Discussing
Where atheistic altruism falls short

Ben Hoekstra

Ben Hoekstra
June 11, 2015

Even as Christians grant that atheists can be altruistic, we must remember that altruism is not the greatest good.

Barbara Necker
June 11, 2015

I'm happy to learn that you believe in "common grace" and "altruistic atheists." As an agnostic, I perceive that Christians & Muslims alike believe that non-believers lack those 2 qualities, which are so essential to properly functioning societies.

It makes me sad that so many believers do not feel the way you do. Too many try to marginalize not only non-believers, but each other.

JKana
June 11, 2015

This is a great piece, Ben. And I agree wholeheartedly with what you're after here. As one acquainted with some "good" atheists of the variety you describe, I fully endorse the common grace observation. I think that, especially as Christians, we do well to remember how even Jesus didn't hesitate to correct the misapplied label of "good" (Mark 10:18). Even for him who knew no evil, God alone is THE definition of "good," and anything else is just a pale reflection. Which means, of course, that there are no "good" Christians any more than there are "good" atheists; there are only those who know the Good they serve and those who don't (yet).

David Hornor
June 12, 2015

"If you ask twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love."

C.S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory"

Morgan Craven
June 12, 2015

Very eloquently written. The argument that we as Christian cut ourselves in two by assuming that atheists are less capable of "good" couldn't be more true. All too often stories are told of judgement cast and superiority inflicted through the actions of Christians. Way to stand up and remind Christians of how their actions reflect on themselves and others.

Doug Vande Griend
June 14, 2015

Of course atheists do good things. But there are two problems to consider.

First the word itself, atheism, does not describe what is believed, presuppositionaly, but only what is not.

Second, and perhaps related, atheists lack a reference to an outside-of-created-reality standard for defining good. That is the declaration of being an atheist. Yes they can observe creation (even if they don't call it that), but they don't use why Calvin called "spectacles" to see that reality more clearly. They deny the scripture are spectacles.

Ben Hoekstra
June 14, 2015

In Reply to BARBARA NECKER (comment #27222)
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Barbara,

Thank you for your response! I am glad to hear that this spoke well to you. It definitely is true that some believers will claim that all nonbelievers do is selfish. It is a great opportunity for those of us who are Christians to admit that we can be selfish too! What did you think about what the highest calling is on humans? Do you think that the best thing, the true good that we can do is to be unselfish? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Ben Hoekstra
June 14, 2015

In Reply to David Hornor (comment #27226)
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Thanks for the response David. I am actually in the middle of reading Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis right now, but hadn't run across this quote yet. What a marvelous way to put that by a great man of God.

Ben Hoekstra
June 14, 2015

In Reply to Doug Vande Griend (comment #27229)
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I totally agree, Doug. There is a difference between the two definitions of good (if there are even only two). I think that sometimes Christians forget that when they say nonbelievers cannot do either definition of good. The question I have is this: how can we acknowledge that nonbelievers can do good according to their own definition of good, while also seeking to show them the fuller definition of good that comes with the spectacles of the Scriptures? That, I think, is the ongoing process we must learn. What do you think?

Doug Vande Griend
June 17, 2015

Ben: Thanks for the reply. A couple of thoughts: first, in truth, Christians don't ever do "good" if we define "good" as the true kind of good that only God can do. Our motives, justified though we are, are always less than pure.

Second, when I have drilled down in conversation with unbelievers about right and wrong, and good and bad, the discussion usually ends up talking about our each having foundational presuppositions (Dooyeweerd styled) that lie at the bottom of our declaring certain things good or bad and deciding to do, or not to do, those things. Sometimes, my atheist friend will have staked out assumptions (presuppositions) that cause us to have much in common when we define "good" and when we discuss "why we would want to do good." And then there are other times. Sometimes, I tell my atheist friend that he would make a good Christian (said with a big smile but still serious), given his definition of and desire to do good.

Most atheists that I discuss with who seem to "want to do and be good" will posit some sort of a universal sense for good (self-evident truths if you will), as if we can know good and not bother with assuming (Dooyeweerd style again). I usually counter that with examples of what some in history apparently concluded was good that we would both agree was not (Lenin, Hitler, Mao). Sometimes I'll even suggest to my atheist friend that he might be influenced by a cultural sort of Christianity in his assuming (whether he admits it or not) about what is good. (Also said with a big smile but yet serious).

As for my own thinking, I will always admit to my atheist friend that the Scriptures are my source of assumption about what is good and bad, which is how the Scriptures are my spectacles. Sometimes that leads to my atheist friend trying to prove from Scripture (OT stories of killings etc) that it is an unreliable source for deciding what is good and bad. And those conversations can be fun -- and profitable.

Craig Mattson
June 19, 2015

Congratulations, Ben, on a compelling piece addressing a timely subject. I'm impressed by the way your modeling a generous public stance, critical of your own tradition's sometimes triumphalism. I especially like the way you examined the inadequate claims that Christians are too quick to make about atheists' supposed incapacity for altruism. For me, this recalls Charles Taylor's exposition of "enlightened humanism" in A Secular Age and (from a very different ideological place) Richard Rorty's discussion of "religion as conversation-stopper" in Philosophy and Social Hope. You're chiming in with important voices!

Robert Braun
June 19, 2015

Ben; I appreciate your response to the NY Times piece. Ultimately, presuppositional is where it is all at when discussing atheism. The bottom line is how would an atheistic society act-with social pragmatism? Getting rid of the waste and the burdensome and those who put a strain on the society as a whole? China, North Korea and the Soviet Union experimented with this. And so did the Nazis. It didn’t turn out too well for them. I listen to a supposed atheist like Bill Maher and hear someone who sounds very Catholic. His Catholic upbringing shows up in the way he feels moral outrage over the injustices in our society and in our world. His presupposition isn’t what is the most efficient or the most effective way to run the world but instead what is the most compassionate and fair way of treating people, especially those who are economically impoverished or who are physically and mentally challenged. This is not atheistic social pragmatism at all but a very Catholic kind of world view in which he had been brought up. He hasn’t shed his belief in an ultruistic sense of justice-not one bit. Yet somehow he acts as if ultruistic empathy and compassion are self-evident and as we have seen in the bloodiest century in all of history, the twentieth century, it clearly is not, not without the notion of an ultimate judge. Otherwise how we treat each other doesn’t matter, it’s all a matter of what we can get over on the next fella or the next nation. You know, the survival of the fittest? But with an ultruistic judge in the heavens how we treat each other does very much matter.

Matt Woodling
January 10, 2016

We're talking a lot here about how a person knows good from bad, where his moral compass comes from.

I don't get it. How does a believer know that God is good, or scripture is good, or which horrid scripture to ignore because it's bad? Or that Hindu scripture is not quite as good as Christian scripture? How does the believer judge that God is the good one and Satan is the bad one, and therefore he should follow God instead of Satan? Is it possible the believer, before he's a believer, already has his own idea of good and bad that he uses it to decide that a particular god is good and worthy of glory and adulation?

Matt Woodling
January 10, 2016

It's nice and all that you accept that non-believers can behave altruistically and with love. But the "highest" calling being that which glorifies God? Why is that "higher"? Does it mean you have a path to truth or something that non-believers don't have? Why would you think that?

The problem with talking like that is that a non-believer is forced to dismiss it out of hand because he doesn't think the god exists in the first place, so the higher calling thing seems like nonsense. But we understand that Christians think rationally about nearly everything else, so under nearly all circumstances, that one bit of irrationality is unimportant and need not be criticized or discussed.

But the "higher calling" path to ultimate truth thing creates a really strong "us vs. them" divide that can be a real barrier when times get difficult, when people's livelihood or comfort or even survival are threatened. It feeds a strong desire to create a protection zone around "us" to protect against "them". And when the "us" is centered around an idea that requires pure faith to uphold, that allows all manner of bad ideas to creep in during hard, threatening times.

This is what has brought out the worst behavior in believers for centuries, and that worries me as we deal with en masse forced migrations caused by global warming or the fundamentalist religious intolerance spreading from the Mideast. Those other folk become "them" threatening "us". And here in the US, that is reinforced by the American Exceptionalism myth.

It's best if we decide on truths that are gained by evidence and rational thought. That way, everyone can see them, and it can serve as a bulwark against other bad ideas creeping in.

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