Some atheists argue that Christians have ulterior motives for “doing good deeds” since these are based on fear of God. They claim that, in counter distinction, atheists are the only people who have pure motives since they do not believe in any higher power (they themselves being the highest power), they thus do “good” for its own sake.
This was the premise behind the recent waste of money during a time of worldwide recession as the American Humanists Association bought bus ads reading “Why believe in God? Be good for goodness’ sake” (discussed here).
The primary thing to keep in mind when considering any and every atheist condemnation of anything at all is that the only basis upon which they premise their condemnation is personal preference, arguments from outrage, arguments from self-righteousness, arguments from aire of superiority and virtual heaps of assertions piled one atop another. In other words, the atheist essentially states, “Don’t let God tell you how and why to be moral let me tell you.”
Yet, this concept is based upon various fallacious presumptions: It begins by assuming that theists are doing good due to fear of God, fear of punishment, thus assuming no other motivation (except for the inverse; doing good for the expectation of reward).It moreover, assumes that atheists do good for its own sake and not for any ulterior motive.Yet, it is possible for both theists and atheists to do good due to good old fashioned selflessness, due to seeking self-esteem, recognition, peer approval, guilt, to get something back, to be thought of as good, to be able to say “I’m good,” to be able to say, “Unlike Christians, I am of pure motivation,” or any other number of reasons both pure and impure.It is plainly faulty to judge, or assume, that Christians really have no heart for doing good and no pure intentions. In fact, most religions are based on a works based salvation system. This faulty concept generally envisages good deeds being weighed against bad in the cosmic scales.In counter distinction, Christianity teaches that salvation is by grace and not by works-grace is a free gift and works is something that gains you a wage. Thus, if by grace then not by works and if by works then not by grace.
Then where is the boasting? It is excluded.Through what law? Of works?No, but through the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the Law (Romans 3:27-28).
But if by grace, then it is no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it is of works, then it is no more of grace; otherwise work is no more work (Romans 11:6).
In Christianity good deeds are to be done for what may divided into three reasons (which combine into one):
1) Because there are good things that must be done, since people need good deeds done to and for them.
2) Because God has predestined us to do good deeds, in other words, He places us in situation where we can do good.
3) In order to demonstrate that our profession of faith is not a mere emotional or a merely intellectual position but that it can be demonstrated by good deeds. For instance, I claim to love my wife, I tell her that I love her and I demonstrate my love-otherwise no profession would suffice.The following texts bear this out:
If there is among you a poor man of one of your brothers inside any of your gates in your land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother. But you shall open your hand wide to him, and shall surely lend him enough for his need, that which he lacks.Beware that there is not a thought in your wicked heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,” and your eye may be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing. And he may cry to the LORD against you, and it is sin to you.
You shall surely give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God shall bless you in all your works, and in all that you put your hand to. For the poor shall never cease out of the land. Therefore, I command you saying, You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy, in your land (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).
Success will allow one to continuously help others so that you do not become poor yourself and the shoe ends up on the other foot. What if I said, “If you give that poor person $100.00 I will give you $1,000.00”? Well, you would give the first poor person $100.00 and then be able to help ten more poor people.
But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who despitefully use you. And to him who strikes you on the one cheek, also offer the other. And to him who takes away your garment, do not forbid your tunic also…For if you love those who love you, what thanks do you have? For sinners also love those who love them.And if you do good to those who do good to you, what thanks do you have? For sinners also do the same.And if you lend to those of whom you hope to receive, what thanks do you have? For sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again.But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return.
And your reward shall be great, and you shall be the sons of the Highest. For He is kind to the unthankful and to the evil (Luke 6:27-29, 32-35).
God is kind to the unthankful and to the evil so give to them without expectation of reciprocity.
My brothers, what profit is it if a man says he has faith and does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and if one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them those things which are needful to the body, what good is it?
Even so, if it does not have works, faith is dead, being by itself. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith from my works…But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?…You see then how a man is justified by works, and not by faith only…For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (James 2:14-26).
But what of this matter of a believer’s “fear” of God. It was actually from a personal experience that I believe that I can understand the point. For some years I studied martial arts under a teacher who was at once a very friendly, well humored and a very knowledgeable and skilled martial artist.All of the students respected him as a friend and as our instructor. But something happened anytime that he would ask for volunteers upon whom to demonstrate a fighting application-we were all very hesitant.But why?It was not that we did not trust him. It was not that were thought that he would hurt us. I think that we had a fear of him, a reverential fear of him, a respectful awe of him and his skill.
The various words that are translated in the Bible as fear, such as, yare’, pachad, dechal, mean to fear, to revere, to frighten, to stand in awe, to be formidable.
This may an odd statement to make but it seems that some people need good old fashioned fear in order to motivate them to good behavior. Some people do not commit crimes and they are not motivated by morality but for fear of being caught that the consequences that would come with. Criminals often spend quite a bit of time planning how to commit a crime and how to not get caught.Atheists with not ontological basis upon which to build an ethos self-righteously condemn perfectly moral people. Moreover, it is certainly a quaint utopian fantasy to think that sans God everyone one would just be good for goodness sakes. Yet, any viable ethos must consider the real world and real people and not merely ethereal concepts with which to express prejudice.What if you are in a bad mood at work but you know that you have to provide some customer service? You pretend that you are in a good mood, you put on a smile, soften your mannerisms and take on a pleasant tone with your voice. If you do this long enough you will likely feel better and actually put yourself into a good mood. If there actually are people who are moral due to fear of God or of punishment we should not besmirch them but be pleased enough that they are moral and that they may be in a process of maturing or-evolving.Moreover, consider another verse from the Bible,
I will praise You; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are marvelous and my soul knows it very well (Psalm 139:14).
Is the Psalmist stating that he is scared, he is frightfully made, he is terrified of the way that he is made? Certainly not, quite obviously the meaning is reverential awe.
The fact is that the Bible teaches that good is to be done for its own sake and so that you can continue doing it. Therefore, if a Christian is performing good deeds for ulterior motives they are to be criticized. But, rightly criticized for taking actions that are against the biblical mandates and not fallaciously criticized for fallacious presumptions regarding their motivations.
There are some biblical statements about God blessing, either in this life or in the next, the person who does good deed. Yet, it would be an even more egregious presumption to imagine that someone is doing good in order to be greedy in heaven.
For example, some have a confused concept of the mention of the reception of crowns. Yet, these are not only for the twenty-four elders but what do they do with them? They lay them at the feet of Jesus. Would you blame me if I work overtime just to get more money so that I could buy my wife an even more wonderful gift that I could have otherwise given her?Moreover, if God chooses to reward those who do good this still does not prove poor motivation for doing good.As atheist motivations for good deed in certain cases we need not presuppose or assume what their motivations may be since some atheists have told us quite clearly:
Dan Barker, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation,
if you wish to be…a healthy person” [meaning mentally healthy].if you wish to be labeled ‘ethical’ by other people.if you wish to be viewed by your society as ‘a good person.’
if that’s something you wish.1
The Humanist Society of Scotland,
“It’s best to be honest because… I’m happier and feel better about myself if I’m honest.”2 [emphasis and ellipses in original]
“Humanist” Paul Kurtz:
…he or she does not have to refer to God. If Johnny hits Mary and Johnny’s mother says, “Don’t hit Mary,”…why should he not his Mary, it is because God exists? No; if you hit Mary she will hit you back, she won’t like you, and you won’t have any friends if you continue this. In other words, a child needs reasons for growth and development and that is who and what we are as moral beings.
Reginald Finley (aka The Infidel Guy) and Matthew Davis,
“if one does horrible things to people, that person will eventually have horrible things happen to him.”3
A member of the Seattle Atheists,
My philosophy of life is: If I can make the world a better place for you, then it automatically becomes a better place for me.
These are all examples of self-centered motivations; good is not to be done for its own sake or because people need good done to them but in order to receive benefit back. This is basically watered down “My Name is Earl” style karma.
Overall, the atheist argument is another example of a very, very popular but very, very fallacious bumper-sticker-one-liner atheism. It is really a deep-in-the-box-thinking atheist quip, an elbow your atheist buddies in the ribs whilst winking and proclaim atheist superiority.
Related topics have been posted as:
Is There a Common Misconception Regarding Absolute Moral Claims?.