Louie Vassalos has written a four-part series on being good for the sake of God. He aims to show that believing in God is necessary for us to be truly good. While this may sound obvious, many secular objectors argue that God’s existence does not matter in determining whether a person is good or not.
In 2015, a couple of billboard ads in North Carolina and Colorado featured a chuckling Santa Claus next to an insidious caption announcing, “Go ahead and skip church! Just be good for goodness’ sake. Happy Holidays!” This bit of distilled wisdom—unleashed during the Christmas season for maximum effect—was aimed at the Christian hoi polloi, courtesy of the American Atheists organization. Several years earlier, in a similar vein, the British Humanist Association launched the Atheist Bus Campaign, mobilizing buses displaying signs in an effort to reassure unenlightened Londoners prone to Christian beliefs, “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
The sentiment behind these taunts goes something like this: Lighten up! Stop trying to placate a celestial monarch who saddles you with capricious demands and puts fences up around your freedom. He’s a nonentity, nothing more than neurons firing in your brain. Your behaviour is conditioned on a quid pro quo arrangement: do good in the here and now; secure prime real estate in the hereafter. You don’t need to believe in him to be a good person, just follow your better angels (pardon the pun).
I suppose that for a significant chunk of the population, particularly those not inclined toward religious belief, these propositions are self-evident. After all, who hasn’t encountered a Christian phony or an atheist philanthrope? Based on private (and public) evidence, I could provisionally concede the point.
But by carefully examining the underlying assertions—namely that nonbelief doesn’t impair the atheist’s ethical behaviour, or worse, that nonbelief frees him to become more virtuous than the ostensibly self-serving Christian—,a different verdict might be reached.
Moral Calculus: The Anatomy of a Good Deed
If moral agency is essential to being human, then we would expect goodness (i.e., being good) to be vital for our proper functioning and, consequently, of paramount concern to every ethical system. As it happens there is no shortage of impassioned atheists or Christians who express interest in being good, many of whom vigorously contend for moral supremacy in the never-ending culture wars. One might even detect, in some vocal members of each tribe predisposed to grandstanding, a slightly sanctimonious posture.
Determining the ethical value of any human action requires more than merely appraising the nature of an isolated action: context is crucial. For instance, even though volunteer work in a soup kitchen would in and of itself be deemed praiseworthy, other factors could downgrade its significance. We must also be concerned with how actions are informed by circumstances and motives.
Sometimes an otherwise immoral action may be justified under certain conditions (Joshua 2:1-14; cf. Hebrews 11:31). Consider the textbook example of the Frenchman secretly harboring a Jewish family in his German-occupied village during the Second World War. Would it be unethical for him to lie to the inquisitive Nazi soldier standing on his doorstep in order to prevent the execution of his guests? Additionally, we must consider the motive or reason someone has for carrying out an action (Matthew 15:17-20; cf. 1 Samuel 16:7). Contrast how one good deed—for example, visiting a terminally ill friend at the hospital—would be alternatively regarded given different motives. Visiting to comfort the friend is compassionate; doing so to be included in the friend’s will is opportunistic.
Let’s consider the following scenario: a working-class man heading to his car after work casually bypasses a shabbily dressed woman on a secluded side street. Momentarily reflecting on the stranger’s state of unkemptness he is moved to turn back toward her, take out $20 from his pocket and hand it to her.
Using the aforementioned criteria how should we evaluate his deed?
All things being equal, giving something away that belongs to you is indisputably a selfless act. Consciously selfless acts are, by their very nature, good. That’s simple enough. But what if we introduce some counterfactuals?
What if, after reaching into his pocket for the $20, the man notices a dozen syringes scattered about the homeless woman? Quickly reassessing the situation, he decides against giving her the money and turns to walk away. Would we then consider his change of heart unkind or even cruel? It’s reasonable to suppose that many, given the choice between giving her the money and walking away, would choose the latter because they would foresee the donation as causing more harm than good.
What if the woman isn’t a heroin addict? And instead of her being the only person on the street, there are also a pair of Catholic nuns walking down the other side of the street. If the charitable act were occasioned by the nuns’ presence merely as a show of generosity then we would be hard-pressed to view it as categorically good.
Considering its compound nature, we are led to conclude that virtuous behavior cannot merely be reduced to indiscriminate actions devoid of context. Any rational moral agent intuitively apprehends the necessity of evaluating good deeds on some basis. Drawing on our shared human experience and using basic principles in ethical reasoning, it makes moral sense that actions would have to be weighed on a combination of factors that take into account circumstances and motives.
- American Atheists billboard advertisement https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/12/11/atheists-santa-billboard-urges-nation-to-skip-church-sparks-anger-in-n-c/?utm_term=.49a1a42be741
- Atheist Bus Campaign by the British Humanist Association https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jan/06/religion-atheist-bus-campaign-national