If you’re doing what you’re doing for reward and punishment, it’s not really morality.
I’ve seen this trope more than once in Atheist circles, that traditional religious morality is somehow less moral for being reward-oriented. Atheists, it is contended, are more moral for doing the right thing – not for reward’s sake, but just because it’s right.
Ok then, what makes something right? What’s the difference between a good husband and a jerk? Why would someone choose the option that atheists and Christians would probably agree is the “right” one?
Presumably the difference is (if we want to chalk it up to morality) that the good husband finds his wife’s happiness a reward and her displeasure a punishment. This is the very definition of love. The other is more or less indifferent to her happiness. And if he finds her displeasure a reward, he’s an abuser. So even if we assume a substantial agreement between Christians and atheists on what is right among people and take that as given, the question of morality in action isn’t, “are you doing it for a reward”; it’s, “what reward are you doing it for?”
Mainstream Christianity, no doubt, somewhat schizophrenically alternates between reward morality and categorical imperative “because God said so” morality. But as C.S. Lewis noted in The Weight of Glory, “If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.” To use the ideal of “right for right’s sake” as a gotcha, contrasted with a reward motivation, doesn’t really say anything except that atheists must be rather aimless. If their goal is – not to redefine reward, but to be unmotivated by reward at all – then there can be no purposeful action at all.
Obviously, though, atheists act. They take pleasure in things. They even genuinely care for other people. So if, given enough explanation, Penn’s ideas of morality turn out to be reward-based after all, doesn’t that soundbite misrepresent what atheism is? As pleasing as I’m sure it is to fluster the unsuspecting Christian with it, surely after a bit of thought it reflects worse on the atheist who repeats it. And if the cavil merely means to insinuate that the reward of heaven is unconnected to the action by which it was merited – well, that shows only that the speaker misunderstands the nature of the blessed hope.