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].


Grano1 said...

Nielsen says "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.” True. But where does a materialist get the ideas of integrity, fraternity, and love of humankind in the first place? They can't be demonstrated to be "good" by either logical or empirical verification. Move the argument back a step. Where do we even get our notion of the "good," let alone the motivation to do it? If materialism is true, then all perceived "goods" are arbitrary. Hitler ultimately is no different than Mother Teresa.

One may, as Nielsen and other materialists do, choose certain courses of action that they perceive as good for various reasons. But there exists no "good" as good in and of itself. It becomes a matter of preferences.

Anonymous said...

But there exists no "good" as good in and of itself. It becomes a matter of preferences.

There is no such thing as an intrinsic good from my perspective. Consequences are always factored in when evaluating an action. Actions which produce pain and suffering are bad. Actions which produce long term happiness are good.

Why long term? Because we will have to live here for 70 + years or so, and we simply cannot turn morality on and off like a faucett.

Grano1 said...

So if Stalin thought that the 5-year plans and the forced famines were good in the long run that makes them moral?

Your approach makes morality completely arbitrary. This is what Dostoevsky meant when he said that if there is no God, everything is permitted. Nietzsche said the same thing as a basis for his might-makes-right view of things. And Ayn Rand uses it as a basis for self-seeking behavior. So it seems that different conclusions can be drawn as to what is moral depending on the individual's presuppositions.

Anonymous said...

Why do YOU think Stalin acted immorally, Grano1? I think we may actually agree as to why his behavior was evil, unless you think God can command anything he wants to command for no other reason but that he commanded it.

This is my point

Grano1 said...

No, I don't believe that. God's standards originate in his nature, not his will. He is inherently good in his essence, and what he wills is good by definition. Because he is completely true to his nature (and thus completely free) he, by nature, and in total freedom, wills only the good.

In once sense you can say that Stalin did evil by breaking God's law. But in another, you can say that the evil was in Stalin's choosing acts that were in opposition to his God-given nature. As it is put in N.T. Greek, he "missed the mark" (as we all do).

Michael said...

An important factual note: The goal of the Christian is not to merely avoid hell. This is a truncated understanding of Christian ethics and a caricature of Christian motivation for doing good. Mr. Loftus, do you really think--from all your study in Christian history and theology--that avoiding hell is the primary aim of Christian ethics?

Scott said...

Everyone who calls themselves an atheist should check out The Atheist Test at http://ecclesia.org/truth/atheist.html immediately! Seriously, read it and still have the nerve to say, "I know everything there is to know in the universe and I can say for sure there is definitely no God!" without looking like a fool or an unacknowledged agnostic.

Anonymous said...

Don't waste your time on that atheist test unless you want to see many good illustrations of false arguments.

But returning to the topic at hand, warm and fuzzy comments on morality ignore the root of the issue: morality is a natural byproduct of our evolution as a species. That is, without our morality we could not have formed the complex societies that have allowed us to thrive. Natural selection has been at work for millenia balancing our selfish and selfless instincts.

This may be unsatisfying, but the sense of absolute right and wrong we have is simply wired in our brains. Religions may codify some of these principles in their literature, along with a lot of extraneous crap designed to control people, but man is still the ultimate source of morality.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jon!

My friend, who is a Catholic, merely believes in it because he wants a reward in Heaven for putting up with life.

I would much rather have someone do the right thing out of human decency and respect than "God will reward me for doing this," which then gets into a lot of mud with religious falsifications of right and wrong (recent terrorism, theocratic tyranny (redundant), bigorty/hatred, domestic violence, polygamy, etc).

Matt said...

"There are plenty of motives here on earth to be a good person, and it starts with an over-all life plan."

Fear, love of praise, laziness, self delusion and finally habit are the primary motives here on earth.

But those motives aren't worthy to be the foundations of character. What we get is a foundation that holds under day to day circumstances but fails when the stakes are at their highest and the damage is maximized. Charles Keating and Ken Lay are two prime examples.

It isn't a matter of turning morality on and off like a fawcett, it is a matter of continually, subconsciously on the lookout for that opportunity of a lifetime.

..."friendship, mutual love, inner peace, moral pride or satisfaction, and freedom from moral guilt"....

Those like Lay and Keating have friends and they love others (I presume). Inner peace, and moral guilt, when they are just feelings, can be manipulated as desired with a little practice.

And what happens to moral pride when we truly realize that our whole moral value system is just a vehicle for our own self interest? What moral pride is there in doing what is in our own self interest?


EM said...

1). My simple answer for why have morality without a god? -It makes living with our fellow humans a better experience. 2). Doesn't reducing everything to materialism and survival take all the joy out of life? -The fact that all the countless organisms, from the simple to complex, are fighting to exist & that their existence continues via offspring shows how important life is. Looking at it another way; I know what religious people might mean when they say "god" is all around them. The struggle to live by all creatures, with or without "intelligence" in my opinion is more beautiful and true than any religion.

AJCSIV said...

Morality: Is subjective and defined by the individual. This is true by definition, the alternative is so called objective morality which is properly called Ethics. Even if you say it comes from God then morality is subjective to God.

Stalin did evil: First please define what is good and what is evil. Where did you get this idea of good and evil? Is it universally acknowledged by all people and all creatures capable of having a moral code. Now ask yourself: Which is the greater good? That 100 people live? Or that 100 die so that 1000 can live and have a better life? We would not have modern civilisation, for example, were it not for war. Is war therefore good? Or is it that the ends result is what is the greater 'good'?

Right. Now replace the good and evil with beneficial vs detrimental. Play with that for a while. It's readily defineable and much easier to work as it is measurable, as opposed to conceptual notions of 'good' and 'evil'.

Going back to Stalin. Removing Gooda and Evil does not make all things permissable. Good and Evil are {theoretically} based upon a conceived notion of what is beneficial or detrimental. Now, Hitler for example, did a LOT of benefit/good for Germany before the invasion of Poland. Then he did a lot of detrimental/evil things. We can condemn him for the detriment, and we can praise him for the benefit he did. Now I can't think of any benefit Stalin actually did and like Hitler, it is quite readily arguable that the detriment of these men quite clearly outweighs the benefit. Thus, what the detrimental things they did are not permitable.

Wait, so why do we need morality? Oh, right, it's psychologically included in our brain patterning as a natural evolution to assist our individual/group survival. Or at least that's the scientific argument and it's quite fitting with all the rest of science which, as logic dictates, gives it a much better option than other alternatives such as 'all the evils in the world were put in a big box that was opened by Pandora'

TarHeel32Blue said...

Whoa. Wow. Hold on.

Fear of Hell is not the only reason for morality (and by the way, being moral doesn't save you) according to Christians.

When you are born again, it may very well be because you want to avoid Hell. A person without Christ in their life only cares about themselves... their selfish to their own will, their own desires.

But as you GROW as a Christian, you realize even more of the sacrifice Christ made for you on the cross and you then are willing to serve your life with Him as Lord... as in living "morally correct." And you do your best to do so.

Jesus is not a fire-insurance policy. And having the attitude of "I can do whatever because Jesus will save me" is NOT the right attitude. So if that's what you believed, John, I highly doubt you ever were saved in the first place.

I'll be praying for you.

zifnab said...

As I'm reading through this blog, its starting to hurt. Everything I believe in is being torn apart with illogical argumentation. So I mine as well argue back :D.

Anyways, if I didn't think that Christianity was true, what would stop me from doing horrible things to people around me? I mean, for some reason, if I knew that what I did here on earth while I'm here doesn't matter, then I would probably break every law I can think of. My TV went out the beginning of this year ,so I had to purchase a new one. Without Christianity, I probably would have tried to steal one. I mean, its just something that doesn't matter because I will just be worm food, right? Wrong.

I'll be praying for you....

Jim said...

"Without Christianity, I probably would have tried to steal one." ~zifnab

I'm sorry that you feel that way. What frightens me is the possibility that you might lose your faith and actually "break every law that [you] can think of." Thankfully I live in a country of laws to help protect me from the likes of you.

Please pray for yourself...

Pops said...

I recently had this discussion with a person of strong Christian faith. My response was that he was a good person because he was seeking a reward after death while I tried to be a good person simply because it is the right thing to do.

Anonymous said...

A big problem I see with traditional Christian ethics is the idea that good is determined by God's choice. So homosexuality is evil because God said so, charity is good also because God said so. The link between good and beneficial is really just coincidence. If God said good was putting forks in electrical sockets then being moral would only bring pain. I see that in a few post here that without God then who knows what is good? I would argue that morality is derived not from the choice of God but from the fundamental nature of our universe and how it produces benefit for it's inhabitants. So it is with reason that one finds out what is good. So if Grano1's concept of God's goodness is correct then it is reason that determines God's goodness or badness.
I would also say that good as a moral attribute, involves good for other people, only a psychopath would believe that being "good" means being good to your self only. So one doesn't just need to factor in the next 70 years but the whole future of humanity. Now if there is no after life it could be said that worrying about future generations is a waste, but if you thought it was a waste then obviously you have no love for humanity and would be a very emotionally crippled imitation of a human being.

Unknown said...

What a delightful place for an agnostic like myself to visit. I suppose I might be an atheist in my mind, but logically I cannot disprove the existance of God since I don't know of any consistant definition. A reasonable explanation of religion, history and morals can be easily contrived based upon the polulation equation and an appreciation of the evolution of societies (morals) and individuals (conscience as a genetic trait). As we moved from small family groups to clans and tribes, tribal religions like Judism evolved to provide a legal code to foster cooperation in the tribe,and dietary rules to maximize net population growth rates. Frequent death sentences also helped with genetic selection and a built in "conscience". Prejudice is the natural consquence of being "chosen peoples" of your tribal religion and enabled dehumanization so violations of cooperative morals were not violations at all since your victims of conquest were sub-human. It's all quite clear in the Old Testament. Of more value to the emerging norm of imperialism (ie, Constantine and Holy Roman Empire) were the modifications offered by the somewhat altered morals presented by Jesus (the Eusebius concept, not the historical Jesus). For an Empire, the genocide approach of the OT was superceeded by the Jesus doctrine as these conquered folks made good worker bees and soldiers to support a very materisitic Priesthood. The tribal religions morphed into imperial religions will eventually be superceeded by a new world order of secular morals based upon consideration not only of survivabilty of empires but the entire planet. At last the Logos ( not word) of Gospel John will be realized and understood. ( First conceived by Heraclitus around 500 BC)Over population , pollution and weapons of mass destruction are making warfare a less and less desirable approach and birth control seems to be the only "morally" decent solution. Genetically defective individuals, (those without conscience) will have to be dealt with using the legal system. Your conscience is genetically inherited. Morals based upon tribal or imperial religions are defective and outdated and will lead to the demise of homo-sapians and many other species if not discarded. Just read the news. I am quite encouraged to see the Web has made Evangelical Atheism viable. Continue on brave souls. With true conscience and logic, you may save your Christian ( or Muslim or Jewish) family and friends and, ultimately, humanity from a dismal history that can only extrapolate to extinction.