I think that this is is an interesting issue which often get mishandled. Usually religious apologists who discuss it take a strong meta-ethical line, that is, they make claims about the nature of value and moral truth. The issues at stake are complex, however, and people plunge in without the requisite philosophical sophistication to say anything sensible. The argumentative atheist, on the other hand, often thinks in terms of moral motivation, imagining that the only special motivation religion brings is the fear of hell and hope of heaven, from which assumption he reasonably concludes that the supposed connection between religion and morality is a sham because it’s all self-interest anyway. Additionally, no one likes to be told ‘I’m morally superior to you’, which it is very natural for the atheist to hear once this subject is broached. I will focus on the modest claim that, for any given person, that person would probably be morally better if they were a Christian than if they were an atheist. I will be arguing from presuppositions that (I hope) an atheist can easily accept, but paying attention to what Christianity is actually like rather than what some argumentative atheists seem to think it’s like. I will be focussing on Christianity because that’s what I know; I daresay that some points I make can be transferred to other religions, but others are more specific.
1. Love and Gratitude.
If you like me, you’re more likely to do me a favour. If I’ve done you favours in the past, you’re even more likely to do me a favour. If you love me, and are confident that I love you and would do anything for you, then there’s very little you wouldn’t do for me either. This last is the relationship that a Christian takes herself to have with God. The Christian believes that the love of God is the very reason for her own existence, that God suffered death for her sake, and that, yes, God will bring her peace, joy, and life eternal. This quite naturally disposes her to do what God asks, and what God asks is that we ‘love one another, as I have loved you’. It’s all very well to read ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house;when you see the naked, to cover him,and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?’ and think that it represents an admirable ideal, but it’s something else entirely to be convinced that the Creator of the universe, who loves you with an unimaginable love, is calling on you personally to do this for His sake.
2. Christian Paradoxes
Christianity is riddled and replete with paradox. Fully God and fully man, the first will be last and the last will be first, my burden is light//take up your cross, a person is justified by faith apart from works/faith without works is dead, I am a worm/you are gods, service is perfect freedom, what is impossible with man is possible with God, etc etc. The force of many of these paradoxes, rightly understood, is partly this: not even the greatest saint will ever do all that God asks, and yet what God asks is not beyond the capacity of the meanest sinner. The basis of our relationship with God is not a set quotient of good works, which one person may already have exceeded and another cannot dream of attaining, but an attitude: trust in God, sincere regret for our failures, and sincere striving to do better in His sight. However good or bad we are, then, God calls us to become better by a realistic margin. Christianity can be for anyone a continual encouragement to self-improvement. More than this, Christianity insists that improvement of the self is never truly improvement by the self: it is always improvement by God. We rely not on our own strength, but on a strength much greater. The effect of this should be a re-valuation of our perceived limits: whatever we think is the best we can do unaided, we should be confident that in faith, with God’s help, we can do better. And if we are confident that we can do better, then we will be able to do better. That’s simply a truism. We will take on more demanding tasks and apply ourselves to them with greater resolve, and so do better than we would have done otherwise, even if no divine interruptions in the order of nature are in fact forthcoming to assist us.
Argumentative atheists will often dismiss prayer. I’ve always found this puzzling. I suppose people are so focussed on the issue of whether intercession is effective in the double-blind trial sense that they forget the banal but still practically significant ways in which the act of prayer affects the one who prays. First of all, there’s my very first point. Praying daily is a daily reminder of God’s love for us and our reasons for loving Him. It thus naturally increases our inclination to serve others in His name. Then there’s confession and repentance. If we regularly take time to call to mind our failings, and then humbly and sincerely beg forgiveness, we will be more aware of our faults, and give into them less easily, than we would otherwise. Also, there’s petition for virtue. At the very least, this is a continual reminder of our resolve to practice virtue. Moreover, the more firmly we believe that prayer for virtue increases virtue, the more our virtue will be increased. That requires no more than the placebo effect. Finally, I would like to put in a good word for intercession itself. As such cynics as Ricky Gervais delight in pointing out, intercession is not an act of charity in the modern sense. But it is an exercise of charity in the traditional sense. That is, making an effort to bring others to mind, enter their perspective, make their concerns our own, and sincerely will their good, is likely to make us more considerate and more compassionate in our daily life. The heart is a muscle. I don’t dispute that an hour spent feeding the homeless is on balance better than an hour spent praying for them, but setting one against the other misses the point. If the choice is simply between praying and not praying, better to pray. Also, volunteering is difficult, not merely in that actually being in a soup kitchen poses a range of physical, emotional, and psychological demands, but in the trivial sense that you have to be in the right place at the right time and it’s just a hassle to organise. Anyone can pray at any time. If it works, you’ll be more motivated to take on the hassle of active service than you would have been otherwise.