Atheist Memes: ‘Christian Morality Is Self-Serving; We Do Good for Goodness’ Sake’
So here’s how the challenge goes: Atheists’ morality is better than Christian morality, because Christians do good for a reward. Atheists do good for goodness’ sake.
It’s not the most prominent atheistic challenge, but it fits with a favorite Christmas song, so I thought I’d take it apart during this season and see what’s inside. It’s got two major parts to it. First, Christians are good so we can get a reward it. Second, goodness for its own sake is better than goodness for a reward.
So does that make atheist ethics better than Christian ethics? Let’s see.
1. “Christians are good so we can get a reward for it.”
Sure, Christians have a reward in the back of our minds when we think of doing good. No sense denying it. Without diving into the whole theology, Christians know we’re not saved by doing good. The “threat of divine punishment” in the meme isn’t removed by doing good, but by trusting in Christ. But still there are rewards in heaven associated with well-doing.
But that’s not so bad.
The reward is in the back of our minds, for one thing. When I do good for someone else, what’s (usually) on my mind is that I’m doing it for them. And honestly, I’m far from the best example. I know lots of other Christians who are more other-centered than I.
Second, what’s the reward? Streets of gold forever and ever? Sorry, but on its own that sounds boring to me. What I want is eternal fellowship with God.
Knowing the Real Reward
Sure, I read the biblical descriptions and it looks pretty good: No crying, no tears, for “the former things have passed away.” Streets of gold, yes, that, too.
But if someone told me that heaven would be all that without Jesus Christ, I’d turn and spit. The idea is appalling. What I really want in heaven is fellowship with the ones I love, especially with the greatest One of all, Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, here on earth, when I do the right thing, I do it because it flows out of my desire to follow Jesus Christ — just because He is worthy of following. I’m hardly unique in that. It’s really the essence of Christianity.
2. “Goodness for its own sake is better than goodness for a reward.”
This isn’t nearly as simple as it first appears. I can show you why with a simple example. I like to wash the dishes at home when my wife is away. (Honestly. Well, sometimes.) When I do it, that’s a good thing.
But why do I do it? One reason is because I know I’ll get a smile from her when she gets home. Sara has absolutely the world’s best smile, so that’s quite a reward for me.
But I also do this clean-up so my own home looks better and is easier to live in. That’s a reward, too, isn’t it? Is it wrong to do good for reasons like that?
Back to Sara and her smile, though: I do the work for my own benefit, but I do it more happily when it’s going to make her happy.
It’s supposed to be that way, you know. If she didn’t find that a reason to smile, something would be amiss. Which is possible — she might have had a bad day. But maybe my work around the house made her happier than she would have been. Which makes me happy. Which is a reward. Is that bad?
Of course not! If I didn’t enjoy making her happy I’d be a monstrous husband, a total louse.
So doing good for her is inextricably connected with making her happy, which is completely interwoven with my own happiness. There’s nothing wrong with motivations being tied together that way. It’s the way the world is supposed to work.
There’s nothing wrong with motivations being tied together that way. It’s the way the world is supposed to work.
Similarly, my love for Christ leads me to enjoy that idea that I’m doing well in His name — that in His own way, He’s smiling, too. That’s right, too, in just the same way. It’s the way the world was meant to work.
If only I did more good for the same good reason! But that’s another discussion. One I should have with someone else. Probably Sara. And pretty often.
The Best Example of Goodness Ever
So there isn’t much at all to this “superior morality” charge.
While we’re on the topic, though, let’s not forget this whole thing is about atheism supposedly being better than Christianity. For that, there is no better place to look than at our founder, Jesus Christ, whose total life was dedicated to others. He did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
You won’t find that kind of love anywhere else. Christianity that follows that kind of example is bound to be good, self-sacrificing, loving and genuine. Look in the right places, and you’ll see it: people living out that kind of Christianity. It’s a beautiful thing. And it’s good.
Part of a series on atheist memes.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.