People forget that the Good Samaritan in the bible was a dirty heathen. That was Jesus’ whole point—as far as his people were concerned, Samaritans had no reason to be good, but they were anyway.
Now, one could argue that Samaritans were at the very least monotheists, but that wasn’t exactly how the Hebrews viewed them, and that certainly wasn’t how the Christians viewed them, what with them practically wiping out the Samaritan race in the sixth century or so. Samaritans at the time of Jesus were viewed essentially the same as Muslims are viewed now. So imagine how the following conversation would go these days:
A lawyer asked the preacher, “the bible says to love others as we love ourselves. But which others?“
Replied the preacher, “as you walk down the streets of New York early in the morning, you are mugged, beaten, and left for dead in an alley. A priest comes by on his way to open the church, but rather than help you, he crosses to the other side of the street. Then comes a rabbi, but he too crossed to the other side. But then comes a muslim, who sees you and takes pity on you. He cleans and bandages your wounds. He puts you in the back of his car, drives you to the hospital, and checks you in. He puts down two hundred dollars and tells the nurse, ‘Please treat this man right away. Here is my number—if this man is unable to pay, call me and I will cover his bills.’ Which of those three men is your neighbor?”
The lawyer says, “the one who had mercy on me.”
The preacher says, “then you should do the same for him.”
Feasibly, the modern Christian would have many things to say about the story. No doubt, many Christians would immediately say “that story is offensive! To suggest that a priest would not help someone that he found on the road. This story proves that you hate Christians, and you’re just trying to make them look bad.” It’s safe to say that plenty of people reacted to Jesus’s story the exact same way. But that was the story that Jesus told.
But the second thing a modern Christian might say is, “okay, a Muslim might help, sure, but not an atheist.” Don’t think I’m being cynical, and don’t think I’m attacking Christians. Studies support this claim, that Christians do not believe that atheists have morals. They believe that it is their religion which gives them their morality. It stands to reason, then, that without religion, people must not be moral.
Yet, people who disavow religion become no more or less criminal than they were before they converted to atheism (however, many nonreligious people who are criminals do become more civil when they convert to Christianity, but it’s important to ask the question: “converted from what?” Usually, they have converted from a lifestyle of gang warfare and family abuse). Virtually all prominent atheists have been addressed with the famous question—”if you don’t believe in God or Hell, what’s to stop you from killing someone if you know you can get away with it?”
First, as seven million Americans will tell you, threat of punishment alone is really not that much of a deterrent for people to do wrong. There’s certainly a gray area where people are conflicted on whether they’ll do the wrong thing, and their religion may give them some guidance, but religion doesn’t serve as any better of a deterrent than laws, and nobody claiming that all religious people are virtuous should be taken seriously. Steven Weinberg takes it a step further: “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
So being religious doesn’t really inspire all that much morality in people. However, atheism does. Ask yourself this: if someone’s job is on the line, and they suddenly start working harder and doing a better job, do you think to yourself, “wow, I never realized that this person had such a deep-seated work ethic?” Of course not. You think to yourself, “so that’s what it takes to get this person off their ass.” If you tell them that their job is safe and they start slacking, they’re lazy. You have to threaten their job to get them to work.
That’s how atheists view this argument that Christians cannot be moral without religion. We don’t think of Christians as moral for fearing God; we think they’re so inherently lazy in life that they need a boss to get on their ass to do the right thing.
The good atheist is a truly good person, because they’re good despite the fact that they don’t have to be. If you do evil, there will be no punishment. If you help no one, there will be no Hell. And yet, it is expected that you do good in this world. Many of the most devoted environmentalists are atheists. The founders of modern democracy professed a nonbelief in God. Many of the most universally charitable organizations are secular or humanist: Red Cross, United Way, Peace Corps, etc. while religiously motivated groups like Boy Scouts of America, The Catholic Church, and Rescue Missions at the very least require a show of fealty of their benefactors, and at worst will flatly refuse to help people in need who are outside of their religious circle.
And in exchange for their good deeds, the atheist gets nothing. No heaven, no afterlife, no golden camels. There isn’t even a mythology among atheists where anyone has been rewarded for their good deeds. On the contrary—if someone is rewarded, the ‘goodness’ of their deeds is thrown in doubt (such as happened to the Presidents of secular charity United Way on several occasions). So what you have is a group of people who are expected to sacrifice themselves to the benefit of others, to the benefit of the Earth, and even to the benefit of generations that don’t even exist yet, and they are expected to do so without any congratulations, any rewards, or any fringe benefits of any kind. But they have to do it anyway.
Now that’s a true test of faith.