I recently saw a blog post that said “God loves good atheists more than evil Christians”. This may seem really logical to the people reading this blog, but it garnered some anger from a few of the religious blogs I follow. They responded with something along the lines of “why would God love someone who doesn’t worship him or give him his due or even acknowledge his existence?” This may seem like one of those places where atheists and believers are just talking past each other, never to really meet, but I’d like to address some of the ways in which atheists and believers can truly acknowledge and respect the good things that the other side does.
While I think many atheists/skeptics/humanists look at the above saying and think “yeah, of course”, I also think that most atheists don’t stop to consider what the phrase might truly mean. Of course your actions are more important than anything else! However many believers look at it and think that it simply discounts the role of any belief and the motivations, faith, and disposition that come with belief. To unpack the statement a little, it does seem that if there is a God, on some level atheists can acknowledge his existence and goodness, and show gratefulness by recognizing the beauty of the world and the people around them. They do this by acting morally in a kind, loving, and respectful manner towards those around them. While they may not be acknowledging the abstract metaphysical claims about God, they are acknowledging any sort of “goodness” that might be in the universe by showing goodness to others. Some atheists may balk at this interpretation because it seems to say that they’re really theists even though they’re not. This is not my intention, but instead my intention is simply to suggest that if there is a God that atheists are not acknowledging, the actions that a nonbeliever undertakes can be enough to show that they acknowledge that they are not the authority in the universe and that they are grateful for the beauty and goodness of the world and the people around them.
On the flip side, many atheists think that believers who appear to act like they have all the answers aren’t good people, or that believers ignore the actions for the letter of the belief or the law. From the perspective of many humanists, saying that faith is more important than works is extremely problematic. However it is important to recognize that for many believers this is a sign of humility, of accepting reality as it is, and of not trying to dictate your own, arbitrary morality. As skeptics, we may not agree with these claims, but understanding that the prioritization of faith is a sign of accepting the authority of someone who truly deserves it for believers may be the first step to accepting the good intentions and humble mindset behind belief. It is also an attempt to be selfless and focus on someone outside of yourself.
Of course these are generalizations, and there will be people on each side of this debate and in the middle who have complex understandings of ethics and the actions of the others. However there does seem to be a tendency for non-believers to emphasize the actions in ethics and for believers to emphasize the intent. When we take a step back, we can all recognize that both action and intent are important to evaluating the morality of an event, and thus acknowledge what another person might bring to the table.
In all cases there is still bound to be misunderstanding and clash. Nonbelievers have a hard time accepting good actions when they’re “only for God”, just as believers have a hard time accepting good actions without proper intent. However dialogue between opposing viewpoints is important to acknowledging and promoting moral, kind, and respectful behavior on all sides.