It is sometimes argued that since Christians do good and avoid evil out of, respectively, a desire for heaven and a fear of hell whereas atheists do good because it is good and avoid evil because it is evil therefore atheists are more moral than Christians. This is one of these arguments which is tremendously persuasive so long as one resists the temptation to analyse it. There are, I think, two strands to be picked out here. Firstly, how do we know what is good and what is evil? Secondly, even granting that these categories are pure products of unaided ratiocination are virtuous atheists motivated by reason alone?
Those of us who live in Western societies even if they are relatively new creations, like the USA and Australia, are the products of a continuous tradition of moral and ethical thinking which goes back for comfortably over a thousand years. As a consequence certain assumptions have become so embedded that we regard them as ‘natural‘ or ‘common sense‘ and thus we act upon them without reflection. In many cases, however, this is simply not true. In a recent podcast on gspellchecker.com called ‘Islam and History’ the historian and cricketer Tom Holland reflected (at 12mins 15 secs) on the reasons why he could be considered a ‘cultural Christian. As he studied the history of pre-Christian antiquity he noted the “innocent callousness” of the era. Spartans thought nothing of throwing unwanted babies into ravines, Romans were happy to see wild beasts rip apart humans in the arena. Above all, perhaps, a concern for the weak and poor did not exist. In fact until the advent of Christianity they were despised.
The values which we now hold to be normative, then, about compassion and active altruism are not a product of nature nor did they become norms as a result of philosophers deducing them from first principles. They became universal because Christianity not only held them to be true but because it was a missionary religion with the firm intention of actively spreading its beliefs to all sections of society, female and male, slave and free, poor and rich and to every corner of the world. It is necessary to remember this since it is sometimes argued that there is no single Christian ethical value which cannot be found in some other religion or philosophy such that we might have received our values from any number of sources and it is an accident of history that we got them from Christianity. The first half of that argument is certainly true but the package of values and their universal applicability is unique to Christianity in distinction from the mystery cults and philosophies of the ancient world.
Returning to our original point then, if atheists do what is generally regarded as good and avoid what is generally regarded as evil then this is a sign that they have internalised Christian values and act upon them which cannot be said to make them more moral than Christians. What about rewards and punishments you ask? Another consequence of the long epoch of Christian hegemony is that their (or our) concepts of right and wrong form the substance of the laws written and unwritten which govern our lives. The average atheist is as mediocre as the average Christian and avoids doing wrong for fear of earthly censure and does right in the hope of earthly praise and reward. The fact that the object of their desires is on earth and not in heaven doesn’t raise their status in the morality league one jot or tittle.
There are of course a minority of atheists who are, in Christian terms, ‘heroically virtuous.’ They make tremendous sacrifices simply in order to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, liberate the oppressed and so on. They do not perform these acts out of a desire for rewards either heavenly or earthly. Are they more moral than Christians? I would argue not. Those Christians who behave in similar ways to our heroic atheists are just as much a minority in their affinity group as the atheists are in theirs so we should assume that in both cases they are motivated by different things from the majority of their peers.
Since ancient times Catholics and the Orthodox have argued that to be moral out of fear is to be like a slave, out of desire for reward is to be like a servant and out of love is to be like a member of the family. Thus the very saintly among the Christians are precisely those who have cast out fear and desire and act only out of love. I think something analogous happens with our excellent atheists. Their motivation I would guess comes out of an intense attachment not to reason as such but to some particular abstract ideal. For example a belief in justice for all might lead one to campaign against the occupation of Tibet or the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia. However, justice for all is something which only exists and can only exist in the realm of the intellect no conceivable re-organisation of society can bring such a state about everywhere and forever. That is, our heroic atheist loves an ideal and acts upon it despite its unrealisability in this life. Without ceasing to be an atheist they are unconsciously affirming the value and validity of eternal ideals in the Platonic sense. Be that as it may, their motivation, like that of the Christian saints, is love and not reward so arguably they are both at level pegging in the ‘more moral than you’ race.
My conclusion, then, would be that Christians and atheists can only compete about morality because they have a shared value system. And it is more productive to think about why that might be than it is to argue about who does it better.
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The picture is Das neue Jerusalem a Pennsylvania German woodcut.