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In the New Testament book of Hebrews, there’s an exhortation to believers reminding them to show hospitality to their guests:

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

—Hebrews 13:2

The implication is interesting: that Christians should be hospitable to visitors, not simply because they are fellow human beings who need food and shelter, but because some might be angels in disguise who would, presumably, grant blessings to any person who showed them kindness. (The ancient Greeks had similar legends about gods in disguise visiting human beings and richly rewarding the humble souls who treated them well.)

When religious proselytizers claim that only their faith provides a solid basis for morality, the usual atheist retort is that their religion doesn’t actually teach people to be good – it only coerces them to commit certain deeds out of a desire for reward or a fear of punishment. In other words, it keeps people in line with appeals to greed and fear, rather than encouraging goodness for its own sake. And in this verse, the Bible confirms that this is the model of behavior it’s trying to inculcate.

The conservative columnist Cal Thomas offers another example of this belief that’s truly incredible in its bluntness:

If results are what conservative evangelicals want… they already have a model. It is contained in the life and commands of Jesus of Nazareth. Suppose millions of conservative evangelicals engaged in an old and proven type of radical behavior. Suppose they followed the admonition of Jesus to ‘love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and care for widows and orphans,’ not as ends, as so many liberals do by using government, but as a means of demonstrating God’s love for the whole person in order that people might seek Him?

For Cal Thomas, doing good deeds is just a means to an end. He urges Christian evangelicals to do good for the needy and the downtrodden, not because they are human beings who need help and giving it is the right thing to do – that’s the ideology of “liberals” – but because those poor, miserable people might be induced to convert to Christianity if Christians are the ones who help them out. (This passage speaks volumes about why conservative Christians try to slash government-run social programs while boosting handouts to churches that have free rein to proselytize.)

Presumably, Thomas and others like him would view their effort as wasted if the recipient of their aid chooses not to convert, and Christians who follow the admonition in Hebrews would be disappointed if their guests turned out not to be angels. That’s the difference between them and us, as Robert Ingersoll wrote in an essay explaining the meaning of secularism:

Secularism means food and fireside, roof and raiment, reasonable work and reasonable leisure, the cultivation of the tastes, the acquisition of knowledge, the enjoyment of the arts, and it promises for the human race comfort, independence, intelligence, and above all liberty. It means the abolition of sectarian feuds, of theological hatreds. It means the cultivation of friendship and intellectual hospitality. It means the living for ourselves and each other; for the present instead of the past, for this world rather than for another.

Ingersoll’s focus on this world and the good things it has to offer shows what our moral motivation should be. As atheists and humanists, we welcome guests because we want to bring ease and comfort to our fellow human beings, not because we secretly hope to flatter angels. We put fantasies aside in favor of what is real and meaningful, and live for this world, rather than dreaming of one to come.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...