"How plausible is a good atheist?" asked Christian Today last week. Given that most people in Britain are de facto atheists, living their lives with only a desultory nod to religion, the question might as well have been "How plausible is a good person?" (The answer, I feel, depends largely on your view of humanity; my own answer would be "eminently plausible".)
The question was prompted by my new campaign, Give Just One Thing, which encourages people to read a free eBook, Give: How to Be Happy, then commit to performing one of the ten actions in it. Actions range from giving blood to voting in every election, from volunteering for charity to giving away your possessions, and the campaign hopes to create a kinder world for everyone.
Despite giving the campaign "three cheers", Christian Today weren't entirely happy. They stated that there were "some problems. For starters, Ariane herself states that the book is full of swearing and lewd jokes - and I have changed the actual words she used to describe the jokes in order to make it acceptable on a Christian website. So, we might ask ourselves: how kind, in fact, is that?" Again, that rather depends on your view of what I unkindly termed "knob gags".
Perplexingly, the piece goes on to state that "the first problem with an atheistic notion of kindness is that it is a human and hence variable construct. It lacks any absolute touchstone (such as Jesus) against which to evaluate it... ethics without reference to God [are] both unsustainable in practice - and not in fact how most people live". Given that only 1.27% of Britons go to church regularly on a Sunday, I would say that, contrary to this assertion, this is exactly how most people live.
After a somewhat unnecessary Godwin's Law detour into Nazi Germany, the article then gets to grips with "the most difficult problem about Ariane's atheistic notion of kindness [which] is that, although it makes her happier, it does not deal with the underlying issue - our human hearts. As Jesus says: 'Out of the heart come evil thoughts - murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.'" (Out of interest, how does "sexual immorality" differ from adultery? If it just means "rude sex", I quite like the odd bit of sexual immorality, myself.)
Though I feel that to poke fun at the earnest Christian Today would be, well, unkind, their ideas are wholly misguided. As there is no scientific evidence for a deity and there almost certainly isn't one, let alone the God of the Bible, suggesting that "ethics without reference to God are unsustainable in practice" merely means they are unsustainable full stop. The idea that, unless you believe in an invisible sense of goodness, your sinful nature will lead you into a life of crime is patently untrue, as the atheist Dalai Lama shows.
And that doesn't just mean the Dalai Lama has conquered his 'sinful nature'; rather, that he, along with all other human beings, doesn't have one. My inspirations for the campaign were three of my non-believing friends: a vegan who has donated blood over 50 times, another friend who signed up unremunerated to an NHS medical trial, and a charity worker who organised an initiative in aid of disabled children in Tanzania. I can't be certain, but I don't think these people were working overtime to suppress their "evil thoughts".
Some atheists would go as far as to say that atheists are actually more altruistic than religious people, because we aren't doing good things for any reward. This isn't true either, because doing good things always results in a reward. I'm not talking about heaven here, but rather research from Harvard in 2009, which shows that giving to others makes one happier. There can, of course, also be other motives for giving, such as trying to impress others or prove your own self-worth.
But this doesn't matter; what matters is the outcome of your actions. Whether you run a marathon for charity because you want to impress your girlfriend, because you want to get fitter, because you like the challenge, or for the 'right' reason (because it's a kind thing to do for others), the charity will still benefit. This is the message of Give Just One Thing: everybody wins from good actions. And that's the truth, however implausible it may seem.