I want to express how grateful I am to be allowed to contribute here. Not only do I enjoy reading the site, but Friendly Atheist has a great community of commenters.
In fact, reader Primenumbers raised an interesting point in comments for my earlier post:
Good works are not good works if you’re doing them for a bad reason. Then they’re just works, or even bad works, depending. For good works to be truly good, the motivations must be good too.
How should we act when a person does good deeds for what we consider bad reasons?
I’ve written about this before, but I’m reminded of a charming short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer:
A poor man asks to borrow a pair of silver spoons from the town miser. The miser grudgingly agrees, and the next morning the poor man returns the spoons with one of his own silver teaspoons, claiming that the spoons gave birth! The miser is delighted, so when the poor man then asks to borrow the set of very expensive silver candlesticks, he is more than willing. The poor man sells the candlesticks, sadly telling the miser that they passed away in the night. Furious, the miser hauls him before the rabbi, who says with a grin: “If spoons can give birth, candlesticks can die.”
Now, I don’t believe anyone is ever purely motivated by a desire to please God. They might be to some degree, but there’s usually other reasons for people to act. When people cite religion as their motivation, it obscures the underlying reasons — and it’s best to get those reasons out in the open.
We shouldn’t smile and stay silent when a man proclaims that he’s fighting poverty because God wants him to. It keeps obscured the secular reasons we should care for the poor. The more strongly people see religion tied to morality on issues like poverty or the environment, the more difficult it will be to separate the two when it comes to homosexuality or women’s rights.
I think we should praise the work while putting forth our secular motivation for appreciating it. When a person says that he’s helping the poor because he believes it to be God’s will, we can respond with “Thank you for helping people in need, I’m sure they appreciate it.” It reinforces the notion that there are secular reasons to do charitable works — to simply help others for the sake of it!
Have any of you been in this situation?
What do you think we should do when friends or neighbors cite religion as their motivation to do good works?