Ruth* is sixty five and works administrative support at my company. Nearly one month ago she fell and injured her knee. Since then she has been either in a wheel chair or on crutches. Before her fall she would make herself two pots of tea every day; now that she cannot carry her teapot and other tea-making components across the office, I make her two pots of tea a day. I volunteered to make her tea and to do whatever else I could when she showed up with her injury. Every morning at about 7:30AM and again at 10:15AM I do what I can to break away from my desk to brew her tea and bring her hot porcelain pot back to her desk. Others in the office chuckle at me and my willingness to help, but I enjoy helping Ruth.
Helping people in need is part of who I am. I do not expect reward or recognition for doing this—it is rewarding enough to be able to help. I do not believe in God.
Good for God—Example from Colossians 3
In the book of Colossians, Paul enjoins his readers to live righteously, “…not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God.” “Eyeservice as menspleasers” entails good deeds done for the sake of temporal recognition. Paul desires his readers to perform their good deeds, to live righteously with the fear of God, and so he continues:
And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ. But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons (Colossians 3:22-25).
In an economy of divinely meted reward and punishment, Paul notes that the fear of God and the pleasure of God are appropriate sources of motivation. For Paul, a person is to “do well” because it is God who sees all and rewards and punishes accordingly. Motivation by the fear of God is contrasted with “eyeservice” or “menpleas[ing]” which is performed for people who cannot see all deeds done both in public and in private.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough how morally and ethically retarding God-based moralities can be. Good deeds, however defined, performed with a reward motivation, immediate or delayed, are ranked at the lowest level of moral development (see Kolhberg’s stages of moral development). If a divine punitive economy is the framework, the backbone, the foundation for your morality, I would posit that you not only are operating at the lowest level motivator for morality and, if you are fully consistent with this motivation, that you are not a moral person. If you could live one day outside of God’s fictive knowledge and awareness, would you behave any differently? Have you not thought through or matured in your own moral actions sufficiently to be good without oversight and accountability? I am not saying that accountability is necessarily bad, but it is not grounds for mature morality and ethical systems.
The Godless Atheist and the Pious Catholic
I would like to present a singular story with two moral agents: one a godless atheist and the other a pious Catholic. Both are faced with an opportunity to save a toddler in front of a moving train but at risk to their own lives. In fact, in the seconds they have to assess the situation, they note that it looks entirely inevitable that saving the toddler will cost their own lives. The pious Catholic “knows” that, if she dies, she will awake in the presence of God in heaven and eternal bliss. The godless atheist knows that his death will be final, there will be nothing more to know or experience. Who has more to sacrifice by saving the toddler? Whose act of saving the toddler is more moral, why?