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. The current article is part 3 of 4. Here is part one and two.
My contention is that atheists cannot be good because of their unbelief. Such a statement could be expected to receive some pushback: “How can that be? The statement is counterintuitive. It’s a false assertion given the plethora of counter-examples that could be cited. Atheists sometimes give themselves in service of others and for the greater good” (and so on).
In one sense, I can’t deny having met and even befriended many kind and generous atheists during my life. Virtually anybody breathing today could admit as much. But in a stricter sense (see Part 2) it’s not possible to describe atheists as properly good persons. In that case, my initial statement about the “good” atheist would need to be qualified since true goodness is not the sort of thing the atheist is capable of. To unpack this, recall one of the elements (from Part 1) that constitutes a good deed: motive. What exactly moves an atheist to be good?
The Inescapable “I” in Atheism
According to American Atheists, goodness is the reason we should be good. I suppose this seems axiomatic if one understands goodness in a fuzzy way. But if we pressed for a clearer explanation, then we would need to include the conscience: the source for discriminating between right and wrong (given its central role in informing our moral decisions).
While I agree that conscience can be a reliable guide that prompts us to do good, it doesn’t have ultimate authority to judge among other dissenting consciences, nor does it satisfactorily resolve the grounding problem that I previously addressed, due to its subjectivity. In effect, the atheist is reduced to saying “I do good because I . . .” Autonomy is unavoidable.
This sentence may variously be ended: “. . . believe it’s the right thing to do”, “. . . am moved to help people in need”, “. . . can’t tolerate injustice and oppression”, or “. . . just love people”. Eliminating the “I” does nothing to get rid of each statement’s self-referential dimension. Restating “I do good because I believe it’s the right thing to do” as “I do good because it’s the right to do” does seem to open itself up to something beyond the individual. However, when confronted with follow-up questions like “How do you know what’s right?” the atheist will inevitably appeal to motives that stem from his own heart and mind.
So, what if he does? What difference does it make if helping people corresponds with gratifying his desire to do good?
Belief and Nonbelief: Other-Centered vs Self-Centered Motivation
In Part 2 I showed God’s existence as foundational for affirming that objectively binding moral values exist. God’s character establishes the authoritative standard against which such values can be measured. Lacking a transcendent benchmark precludes a means for determining objective right and wrong. Atheists can behave as if objectively binding morals exist (by being “good”). However, by displacing God’s character as their basis, the substituted values can only amount to subjective preferences that are no more legitimate or binding on anyone but the individual adopting them. Consequently, by not believing God to be the object that grounds moral values, the atheist is forced to ground them in a subject: himself.
This means his character (i.e. an amalgam of his thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, desires, etc.) effectively supplants God’s as the standard against which moral values are gauged, and in so doing, he declares his own sovereignty in appraising right and wrong. By believing his character – not God’s – grounds moral values, he disposes himself to obey the dictates of his self-imposed standard of goodness. Every time he meets the standard, he validates his behavior, thereby giving himself permission to feel good about his actions.
Essentially, behaving in accord with his subjective standards satisfies his desires and responds to his needs. But genuine good works are, by their nature, selfless. Motivated to live in a manner that ultimately endeavors to satisfy himself, the atheist’s actions are self-serving and, therefore, not genuinely good.
I approve of atheists who contribute to the welfare of those in need. The more do-gooders the better! But if we understand ‘doing good to others’ as a truly altruistic enterprise then there is no room for self-interest in the equation. When the true motivation behind an action is to benefit the individual carrying out that action (while only incidentally benefiting the recipient of that action) then we could not, with integrity, regard it as good.
If the working-class man in the scenario from Part 1 (notwithstanding counterfactuals) happens to be an atheist, then his act of generosity is self-serving. Some personal ethic, emotional prompting, strongly held belief, impulse or habit is the underlying reason for his action. In any case, it abides in himself: he is both the author of the deed and the authority sanctioning the deed. His intentions can’t aim beyond himself. For generosity to be truly generous the atheist’s concern should be to meet the needs of the starving woman, not to satiate his own hunger for being a good person or to attend to his need for easing his guilt. It’s the difference between giving a gift to the homeless woman and giving it to himself.
Without belief in a transcendent person to whom he owes his obedience, he is under no obligation to serve anyone beside himself. Accordingly, any moral principles or inspired ideals he lives by are the product of his own making. At bottom, he is the final authority and does as he sees fit. Apart from himself no one can be his judge. So, when he lives up to his own principles he not only feels good about himself but may even feel superior toward others who don’t abide by them.
British comedian and outspoken atheist, Stephen Fry, gave viewers an unwitting glimpse of this self-satisfied attitude during a February 2015 interview on The Meaning of Life, an Irish TV show. His interviewer asked him what he would say if he was confronted by God at the pearly gates. Fry’s indignant response was: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”
This provoked the follow-up question: “And you think you’re going to get in?” Fry’s unabashed reply was: “No, but I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They’re wrong [emphasis mine].”1
Call me incredulous but I have a hard time envisioning Stephen Fry pointing his judgemental finger at the Judge on Judgement Day. Fear and trembling aside, Fry’s hubris is both absurd and evil. Absurd because his subjective morality lacks the necessary grounding to make the idea of passing moral judgments coherent and evil because, as a creature, he is judging his Creator, whose nature is incontrovertibly good. Apparently, Fry believes God’s standard of goodness is not on par with his own.
Beginning to sense the weight of the argument an atheist might defensively rejoin with, “Even though Christians believe moral values are objectively grounded in God, they only obey him out of self-interest” (in reference to the charge that believers are motivated to be good in order to gain heaven in return). If the accusation is a valid one then – like the atheist – the Christian’s purported good deeds are just a means to a selfish end and, therefore, not actually good. (The next and final installment of this series tackles this accusation).
At its heart, atheism misunderstands objective morality and, as a result, misappropriates it. Ethically, it is parasitic. The atheist inexorably feeds off his own sense of right and wrong because he doesn’t believe that objective moral standards reside outside himself – in God. As such, morality collapses into self-interest; driven by motives and desires that are rooted in the individual himself. Besieged by self-centeredness, it undercuts behavior that is intended to benefit others: it’s the antithesis of goodness.
 Stephen Fry February 2015 interview on The Meaning of Life http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/09/stephen-fry-blasphemy-prosecution-ireland-reportedly-dropped/