Motivations for good works: believers vs. non-believers


The heart of the gospel is love. The more we love, the more we want to do for “the least of these”, Matt 25:31-46, and for others. The more we love, the more we fulfill the Greatest Commandments, and the greater is our justice, that which makes us right in the eyes of God.

Anyway, love is the proper motivation and the Church actually teaches, quoting St John of the Cross, that, "At the evening of life we shall be judged on our love "


Biologically, Christians/Muslims/atheists/etc are motivated through empathy and because it makes us feel magnanimous.

There’s a lot of evidence to support that atheists - on average - are far less involved in charity work than Christians.

It’s very difficult to escape from the idea of doing something for truly non-selfish reasons. I would consider such an idea part of the deposit of faith (like with free will) more than something you can really prove. You can always ascribe a motivation to a pragmatic/selfish reason.

However, doing something in order to avoid punishment or to gain Heaven is still considered to be ‘good’, albeit it is an inferior good. The reason is that a person trying to avoid punishment or gain Heaven is showing the beginning of humility. They acknowledge God as well as the idea of their own sinfulness. Overtime, those motives can be perfected through the grace of God.


Very true (for me, at least).


This is akin to what a priest recently told me, when I was lamenting what I believe is my lack of feeling compassion/love for others. He said, “Love is an act, not a feeling.” (I hope I’m quoting him correctly.)


In light of the previous comments, I wonder if I might rephrase my original question.

Assuming we might be born “genetically disposed” either towards love/compassion, or towards selfishness (in various degrees, perhaps), what “pushes” or “guides” an atheist to do something for someone else?

Or even more specifically, what “pushes” or “guides” them to do something when it is in apparent opposition to their own self-interest or self-preservation?

And taking it to an even more specific level, would an atheist willingly give his life to save another, and if so, why?


Atheists have given their lives for other people, usually because they believe in a cause greater than themselves, like the betterment of humanity or something. In fact it is a very attractive idea to die knowing that you made a positive impact on someone else. There are atheists in all walks of life, doing a lot of the same things everyone else does. Love drives people to selfless acts, and you dont need to believe in God to believe in love.


Complex questions rarely have simple answers. Certainly, our genetic makeup - that we inherited from our parents - plays a significant role in our upbringing, during our formative years. But the actual environment, the influence we receive from our parents, relatives, friends, acquaintances, schools, churches, etc… also are extremely significant.

The question of “nature vs. nurture” cannot be decided on a generic level. There is no “generic” motivation. Everyone has their own value system and their “morality” is contingent upon that system. And just by observing someone’s interactions with others one cannot make a good inference to decide if the other person is religious, or not.

As a matter of fact, good deeds need no “justification”. Only “bad” acts need to be justified - because they may only seem to be “bad”. Of course the pseudo-argument of “maybe it is not really ‘bad’, and if we knew all the details, we would see it differently” leads nowhere. We all must make our value judgment based upon the available information, and use the “duck principle” - being aware of the possibility that some new information will render our current judgment incorrect, and then we must be ready to correct our judgment accordingly.


I answer, by Good Works, the terms virtuous works or moral works would be equivalents, I believe.

All the virtues, other than the Christian theological virtues, are habits that can be learned and should be learned when a person is growing up or maturing. They are learned by practice, with a child being told by his parents to do things that are virtuous in their outward appearance, and eventually learning to enjoy doing them internally.

This understanding has been around at least since Aristotle. He maintained that the happiest people in a society where those who who are virtuous in their actions. He also showed that the one thing all people seek is happiness and therefore all people, if they understand the way to happiness, do also seek to be virtuous in all moral activity. Governments support families with children, also, for this purpose, so that they have good citizens, virtuous citizens, for their future.
So I believe bradskii was not far off the mark when he said he would do something virtuous or moral because he wanted to.

It is a temporal happiness, granted, yet it is repeated throughout a lifetime giving a kind of succession of temporal happiness.

A Catholic, having been given the gifts of the virtues of faith hope and love (or charity), finds himself participating in an eternal or timeless act of virtue and therefore a happiness not enclosed by time. His virtuous activity towards his neighbors is actually an operation of the joy of happiness the joy of being one with God.

John Martin


For me personally I suppose it is partially How I was raised plus my desire to improve the world. Just as it can be argued the Christian does good to receive rewards*, you can think of an atheist doing good acts for rewards too. Personally it feels good to help others.
If you like you could also consider it a mix off the golden rule plus egotistical altruism.

I wish to improve the world in small ways. When others do well I’m likely to do well.

*I’ve heard good works explained as a manifestation of grace. But my understanding is that grace requires cooperation, in this case actually doing the works … as inspired by grace I suppose.

I find the implication here odd. The truth is that quite often it is self interest in that it brings peace, joy, and satisfaction to be helpful.

Varies on the situation and person. Could said atheist live with themselves if they decided not to assist? Keep in mind that death is not to be feared, just the manner in which we might die.


There’s a genetic drive in our species for tribalism because it increases our survivability.

That’s the big difference between genuine religious altruism and evolved altruism.

If you sacrifice in a way that doesn’t improve the odds of your personal survival in the long run, there’s no evolutionary drive for it. Thus that level of sacrifice is taught behavior, whether you call it religious or not.

In eusocial species there are instances of sacrifice for the greater good of the colony, but then there’s fair argument as to whether the real organism is the sacrificing termite or the greater colony itself as a super-organism.

Worth noting, humans are not counted among hive-minded eusocial species in general.


Not sure that I agree there. I believe that altruistic behaviour is evolutionary determined. Sharing food, helping in the hunt etc. That would also include protecting the group. So if you didn’t share food, you were shunned. And if you ran off when there was danger, then likewise. So what you experienced if you ran off and were ostracised we called shame and you were a coward and those that stayed we called heroes and they felt pride.

I think there’s a tendency to consider it social conditioning and that would be right up to a point - it certainly fine tuned it. But it’s originally an evolved trait.


Oh, no challenge there. It evolved for sure.

Mine is a question of degree. Altruism that doesn’t increase the survivability of the giver just doesn’t have an evolutionary drive. The selection pressure is a net-negative.

Altruism only works on an evolutionary level when the reciprocation from the tribe in response to the sacrifice is of greater value than the sacrifice itself as it pertains to survival.

Altruism beyond that pushes beyond nature and into nurture, since it reduces survivability.


“Trust”? I don’t see a significant difference. Other characteristics are going to be far more important.

In fact, one atheist in this forum (banned, but with many “sockpuppets” - or very similarly thinking “friends”) proudly claimed that intentions are completely irrelevant.

Naturally, you can’t both be right, but you can both be wrong. And in, um, some other contexts atheists seem to act as if stating that was a good proof that both options are wrong. :slight_smile:

Good philosophers generally try to speak precisely. Bad philosophers generally do not try to speak precisely. :slight_smile:

For that matter, do you see no value in precision elsewhere? Do you prefer accountants who do not care if they are dealing with US dollars, with Australian dollars or with Zimbabwean dollars? Do you prefer pharmacists who do not care if they are dealing with grams or milligrams?

Nah, a cruder tool will do the work. Like a demand for evidence. :slight_smile:

For you gave this whole story without a single shred of evidence.

And here we can see how you overshoot the target. Your account of how you perform good actions ends up being “Everyone is innately good, because we evolved so, because it gives an evolutionary advantage.”, and then you have to appeal to vague “darker side” to explain why sometimes people perform evil actions. And thus your story ends up explaining nothing.

Not to mention that you have no way to explain why there is anything wrong with that “darker side”. After all, it is just as much a result of evolution, as the “lighter side”.


This is a topic which is called by social psychologists who study it, prosocial or helping behavior. The motivations are some of what you listed, but these motivations apply to BOTH believers and non-believers. (And here I must ask you how you are defining “believer,” in particular, whether it is limited to the Christian believer or whether it applies to all believers in Gd.) In fact, studies have revealed that religious people exhibit no more helping behavior than non-religious people with regard to everyday helping, such as leaving larger tips in restaurants or social behavior such as lending someone a book or holding a door for another person. Where religious people exceed others is in helping people who share their own beliefs. Insofar as motivation is concerned, there are several theories: reciprocity (expecting help in return some time in the future or already having been helped by someone), sociocultural norms of helping (applicable mainly to small favors), social responsibility toward vulnerable groups (the disabled and sick, the elderly, children, the poor), kin protection (based on evolutionary theory), modeling what others do, and even an altruistic personality which is activated by empathy.


You were given two links earlier in the thread which would give you more than enough information about the subject matter. Whether you take the time to read them is up to you. But it’s somewhat disingenuous to claim that you haven’t been supplied with evidence.

I’d suggest you read the shorter of the two and comment as you see fit.

Yes, the more ‘civilised’ portion of our brains have evolved to enable us to form…civilisations.That’s pretty obvious or we wouldn’t be here. Forming groups enabled us to better survive. But that portion of the brain hasn’t replaced the reptillian portion. That’s still there (to use a common example, when two guys are fixing for a fight they will sneer at each other - which is just an automatic snarl from way back. Show your teeth as a warning).

So far from explaining nothing, it effectively explains almost everything. Luckily, for most of the time, the civilised portion wins out.


That is not supporting your story (or some parts of it) with evidence. That’s just pointing to a list of mostly irrelevant propositions of dubious certainty (it’s Psychology, after all - protoscience, if not pseudoscience) and hoping some of them will fit.

And they do not seem to.

For example, let’s look at the very first of your claims:

And the strongest claim of such kind in the link (which, by the way, was not provided by you) seems to be “morality has a genetic component”. That is not anywhere close to your claim.

Not to mention that your fairy tales are self-contradicting. For example:

Now, of course, one self-contradiction is on the surface: if the evolutionary advantage of acting morally is quite as great, as you made it sound, how comes that this pesky “reptilian portion” hasn’t been “fixed”? After all, it is not as if genes responsible for it can’t have mutations any more.

But it is even more interesting to compare this with your views concerning morality itself.

If it is the “reptilian portion” that is responsible for evil, and it is the “civilised portion” that is responsible for good, how should moral decisions look like? “Reptilian portion” is supposed to be mostly responsible for reflexes, instincts and the like, while “civilised portion” is supposed to be responsible for reasoning. In such case morally good decisions would be a result of reasoning, while morally evil decisions would be a result of impulsive, instinctive behaviour.

Now, does your view fit that? Let’s see:

Nope. As we can see, you keep praising instinct, emotion, reflex, while belittling reason.

You do not really take your own position seriously.

Of course, given your praise for instinct and emotion and lack of respect for reason, it is not very surprising that it is so easy to find ways in which your position is self-contradicting.


That’s a rather sad statement… does this apply to murder or theft? Is a religious commandment the primary thing preventing you from killing other people?

We do good works because if feels good and makes us happy (by releasing chemicals in the brain). Animals do this as well and for the same reason.

“Giving has also been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone (also released during sex and breast feeding) that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others.”


If I understand your question correctly, then that’s not really what I was talking about. I’m referring to doing good things that require a little effort or time. In other words, I’m lazy and selfish at heart, but I know that Christians are called to do things to help those in need.

For example, I didn’t visit my mother nearly as much as I should have before she died. And for those times that I did visit her, the visits were less than 30 minutes. The primary reason I did those visits were because I knew it was the right thing to do, not because I wanted to.

I hate that about myself, and I’m sorta-kinda working to be better, but I’m just being honest about where I’m at right now.


So, when believer does good and avoids evil obeying Jesus, that is supposed to be “sad”, but when an atheist does good and avoids evil “obeying” oxytocin, that is supposed to be “joyfyl”?

Would you care to explain, why?

Are you also going to end up claiming that emotions and instincts are good and reason is evil?


OK - I see the difference. I think my link and answer is still applicable to your question about why non-believers do good. Because it makes us happy - yes with the release of chemicals in the brain.

I an currently living that… my mom is very hard to talk with. After a visit I always need some time to decompress. On the other hand I love her and value opportunities for hugs. I know in the long run I will remember being nice to her, I know she appreciates and is happy with my visits (especially now that I let her talk away and I do my best to be civil and not argue - I try to remember I’m there for her) plus it gives me a chance to demonstrate for my kids my love for my mom. Some day they may even visit me from time to time. :slight_smile:

Hugs to you man… forgive yourself and take care. Parents and other relations can make things very hard and we all try our best. If you have kids let them know how you feel so they can learn from you and hopefully don’t make the same mistakes.

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