Doing Good to Be Seen?

helping climb

This is not surprising, but still disturbing.

A survey of how religious and non-religious people handle morality in daily life.

This one line caught my attention:

The only differences between the religious and non-religious people included how they felt about and described moral acts. Religious people were more likely to express pride over performing moral acts, gratefulness over benefitting from moral acts, and guilt and disgust over immoral ones.

Here’s my theory, actually my Experience, based on many years as a believer.

Though few will admit it, I would say Most Believers are “moral” (do good deeds) To Be Seen.

Now, not necessarily to be seen by other people.

To be seen By God.

To please their god, to make their god happy, to have their god’s approval and reward, to prove their faith (mostly to god).

“God’s Will” is all-important to many believers.

But it does make you wonder:  How is that moral, or ethical, or even “good,” to do good things to be seen and rewarded?

What do YOU think?

12 thoughts on “Doing Good to Be Seen?

  1. I think you sound an awful lot like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. 🙂

    I think that what you are noticing is a human thing, not necessarily just a religious human thing. Religious people believe that 1) That the universe includes genuine standards of good and bad; 2) That it is important to follow those standards – even the meaning of life; 3) that Someone watches what we do; 4) that people expect us to live up to certain standards because of what we believe; etc. Given those conditions, it’s pretty natural to want to be seen as we do things, even if it is detrimental to the true spirit of goodness. Since atheists do not believe that God is watching them or that others are watching them to find out if their faith is genuine, why would they express feelings of pride or satisfaction at attention? But I think if you watched atheists at times when they do have others scrutinizing them and they have objective standards to meet, you’d find the same tendencies towards pride.

    Let me suggest some spheres of life where I would expect you to find similar behavior regardless of religious conviction. I, personally, have trouble wanting to do good works to be seen in my marriage. If I do a chore that I particularly dislike or that I know my wife particularly wants done, I want her to notice – and comment – and thank me for what I’ve done. If she doesn’t I feel underappreciated and, if it persists, even cynical. The same is true at work: if I work my butt off to get something done or pick up extra duties even though they are outside my job description, I want a pat on the back when I’m done, or favorable comments in my next evaluation, and maybe even special consideration next time bonuses or raises are available. And if I do these things a lot without a single “atta-boy!” I start to feel like I’m taken for granted. A third example: my work and life has put me into contact with a lot of college-bound high school juniors and seniors. Many of the top ranked students in any given high school apply to colleges with impressively long lists of co-curricular activities. And you know that many of them are in some of those activities BECAUSE they want to look impressive on college applications. One more: haven’t we all at some point in time worked hard at a class so that we’d get a good grade even though we couldn’t care less about the actual subject matter?

    Although I think you and Jesus have a good point about the importance of intention, I wonder: does a mixed intention necessarily disqualify or utterly corrupt our good choices in life? Sometimes they are a good supplement: there were certain tasks in my last job that I would be very hard-pressed to discover intrinsic motivation to perform – knowing that bosses or coworkers would appreciate it made the difference between my completing mindless bureaucratic paperwork on time and not. Sometimes they are inseparable from each other: being noticed, valued, and appreciated is an essential element in the romantic love between spouses. And sometimes they are good crutches or tutors as we grow. I’m sure that some students sign up for Key Club because they want to pad their college resume, but end up discovering they love working at the senior center in its own right. Maybe a 4-year old only ties his shoes so that his mom will tell him he did a good job, but eventually it becomes an every day habit.

    And I think that’s a key to leaning to live in such a way that your left hand doesn’t even know what good your right is up to: when I’ve bumped into people who do good without even realizing it, its because either their kindness is a natural facet of their personality, something they do habitually, or closely tied to a role that they fill. So I think that’s what we need to do: work on our character, practice doing good things until it becomes habitual, and see “Moral People” (or, in my case, “God’s Servant”) as a role we fill.

    If I could ask a question in return: if you are an atheist – and (perhaps I’m wrong but) presumably somewhat of a materialist (in the traditional philosophical sense – believing the physical world is all there is) why does the intention behind good acts matter? Isn’t the really important thing that good acts are done? (This is a genuine question – I’m not trying to imply inconsistency on your part.)

    1. Well, Tim, would’ve been nice if you just left your first line! That actually goes well with my long-held feeling that Jesus himself wouldn’t recognize his “followers” or their theology as something HE taught! Anyway, my point is simple and I think you talk around it, namely, that doing good ought to be “good enough” without seeking approval like a child with a parent. The article I refer to merely counters what the rest of us have heard for centuries: you can’t be “moral” (ethical, good) without God. We all know that’s not true, but believers continue to claim the rest of us will just never be “good enough” at least in the sight of their god.
      As for your question, (and of course I’m a materialist since I’m “secular” and don’t see one iota of evidence for something not materially based), you really MAKE my point. The important thing is that good is done. So, why do people of faith think *their* good is better?

      1. No no, I fully agree with you on that point, too: all people regardless of faith are capable of doing good and regularly do good. I’ve heard some people say the contrary and I think that’s just silly. (Who hasn’t had non-believing friends, family, coworkers, etc that have done good, moral things?)  I think an awful lot of Christians in history have also agreed with you. My question wasn’t about doing good but about putting such high value on intention – an entirely unsubstantive quality. I understand why God would be disgusted by wrong intentions – they are substantive to him. But you are disgusted by them when you believe them to be just a mix of neuron firings. If that is the case, aren’t the actions themselves the main thing and the intentions trivial? I have heard some skeptics snarkily reply to the “there is no good among the ungodly” stance: “well if religion is the only reason you can see for being a decent human being, please keep at it.”  I understand that response, even if it is fairly mean-spirited. 

        What do you think of my argument that we all want recognition for doing good in certain situations?  Do you agree that skeptics are just as likely to want their spouses, bosses, teachers, etc to notice the good things they do?  I sort of muddled one of my points, which was this: all these relationships are similar to how a believer might describe their relationship with God.  They have a love with someone and want acts of love acknowledged;  they have an ultimate boss and they want their work to be seen as good; they have an evaluator and they want to receive a passing grade.  Although these motivations can sometimes eclipse the real virtues of love and service and greatly diminish its ultimate worth, they are a natural outgrowth of those relationships and have to comingle to an extent, no?  Or am I missing something? (Shrugs)

        I ask these things to partake in conversation, not to annoy – I apologize if my mix of interest and free time made my first response seem preachy. (Grins). I hope this finds you well. 

      2. Tim, no need to apologize. I totally understand how the lack of free time can restrict a response, but I felt no annoyance whatsoever.

        I think we do agree about the desire for recognition of our acts of goodness. It’s quite normal to want to be understood that your motivation was good, whether or not the result of the act turned out that way. And I agree entirely that these feelings are not exclusive to a person’s particular beliefs or to their brand of faith. Humans need to co-mingle, as you describe it, and we desire that experience to be warm and comforting. So we are spot-on with that, I’d say.

        To those shallow enough to think “there is no good among the ungodly”, they need to understand something about what constitutes “good”. First, by that same wholesale narrow minded judgement, there is no good among the godly either. I think a common misunderstanding is the difference between being good and being pure, and unfortunately sometimes believers can be a bit muddled about this. I believe, as we’ve discussed, there are two sides to any coin – intentions and actions. When someone has lived a life that has shown 100% good intentions followed by 100% good actions, then that person would be “pure”. As a Christian, I believe that only Christ demonstrated purity.

        Being human is a crazy mixture of good and bad. The desire to transcend that and to love outside of yourself is the challenge of humanity. If you are interested in my Christian belief on this topic, see my post entitled ‘Is Being Good Good Enough?’ on my blog.

      3. Thanks, Tim. I don’t think we’re far off the same thoughts on this. Wanting recognition is probably universal. Showing love is great. But if the underlying motivation is to show faith and devotion to one’s god and to follow “his commands,” that just seems to diminish the helping–it also feels somewhat selfish (“see my faith. . .see what my god tells me to do. . .). To me, that’s like the overemphasis on Public Prayer, which seems the antithesis of what Jesus taught in that message on the mountainside!
        I agree, nonbelievers can have less than altruistic motives as well. So, yes, let’s do the good, god or not, and see what happens!
        Thanks for your engagement on this. As a former Evangelical, I’ve been on all sides of these issues!

      4. Thank you, Chris – I’ve appreciated the food for thought and the opportunity to throw my ideas out there. I am new to this whole blogging thing and am appreciating that it affords opportunity to bump into others thoughts.

        As for myself, although theologically I am fairly at home in Evangelical settings, there are times when I miss my mainline Protestant roots and other days when I could easily imagine myself Catholic if my life circumstances were differently. And politically I am oddly too conservative for my liberal friends to call me liberal, too liberal for my conservative friends to call conservative, and too off beat to really be called moderate. So I am sympathetic with many camps as well…

        Anyway, I’ll keep an eye on your posts in the future – you seem thoughtful and engaging.

  2. If one’s objective is to please God by keeping His commandments or by doing something good for others, then unearthing some deeper motivation (earning approval, seeking reward, etc…) seems a bit moot to me. I believe that God is always pleased with obedience and charity, regardless of the underlying motivation.

    This, of course, does not mean that God will necessarily be pleased with the motivation, but that is another thread… I believe that God considers the motivation and the act independently.

    1. I think you are proving the point of the post. Objective in doing good: pleasing God. “I’m helping you because it makes God happy/because he tells me to/because it shows my faith” seems to disrespect another person. I think intention DOES matter. Wouldn’t you like to know why someone wants to help you? (think– sheltering homeless people in order to preach at them; building a school in Africa in order to convert children, etc.). Intent can make a big difference. Why can’t people help others just because it’s a good and right and ethical thing to do? One does not need faith for that.

  3. Chris, I get your point, and maybe I wasn’t entirely complete in my reply. I did not mean to imply that one’s objectives cannot be multifaceted. A person CAN intend good for more than one reason. I agree, if the good act one performs is entirely selfish in it’s motivation, then of course that is not something that (I believe) would be pleasing to God. God’s intentional example to us, the life of Jesus Christ, was entirely unselfish. But acts of goodness to others, regardless of the motivation, can indeed benefit others. If my charitable contribution to a children’s hospital, for instance, was substantial, but motivated by self-aggrandizement, then would the monetary contribution that actually helped the children be negated? Again, I believe that the act and the motivation must be considered independently. Someone once said “never judge the message by the messenger”. If the messenger really stinks, but the message is sound, then rejecting it would be like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

    1. Doyle, I certainly agree about selfish motivations. That would apply across the spectrum of belief/non-belief. I would question, however, two statements you make.
      If the “messenger” or giver or doer of good has dishonest intentions or is motivated primarily by their own needs (the selfishness again), I would say their “help” should be unwelcome–at least, I personally would not welcome it. For instance, I was the director of an emergency shelter. A few people came to “help” but really wanted to preach to the “poor homeless people.” I said, sorry, no. Our shelter was not Their opportunity to evangelize. Back to my original point, if helping others is All About ME, then someone needs to question that and hold up a mirror. Why? Well, if you have faith I would think “God looks on the heart” right? Intent Does matter. Now, don’t get me wrong. . .someone sends a check to a charity as you say and we would rarely know their reason. If we’re doing the work, we can’t stop and analyze every giver!
      Second, I used to believe what you believe, but I don’t accept that “God’s example in Jesus” was unselfish. Jesus himself. . .yes, he showed humility even with a ME focus. Sorry, but I wouldn’t look to the God of the Bible as a moral example (Noah, Canaanites, Solomon/David, Israelite then Christian tribalism, requiring blood sacrifice including his own son, etc). Everything done “for others” or TO others was to “please God” who seems to want it all about Him. And, if we look at the last 2000 years, we see “followers” primarily focused on making the rest of the world “believe correctly” rather than “doing good” for the sake of doing good.
      You got me going!
      Maybe I’ll post a new post on this. . .
      Not seeking argument, only clarification and response to statements.
      Take care.

    1. This seems wise, Scott. Thank you. I DO think that we can do good things with the best of intentions, because we genuinely wish to help others. Yet, always a smidgeon of self-help going on. Doesn’t make us bad, just something to recognize and admit. “Judging over” (hypocrisy) is easy for any of us to slip into, isn’t it?

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