's on the people who have the resources to improve the well-being of others on a larger scale, but that's jumping ahead a little bit.
I understand that, for believers, it must seem that there is a supernatural working things out in your life when you get the job you wanted, or when you avoid a nasty traffic collision, or when your child gets a clean bill of health. I attended a graduation recently at which it was said that we were celebrating students' accomplishments, and that they couldn't have done it without God's help. This logical inconsistency made perfect sense to the believers in the room, as if it was the divine will of a supernatural that they should complete the assignments they chose to complete, attend the classes they chose to attend, earn the grades they legitimately earned, and so orchestrate their lives that they complete a degree program. If their god is responsible for those degrees, there is no reason to celebrate their individual achievements.
Actually, if a supernatural is ultimately going to get its way, despite human action, we have no reason to do anything. Where does one draw the line? If we starve or feast, run late or arrive early, succeed or fail, get mugged or walk the streets safely, exercise or sit on the couch -- why should we take responsibility for any of this if a supernatural always works things out to get what it wants. (Which seems like the very definition of selfish, actually.) Of course, then one must ask why an omnipotent loving supernatural wants so many believers to suffer, but believers usually credit their god with the desirable things and blame something else for the suffering. They've invented a powerful evil counterpart to their benevolent god, to make an even more convoluted explanation of suffering that ends up undermining their very definition of their god. It makes for great horror movies, though, so I'm grateful for that.
Sometimes desirable things happen to us. Sometimes we even cause them, because we work hard or pay attention or otherwise commit ourselves toward a particular outcome. It's not so unreasonable to think that you will get a job for which you're qualified, for instance. If you think it would take a miracle for you to get hired, you must not think very highly of your skills. Sometimes desirable things happen that we don't think we've earned, like a child getting well after a serious illness. Yet, if we've tended to that child and taken them to doctors and done our part to create a healthy environment, we have contributed to that healing. Perhaps it doesn't feel "right" that one person's child should die from a disease and another person's child should live. It's more convenient to pin it on a god and be grateful. When we think we are undeserving of the desirable things that happen in our lives, there is something less healthy at work within us, however.
When things go the way you want them to, and you think, "God was watching out for me," or something to that effect, consider this: Are you actually saying that you aren't worthy of good things happening in your life? Why do you think that? Who is "worthy" of getting into a traffic collision? Who is "worthy" of avoiding it? Who is "worthy" of getting a job they aren't qualified for or receiving a degree they didn't actually earn? Our inherent worth as human beings is not tied to what happens to us or what we accomplish. Some of the desirable things in our lives are things we earn, and it is dishonest to suggest that we didn't. You earned your degrees. You worked to develop your skills. And some desirable things are just luck.
Actually, some desirable things must be just luck even if you are a believer who proposes the existence of a benevolent, loving deity. To think that a god spared you from a nasty traffic collision means that your god didn't spare other people. And it's a sure bet that believers are involved in some traffic collisions. You may even know some believers who have been in traffic collisions. Why would your supernatural allow them to be in a traffic collision and spare you? To teach them a lesson that you don't need to learn? What a strange belief system that requires so many convoluted twists just to make reality seem more orchestrated than it is.
All impish critique aside, whatever your belief in a supernatural, it is shame that causes us to believe that we don't deserve desirable things. It is shame that causes us to believe that we are unworthy of good things in our lives. It is shame that results in us concluding that we aren't worth our own attention and that we must be content with whatever comes our way (by the grace of a supernatural or just by dumb luck). It is shame that suggests to us that we are unlovable or unacceptable, and that we must do something to earn or prove ourselves lovable and acceptable. The idea that a supernatural will provide what we need, and that we must be content with that, is rooted in shame -- a false belief about ourselves. The idea that we must focus our attention on the needs of others and set our own needs aside is rooted in shame. Shame falsely accuses and convicts us of selfishness when we consider too long our own dreams and desires for our lives and for the world, and shame convinces us to keep our lives small and unassuming, perhaps with a veneer of imitation humility that we simply aren't important enough to make a real difference in the world. Shame is bullshit.
If we want to live into our deepest values, we must confront our shame. We must recognize the worthiness of our own vision for our lives and for the world around us -- we must recognize our own worthiness as human beings with amazing capacity for truth, beauty, and creativity. We each have something powerful to contribute to the world, and there is nothing selfish in recognizing that.