I was watching an episode of Bill Moyers' Faith and Reason, as he was interviewing Colin McGinn, an atheist and philosopher. In the interview, Colin mcGinn said that it is more noble to do good because it is right than to do good in order to get a reward from God. I have heard other atheists say the same or similar things on topic of religion in the context of right and wrong. Unexamined, this statement appears to make a certain amount of sense. Surely it is better for a child to learn to do something because it is right than to do something only to get a reward from his parents.
On closer examination, the idea that "it is nobler to do good because it is good than to do good to receive a reward from God" reflects an atheist's unique perspective on faith and its rewards. This atheist view looks on faith from the outside and perceives believers as relating to God in the way that the child described above relates to his parents. Since an atheist does not believe that God actually exists, an atheist superimposes his essential non-belief in God on his understanding of religious belief. From here, an atheist assumes that God is not a being who can actually be known in the here and now. Rather, God is only an idea that a believer can only hold as an abstraction in his head around which he can try to organize his desires and fears. As it relates to "rewards", an atheist understands that a religious person can only hope that his endeavor to believe--to organize his emotions and his actions around the abstraction of God--will be rewarded in an encounter with God in the afterlife, or perhaps be rewarded materially in this life. An atheist does not understand the emotional rewards of following God to have any great substance or relevance to any objective notion of truth, though an atheist may recognize that the emotional payoffs of believing in God do help some people "get through the day".
To confront the atheist idea that "it is nobler to do what what is good because it is right than to do it to receive a reward from God" I will not speak on behalf of other faiths but I will speak on behalf of the Christian faith and its rewards. This atheist assessment of the rewards of God in relation to doing what is right is based on a jaundiced view of faith that makes faith seem far more childish than it actually is in the life of a mature Christian.
Paul says in Phillipians 4:7 "...and the peace that passes understanding will keep you in the knowledge and love of Christ". Though this peace that passes understanding is related to other rewards of following God, it must be examined as a reward on its own terms. It is in experiencing this peace that passes understanding that a Christian understands that he is being rewarded with the experience of God in the here and now. This peace that passes understanding is not merely the emotional "cocoa leaf" that one chews on to get through the day.
Rather, it is a mature understanding of Christianity that this peace that passes understanding is the supernatural ministry of God in one's heart. It is this understanding that God's love and realness is being made tangible at one's emotional level. It is the answer to this prayer, as articulated in the Book of Common Prayer, which asks of God, "...cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit..." In the moment that he is experiencing the peace that passes understanding, the Christian understands that the Holy Spirit is "replacing his heart of stone with a heart of flesh" (Ezek. 11:19). As this happens, a Christian is empowered to express the fruits of the spirit in the emotional aspect of being kind, patient, gentle and self-controlled (Gal 5:22). It is this emotional transformation that enables the fruits of the spirit to truly be an act of heart behavior and not merely a facade of civility.
The Christian understands that this reward is not something he has earned as a "quid pro quo" from God. Rather, a Christian understands that his actions and choices are a part of his "tilling the hard soil of his heart" so that God can have room to do this work on his heart. A Christian understands that the idea of having earned something from God like one earns a wage (or like a kid earns his allowance for good behavior) is an idea not only of bad doctrine, but an idea based on supreme emotional folly and hubris.
To this, an atheist will often respond that this peace, if it is assumed to exist, is merely an emotional high, an altered state of consciousness that can probably be replicated with the right mix of chemicals. Let's assume, only for the sake of argument for a moment, that it's true that the peace that passes understanding is merely a neurochemical process and not a supernatural miracle from God. It is a neurochemical process that one can only experience as one surrenders in total confidence that there is an omniscient, omnipowerful being with one's best interests at heart ready to meet one at the other end of that surrender. It is this surrender that enables a Christian to experience the calming effect that Christian doctrine interprets as the existential reality of God's presence in the here and now.
To this, an atheist will often respond that emotions, such as this peace that passes understanding have no place in the realm of rational thought and in the objective rational understanding of what is good and right. The atheist will say that emotions cannot be trusted and will tweak and ward the purity of objective rational thought. In fact, emotions are "thought embryos" and are part of our sensory apparatus in perceiving the world. We perceive the world emotionally first and then catch up to those emotions with thoughts. It is for this reason that for any intellectual endeavor that is not a purely mechanical exercise in gathering data, there is an emotional genesis of a person's thinking in the form of some sort of intuition or "gut feel". Likewise, our thoughts, once formed into conclusions, help to crystallize our emotions and give shape to how we process the emotions that follow.
Even Colin McGinn said in the interview that his philosophical journey began when he felt free from religion (as he understood religion). In regard to grand questions of God, truth and reason, these issues cannot be sorted out with pure empiracle data. Any honest thinker on these issues will, at some point, admit to an emotional component of their thoughts that is rooted in their experiences.
In one's search for meaning on these issues, some emotions will affect one's thinking for the worse, while other emotions will actually enhance the quality of one's thinking by enhancing one's perspective on the world. Love and compassion for others, such as the love that a parent feels toward a child, can alter one's perspective profoundly for the better. Likewise, pain and fear, if processed properly, can also enhance one's perspective on the world. In a mature Christian, the peace that passes understanding is the fruit of partnering successfully with God
to "metabolize" these difficult emotions.
As for the idea that "it is more noble to do good because it is right than to do good to get a reward from God", it is one thing to talk about what is right in the midst of relative calm and safety. It is quite another thing to do what is right in the midst of profound and sustained risk, privation and/or persecution. It is this peace that passes understanding that powers the engine of high moral behavior even in the midst of these circumstances. The ability to face this magnitude of difficulty and risk is something that usually eludes people attempting to operate under these conditions out of pure rationality, rejecting that there is an emotional component to such behavior. It is true that there are no atheists in foxholes, whether "foxholes" are being referred to in either a literal or a metaphorical sense, because there is no luxury for one in a "foxhole" not to seek God's help. In a similar vein, neither is there any luxury for most people recovering from addictions to not seek help from a "higher power".
It is one thing to be thrust into a high degree of risk, privation and persecution. It is quite another thing to choose to enter it. As Dennis Prager noted regarding an editorial in a London paper after Hurrican Katrina, the editorial writer, an atheist, admitted that it was religious people, not the members of rationalist societies, who were on the front lines helping people.
In the case of father Greg Boyle, a Catholic priest who has chosen to spend his life among gang members in East L.A., and in the case of a multitude of other people of faith who choose to spend their lives in dangerous and neglected places, the magnitude of their exposure to danger and privation out of surrender to God is never merely the result of believing in God as an abstraction. Their choices to enter these arenas of extreme difficulty and apparent hopelessness is based on their profound experience of God as friend, partner and leader. For this reason, it is the father Greg Boyle's of the world, not the atheists, who devote their lives to gang members, prisoners, lepers and the like--for the atheist, self-preservation is too rational.
The peace that passes understanding is not only part of having perseverance in the midst of overwhelming external danger. It is also a component of perseverance in the midst of danger as danger is felt quietly and internally. As Emily Dickinson once said, "all true daring starts from within". It is in this context that the peace that passes understanding has utility in the exercise of one's endeavor to think. Here, I am referring to thinking as the act of working past easy answers toward recognizing paradoxes. Thinking in this way requires emotional courage to continually face the internal fear and danger of walking to the knife edge of what one knows and looking out onto what one doesn't know. Here, the peace that passes understanding is a means to feel safe to approach this edge as an act of faith in God, trusting that God is bigger than the paradox. Here, faith is an exercise of living in liminality with God entering into the unknown, and the peace that passes understanding in this context makes faith a complement to the practice of rigorously assessing and re-assessing reality. It is God's peace that, in time, brings one the unique synthesis of the truth that is contained in each horn of the paradox (Hegel's synthesis on a personal, intimate level--more on that later).
To this, an atheist will often respond by saying that employing God in the exercise of doing something, whether in benefiting others or in the exercise of thinking is to employ a crutch. An atheist will say that, though belief in God may have utility in helping one "get through the day", it does not make the belief in God objectively rational or objectively good. Here, the question of what is rational depends on how one views human nature. It is a Christians understanding that we humans are weak, and it is from this understanding that Christians derive the idea that needing a "crutch" is a very rational thing.
Christians understand that we humans are beings who each contain as vast record of emotional hurts and fears accross our psyche as we have failed to submit to God throughout the course of our lives. Our failure to submit to God is due to an essential torpidity and laziness within us. It is to have this torpidity removed that we submit to difficult circumstances so that God can use them as "sandpaper" to scrape this torpidity away. When we do not allow pain and difficulty to operate as this "sandpaper", we accumulate more hurts and fears. These hurts and fears are manifested throughout our emotions and our physical body and congeal, sublimated beneath our conscious mind into our flawed calculus of pleasure and self-interest. In a Christian understanding, it is in submitting to God and His direction that a Christian recognizes his failings before God and recognizes his inability to master the vastness of his psyche. To the Christian, the peace that passes understanding is God's supernatural ministry to this vastness within him.
As this happens, a Christian knows throughout the recesses of mind and body, with a trans-rational knowing that comes before words, that his psyche is being re-aligned.
To the Christian, the joy and comfort of the peace that passes understanding is not merely a form of pleasant emotional candy to get through a day. It is not merely an experience of "hedons" in the idea of Bentham's attempt to quantify any form of pleasure as being essentially equal to any other pleasure. Rather, a Christian understands that the joy is pleasure that is emitted from one's being as one is righted according to a profound and deep sense of order. To experience this joy is to be corrected from something that had been profoundly wrong.
It is for this and for other theological reasons, that a Christian has a profoundly different way from an atheist of organizing right and wrong. In this context of God's ministry to one's twisted and wounded psyche, a Christian does not understand his reward from God as something that is external to what is right. Rather, the reward and what is right are indissolubly woven together. Here, the issue of how an actual person grows into doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong by experiencing the peace that passes understanding is inseparable from the issue of what is right and wrong. Looked at from this light, an atheist's attempt to separate the mature Christian's reward of receiving God's peace that passes understanding from the act of doing what is right is an atheist attempt to create an abstraction of what is right that works only for atheists in the laboratory of atheist thought. For this reason, Colin McGinns notion of right and wrong in the context of religious faith is based on interpreting Christian faith as something more childish than it actually is, and, for this reason, his notion of right and wrong breaks down on the front lines where mature Christians are confronting life's greatest difficulties.