"A thoughtful atheist, living in good conscience, himself does not understand how close he is to God. This is because he performs good deeds with no thought of reward, in contrast to religious hypocrites." - Hans Christian Andersen

I think that here Hans is saying that to do good in order to "guarantee" yourself a place in paradise, is hypocritical; and I agree with him.

Is there any philosophical reason to suppose he is wrong?

Does anyone argue (like it seems him) that atheists can be closer to God (i.e. closer to how God wants us to be) than someone who believes in God but is motivated to do good by their wish for a place in paradise?

How likely are philosophers to argue that, and how do they do so?

  • It is not clear what you are asking about, other than whether we agree with your opinion or not. Can you please elaborate further? This might an interesting ethics question. – Alexander S King May 14 '15 at 0:42
  • 1
    Tsar, welcome to philosophy.se. Right now, this question is either unclear or not especially a good fit for philosophy.se. If you're just asking whether we agree, it's a bad fit. If there's something else, such an area where you need help understanding philosophy, please edit the question to make it clearer. – virmaior May 14 '15 at 0:51
  • i cannot agree that this question is not about philosophy, unless you have quite a suspect definition of what classes as philosophy - one that doesn't include the philosophy of religion. – user6917 May 14 '15 at 4:36
  • you mean that there hasn't been much work on it so non opinion answers cannot be given, or it will generate opinions? – user6917 May 14 '15 at 6:09
  • 2
    Swami Vivekananda made similar arguments. He said that we are all atheists until we actually see (realize) God. Those, he said, who professed atheism were just being more honest. Many people say they believe in God, but their actions say the contrary. Buddha said the same thing. It doesn't matter what you believe in, it's what you do that's important. Belief counts for little; it is just mouthing words if your actions are not in line. What counts is your actions. – Swami Vishwananda May 15 '15 at 5:30

I could see such an argument as some religions come with the attitude that the goodness of a deed is erased if you expected a return on your "investment." However, closeness to God is a difficult topic. There are many who argue that getting infinitely close, without actually reaching out to him, is no better than doing nothing at all. However, given the many interpretations of every religion, I would not call such arguments universal.


While I am certainly an atheist, if we take for granted that there is a God, and that God is like the one worshipped by Hans Christian Anderson, namely Yahweh, and that god is not hypocritical, then what he says is oh so very close to valid, but not quite valid. One who would do good solely for the sake is not hypocritical, but why is it hypocritical to do good only for reward. I don't like kids, but if I saw a baby in a dumpster I would try to save it. Is that hypocritical since, while I feel morally compelled to act in such a manner, I do not especially value the lives of kids? Let's imagine I viscerally hated kids and did want them all to suffer harm or die, but I saved them anyway out of an instinctual compulsion. Would that make me hypocritical? I suspect not. It seems hypocrisy can only be applied to actions considered bad, at least in the sense that I take it to mean. I take hypocrisy to mean that one does not live up to the moral standard they hold others to. If that is the case, then what Anderson calls "religious hypocrites" are only people doing good, but motivated by what he takes to be a poor moral compass. Of course, he might mean that such people are causing harms and not living up to their own moral codes, in which case they are hypocrites, and assuming God is all good, a position that does not mesh well with theodicy by the way, an atheist who does good and lives up to a high standard is indeed closer to God.

This assertion seems to hinge in one respect on the question of whether or not thoughts are amoral. I think thoughts themselves are amoral, that is to say; go ahead and think whatever you want. Your thoughts are not subject to ethical concerns. Let's say I think about killing someone because I believe it would be pleasurable (due to the public nature of this forum let me be absolutely clear that I do not.) However, I do not go through with it. The thought of me killing someone, (which again due to the public nature of this forum I should declare that I do not have,) was neither good nor bad in itself. Dangerous, potentially, but neither good nor bad. If I really wanted to kill someone and refused solely for goodness sake, I do not think that makes me any better than if I refused due to a fear of incarceration. If I were to judge someone for thinking about killing someone, having the stance that I espouse, I would be hypocritical in passing that judgement. However, if any harm were done to the person so judged, it would lie solely in the knowledge that I passed a hypocritical judgement. My point is this: Hypocrites are best avoided. Those that are constitutionally hypocritical, (I think we all are from time to time,) are certainly not the nicest of people and should be avoided, but the hypocrisy in and of itself does not make them any more or less bad. So while good people who are not hypocritical do have more God like qualities (God cannot be a hypocrite since there is only one in the Judeo-Christian mythos,) I would not agree with Anderson that they are better people, as he seems to imply. In answer to your second question, a philosopher is 100% likely to make an argument like this. However, I am uncertain of the likelihood of a philosopher selected at random making a similar argument.

  • 1
    This doesn't answer the question "Have philosophers claimed that...". You're just giving your opinion. – Keelan Oct 3 '15 at 9:24
  • This is both text-wall and not really addressing what philosophers say which is what the OP asks – virmaior Oct 3 '15 at 9:34
  • 1
    I am a philosopher. What is text wall? – samdoj Oct 5 '15 at 4:24
  • I think he means that you wrote too much of unnecessary text (that did not pertain to the question) and still not addressed the point. – IsThatTrue May 25 '16 at 21:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.