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?


  1. To be blunt, I don't think this is such an interesting question; in reality the terms used in the question render it absent of meaning.

    First off, recognize that you're not addressing whether atheists or "believers" are better people. Your argument is based on the concept of God's judgment, heaven and hells, which is a construct of the Christian religion. Islam gets this concept from Christianity as well, whereas Judaism generally does not share this concept, nor do any of the Eastern religions.

    Furthermore, even within Christianity, "good works" as the key to Heaven is not a universal doctrine: for some it's about faith, regardless of how you act, for others predestination means nothing you do on Earth will change your future status.

    In addition, comparing "atheists" to "believers" is flawed in how general both labels are. You can't really discuss believers in any intelligible way without actually meaning a certain type of religious belief, because it's such a broad topic. "Theist" means nothing regarding an individual's belief system, nor does "atheist." There are subsets to atheism, there are secular humanists and there are nihilists.

    Also, while someone might be motivated to be a "good Christian," that could translate into racism, sexism, or homophobia. The Bible provides justification for many evils, if that's what you're looking for.

    Moving beyond the ranking of which is “better,” which I consider counterproductive, I am willing to provide an example that’s personally important to me of how atheists can be inspired to do good works, because I understand often religious people have trouble comprehending that. The suffrage movement was motivated by non-believers, such as freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In this case, these activists were pushing against the established Christian doctrine of female subservience, reiterating the issue of what it means to be a "good Christian."

    Of course, there were religious supporter of the women's rights movement, who interpreted their Christian faith differently. Thus, it's not a matter of belief versus non-belief, but the interaction between the individual and their beliefs.

    I choose this example because it particularly resonates with me as a feminist. My personal motivations as an atheist are drawn from the concept that there is no future reward, so we are all responsible for making the world as good a place as it can be for everyone. That's the focus on "this life" which is key to many strains of atheism. Hence, I personally find atheism deeply inspiring.

    Christianity's emphasis on rewards for the meek and humble has caused plenty of damage. Martin Luther King may have been driven by his interpretation of his Christian faith, but that's not intrinsic to Christianity. It's the way he learned his morals and his own leanings.

    People are people, and the belief in God doesn't entail anything other than the belief in God. It doesn't entail morality, or Heaven, or miracles. And even in religions that do believe in Heaven and punishment for bad deeds, it's possible to go around murdering "infidels" (think Crusades) and believe that's the Christian thing to do.

    Neither atheists nor believers on lump are better people. Some people do more to improve the world. Most people try their best from within their beliefs, religious and otherwise.

  2. To be honest, there is some argument as to the overall effect of religion on morality. I did a bit of research and found over 100 studies about religiosity of sexual offenders. I wrote about it here. The result was actually quite different than I expected. I went in thinking that the reason that we hear about so many deeply religious people committing sex crimes is because we find it news worthy, so those make it into the news more often. I expected the results to be fairly even. In fact, it wasn't even at all. Religious people, especially devoutly religious people, are more likely to commit sex crimes. It also seems to be attributable to the "moral code" religious people purport to adhere to.

    Needless to say, between that and the disproportionate amount of religious people in prisons, I would have to say that atheism may be the way to go when it comes to morality.