What motivates an atheist to be a good person?

Many Christians will claim that atheists simply do not have an ultimate motivation for being good. What motivates an atheist to be a good and kind person? Why should we act morally? J.P. Moreland believes atheists can and in fact do good moral deeds, “But what I’m arguing,” he says, “is, What would be the point? Why should I do these things if they are not satisfying to me or if they are not in my interests? [Does God Exist: The Great Debate (Thomas Nelson, 1990), pp. 118].

C. Stephen Layman argues in a similar fashion. He points out that the main difference between secular and religious moral views are that “the only goods available from a secular perspective are earthly goods,” whereas a religious perspective “recognizes these earthly goods as good, but it insists that there are non-earthly or transcendent goods.” Secular ethics, he says, must pay for the individual here on earth. “By way of contrast with the secular view, it is not difficult to see how morality might pay if there is a God of the Christian type.” [The Shape of the Good: Christian Reflections on the Foundations of Ethics (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1991)].

Before I tackle this issue let's first consider the motivation that a Christian has. If the Christian's motivation for being good is to avoid hell, then Kai Nielsen claims this “is pure prudence masquerading as morality…that is hardly a good moral reason for doing anything.” [Kai Nielsen (with J.P. Moreland) Does God Exist: The Great Debate (Thomas Nelson, 1990), pp. 107-108]. But what if a Christian wants to do wrong? A Christian who desires to do wrong always has an excuse for doing whatever wrong or evil he or she wants to do. He’ll simply say, “God understands, he’ll forgive me.” This can be the justification for doing anything he wants to do. I know, I’ve done this, and so has every Christian who has ever knowingly gone against their conscience. Whatever motivation a Christian may have to be good will just fly out the window if he wants to do something against what he believes to be right. How else can so many Christians maintain love affairs if this isn’t what they do? The very fact that many of these affairs last for months and years just tells us how long they can act contrary to the Bible and still feel God understands, and that God forgives.

C. Stephen Layman is correct though, that with the secular view, moral choices must pay for the individual here on earth, so there is no ultimate motivation to do good. But it doesn’t follow from the lack of an ultimate motivation to be a good person that the atheist doesn’t have a sufficient motivational grounding for being a good person. There are plenty of motives here on earth to be a good person, and it starts with an over-all life plan. The late Louis P. Pojman argued that it is reasonable to choose and to act upon an over-all Rawlsian “life plan,” even though there will be many times where I may have to act against my own immediate or short-term self-interest in keeping with that plan. “To have the benefits of the moral life—-friendship, mutual love, inner peace, moral pride or satisfaction, and freedom from moral guilt—-one has to have a certain kind of reliable character. All in all, these benefits are eminently worth having. Indeed, life without them may not be worth living.” “Character counts,” Pojman wrote, and “habits harness us to predictable behavior. Once we obtain the kind of character necessary for the moral life--once we become virtuous--we will not be able to turn morality on and off like a faucet.” There is nothing "paradoxical in doing something not in one’s interest, for while the individual moral act may occasionally conflict with one’s self-interest, the entire life plan in which the act is embedded and from which it flows is not against the individual’s self-interest.” [Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong 5th ed. (p. 188). For a lengthy defense of secular morality see Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God (Pemberton Books, 1973), and Richard Carrier, Sense & Goodness Without God (2005), pp. 293-348].

The bottom line here is that, “If it is highly implausible to believe in God or immortality, then a secular ethic becomes attractive.…There is something to be said for a person who can hold steadily on a course without telling himself or herself fairy tales. Moral integrity, fraternity, and love of humankind are worth subscribing to without a thought to whether or not such virtues will be rewarded in heaven.” [Kai Nielsen (with J.P. Moreland) Does God Exist: The Great Debate (Thomas Nelson, 1990), pp. 108-109].