On Sept. 17, the Philippine Daily Inquirer ran a story about a rookie cop in Manila who found and returned to its rightful owner a lost wallet containing a large amount of cash despite, as the police officer acknowledged, the temptation to keep it for himself. Given the usually deserved reputation for corruption which police and other officials are known for and with the overall high crime rate here in the Philippines, it was refreshing to hear about this display of honesty.
Despite the high crime rate in this country, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church is extremely influential (which is not as paradoxical is it may seem at first glance*). So it was not surprising that the reason stated by the officer for his good deed was fear of God's punishment if he kept the money. So as honorable as his actions were, they truly driven by morality? In the conventional sense of the word, most people would say yes.
As an atheist, I would disagree. The reason is that in my opinion true morality has no intrinsic tie with religion and exists independently from it. Good behavior that is based on the fear of or the desire to score points with God or even on a belief in karma is a really a shallow, self-serving ulterior motive for acting decently. Without fear as a motivating factor, theists would have no reason to inhibit the beast within.
This turns on its head the concept of atheists as being more likely to indulge in criminal behavior than theists. I would like to think that I too would have returned the wallet but for an entirely different reason from that of the police officer. I believe that virtue is its own reward. Performing such a deed is simply the ethical thing to do for its own sake and in the interest of a just and progressive society.
(*See myFeb.28, 2009 post,Corruption And Religion: Not Such Strange Bedfellows)