While a Christian, I can think of specific instances when I performed acts of charity or helpfulness that I was very disinclined to do, but did anyway in the end because I realized “that’s what God would want me to do” (yeah, WWJD), and would not have done them apart from that. Things like cleaning up after a large group meeting, or setting up chairs, etc, before. Helping a bed-ridden acquaintance with their yard work. All of these are instances of good done that followed directly from religious belief.I have some questions, though.
I have also been on the receiving end of good done specifically for reasons that stem from religious belief. Including twice having been donated cars from church members, at two different times when we were without transportation or means to obtain it.
Some of these things I continue to do on occasion, but for different reasons. So obviously one can’t make the argument (though many do anyway) that only theists will go out of their way to do good. There are other things, though, that I’m less apt to do these days, partly because I now have a more balanced view of my own needs versus other peoples’ needs—and I doubt anyone that I’m not really close to will be giving me a car any time soon.
The idea that these things were "what god wanted you to do" sounds like an evaluation, a determination about what was good, rather than a motivation. In what sense were you motivated to do what god wanted you to do? How does that differ from being motivated to do what you think is good?
Is it just a coincidence that you believed that god wanted you to do things that any rational, caring person would do because they truly valued the well-being of other people? If you had believed that god wanted you to rape, murder, pillage and burn, would you have done it equally cheerfully? To what extent were you — as I described in my original essay — simply assigning to your religious belief that which you already evaluated to be good?
If you believed that these actions were "what god wanted you to do", now that you don't believe in any god, why do you still consider them to be good? Likewise, if you are indeed less inclined to do these things now, in what sense do you now actually believe them to be good?
To what extent were you motivated by more prosaic issues, such as wanting to be a liked and respected member of a social community... and, perhaps, aware of the likelihood of actually receiving a couple of free cars? Again, to what extent were you hiding your self-interested motivation (Christian propaganda notwithstanding, there's nothing wrong with moderate and reasonable self-interest) with "religious" motivation?
The less dramatic examples are, of course, irrelevant. "Some of these things I continue to do on occasion." Indeed. You don't need be religious to be helpful or charitable, and, in fact, I've seen no evidence at all that religious people are more than ordinarily polite and helpful. If you subtract the vast sums of money given to transparently obvious parasites and con artists, I don't think religious people are any more charitable than anyone else. You need only to care about your fellow human beings, and realize that the more helpfulness you put into a society, the more helpful that society will be, and the more you can expect helpfulness in return when needed.
I also have to question whether the more dramatic example — the donation of the cars — is really all that good. (Or, perhaps, how dramatic it really was; I wouldn't be all that impressed if some rich guy donated the beater after the the dad bought a new Lexus and pushed the Camry down to his son.)
There's a persistent concept in Western civilization that an action is truly good only if it involves considerable personal sacrifice, or, if we take Kant at his word, only if it involves no personal benefit whatsoever. This idea is pure and utter bullshit. It's pure slave morality. I'd rather have Bill Gates give me $10,000 than some homeless person give me his last $10.
The rational, caring person knows that charity, when done correctly, helps both the recipient and the donor. The donor receives not only emotional satisfaction, which is important and valuable in itself, but also material benefits in the form of a calmer, more cooperative society: desperate people are dangerous.