Can atheists do "good?"

Hello! I have another question about philosophy and Church teaching. The question is this: In official Church teaching, can atheists do good? I personally believe that they can, because I believe that every human being has a conscience which was given to them by God, and while their “goodness” may be imperfect since they do not know Christ, it’s certainly very possible for atheists to be good people, even better than some people who claim to be Christian.

Does this align with Church teaching?


Everybody is capable of natural virtue and good works.


Yes, it does.


One that has not been baptized (or in a state of mortal sin) can do morally good actions, however those actions are not salvific.
Edited June 15, 2020: added parenthetical portion.


Atheists can be saved through the Baptism of Desire.

The OP didn’t ask about salvation, he simply asked if atheists can “do good”.

Of course they can. Atheists are fully capable of loving their neighbor, living by a strong ethical code, doing good deeds and doing things that are positive for their community and for the world. Many atheists live what we would consider “good lives” and are what we would regard as “good people”, while many who profess belief in God live “bad lives” and commit a lot of bad acts.


As a Catholic, we can unite our day in union with Christ for the salvation of the world. Our ordinary duties then take on a supernatural power to impact the world for good.

Although an atheist can ‘do good’, the supernatural component may not be there. Certainly the Holy Spirit can be hidden but guiding the person to chose good when tempted. In scripture, when the little boy offers Christ his few loaves and fish, Christ feeds the 5 thousand! This is how the ordinary becomes supernatural and amazing. Being plugged into God for your day is better than not even knowing there’s a plug!


Fr John Hardon defines “merit” in his “Catholic Dictionary” (the work has the nihil obstat and imprimatur):

MERIT. Divine reward for the practice of virtue. It is Catholic doctrine that by his or her good works a person in the state of grace really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God. “The reward given for good works is not won by reason of actions which precede grace, but grace, which is unmerited, precedes actions in order that they may be performed meritoriously” (II Council of Orange, Denzinger 388).

Certain conditions must be present to make supernatural merit possible. The meritorious work must be morally good, that is, in accordance with the moral law in its object, intent, and circumstances. It must be done freely, without any external coercion or internal necessity. It must be supernatural, that is, aroused and accompanied by actual grace, and proceeding from a supernatural motive. The person must be a wayfarer, here on earth, since no one can merit after death.

Strictly speaking only a person in the state of grace can merit, as defined by the Church (Denzinger 1576, 1582).

Merit depends on the free ordinance of God to reward with everlasting happiness the good works performed by his grace. On account of the infinite distance between Creator and creature, a human being alone cannot make God his or her debtor, if God does not do so by his own free ordinance. That God has made such an ordinance is clear from his frequent promises, e.g., the Beatitudes and the prediction of the Last Judgment.

The object of supernatural merit is an increase of sanctifying grace, eternal life (if the person dies in divine friendship), and an increase of heavenly glory. (Etym. Latin merces, hire, pay, reward.)

The “Catholic Encyclopedia” discusses the “conditions of merit” at article 3 here:

From Fr Spirago in his “The Catechism Explained”:

Sinners are rewarded on this earth for the little good that they have done. The just on the other hand are for the most part punished in this life for the evil they have done. Our Lord says, “Woe to you that are rich; for you have your consolation,” i.e., your reward for the good you have done is given you in this world ( Luke vi. 24 ).

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All these posts about how atheists don’t benefit from their good works suggests that atheists might actually have more pure motives than believers.

A believer might do a good work with at least a partial self-interested motive of benefiting himself/ earning merit or salvation from doing it. An atheist might do the same good work with no expectation of getting any benefit except maybe the good feeling that comes from helping another. Therefore, the atheist might actually be the more selfless here.


One of my closest friends is an Atheist and he has better morals and stronger integrity than most of my catholic and Christian friends!

I think he is too smart for his own good to see the truth of Christianity but as a person, he is a very kind, humble, and extremely intelligent person who will do plenty of good and already has in this world.

I suspect a conversion in his life is possible, but perhaps 20 years down the road. He has my prayers of course and my friendship.


It is not a given that they will be, and that is not an action which is salvific in and of itself. It is an indication of openness to God, which may allow God’s grace to be imparted to the atheist before death.

Yes, atheists can do good, and many of them are humanistically-speaking good people. Sadly, there’s nothing in scripture or tradition that indicates that that’s enough to save them. We can certainly hope that God will look kindly on their desire to do good as they understand it and that that will be enough, but that would be outside the normative means of salvation, and so it cannot be relied upon.

I don’t think there’s any Church teaching on issues that are simply common sense. Of course they can do good. For whatever reason, I’ve repeatedly seen the light of Christ shine through people who don’t profess to His teachings.


There is NO “means of salvation” that “can be relied upon” in the sense of “do this and you’ll reliably be saved”, apart from God’s grace, which God is free to give to whoever he likes and is not bound by Church rules or theology.

We can do things to increase our chances of being saved, and those things also please God so we should really be doing them out of love for him, not in order to get saved. But salvation is never a sure thing.


Sorry Tis, but I have to disagree. If I go to confession when I sin, try hard not to sin, pray regularly, attend mass and receive communion, then I can have pretty good assurance of my salvation. That’s the normal means of salvation put forward by the Church. All of this is, of course, grace from God, and only God’s grace can save us, but that’s the whole reason we have these sacraments, they are physical actions which guarantee us a participation in God’s grace.

I agree, salvation is never assured up until we (hopefully) hear those wonderful words “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” However, by living in accordance with God’s laws and partaking of the sacraments of the Church, we can have a relatively solid assurance that we will be saved, which is something simply “doing good” cannot provide.

I know a lot of Catholics think like you do, but I find that type of thinking to be way off. It naturally leads to some idea that those who check off all the proper boxes in the rulebook can relax and feel certain of salvation, and others…well, it’s not looking good for them. Bit of a Pharisaical view.

When I do things like pray, follow the commandments, do good works and receive Communion, I’m generally thinking of one of the following reasons:

  1. it’s what God wants and I am trying to follow his will and make him happy;

  2. It helps me in my life right now, like to get through my day;

  3. It helps another in some way, which is again what God wants us to do.

I don’t think in terms of my salvation. I just trust God for that, same way as I trust him to let me skip purgatory.

I would feel foolish and Jansenist if I did what I do because I felt I needed to “earn” salvation or “rely upon” this stuff to be saved. If you spend every day trying to live in God’s love then you don’t think about salvation.


I guess that’s just now how I see it. I’m not trying to check off boxes, and I am far from certain of my salvation. My ledger has a lot of red in it. However, what gives me hope is knowing that Jesus promised salvation to those who repent and persist until the end. That’s the whole reason we have confession as a sacrament instead of the nebulous “take my sins to Jesus,” that you see in Protestant churches. God wants us to know that we’re forgiven and brought back into a state of sanctifying grace. It’s not a checkbox, it’s a literal God-send.

I try to view it this way as well. However, I also have to consider it in the context of my salvation. If I don’t pray, I won’t be saved. I can’t grow in holiness if I’m not reaching out to God and asking Him to come deeper into my life.

I’m not being a Jasenist. I’m not saying that I have to do this stuff to be saved in the sense that I’m earning my salvation by engaging in these sacraments. I’m saying that God put in place specific methods of undoing the damage we’ve done to our relationship with Him. He desires us to receive His grace, but that requires action on our part. He has only outlined specific actions that we know impart that grace. (Baptism, confession, reception of the Eucharist, etc.) While it’s entirely possible (and I would hope, likely,) that He imparts grace in other ways unknown to us, we cannot assume that to be true since it hasn’t been revealed.

Ahh, to clarify, I know that doing good by itself won’t save someone’s soul if they don’t have faith in God. I’m not asking about anything related to salvation, but rather something along the lines of “God probably prefers a moral atheist to an immoral one, right?”

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This is the ideal means of behavior according to Judaism as well. I say “ideal” because there are too many Jews who also behave according to the checklist notion that you mentioned.

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Everyone has a soul, which many would call their “conscience”. Those with a good will, who exhibit charity towards their neighbor are being obedient to God, even if they declare themselves an atheist, or of a different religion, and they will be rewarded by Him.

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How do you know that “doing good by itself won’t save a person’s soul” without faith? How can ANYONE know that?

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