Why do I do good?

By Leonard Hitchcock

I pose this question not because I intend it to be a rhetorical device and wish readers to ask it of themselves; rather, I intend to offer my own answer.  But why, you may ask, would anyone believe that I do, in fact “do good?”  And why, even assuming that as a fact, would anyone care why I do so?

I’m afraid that you’ll just have to take my word that I perform good acts at a fairly normal level; that I am kind to animals, help my friends, rarely lie, support my children, give to charity, and so forth.  I lay no claim to spectacular goodness, but I think I measure up pretty well against the community average.

But why should that interest anyone?  Because I’m an atheist, that’s why.  Most other people’s good deeds are at least colored by religion in that they occur against a background of religious education, and it is in church that such deeds are urged upon them.  I think it very likely that most people think that doing good is at least partially caused by their religious beliefs.  My case is different: I had no religious upbringing whatsoever, I have never attended church, I have never believed that there is a god or an afterlife.  The Bible is to me no more than ancient literature and its moral message no weightier than that of Oliver Twist.  My own morality, in other words, owes nothing at all to religion.

There was a time when most Christians would have denied that I, as an atheist, am even capable of moral behavior.  Beginning in the 17th century, when rumors began to circulate that atheists actually existed, Christianity took the position that an atheist would be almost certain to be immoral and untrustworthy.  The argument was a simple one: the atheist, like all of mankind, is sinful by nature, but he rejects the Church’s offer of salvation and chooses to deny God’s existence.  Because he does so, he does not fear the consequences of violating God’s commandments.  Without that fear, his sinful urges will not be restrained, so he may be expected to act immorally.

The argument that sin is resisted, and good works performed, largely out of fear of God’s punishment may seem somewhat passé, but surveys show that it still heavily influences people’s attitudes.  A Pew survey in 2002 showed that 47% of Americans thought a belief in God was necessary to be moral; 61% thought  that children were more likely to grow up to be moral if raised in a religious faith.  An elaborate 2011 study (Gervais, Shariff, & Norenzayan) showed that there is widespread prejudice against atheists and it stems from the perception that if an atheist faces a moral choice when his or her actions will not be observed by other people, he or she is highly likely to act immorally.  This expectation of untrustworthiness is directly linked to the assumption that atheists do not believe a punitive God is always watching them.

When, as a young child, I first acquired a set of moral rules, they were my parents’ rules, not God’s, yet parental authority seemed quite sufficient to make me try to obey them.  The contents of those rules were, I suspect, very similar to what other kids learned: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t hurt other children, don’t be selfish, don’t be unnecessarily annoying to adults, and so forth.  As I grew older and went to school I realized that those rules were, indeed, shared by my schoolmates and that following them really did seem to help us get along together.  My parents later introduced new rules, such as: be proud of what you accomplish but don’t boast about it; be tolerant of those who are different than you are; work hard and try to contribute something to society.  They also made it clear to me that all these rules, from the simplest to the most complex, were reasonable, and that I always had a right to ask for an explanation of why a rule made sense.

Much later in my life I came to understand that evolution has shaped us to internalize rules such as these – to develop a “conscience” – in order that we might behave as the social and cooperative animals that our instincts urge us to be.  We are equipped with biological mechanisms that attune us to others’ suffering – compassion – and reward us with pleasurable feelings when we achieve social closeness and act for the benefit of the group.  Moral codes, in other words, emerge naturally in human societies as a means of preserving social harmony.

It is arguable, no doubt, that if you could persuade people that a supernatural being who shared your moral code (or, better yet, created it) monitored everyone all the time and  would, in some future life, punish those who violated it, perhaps people would behave even better.  But then, religions tend to divide societies as often as they unite them.  I prefer to think that mankind is capable of solving its problems without such fictions.

Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is a professor emeritus at Idaho State University.