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When I was an evangelical Christian, I thought that God was at the center of every sound reason for doing the right thing. For example, Jesus encouraged us, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). It was all about bringing glory to God, showing gratitude to God, respecting God, fearing God, etc..
I thought that when unbelievers did good, it was in spite of their philosophies of life, not because of them. Selfishness was the only consistent result of any “worldly philosophy.” The Bible told me that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), and that’s what I believed.
In my final years of wrestling with my faith, someone close to me said, “You’re too afraid of yourself.” I did not believe her, but her comment stuck with me.
Imagine my surprise after my deconversion when I discovered she was right. Even without God, I still wanted to do the right thing.
How could that be?
Evangelicals themselves tell us the answer, perhaps unwittingly. Google God’s commands for our good and you’ll find statements like these.
Some of God’s commandments may require self-denial on our part. But in the long run we will discover that they are for our very best. A father doesn’t give commands to his children to burden them or harm them – but only to help them. This is how we need to see the commands that God gives us too. — Zac Poonen
In other words, if we follow biblical precepts, we will be happier in the long run.
Jesus, too, gave very pragmatic reasons for following his teaching, as in this famous verse from the Sermon on the Mount.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2)
Even God’s so-called ceremonial laws, such as the prohibition on eating pork, are for our own good, say believers:
Pigs are known to carry up to 200 diseases and 18 different parasites and worms. — Eating Pork Can be Hazardous to Your Health, at OnlineTruth.org
It does not require a belief in God to stay away from unhealthy food, or to realize that what goes around comes around. For the most part, God’s commands in the Bible do make sense, even to an unbeliever. I find that I still want to obey them.
I will admit to one huge difference. As a Christian, I took the Bible as God’s Word. If it commanded something, then it must be right. For reasons that I cover elsewhere on this blog, I can no longer believe that. Today, I base my moral judgments on how actions affect other people.
Although my ways of appraising right and wrong have changed, I still care about morality and ethics. There are sound, obvious, pragmatic reasons for doing so.
What Christians say is true: people are generally happier when they follow the Golden Rule and other universal principles that are in the Bible. A life of immorality and dissipation is usually an unhappy one. It’s far more fulfilling to devote oneself to improving the world and serving others. Christian, you and I disagree about a lot of things. Will you let me agree with you on this?