In a debate with Paul Kurtz, William Lane Craig contrasted theism and atheism with respect to self-sacrifice. He claims that on the theistic view,
“God holds all persons morally accountable for their actions. Evil and wrong will be punished; righteousness will be vindicated. Despite the inequalities of this life, in the end the scales of God’s justice will be balanced. We can even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice that run contrary to our self-interest, knowing that such acts are not empty and ultimately meaningless gestures.”
On the atheistic worldview, on the other hand, acts of self-sacrifice are “just stupid”:
“A firefighter rushing into a burning building to rescue people in danger… does nothing more praiseworthy, morally speaking, than an ant that sacrifices itself for the sake of the ant heap… The absence of moral accountability from the philosophy of atheism thus makes an ethic of compassion and self-sacrifice a hollow abstraction.”
In fact, this is exactly backwards. As philosopher Don Hubin pointed out in an excellent analysis of Craig’s position*, theism as Craig sees it actually makes it impossible for someone to perform a morally praiseworthy act of self-sacrifice. After all, anyone doing a morally praiseworthy act that incurs a loss to them in this life will be rewarded in the next, and thus will not actually have sacrificed anything.
What is particularly interesting, however, is what this implies about the motivation for doing good on Craig’s view. As Hubin points out, even a theist who believes as Craig does can perform altruistic acts. That is, such a theist can do something for the sake of others. Provided they perform the act, not in order to benefit themselves, but from selfless motives, then they behave altruistically. (And this is possible even if they believe they eventually will benefit.) But note that exactly the same selfless motives must be present whenever someone behaves altruistically without the belief that they will eventually benefit. In other words, an atheist who intentionally performs a self-sacrificial act does so from precisely the same motives as a theist who does so for altruistic reasons. And yet this is what Craig describes as “just stupid.”
The obvious conclusion is that according to Craig’s position, the only reason for “loving one’s neighbor as oneself” is because of what’s in it for us! Craig says that on the atheistic view, we “should resist the sociobiological pressures to… self-destructive activity and choose instead to act in our own self-interest.” But in fact, his argument implies that this is what one ought to do whether or not there is a God.
Needless to say, Craig’s entirely egoistic ethics would probably come as a surprise to most of his Christians followers!
* Donald C. Hubin, “Empty and Ultimately Meaningless Gestures?”, in Garcia and King, Is Goodness without God Good Enough?