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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 closely to arguments over morality and ethics. Most Christians think morality and ethics require religion — theirs — and a supernaturally written book, the Bible. They think 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 Fundamentalist Baptist, 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, some would have viewed the lost wallet as an opportunity to steal. Finders keepers, losers weepers, right? As we all know, religious belief does not inoculate someone 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 beliefs. 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. They may sometimes do good things, but the arc of their lives is toward bad. Religion does not determine 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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  1. Avatar

    When I first began reading about Christian apologetics around 20 years ago the argument from morality was something I found mildly disconcerting. If our morality really does come from the bible then perhaps I was missing something?

    Into the here and now the claim by religionists to be the sole arbiters of morality makes me almost angry (I’ve learned that actually being angry at a computer screen is far from being conducive to wellbeing!). People have been developing morality since the dawn of mankind, when it was tiny groups trying their best to live in some sort of harmony. Then, countless thousands of years later, along comes Christianity (and its horrific predecessor, the Old Testament) and suddenly commandeers morality! Silly fools like Dennis Prager sit and pontificate (clearly a very articulate person, sadly deluded) that if morality isn’t objective then it’s “all just opinion “. That sets up a horrible dichotomy, in which actually a sensible discussion is negated by a pompous, and erroneous, but convincing soundbite.

    Where does morality come from? Exactly where Bruce says it does, from our desire, in the main, to do the right thing. Forrest Valkai on one of his recent talk in shows, referred to a hierarchy of personal moral imperatives. At the bottom is being motivated by a religious instruction, in the way referred to in the article, and plainly that is actually almost immoral if taken to its extreme (domestic terrorists and abortion clinics come to mind). I can’t remember the intervening stages but they work up to what most see as the ideal, that we do things because it’s the right thing to do. Of course Prager will ask “but how do you know it’s the right thing”. To which I reply that people who have to ask that question have a very questionable moral compass!

  2. Avatar
    John S.

    Great story Bruce. I mentioned in an earlier post about my late father, who grew up in a fundamentalist Protestant Appalachian denomination (Mountain Assembly COG). He used to tell me about the good and (mostly) bad behavior that he saw in that church. The best description of him was probably more of a deist/agnostic. He did not go to church unless there was a specific reason. He respected his religious relatives and tried to avoid discussing the topic if he could.

    My dad was a very good moral person and hard worker (he owned a printing supply business during the 1980’s).
    He would have returned the wallet anonymously. He did not care for PDRs (“public displays of religion”) and despite being politically conservative with a small “c” (today he would be considered a “RINO” by the Trumpers) he felt religion should be practiced privately and discreetly. He was big on separation of church and state. He would not have agreed with vouchers for religious schools or the LifeWise Academy.

    He had a business friend he told me about who was a Baptist. He respected this gentleman, whose only PDR was to briefly and silently pray before a meal. My dad felt comfortable talking with him about his beliefs. His friend’s standard for any witnessing ? “I never discuss religion unless the other person specifically asks or brings it up”.

    My dad told me that story quite often. He always said he wished other Christian’s would just abide by that simple rule.

    I became Catholic after he passed, but I can still hear him giving me advice on balancing my religious beliefs and practice with being a good decent person without wearing my religion on my sleeve.

    • Avatar

      Morality may indeed come from a desire to do the right thing. Yes, but that begs (for) the question: WHERE do we get our concept of “the right thing” and WHY do we desire to do right? That’s the fundamental question. For me it’s empathy that directs morals. Do unto others etc. Following that golden rule, the starving desperate person finds the fat wallet and if he takes anything, takes only what he needs for survival leaving the rest for the rightful owner who may need it too. A sociopath, lacking empathy, his primary motivation is what’s right for him, keeps all the money. Finders keepers is right in his mind as long as he is the finder.
      As for the empath who takes only what he needs, even our legal system recognizes the affirmative defense of “necessity”. One who breaks down on the frozen Ohio prairie, starving and freezing to death, breaks in to the only house he can find, eats food found there, and builds a fire to warm up. The owner, returning from his Florida place, (Ohioans go to Florida in winter) finds him there and has him arrested. His lawyer will get him acquitted by raising a defense of necessity. Ultimately the right and probably legal thing to do is survive and everything else is conditioned on that. Morality and what’s right thus depends on the person and the circumstances.

      • Avatar
        John S.

        Good thoughts DutchGuy. My dad definitely believed in “situational ethics” even though he would not have understood the term. Even though he was conservative, he was also pro-choice, pro-euthanasia, critical of Israel and pro-gun control to a lesser degree (full disclosure, he was also pro-capital punishment and very pro-Reagan). Concerning the dilemma you presented (breaking into the cabin), my dad would have advocated a lengthy prison term for the sociopath who did it “just for fun”, as well as for the True Christian®️ who kept the fat wallet because “God must have wanted me to have all that money to buy the Mustang I need for my ministry”. However, he was just as quick to criticize the police, et al when they would arrest charge and prosecute the person who broke in during a blizzard to get out of the cold, or the person who took a few dollars out of the fat wallet before turning it in because they needed a small amount of cash. During the local news my dad usually ended up yelling at the TV.
        For my dad, being conservative was not what it is today, being a useful idiot for the Trump Train. For him it was being reasoned and balanced, with the same or similar standards for everyone, the criminal and the preacher. Interestingly, I remember most working people of my childhood were this way, to some degree. They certainly were not the “You go reel Precedent Trump!” type of ignorant conservative. Sadly, many I knew have become this way in the last decade or so.

  3. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    I, too, am irked when people use simple acts of courtesy, decency or kindness as an opportunity to “witness.”

    Somehow, though, it doesn’t bother me when the doer or recipient talks about karma or says, “What goes around, comes around,” even if they come from a belief in a deity . (They usually do.) Such utterances, even if they are so motivated, seem to be ways of
    thanking the doer or wishing the recipient well rather than imposing one’s beliefs on the other.

  4. Avatar

    From my seat in the atheist pew, it seems to me that religion and the Bible complicate the issue.

    The Romans called Christians atheists because the Christians wouldn’t worship the Roman gods.
    Most atheists I’ve known say they could believe in an almighty “something” as long as it proved it existed and didn’t scream, “Love me or I’ll burn your ass to a crisp.”

  5. Avatar

    When my husband told his Catholic-seminary educated dad that he was atheist, his dad told him that he thought people needed fear of God to keep them from doing bad things. My husband reloed that only really shitty people needed fear of punishment by an invisible deity in order to do what’s right – the rest of us do what’s right because it’s right. (He was kind of insinuating that his dad’s a bad person, as in some ways he really is).

  6. Avatar

    So what the guy was really saying is, “Wow, good thing I believe in a deity, otherwise there would be no reason for me to give you this wallet back.”

    The convoluted thinking just makes me roll my eyes. It used to bother me a lot. Now I just think about how really stupid that thought process is.

  7. Avatar

    I disagree a bit that someone who keeps the money is necessarily a person of poor character. Some might have circumstances where such a windfall as finding a lost wallet is what say allows them to buy a meal when they might go hungry for example. In fact I recall just such a story where the spoils of the lost wallet saved someone from destitution. In that example the person ultimately found the owner years later and paid them interest. (The “loser” in that case didn’t care much about the money, it was more of the amusement of getting the wallet back) It is easy to have good character when you have a full belly.
    I’ve also heard of cases where the “loser” gets just the wallet back, but then isn’t gracious at all. For example sometimes the wallet is found, stripped of the cash, and tossed back on the ground and then returned. In such examples I’ve seen there are accusations and certainly not gratitude.
    As for the example given, the Bible verses on “why I’m bringing it back” seems so crass as to sully the good deed. Perhaps a blurb about “thanking God that what was lost is now found” that doesn’t seem like the deed was a Biblical imperative, but rather a personal one. Though I have to admit, if I got something back with Bible verses I’d get a good eye roll out of it and a guffaw.

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