Religion as Moral Motivation

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 23, 2009 in Ethics,General Atheism


Sometimes, believers argue that whether or not God exists, it is good for people to “get religion” because it makes them live better lives. Religion motivates people toward goodness better than atheism does, they say.

This raises a two questions I want to explore:

  1. Can religious people lead better lives?
  2. Is it okay for people to believe things not because they are true, but because such beliefs are beneficial?

Can religious people lead better lives?

I will not quote statistics. I’m not looking for what the average Christian or atheist does to help his fellow man. Let’s think about this theoretically for a moment.

It wouldn’t surprise me if religious people are more moral. If someone really believes there is a sky bully who will torture him forever if he is immoral, but give him crowns of gold or 72 virgins if he is good, it would not surprise me if such a person acted more morally than someone who thinks humanity has no such all-seeing babysitter.

mark_van_steenwykIn a comment I left on a post I contributed to a Christian webzine, I wrote about my Christian friend Mark, who has given up a great deal of personal happiness and freedom to feed and serve the urban poor of Minneapolis because he sees it as his cosmic mission from Jesus. I said:

I think it’s likely that in general Mark is a more “moral” person than I am… He “loses some moral points” due to (what I claim to be) his irrationality and lack of care with truth… but this is more than made up for by Mark’s consistent dedication to servanthood, charity, kindness, and love. I spend a lot of time advocating rationality and truth, which I think is a very moral cause, but in comparison to Mark I have not sacrificed nearly as much of my wealth and comfort and time to serve the needs of others. Nor have I taken so many risks to do so. Possibly, I never will.

Let me put this clearly. I think there are many religious people who are more morally dedicated and motivated than I am because of their religious beliefs. That is, I don’t think their goodness is just a product of their biology and childhood values. Sometimes, one’s religious beliefs provides the motivation for stunning service and sacrifice.

Atheists will be quick to point out that religion just as often (or more often, probably) motivates people to do repressive or aggressive harm, and I agree. But we all know there are some “saints” out there who are so wonderful precisely because of their religious faith. Mother Teresa is a bad example (she probably made the world much worse, not better), and Gandhi seemed more motivated by secular concerns than religious ones, but one might give the examples of Shane Claiborne or Dorothy Day or, well, my friend Mark.

But then, there are amazing displays of kindness and sacrifice and charity among atheists, too. The two greatest philanthropists of all time – Warren Buffet and Bill Gates – are atheists. The two men who (quite separately) saved more lives than any other people in history – Norman Borlaug and Maurice Hilleman – were non-religious.1  (How did they do it? Science, duh.) I’ve met many atheists who have given up everything to feed the poor or save the environment or assist refugees of war. (In particular, moral vegans and environmentalists tend to be atheists, in my experience.) And of course there are lots of secular charities.

So it seems religion and superstition are not needed to develop highly moral persons. But would we be a more moral race if our world was dominated by, say, Jainism – instead of by Christianity, Islam, and the non-religious? Perhaps.

Maybe we should invent a religion that, when tested, develops the most moral people possible, and then teach it to all our children, worldwide – even though it’s not true.

That brings us to my second question…

Is it okay to believe things that are beneficial, even if they’re not true?

I think about this when I think of the prospect of deconverting my good Christian friend Mark. Should I even try? If I deconverted him, maybe he would become less motivated to do the good work he is doing! Perhaps his life of charity depends on his faith that it is what Jesus wants.

Of course, our question here asks, “Is it morally permissible…” – and that requires a theory of morality to answer properly. But what do you think? Is it okay to believe things that are beneficial, even if they’re not true?

  1. Or at least, these men never talked about religion, and certainly never indicated that religion motivated their life-saving work. []

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael September 23, 2009 at 4:32 am

I think because it’s so hard to actually predict counterfactuals (what would happen if person X became non-religious) then it shouldn’t be a bad rule of thumb to let truth be the deciding factor.

Let’s say someone does a lot of charity work “for Jesus”. As an atheist, I believe this largely stems from the person’s character (ie. not being a sociopath) and especially if they’ve been doing it for years is probably a part of them.

Perhaps if they deconverted they might not work as hard. On the other hand, perhaps as an atheist they will be more motivated to seek more efficient reality-based ways of helping someone (ie. instead of the time they might spent praying for the poor, spending that time doing something productive), and will be less likely to fall for other harmful beliefs etc etc.

So there are a lot of ifs and buts and generally we don’t know the outcome of someone’s deconversion — but I think the character of someone who cares for others combined with a mindset that aims to seek truth is the best outcome: this is how a cynical “impure” market manipulator like Gates might well end up doing more good than virtually anyone this century depending on what comes out of his fund.


Haukur September 23, 2009 at 5:10 am

“Is it okay to believe things that are beneficial, even if they’re not true?”

Let’s say that if you read this article there is a substantial chance that you will conclude that there are genetic racial differences in cognitive ability. Is it moral for you to go and read the article?


Jeff H September 23, 2009 at 5:27 am

I tend to think that a good, kind person will find reasons to help others, no matter what their religious beliefs. I’m not holding myself up as a shining example or anything, but when I was a Christian, I felt it was my responsibility to help others who needed it. Now that I am not one, I still feel it’s my responsibility to help others – not because God told me to, but because they are human just like I am. Even though I attributed my kindness to my religion, it ended up that it was simply a justification for something I would have probably done anyway.

So while it’s definitely tough to say what would happen if someone never had religion, or what would happen if someone lost their religion, the rule of thumb that I use is that “good people are good people, and bad people are bad people, regardless of their religion.” I think it tends to fit in most cases.


Kip September 23, 2009 at 8:12 am

Great post, Luke. This is the biggest problem I had with DU when I first read about it: I didn’t think it put enough emphasis on having true beliefs. In other words, it didn’t answer your question: “Is it okay to believe things that are beneficial, even if they’re not true?”

It’s a question I’ve struggled with after my deconversion from Christianity.

One answer to that would be: generally, true beliefs will more likely result in having more and stronger desires fulfilled, so having a love of truth is a good desire to have.

Clearly there are exceptions, though… which is what makes this question so difficult for me to answer.


IntelligentDasein September 23, 2009 at 12:43 pm

I enjoyed this. I really detest the way non-believers are stereotyped. I have atheist friends that donate many hours to charity and others that have served in the military. They did these without any false promises of reward, which in my opinion, make them even nobler acts.


Andy Walters September 23, 2009 at 1:29 pm


You write “It wouldn’t surprise me if religious people are more moral. If someone really believes there is a sky bully who will torture him forever if he is immoral, but give him crowns of gold or 72 virgins if he is good, it would not surprise me if such a person acted more morally than someone who thinks humanity has no such all-seeing babysitter.”

It sounds to me like you’re saying that since there may be more compelling normative reasons to behave self-sacrificially as a theist rather than a nontheist, it wouldn’t surprise you that theists behave better.

But, to my mind, I do not see that the theist has any more access to unoverridable reasons to behave self-sacrificially than does the nontheist. Any number of nontheistic moral foundations can provide ultimately compelling, demanding reasons to behave self-sacrifically. A maximizing utilitarianism, for example, could easily provide an unoverridable directive to live a self-sacrificial life when paired with a theory of practical reason that gives ethical reasons more weight than prudential reasons. It could be argued that the maximizing utilitarian must behave self-sacrificially because it is in the interests of everyone, and since ethical reasons outweigh prudential reasons, this reason is unoverridable. But even on a theory of practical reason which subjects ethical to prudential reasons, it can still be argued that there is an unoverridable reason to behave self-sacrificially: it may ultimately be in one’s self-interest. Perhaps, as Jesus pointed out, to gain one’s life, one must lose it.

So, the notion that theists might behave better since they have access to more compelling reasons to behave self-sacrificially than nontheists seems invalid to me since theists in fact do not enjoy any exclusive access to unoverridable reasons to behave self-sacrifically.


Larry Spencer September 23, 2009 at 4:06 pm

I do think it’s OK to believe what isn’t true, as long as you don’t teach it to others. Athletes do this all the time when they get themselves hyped up for a contest with a superior opponent. Actors do it to give a better performance. Why not allow the imagination to serve the purpose of doing good?


Laughing Boy September 23, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Is it okay to believe things that are beneficial, even if they’re not true?

You seem to be asking if it’s morally permissible to believe what is untrue, but that makes no sense. Nobody believes what they consider to be untrue or else they wouldn’t believe it. Are you asking, “Is it OK for me to allow another person to believe something that is not true if the belief is beneficial for him?”

Thinking philosophically you might ask what is the greatest good: truth, happiness (your own), or love (seeking the happiness of others)? How you proceed depends on your answer.

Taking a more pragmatic tack you might ask yourself what business it is of yours what other people believe. For example, how is Mark’s belief adversely affecting you, others, or society general that you should intervene?


Kip September 23, 2009 at 7:12 pm

Larry Spencer: Athletes do this all the time when they get themselves hyped up for a contest with a superior opponent.

That would not normally be believing something that was not true. It is the case, in fact, that the athlete might beat his opponent. It is also the case that nobody knows the future, so “believing” something about what is going to happen in the future, is not the same thing as “believing” something to be presently true, when it is in fact, not.


K-Bo September 23, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Luke, I have argued that yes, it is good to believe something that isn’t true if it leads to a good outcome. That’s my logical back-stop for why I believe in God – well even if I’m wrong, it’s still better for me to believe it, so why fight it? Then there are others that hold “truth” above everything, who would say, the only thing that matters is the truth, so if God does not exist, I want to know the truth (and who cares if I am and/or society is worse off for it). Some would argue the opposite of your premise – that it’s better for the world to have no religions, but I’m certainly not in that camp. I think religion motivates people to be good (at least it is a force for good within me).

Like Vox said to you, that’s why he’s a Christian, because of the interior transformation within him from “sinner” to “saved.” His religion and belief in Jesus Christ helped him turn his life around, to be more good, to enhance his well-being. So that transformation is really more important than whether or not Jesus really rose from the dead, for instance. Then multiply the individual effects across interpersonal relationships. As you noted, religion is a strong motivating force for people to be good to each other. How does atheism help anyone be good to another? After all, to me, God is love, love is good, and not believing in God is not believing in love, which is not good for society.

I’m very interested in non-religious morality. I just started reading Alonzo Fyfe’s work, which gets at questions I’ve wondered about for a while. So maybe there is a non-religious basis for morality. I just happen to think that it would arrive at the same morality taught by all religions!


K-Bo September 23, 2009 at 9:17 pm

And what do you mean, someone is immoral if they don’t believe “the truth”? Whose truth? Nobody chooses to believe the “not truth,” do they? People who believe different things just see “the truth” differently, as far as I can tell.


K-Bo September 23, 2009 at 9:30 pm

Sorry, but I have lots of questions and disagreements. Mother Teresa made the world *worse* off??? Someone who helped care for the most destitute untouchables, who eased the suffering of everyone she met, who gave of herself unconditionally, was a bad person? Under what possible mindset can it be stated that Mother Teresa made the world worse? It would have been better for the thousands of people she and her charitable organization fed to starve to death, or suffer without anyone loving them and caring for their illness? That’s just sick to say that it would be better for all her charity to never have been done – not to mention the positive inspiration she was to so many, to live simply and humbly, to love and care for others.


Terri R September 23, 2009 at 10:32 pm

I am agnostic. Meaning I dont know the truth, you dont know the truth, noone knows the truth…is it a stretch to belive…for sure but NOONE knows. I think about these topics that you bring to the table all of the time and I have had these same conversations with people. What I came to was: Does it really matter where someones good intentions come from as long as they are good intentions? No. Yes, I am on your side and I honor the fact that I am a good person out of will and not because a book or “God” tells me to be. However, we could arguee this all day with any religious person and at the end of the day it doesnt matter. I do not like people trying to convert me and I would never try and deconvert anyone either. People have a strong psychological tie with their beliefs and their need or non need for their beliefs. None of the beliefs are wrong or bad as long as everyone is working toward the same goal of peace and harmony with the other people that we have to live with on this earth. It comes down to the basic principles that everyone wants to be happy and most people want to feel that they have a purpose on this earth so there are a 1000 different ways individuals go about obtaining these principles and goals. Again, non of which are wrong because noone really knows anything and does it really matter anyway. Yes, it would be fantastic if people did good because of their own moral character. On the other hand that moral character was built from somewhere, someone, and some life experience. So again, does it really matter if another persons moral character was built upon religion? I dont think so. It shouldnt. I know many people who claim religion and belief who I definately would not consider moral and the same for agnostic/atheist. It depends on a lot more then just religion or non religion for a person to grow with or grow into a good moral character. Thank the people you grew up with and your life experiences for that…they have all taught us something important and that is what really matters.


Beelzebub September 24, 2009 at 12:19 am

It wouldn’t surprise me if religious people are more moral. If someone really believes there is a sky bully who will torture him forever if he is immoral, but give him crowns of gold or 72 virgins if he is good, it would not surprise me if such a person acted more morally than someone who thinks humanity has no such all-seeing babysitter.

That’s no doubt true; in fact I can almost guarantee it. However, the key word is “act.” A person who acts morally on threat of punishment is not truly moral, they are only “acting” moral. OR, perhaps they are truly moral, but because there is the threat of punishment, a cynical outsider will always conclude they are merely acting with kindness because a threat of punishment hangs over them. Either way, a deceitful motivation, or even the perception of deceit, destroys and fouls the meaning of any “act” undertaken by it.

We’ve all had that sinking feeling while shopping or transacting a business exchange when we realize the person we’re dealing with is actually treating us nice only because they think we’re about to give them money. How did that feel? — and is that how you want to base your entire existence?


mikespeir September 24, 2009 at 2:23 am


What if I were to suggest that after long practice being “good” one actually might become good at being good? Silly? No, I don’t think so. Religion might in fact force people to act contrary to their inclinations, but in my experience they sometimes become what they were not. They find it feels good to be good and the being good becomes more genuine over time. No, it’s not inevitable. It may not even happen all that much. I think it does happen, though.

I just don’t think religion is required to make it happen.


lukeprog September 24, 2009 at 6:17 am
Penneyworth September 24, 2009 at 7:39 am

According to my limited experience, it seems clear that there is a directly proportional relationship between the set of qualities that most agree to be virtues (kindness, generosity, rationality, etc) and the degree to which a person disconnects with whatever dogmas were baked into them during childhood. I’m sure there are counter examples, but personally I have never met someone who began to reject religion and became less kind, rational, etc. I’ve always seen the opposite. Your friend Mark seems to be a great example of a sort of midway point on this function. I like the vision of his organization. The goal seems to be to help the poor in financially independent ways. Contrast this with most churches’ mission trips where funding is supposed to be extracted from church members for the missionaries to go attempt to save muslims in Indonesea from post-death torture (or something like that). Also notice how Mark’s website refers to christianity as a “movement” started by Jesus to promote peace and kindness. It wouldn’t surprise me if he doesn’t think that Muslim teenagers that die from bomb blasts who didn’t follow the Jesus “movement” actually get sucked into hell. Imagine if he went a bit further in his rejection of dogma and just concentrtated on building financially sustainable projects that battle poverty with jesus out of the equation all together? What would he lose?

“our question here asks, ‘Is it morally permissible…’ – and that requires a theory of morality to answer properly.”

Allow me to take this opportunity to again argue that moral nihilism is preferable to any “theory of morality.” Again, any such theory of morality suffers from the Euthyphro dilemma just as much as any form of theism. For example, desirism either calculates “morally correct” actions that we can then compare against the real moral truth (in which case we have access to real moral truth and desirism is unnecessary), or we use desirism as the definition of morality. Just imagine how much clearer the discussion of ethics would be if we stopped using meaningless terms like morality and only used meaningful terms like kindness, altruism, etc. Instead of the hopelessly ambiguous question “is it morally permissable to …?”, we could look at issues in terms of questions like “would it be an act of kindness to …?”

It seems to me that there are several baked-in fantasies that the truth seeker struggles to overcome. You’ve got religion, the state, and objective morality; all of which seem to only impede their supposed purposes when considering one’s past belief in them.

Srsly Luke, if you don’t provide a direct link to your n00d pix, I’ll drive a bus full of gifted 9-year-olds into a volcano. Think of all the desires you’ll be thwarting if you don’t obey me. =D


lukeprog September 24, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Penneyworth: Srsly Luke, if you don’t provide a direct link to your n00d pix, I’ll drive a bus full of gifted 9-year-olds into a volcano. Think of all the desires you’ll be thwarting if you don’t obey me. =D

Sorry to disappoint, but… you can’t really see much of anything.


Beelzebub September 24, 2009 at 4:54 pm

You have an excellent point, mikespeir, and maybe I did take a pretty hard-line attitude in that comment. A few weeks ago I had dinner at Delancey St., where excons manage, prepare and serve food. At the back of your mind you can never quite get rid of the thought that they might rather put a fork in your back than at the side of your plate. However, even the semblance of doing good is better than doing bad, and you have to give people the benefit of the doubt.


K-Bo September 24, 2009 at 9:45 pm

Penney, here’s a very sad story about a boy who rejected his religion, then went on a rampage and killed many at his former church and youth group. Very sad. What influenced him after he gave up on God?

Lukeprog, thanks for the links to Mother Teresa. I wasn’t aware of some of the criticisms, that some people aren’t happy with the way her charitable organization spent their money, and that the quality of care the organization provided wasn’t as great as some detractors would have it. I still think she was a good person, and the world is better off with her in it. I think the source of much of the criticism is one Christopher Hitchens, a man who seems to hate religion, to hate God, and to hate anyone who claims to be acting according to God’s will.

Check out a rebuttal to all the Mother Teresa hatred of your ideologue Hitchens:


mikespeir September 25, 2009 at 2:29 am

‘The expletive-laced letter addressed “To God” begins, “What have I done so wrong? What is wrong with me anyways? Am I really such a bad person?’

That’s rather telling, wouldn’t you say, K-Bo? I wonder what might have been if he hadn’t been inculcated with the notion that he was a worthless sinner since before he knew how to think for himself. And where are you getting the idea that he had “rejected his religion”? Every word in that letter tells me he still believed it. It was addressed to a God he clearly believed in. At any rate it seems God wasn’t going to do for him what he needed. That was the source of his rage: “I want to be free from this lifelong pain. Why didn’t any changes occur or any love or help come when I accepted you as Lord and Savior?”

Do you think all of us who once believed are seething pots about to boil over? Do you think many of us are? I find myself vacant of any such inclination.

I’ll tell you what I think. I think this Michael Murray guy simply couldn’t *not* believe. And yet what he believed wasn’t working out for him. His faith wasn’t paying off like he had been promised. Unlike many of us here, though, he couldn’t abandon that faith. He couldn’t simply face up the reality that it was founded on nothing. So, what did he do? He struck out angrily at a God he still very much believed in, who seemed, to Murray anyway, to be the source of his troubles–or, at least, not the promised alleviation of those troubles. The atheist, on the contrary, doesn’t believe in a God to blame.


Steve September 25, 2009 at 4:03 am

@K-Bo “As you noted, religion is a strong motivating force for people to be good to each other”

Is that then the reason we have had need for so many faith fueled devisions via dominations etc.Because worldwide religion has been such a strong motivating force for people to be good to each other.

Doesnt really make much sense to me.

And yes its great that faiths are involved in charity.But many non faithful quietly donate to these faith charities also.

When considering the benefits verses detriment do we factor in just how helpful faith beliefs might or might not have been to provide stability and a caring attitude in familys and communities overall,to try to understand if these faith beliefs have assisted humans ability to actually afford to give more.For instance what effects have religious shunnings, excommunications and divisions etc,had on a broken families combined ability to give.

What sort of role model has been set in this planet for humans to learn to follow and care about each other unreservedly,when vastly influentual faith beliefs have longtime maybe seemed to try to influence peoples need to join a certain group when caring.


Lee A. P. September 25, 2009 at 7:19 am

One of the many reason I do not buy into Christianity is the overwhelming LACK of transformation I see in believers. It seems that they like to talk as if they are transformed but I do not see much of it in their lives. And even they will respond “Well I am still a sinner but the difference is that I am forgiven”.

There are exceptions to the rule of course. But then there are “transformation” examples in virtually every religion and even in the secular world.

Most Christians will acknowledge this, but they generally say “Well their transformation could not possibly be as genuine or as intense as mine” or “yeah but theirs is demonic trickery”.


Penneyworth September 25, 2009 at 9:21 am

D00d, that’s awesome! I zoomed in enough to spot three pixels which I am certain represent a testicle.

Jeez, I feel so complete now. I’m not really sure what else life has to offer me at this point.


Lee A. P. September 25, 2009 at 10:46 am

Luke, tell me that you then banged the camera chick on that rock. And then tell me that you have that video.


K-Bo September 25, 2009 at 10:59 am

mikespier, I think Michael Murray was a very confused individual. Part of him wanted to believe in God, and the rest of him gave up on God, then raged and killed out of the emotion of rejection or some other internal struggle. Would he have killed had he maintained his faith? I doubt it. You’re claiming he still had his faith. I disagree. There was a clear change. Then you may argue he wouldn’t have been so f*d up if he never was exposed to religion. It’s hard to say, but I could agree with that. Then again, it might have been something else in his life beyond religion/family/youth group that caused him to feel rejected, and to lash out in rage. But for him, it was the rejection of God and religion that started his dive off the cliff.

It’s very sad that he didn’t feel accepted or loved by God, by his parents, or anybody really. Steve, you have a good point that religion has been used as an excuse not to be nice to “others” throughout history, within society but also within families and neighbors as well. But if it wasn’t religion, it could’ve been because of race or ethnicity or social class that people conceptualize having enemies. People evolved in a tribal setting, and it’s still in our brains to fight the “others,” in whatever way “they” may be different than “us.” Religion is just one way. It isn’t necessarily the only cause for strife and conflict between groups. Certainly Jesus said to “love your enemies” so any true Christian does not hate anybody, and wants good things to happen to all people. Good Christians do not judge themselves; they leave it up to God to judge.


Penneyworth September 25, 2009 at 11:44 am

Shame on you Lee. How could you make such paltry comments. This is a serious blog.


mikespeir September 25, 2009 at 12:28 pm

K-Bo: I disagree.

You, of course, may, but I think my interpretation fits the facts at least as well, and probably better. He clearly still believed in God. How you can dispute that, I can’t imagine. This man was anything but an atheist. Either way, his case is very different from someone who has forsaken his former beliefs.

Now, you hit the nail on the head with much of your last paragraph. It is desperately sad. He did what he did because he felt forsaken by the people around him *and by God*, the God he still believed in. So, if he hadn’t believed in God, would it have changed things? We can never be sure, but I have my suspicions, suspicions based on the facts of the case as revealed in that article.


JohnC December 4, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Fear of hell and promise of rewards is an empty morality. I would argue that atheist helping others with no promise of reward has higher morality than someone doing it because they believe that will get a “high five” in heaven from Jesus or Buddha or Moses or whoever is the determined to be the official “high five” giver. Critiquing this type of religious morality is warranted, and probably appreciated by some theists. This being said, it is wrong to group all moral deeds by theists as a consequence of a belief in heaven and hell. A correct motivation would entail reason, but not the reason of fear of getting burned or hope of heaven. For example motivation to spend a lifetime of service is often not a fear of hell or hope of heaven. For many, believing in God and what they perceive to be worthy gives them this motivation. For example, Christian’s belief in Grace. If a Christian has grace (something that is not dependent on their moral superiority but in spite of their moral depravity) and the significance of grace, they are aware of the insignificance in worldly pleasures. In this case, they are also released from being motivated by a fear of hell or hope of heaven sense they are promised salvation. In the case of Mark, his motivation is not rewards in heaven for what he has given up on earth, but rather that he has placed is effort in something that has more meaning. There is more meaning helping others than getting a better car. Christians can realize the insignificance of this world’s pleasures and be motivated to concentrate on services that they believe more meaningful without being motivated by a fear of hell or in hope to get into heaven.


Leave a Comment