Motivations for good works: believers vs. non-believers


I’m not sure where to post this, and I’m not even sure I know the best way to ask this question, but here goes.

When my daughter married an atheist (divorced now–long story irrelevant to this question), I began to wonder what motivates non-believers to do “good works ,” “works of charity,” “things beneficial to society,” etc.

As a believer, my primary motivation (I guess) is because Jesus asks us to do them, and due to the “faith without works is dead” (and similar) scriptures.

I’ve tried looking at it from the perspective of a non-believer, and can see two possible reasons:

  1. Selfish motivations, such as getting along with other people, wanting the good feelings from doing the acts, fitting in with society, approval of others, or “getting ahead” in jobs, etc.
  2. Evolutionary reasons (not that I believe this, but just considering the possibility), such as helping our species thrive physically/emotionally.

The more I’ve thought about it, though, I have to admit that my motivations are often in line with what I have posited as selfish reasons for the non-believer. (And I also must admit that I don’t do anywhere near as much as I should, so there are many non-believers who do far more good works than I do.)

So, what motivates most non-believers?


As a non-believer, what motivates me is helping other people.


Yes, but why do you want to help them?

A key point that I failed to include in my original post (I’m at work, and distracted):
If I’m a non-believer, and there’s no afterlife reward/punishment, I’m thinking that I need to get all I can out of this life. If I helped someone else, there would probably need to be something in it for me.

However, I have to admit that my own motivation is selfish, as well, but it shouldn’t be. I’m hoping to please my Creator/Savior and go to Heaven. The fact that I’m doing it in order to gain something when I die probably decreases its value from a Christian perspective. I should be motivated out of love for others as a way of loving God.


Altruism is an interesting topic. Do we ever really do anything for anyone without thought for ourselves, without reward?

The extreme case is where someone gives up their life for another on purpose, such as in the case of Jesus or St Kolbe for example. However, with the latter, if we look closely we might detect that even the promise of merit in heaven qualifies as reward. I can’t be sure that this was the case with St Kolbe of course and I apologise if the idea annoys anyone.

So looking at altruism will throw up exactly the kinds of questions you are looking to answer very well. No, for believer or non believer I would argue that reward is always involved so true altruistic behaviour is not possible.

Does it matter? If the result is that say, the needs of the many are met by the sacrifice of the few then that may be seen as commendable. In that way the motivation of the few is of little concern perhaps?

You say, “ I should…” if you satisfy the need to do something you are satisfying the desire, to rid yourself of dissonance, for you, then you feel a warm glow of satisfaction, reward.


Because I don’t believe people should have to live and suffer, for whatever reason. If I can help, I will do.

I don’t think that’s true for the vast majority of non-believers.


They were made by God , and God has not deserted them .


Where on EARTH do people get this from? I mean, seriously, do you only help people because Jesus told you to? If that is so, then you are not the person I would turn to for help.

If a child is in need, do you really, honestly, truthfully think that an atheist runs a quick benefit/reward analysis to determine if she is going to help?

Put another way, if you woke up tomorrow and had lost your faith, would you think: ‘Hey, there’s an upside here - I don’t have to do any good deeds!’

I mean, give me a break why don’t you. People do good because they are good people.


I’m really not trying to run down atheists. Look at my comments regarding my own selfish motivations if you need proof of that.

My current understanding leans towards the comment Rob2 made. God’s love (and thus our concern for others) is in all of us, whether or not we acknowledge it.

But I’m seriously asking…
If we are nothing more than highly-evolved animals, isn’t our main motivation something like a survival instinct? On the flip side, though (maybe), I have seen videos of apes grooming each other, and I have seen one animal species helping another animal species it sees as needy (for example, a dog nursing or cuddling up to a pig). While the ape-grooming might be seen as a survival behavior, I don’t see any way that helping another species could qualify as a survival instinct.

Don’t get mad, Bradskii, I’m looking for a serious discussion here. I don’t think there is a CONSCIOUS benefit risk/reward analysis, but perhaps a sub-conscious, or instinctual one. If it’s sub-conscious or instinctual, though, I guess we can’t truthfully say one way or the other why we’re doing it.

You seem to be mocking me about doing something only because Jesus told me to. That’s fair game, as I’ve already mentioned before. But what about your scenario? Why go help the child? Who says it’s GOOD to do so? There are various societal norms around the world and throughout history. Some would say (at least for SOME children), that helping the child is only good if it benefits the “collective,” or similar reasons.


You have things completely backward. We don’t do things because they are good. What we do, instinctively, is what we describe as being good.

And note the word ‘instinctively’ (as you said). Just because we are genetically inclined to help others (whatever your beliefs or lack of them) doesn’t make it less good. And if you think that survival of the fittest is all that needs to be considered then you do need this discussion.

Read up on evolutionary psychology and ‘The Prisoner’s Dilema’ to start.


The mistake is in the word “selfish”. It makes everything sound as if that was evil.

Yes, good actions are good for one who performs them. That’s why they are good.

Look at “Summa Theologica”, Second part of Second part ( Notice that “Of Selfishness” is not there.

The bad thing is choosing an apparent good instead of a real good.

It can be asked in many ways. It can become a question “How do non-believers themselves explain what motivated their good actions?”, it can become a question “What are the real motivations of good actions of non-believers?”. Perhaps we could also distinguish proximate and remote motivations etc.

One answer good for many cases is that the non-believers still have consciences that prompt them to do good actions. Just as anyone else. Yes, non-believers can’t give a good explanation of consciences, but that’s their problem.

Haven’t thought this one through, have you? :slight_smile:

How did you manage to put so many flaws in such a short “explanation”? :slight_smile:

First, it does not fit the facts. “Bad people” still perform good actions once in a while, “good people” still perform good actions once in a while. Everyone performs some good actions and some bad actions.

Second, it does not fit your position stated in the same post. After all, if “People do good because they are good people.”, and some Christians perform good actions motivated by command of Jesus, then they are good people. And you commit an evil in condemning them. :slight_smile:

Third, it does not explain much. Unless you have a better definition of “Good people” than “People who do good”, your “explanation” becomes: “People do good because they are people who do good.”. :slight_smile:


From the posts by athesits/agnositcs above, I would assume they do good because they believe it is part of their human nature to desire to do good. (Is that a fair summary?)

From the Christian (particularly Catholic) perspective, it’s because every man is created by God and has a built-in (so to speak) desire for God…to know, love, and serve Him, even if they do not believe in Him. This would be a supernatural, as opposed to simply natural, desire to do good for others out of love for them, because of who they are (fellow creatures of God).


I think we are born with natural compassion. Studies in newborn nurseries have shown that if one baby cries, they all start crying.
Of course, compassion has to be cultivated over time.
The Church teaches that there are natural virtues , such as temperance and justice, that can be attained without supernatural means.

So yeah, I’m a believer, but I don’t find it strange to find virtue in non-believers.

(Sociopaths are a separate case. They seem to be born without any conscience and I suspect that may be a brain dysfunction)


I am a believer and I would have to admit that this is not my motivation for doing good works. In the same way that it was said here…

I don’t run a quick “What Would Jesus Do” analysis to determine if this is a good work or not. I just do it.

I think that is a good thing because looking back on my life I can see many, many selfless motives that have cost me dearly, were I to really think them through I might have been more selfish. It’s a good think that I just do it without thinking about it.

In my opinion, they might not agree, the same thing that motivates me. God’s law is written on my heart. It’s there just waiting to do the next right thing. Now the way we were brought up, our social interactions, our parents, family, friends, religion, day to day experiences all effect the way we utilize God’s law in our hearts. I believe it is the outcome of these circumstances that determines if we have selfish motives or selfless motives.

I think this is the real question you are asking here. Why has a good majority of society become motivated to be less selfish and more giving?

I would argue because of the influence of the Catholic Church, but that is a discussion for another thread.

God Bless


Tell me if you would rather trust someone who was helping you because they had been told to or someone who was helping you because they wanted to.

Do you split hairs for a living or is it just a hobby?

Good people generally do good things. Bad people generally do bad things. That’s why we usually describe them as ‘good people’ and ’ bad people’.

And people do good because it is inate in their character. It comes from the requirements of building a society. From the individual to the group to the tribe, larger groups survive better than smaller groups.

People are born either generous or mean spirited or anywhere in between. Same with being peace loving or agressive, hero or coward. All our characteristics are fixed to a certain extent at birth. As has been said, upbringing will affect those characteristics to a degree. sometimes substantially. But back when it mattered, at the group level, those who got on best with others survived longer than those who didn’t (pause while you get a few more strands to split).

Those characteristics that led to sociability are the ones that prevail. So generally people have empathy for others and will help someone in trouble. Automatically. It is inbuilt. They are characteristics that haver got us to where we are now. Nothwithstanding the darker side of our nature which pulls in the opposite direction and causes societies to collapse.

Now if you want to call that innate characteristic God-given, then be my guest. If you want to call an evolutionary trait, designed by God, then be my guest.

Bearing in mind the prisoners dilema which I mentioned earlier, then if you think what I have described is wrong, then please let me know why and where.


Motivation for good work is genetic.


This sentence is not without merit, but what if I were in need, and the other person suddenly decided they no longer “wanted to” help any more?
From my perspective, I just need the help, regardless the motivation.
And sometimes, the sense of duty keeps me going after I’ve run out of “want to”.


An excellent link. A good precis of the information to which I linked earlier (which is itself a short primer for what is a very large subject matter indeed).

And again, this does not exclude God. If this innate characteristic is in everyone, then if someone wants to claim that God put it there, then go for it. But if you want to deny the evidence for its existence, then feel free to bring some evidence against it to the table.


That ‘sense of duty’ is the motivation. Diving in to a rough sea to rescue a child is not something that you would want to do. Whether you do or not is a delicate balance between self preservation and that innate need to help. Also coming into play are fear, pride, cowardice, shame, guilt and probably a few other emotions as well, including a sense of duty (which probably in itself covers all the previous emotions).

To give an exampe that happened just an hour ago. My wife and I were walking back to our hotel and we passed a young woman selling tissues to get some money to help feed the family. She had three or four poorly dressed children around her kicking an empty plastic bottle about to amuse themselves (we’re in the Middle East at the moment). My wife was carrying some food she was looking forward to eating when we got back to our room. Then one of the smallest kids ran over and pointed to the food. She just handed it over.

Out of those emotions I mentioned above, when the kid stood in front of her, she probably felt a fear of looking uncaring if she had done nothing. Almost cetainly she would have felt guilt and some shame if she’d just thought of herself and no doubt she felt a certain pride in doing the right thing.

Now all this happened in an instant. There is very often no time to think ‘What would Jesus want me to do’. You act (and here’s the word again) instinctively. So doing good came naturally to her. Which is not to say she has never done bad things. A coin always has two sides. But when we do bad things we have generally worked it through to justify it to ourselves. Or we are acting in a heightened emotional state when the reptillian part of the brain takes precedence.


That’s a lovely story . Thanks for sharing :slightly_smiling_face:


I’d suggest that tribalism is genetic. Biology doesn’t know what “good” is.

It’s approximately the reason I was approached by a desperate, hungry, lone kitten when it saw that I wasn’t going to attack it. It was trying to team build because it was in an insecure state.

That same kitten, upon finding a group of cats or a home that provides its base needs for substance and security, would be much less likely to grant me trust - It doesn’t particularly need to at that point.

That’s a far cry from the concept of “good”, imo

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