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Doing Good Because it is the Right Thing to Do, Not Because Jesus is Watching

Imagine for a moment that you find a wallet someone has accidentally dropped on the ground. In the wallet are the person’s ID, credit cards, and $300. What would you do?

I suspect most of us would attempt to track the person down and return the wallet. Why? Because it is the right thing to do.

The Christian Post reported a story about an anonymous Christian finding a wallet and returning it to its rightful owner. The Christian did the right thing and he should be commended for doing so. If you have ever lost your wallet or ID, you know how stressful and gut-wrenching the experience is, especially in this day of identity theft.

The problem I have with the Christian Post story is the motivation the Christian had for returning the wallet. Instead of it being a good, decent, honorable thing to do, the Christian had a “Biblical” reason for returning the wallet.

The Christian attached a Post-it note to the wallet:

returned wallet

The Christian who returned the wallet stated that the following verses were his reason/motivation for returning the wallet:

And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. Luke 10:27

He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. Luke 16:10

That men may know that thou, whose name alone is Jehovah, art the most high over all the earth. Psalm 83:18

In other words, the Christian’s act of decency and kindness was all about God.

From my seat in the atheist pew, it seems to me that religion and the Bible complicate the issue. Would the Christian have returned the wallet if these verses weren’t in the Bible? Would he have returned the wallet if he weren’t a Christian? While these questions might be viewed as trying to turn a good deed into an argument, I think motivations are important.

This story is connected quite closely to arguments over morality and ethics. Most Christians think morality and ethics require religion — theirs — and a supernaturally written book, the Bible. In their thinking, they do good because of their religion and its teachings. It is God that keeps them from being bad people. If it weren’t for Jesus, the world would be overrun with thieves, rapists, and child molesters.

It is not enough, then, for an act of goodness to be performed just because it is the right thing to do. Instead, it is God who gets all the praise and glory because, without him, humans would do bad things. In other words, without God, the Christian would have kept the wallet.

If the Christian had left a Post-it note with these two verses:

And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. Luke 6:31

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Matthew 22:39

. . . perhaps I would see this story differently.

All of us should treat others as we would want to be treated. Isn’t that a universal moral value?

I commend the Christian for returning the man’s wallet. It was the right thing to do, whether the man was a Baptist Fundamentalist, an Episcopalian, or an atheist. Would an atheist have returned the wallet? I’d like to think so. But I know among atheists and Christians alike, there are those that would have viewed the lost wallet as an opportunity to steal. Finders keepers, losers weepers, right? As we all well know, religious belief does not inoculate a person from being a bad person. (Please see the Black Collar Crime Series.) The religious and godless alike have the capability and power to do bad things. Why? Because bad people do bad things. A narcissistic view of the world often motivates people to only think of self. When presented with an opportunity to return the lost wallet, the narcissist is only concerned with what he can gain. In this case, he gains the money that is in the wallet.

We should all strive for a higher ideal regardless of our religious belief. As a humanist, I try to treat others as I would want to be treated. If I lost my wallet, I hope someone would return it and I would gladly offer the finder a reward. Far more important than lost cash is lost ID. And I know if I found a person’s wallet, I would return it to the owner. How do I know I would do this? Because that is what I have done in the past. It is the moral/ethical code I live by. I know how panicked I get when I can’t find my wallet in the house, and I can only imagine how stressed out I would be if I knew I had lost it at a store or parking lot somewhere.

Here’s the point I want to make — good people do good things. Yes, sometimes good people fail and might, at times, do bad things, but the arc of their lives is toward good. The same can be said of those who lack moral and ethical character. (Think Donald Trump) They may, at times, do good things, but the arc of their lives is toward bad. It is not religion that determines goodness or badness, though it certainly can, for some people, play a part. What determines the kind of person we are is our character. People with good character do good things like returning a lost wallet. People with bad character, don’t.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    I can assure you, that you or anyone else will get their wallet/purse back intact if I happen upon it. I find it much more rewarding to do this of my own free will with zero reward expected. That’s not to say that I would always refuse a monetary reward if offered but it would not be the first time one was offered me and I refused it because I found the look of worry and grief turned into one of relief and thankfulness as reward enough – that and I know many people are struggling these days so I know (personally) how much of a hardship losing (or offering as a reward) even twenty dollars can be.

    I wasn’t always like this … I use to be of the mind “finders, keepers etc …”, figuring to have returned the wallet, ID and credit cards was “enough” of a good deed. I’d return a lost wallet after removing the cash and simply lie that there was no cash in it when I found it … the time or two I did this (when I use to work at a bar and found them after cleaning up at closing) the folks were still overjoyed to not have to worry about identity theft and the hassle of getting a replacement ID, Drivers License and cancel credit cards was a huge weight lifted for those folks … what’s a few lousy bucks in that context. Although I had a temporary profit, it always seemed karma (also a faith based concept without factual basis) would bite me in the ass with a flat tire or burned out starter or some such which cost me a few dollars more to rectify that my “windfall”.

    Call it a “live and learn” situation but it no longer seemed “worth it” to “profit” in such an underhanded way. So I learned to do the purely “right” thing and just return things to their rightful owner as I found them … it made me feel good. And at the time as a theist, it seemed to add a point or two the the good side of my ledger with the almighty myth (god). Then I lost all faith (what little I had left) … and now there is nothing that “prevents” me from keeping found cash … except me … and it feels a million times better for me to be the kind of good person I envision i could and should be, to do what’s right so that others can see the type of person I am – here and now. I can now look back and say I did the purely right thing because it is right – and nothing more – and it makes me proud to walk down the street and know that I can help someone … not because of any “reward” in this life or otherwise … but because I am living truth and honesty – THAT is my reward – that others can know they can trust me and feel safe enough to know they could drop a million dollars and know they’d get every penny back if I found it. I don’t need god’s “reward” or approval … I prefer trust of my species. And the knowledge that my character has grown to a place beyond reproach – I am an honest and trustworthy man because that is how I want to see myself and how I want others to see me. Period.

    So, your wallet is safe with me.

    Happy Holidays Bruce – thanks for writing again 🙂

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    I run three car washes here in town. Over the last seven and a half years I’ve found several wallets or purses that have been left unintentionally, most with money in them. I always truck them down to the police station unmolested. I’d like to think that doesn’t make me any better or worse than anybody else on average, but it does show that one doesn’t need to believe in God to be honest.

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    Hello Bruce,

    What a nice surprise to know you are back again. I hope everything in your life is doing fine, especially your health.
    I just wanted to say Hello and happy holydays!
    Have a good time with you loved ones.

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    Fine, he returned the wallet…good for him. If it had been my wallet that came back with scripture references posted on it, I would be offended and would rip the note off and throw it away while uttering swear words, for sure. Somebody just give the guy a cookie.

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    I’m reminded of an incident that occurred to me when I was on a motorcycling holiday in Spain last year with two friends.

    We were staying in a nice hotel in a relatively remote area. As we came down to breakfast one of my friends bent down and picked up 150euros that was lying on the floor. He began to wonder what to do when I interceded and insisted we hand the money in to the hotel. This we did but I still wonder if I did the right thing. My friends felt as though they should keep the money because there was no way of knowing to whom the cash belonged, but gave in because I was so determined to do the ‘right’ thing. When I handed the money to the receptionist I failed to get even a receipt, and now realise it was more than likely that the girl on the desk made no effort to find the owners.

    I still feel slightly guilty about how I insisted on handing the money to the hotel, simply to assuage my feeling of empathy, the kind Bruce describes. I denied my friends their ‘lottery win’ and probably failed to get the money reunited with its owner.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    The closest I’ve come is finding a credit card in a parking lot. I took it home and immediately called the credit card company, and reported it lost.

    My husband has found an uncomfortable gray area in his hobby, collecting and trading (selling/buying) certain small collectible coins and tokens. He occasionally gets an offer for a piece that is over-the-top high, or a offer for a sale that is too low. He won’t do either deal… unless the other person is an actual coin/token dealer, doing it as a business, who should know the value of his/her purchases and sales offers. Then he assumes that the dealer has other reasons for the pricing, and accepts the deal.

    This determination to be honest has gotten him a strong reputation, and he’s now paid to evaluate other people’s collections… because the collecting world has tagged him as someone who will give a fair, honest assessment. He didn’t start out doing it this way because he was anticipating a reputation, he’s just naturally honest. But sometimes the good guy wins.

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    I always try to remember this quote

    “ Morality is doing what’s right regardless of what you are told
    Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what’s right”

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    What is that saying…that it takes religion to make a good person do bad? Personally, I think non-Christians are, in the aggregate, better all around people. Oh, I know some lovely, kind Christian people. But so many atheists and agnostics prefer to actually help their fellow man, for no reason other than kindness. Too bad some of these fundies don’t have that quality.

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    We raised our kids without religion but with the caveat to treat others how you would want to be treated (which every civilization has as a general rule) and that the measure of someone’s character is what they do when they think no one is looking. They are young adults and those guiding principles have worked so far. They certainly don’t need fear of an invisible deity to keep them in line.

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    Call me cynical, but I don’t think the post-it note was about honesty. It was about bragging (Look at me, I’m a Christian doing the right thing!) and it was an excuse to preach to the owner. A truly humble person would give it back without the need to draw attention to himself. And, it’s a passive-aggressive jab at non-Christians (Lucky I’m a Christian, or you would be screwed right now!). It says a lot about the person’s character, and it isn’t really good.

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Bruce Gerencser