Do atheists love their children too?

In 1985 Sting’s Cold War protest song “Russians” asked the question, “do Russians love their children too?” The implication is that cultural-political distinctions are meaningless when we ask searching questions about issues such as caring for our loved ones. How does such logic hold-up when applied to comparisons between atheists and Christians?

A question I have heard in many conversations goes something like this: “How can a Christian worldview claim ethical/moral exclusivity when non-Christians do ‘good’ works all the time?” Simply stated, “why do unbelievers do good things?” Michael Wittmer’s brief discussion of this is helpful:

I believe that, thanks to common grace, non-Christians throughout the world love their children, care for ailing parents and spouses, and sometimes even sacrifice their lives for strangers (e.g., the New York firefighters who on 9/11 ran up the stairs of the World Trade Center while everyone else was fleeing down).

But non-Christians perform these acts of love despite rather than because of their worldview. I propose that the Christian faith alone supplies the rationale for altruistic love. When Christians love others they are acting in sync with their ultimate beliefs. When non-Christians love others they are behaving better than their beliefs allow. They are borrowing from the Christian worldview, acting as if the Christian faith is true.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Scott Christensen on December 3, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Should we not think here of Rom. 2:14-15? The unregenerate still retain the imago Dei. Though it be shattered it is not obliterated.

    One reason for why I think many do good things is strictly pragmatic. It works. I worked in a large architectural firm before going into the ministry. It was one of the best jobs I ever had (but doesn’t compare to what I do now). The partners in that firm for the most part believed in treating it clients and its employees as ethically as possible for one simple reason. It was good business. In this regard, there was a fair amount of self-interest in the pursuit of ethics, yet it was an enjoyable and peaceable atmosphere to work in. I have worked in other atmospheres that did not maintain this standard and it was miserable. Who, believer or unbeliever, does not relish the benefits of an ethical standard that brings about peace and harmony even if there is no desire to bring glory to God? I think it actually does indirectly glorify God and that is perhaps part of the theology of common grace.

  2. Great thoughts!
    I also think that unbelievers do these things with a self-righteous attitude. I work with a guy who is the nicest unbeliever I’ve ever met. When I confront him with the gospel, he gives me a huge lists of the good he has done and continues to do. He also focuses on the things he agrees with me such as, abortion, morality, etc.

  3. Posted by JS McDaniel on December 10, 2008 at 12:39 am

    Wittmer is silly, and you, Mr. Lamey are silly for quoting him in print. To say that Christians are the only ones who (can) behave altruistically and then to say that non-Christian altruists are merely behaving on a fluke is a rare form of rank narcissism and a flagrant solipsis. Here’s the real reason that Wittmer needs to claim Christian exclusivity for altruism: Because to allow non-Christians access to altruism, or to make altruism in non-Christians seem like something other than a fluke “acting better than their beliefs allow…” would be to strip Christianity of one of its main claims to speciousness: That it engenders and promotes a kind of love that can’t be found anywhere else. Free-thinkers could never subscribe to preposterous propositions like these, because they don’t need to. It is only a Christian dogmatist who needs to come up with silly answers like Wittmer’s to easy questions like “Why do non-Christians do good things?” In fact, if a person does a good deed because they identify themselves as a Christian and thus believes that they must do good deeds because, after all, Christians do good deeds, then that person is not acting out of altruism! And if you believe for one nanosecond that you can figure out one iota of what motivates a person to a particular act, then you aren’t simply deluded, you arrogate yourself to the position of God. Dare you to print this one!

  4. JS McDaniel,

    Dare me to print? Nothing original here in what you said. No argument, no response, no articulate antithesis. It occurred to me that once I looked past your vitriol there was no answer to Wittmer’s statement.

    Simple question for you: why should an atheist do a good deed? Furthermore, what is “good”?

    Looking forward to your answer.

    Paul Lamey

  5. The thought that atheists are incapable of love is absurd. Did my earthly father love me before he became a Christian? Of course he did. We have labeled atheists as “too far from God to be of any good” and it is, I believe a great tragedy.

    I am a devout follower of Jesus Christ, a Biblically defined born from above Believer and find time and time again that many atheists have more correct regarding Christianity and religion than the average attender of organizational/positional “church”.

    The fact is, the atheist is no more “lost” than the self-professed Believer that has never been regenerated by The Christ. There is no distinction – one is either in Christ or he is not.

    Love is an attribute of our Creator (that all are created in the image of – all). As I agree that there is a drastic shift into agape love when one encounters the LORD, I personally don’t think it is fair to say that an atheist does not have the ability to love.

    Good discussion though.

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