Do theists have more motivation to be moral?

Hello. I’m a young agnostic and I’m wondering: Since atheists & agnostics don’t think that Good will eventually
overcome totally Evil, would they be less motivated to be moral than theists?

Posted: March 4th 2010


First, a definitional point…

A moral decision is one that is made based on a belief about right and wrong, not about consequences. For example, my choice to drive 100 MPH on deserted roads is not a moral choice (I think that such a thing can be done without undue risk to others), but a choice that I make to avoid the consequences of breaking the law. It’s a self-interest thing.

On the other hand, my choice not to cheat on my wife is a moral one – I said that I wouldn’t do it. There might be financial downsides if I got caught, but I’m confident I could do it without getting caught. That choice that I make is a moral one.

In most faiths, there are consequences to going against the rules – you don’t go to heaven, you end up in hell, etc. That makes god the ultimate policeman, and – if hell existed – who wouldn’t want to avoid going there. So, to the extent that theists are influenced by the rules from their church, they are not acting morally – just in self-interest.

Now, onto the question.

Christianity teaches a) that we are all sinners and the b) the way we get into heaven is to beg for forgiveness. You can be a murderer and still get into heaven if you BELIEVE.

Atheists don’t have that loophole.

Posted: March 9th 2010

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

Paula Kirby www

Not at all.

If you believe in a celestial being who will eventually put everything right and redress all wrongs, then there is less incentive to act well towards other people (which is all morality is, really) because God will fix it in the end anyway.

If you don’t believe that, and if you face up to the reality that this is the only life any of us have and that there is NO celestial being who will undo the wrongs we have done and console people who have suffered at our hands, then the responsibility rests four square with us to do the best WE can, doesn’t it, because there’s no one to come along afterwards and clear up any mess we’ve made.

Sure, in the atheist understanding, there is no threat of eternal punishment, but that’s a completely immoral concept anyway (take a look at answers to other questions to see why) and if your main reason for being moral is to avoid punishment, then that’s not morality, it’s fear and cravenness.

Atheists aren’t moral out of fear: they don’t have to be bullied and threatened into acting morally towards others – it is entirely consistent with the recognition that all of us only have this one life, and that this makes everything about this life more important and more special; it makes every moment of this life, and every decision taken in it, count in a way that it cannot if we are somehow going to survive for eternity (again, take a look at other answers to other questions to see why). Why should we set out to harm others, when this is their only life too?

Finally, as Logicel has pointed out, the simple fact is that people’s moral promptings can be tested scientifically, and have been, and show that the vast majority of people – whether male, female, black, white, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, pagan, any other religion or no religion whatsoever – DO take the 'moral’ option even when no one would ever find out if they didn’t. The universality of this across all cultures and beliefs points to a strong evolutionary factor in our impulse to be good. No gods required. If you’d like to find out more about this, check out this video: http://bit.ly/4Fie4h

Posted: March 9th 2010

See all questions answered by Paula Kirby


Evolution has given us a mix of about one to five in the 'morality lottery.’ That is, the majority of people are moral regardless of their particular religious brand or lack of one. The 'selfish’ gene leads to the altruistic society in other words. The one out of five that do not bother with morality do so because such behavior can give an edge to survival. However, if the proportion is higher, that is, more immoral people than moral, society will grind to a halt.

Christopher Hitchens is fond of saying that of course his ancestral people, the Jews, were moral before the Ten Commandments supposedly were given to them, that they knew right from wrong, and that it is insulting to imply that they didn’t. Religious writings just capture the evolving moral zeitgeist, they don’t create it.

Posted: March 8th 2010

See all questions answered by logicel


Is your atheism a problem in your religious family or school?
Talk about it at the atheist nexus forum