Few themes enjoy such prominence in so many varied areas of contemporary life and thought as the subject of altruism. To popular perception, the ills of contemporary life are largely traceable to a deficiency of altruism. The greed and self-seeking of consumer culture are seen to be indicative of the eros ion of social bonds that kept life more humane in earlier ages. This prominent view is directly contradicted by much contemporary scholarship, which sees altruism, and the assumptions that underlie it, as detractions from our most positive possibilities. Altruism is seen to represent an ideal of self-sacrifice that really reflects a domineering and condescending attitude on the part of the altruist, in contrast to the possibilities for mutual growth that a more egalitarian social vision would encourage. This critique of altruism extends to the religious domain, as traditional notions of divine grace, represented in the understanding of God in terms of agape, for instance, are challenged in the name of a life-seeking eros and the humane mutuality of philia.
The thesis defended here is that altruism is a modern secular concept that betrays theological overtones, and that dismissal of the notion endangers the lingering theological sensibility it echoes. The origin of the concept is generally attributed to the pioneer of sociology, Auguste Comte. For him, it designated the prospects for socially enlightened humanity, now that the restrictions of theology were being outgrown. Although theology was consigned to the past, religion enjoyed a much more positive status with Comte. This was not religion in any conventional sense, but the new positive religion of humanity, as was befitting the positive age that was dawning through the incom