Thursday, October 15, 2009
Are Atheists or Believers Better People?
An interesting question that has caused much debate over the centuries.
On one hand, perhaps religious people have a greater incentive to do good. They believe that some God will one day judge them on their works. If they believe they’ll go to hell for sinning, then they’ll do their best not to sin. By contrast, if they believe they’ll get into heaven for doing good, they’ll do their best to do good.
There is no such incentive for the atheist. They don’t think they’ll ever be judged for what they do on earth. That doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be bad. Everybody (or at least most people) have some type of conscience. But peoples’ conscience is regularly insufficient to keep them from committing crimes, or doing things which hurt others.
So when someone is confronted with a situation where something they do—such as spreading a rumor, or sabotaging someone else at work would advance them, what will they do? The atheist might get more utility from doing the sabotage and reaping the personal benefits. But for the religious person, utility might be on the side of doing good—if we are willing to include the afterlife as part of a utility calculation.
But that raises the question of why religious people are doing good. If they’re just doing good to avoid hell and get into heaven, couldn’t that be described as selfish? The atheist on the other hand who does good might be doing it completely out of altruism (or of course to impress friends or family, or have community service for a college application). That notwithstanding, perhaps if an atheist and a religious believer do an equal amount of good, the atheist is the better person because he expects no cosmic reward.
But then, perhaps peoples’ faith inspires them to really try and help others. Men like Martin Luther King and Deitrich Boenhoffer gave selflessly of themselves to try and create a better, more just society. I doubt they did so just to try and avoid hell; their faith clearly motivated them to help. Who are the atheist equivalents of Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King? That is to say, are there people who did so much good because they were inspired by their atheism?