Atheism and Reward Morality

Atheism and Reward Morality

If you're doing what you're doing for reward and punishment, it's not really morality.

-Penn Jillette

I've seen this trope more than once in Atheist circles, that traditional religious morality is somehow less moral for being reward-oriented. Atheists, it is contended, are more moral for doing the right thing – not for reward's sake, but just because it's right.

Ok then, what makes something right? What's the difference between a good husband and a jerk? Why would someone choose the option that atheists and Christians would probably agree is the "right" one?

Presumably the difference is (if we want to chalk it up to morality) that the good husband finds his wife's happiness a reward and her displeasure a punishment. This is the very definition of love. The other is more or less indifferent to her happiness. And if he finds her displeasure a reward, he's an abuser. So even if we assume a substantial agreement between Christians and atheists on what is right among people and take that as given, the question of morality in action isn't, "are you doing it for a reward"; it's, "what reward are you doing it for?"

Mainstream Christianity, no doubt, somewhat schizophrenically alternates between reward morality and categorical imperative "because God said so" morality. But as C.S. Lewis noted in The Weight of Glory, "If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith." To use the ideal of "right for right's sake" as a gotcha, contrasted with a reward motivation, doesn't really say anything except that atheists must be rather aimless. If their goal is – not to redefine reward, but to be unmotivated by reward at all – then there can be no purposeful action at all.

Obviously, though, atheists act. They take pleasure in things. They even genuinely care for other people. So if, given enough explanation, Penn's ideas of morality turn out to be reward-based after all, doesn't that soundbite misrepresent what atheism is? As pleasing as I'm sure it is to fluster the unsuspecting Christian with it, surely after a bit of thought it reflects worse on the atheist who repeats it. And if the cavil merely means to insinuate that the reward of heaven is unconnected to the action by which it was merited – well, that shows only that the speaker misunderstands the nature of the blessed hope.


AtheismEthicsFree WillPhilosophyC.S. LewisPenn Jillette


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  • 1

    Joseph Sileo

    Oct 29, 2012 at 10:10 | Reply

    OH BOY! An article I can argue about. Its been a long time coming. Wouldn’t you say?

    The soundbite speaks specifically to ultimate reward and punishment not all reward and punishment. It is a rebuke of the argument that people do things to please God or to stay his wrath. Atheists make this point as a response to the christian argument that morality is rooted solely in the word of God; and atheists must therefore not be moral. But as you pointed out atheists take action just like Christians and do find common ground in moral thinking. “Obviously, though, atheists act. They take pleasure in things. They even genuinely care for other people.”

    “Atheists, it is contended, are more moral for doing the right thing – not for reward’s sake, but just because it’s right.” Moral high ground can really be judged on a per person basis, but if we are going to lump all atheists and Christians together, then atheists may very well be more moral. The argument is made to atheists that they cannot be moral if they don’t believe in God. When the reverse argument is made “Can you (a christian) be moral if you found out there wasn’t a god?.” You get some pretty surprising and disturbing answers. Ray Comfort briefly touched on this when answering the above question. Stating simply he would lead a very selfish life and spend all day surfing if he found out there wasn’t a god. ( 08:56-09:25

    • 1.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Oct 29, 2012 at 12:04

      We’re using two different definitions of moral here. Can atheists act in a way that most people would consider “right”? Sure, anyone can do that. Can atheists act in a way that deals with the underlying sin problem of their soul? No, that requires one to act with God himself as one’s ultimate reward. Atheists are arguing the former point, Christians are arguing the latter, and both think the other point is pretty irrelevant in the scheme of things.

      And anyway, for the atheist, what makes some motivations right and others not? Without a Summum Bonum, why is it moral to care for another person, but not for myself when it tramples on them? If you can show me that one gets more satisfaction out of life by being moral, you’ve demonstrated an orientation to ultimate reward (even if “ultimate” here is less lofty than the Christian’s). If you can’t, then Ray Comfort is just more rational than the moral atheist.

    • 1.2

      Joseph Sileo

      Oct 29, 2012 at 13:49

      “And anyway, for the atheist, what makes some motivations right and others not? Without a Summum Bonum, why is it moral to care for another person, but not for myself when it tramples on them?” There are two main driving factors. The logistical (benefit-loss), and the emotional (genetic predisposition to feel compassion and empathy). These two things are taken into consideration when making any act. Sometimes the latter is strong enough to override the former resulting in self sacrifice (as irrational as that may be). Yes anybody can and everybody does act in this way.

      You put 2 people in a room you ask them both “If you found out there was no god would you rape someone” One says yes, one says no. The person who says no has the moral high ground by any standard. The only difference between positing that question to a christian and an atheist is you dont have to preface the question to the atheist with the term “If you found out there was no god…”

      So if we expand on it… We have a group of atheists and a group of Christians. Some in each group may be rapists. We give each member from each group equal opportunity to rape. Some from each group rape. We figure out who the rapists are in the atheist group but not so much in the christian group. Why? Because in the christian group certain members had a cost-benefit analysis that told them if they rape they may go to hell and it was no longer worth it. Once we sort out the known rapists assuming all other things are equal we have a greater number of potential rapists left in the christian group then in the atheist group. This actually speaks to why religion is a good thing. Patton Oswald (a known atheist and comedian) actually said it best in his bit on how religion was good in the beginning of man kinds existence.

      From an atheists perspective faith based morality is artificial morality a kin to insulin shots. Some people need more then others to function in society.

    • 1.3

      Cameron Harwick

      Oct 29, 2012 at 14:15

      There’s more to faith than social expediency. Is it socially expedient for someone to refrain from rape because he’s convinced he’ll be sent to Hell if he does? Yes. Would it be more socially expedient if he refrains from rape of his own accord? Probably, yes. This I take it is the atheist argument.

      But will it save his soul if he refrains from rape solely out of fear of punishment? No. “Even the demons believe, and tremble.” That’s not saving faith in a good God, that’s a servile fear, as if God were an authoritarian government. Fear of punishment from God doesn’t make refraining from rape any more moral than fear of punishment from the state.

      Faith is a transformation of the will; it becomes your will. Fear is an external imposition on the will. That’s why the former is moral, even by the atheist definition, while the latter is not, by either definition. Religious fear might be a useful myth, as Patton Oswald might say, but it’s not faith.

    • 1.4

      Joseph Sileo

      Oct 30, 2012 at 9:32

      The soul is irrelevant to the atheist. All that matters is the action or inaction and why it was taken. If two people make take the same action (good or bad) but one uses artificial reasoning (a belief in an entity to which evidence does not exist) in order to arrive at the same decision then that person (from the atheists perspective) is less moral. Probably because from the atheists perspective the belief in something for which there is no evidence to have an effect in everyday action is a form of delusion. I point to another one of Penn Jillette quotes “(If) God, however you perceive god to be, spoke to you and told you to kill your child, would you do it? If the answer is no then I believe you’re an atheist. If the answer is yes then get help, or at very most stay away from me.”

      Abraham, by Jillettes reasoning, was not an Atheist. :P

    • 1.5

      Cameron Harwick

      Nov 01, 2012 at 19:44

      “The soul is irrelevant to the atheist.” And action/inaction as such is irrelevant to the Christian. But the “why” is relevant to both; at least whether it comes from inside or outside. My point is that, from the atheist’s perspective, a “why” of faith looks no different from his own “why”. Both stem from the volition, so he should regard them as equally moral, by his own definition.

      And, though Christians refer to saving merit (which atheists cannot have), there is a natural morality which can be largely shared between Christians and atheists. Are you really going to argue that faulty reasoning destroys even this common ground (keep in mind that atheism is just as faulty a system in the eyes of a Christian)?

  • 2

    Christopher Lee Crowell

    Nov 01, 2012 at 20:38 | Reply

    ..but atheism is not a system, it is the lack of a specific system. The “why” of atheism is quite different from the “why” of religious faith. atheism is the default state of nature; religious faith must be learned/taught.

    I also posit their is no transformation of the will, as you describe. it’s an artificial distinction IMO. no matter how you spin it, fear of eternal damnation or separation from god is what drives christians to be follow the morality of their bible. no way around it, religious faith in the christian context is inseparable from fear.

    • 2.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Nov 01, 2012 at 21:23

      The history of religion would seem to run counter to your claim of atheism as a default. Superstition is the default state of nature. Both religion and naturalism have to be learned.

      And, forgive me if I don’t put much weight on an atheist’s speculations on Christian motivation. :)

    • 2.2

      Christopher Lee Crowell

      Nov 01, 2012 at 21:26

      what does a baby believe about the supernatural? nothing, it lacks belief (atheist). s/he learns or creates superstition.

      I was a christian longer than you have been a christian. I didn’t renounce my entire spiritual upbringing lightly. ;)

      and btw, to the original post, Penn’s argument is not necessarily rewards based unless you include the golden rule as a rewards based philosophy.

    • 2.3

      Cameron Harwick

      Nov 01, 2012 at 21:42

      Would you say that the recognition of a fear motivation was a factor in leading you to renounce it?

      Motivation from fear doesn’t save. At least having renounced, you’re not under any illusions that that’s good enough. But, I posit that if you knew the faith that you’re now denying the existence of, you wouldn’t – couldn’t – have renounced it.

      Also, the baby doesn’t disbelieve in God – it doesn’t have the categories with which to conceive of God. That’s a true lack of a system, and that’s not atheism. It’s not superstition, religion, or anything. My cat’s not an atheist. Once you come to believe something (e.g. “God exists” or “The natural world is all there is”), you have a system, whether or not it includes God.

    • 2.4

      Christopher Lee Crowell

      Nov 02, 2012 at 10:46

      Yes, recognizing the use of fear to coerce belief was part of my epiphany that the emporer has no clothes.

      As for whether I ever really had faith, well, I still retain all the inner peace, outer goodwill and overall tranquility I enjoyed as a believer who *knew* God was in control. While I doubted the nature of God as told to me in church, I didn’t doubt His existence until my mid to late 20s. Now I realize all the things I once attributed to God were in fact, me.

      Take prayer for example. Does prayer actually convince God to change his will/plan, perform miracles or the like? Of course not. The point of prayer is to understand what God’s will is for us, to submit to his will and to accept and understand what God has laid before us, knowing God won’t give us anything we can’t handle and he’ll always be there to give us strength.

      Once you accept such a notion – and for many folks that takes a LOT of religious faith – you can pretty much deal with anything. Such thinking is powerful and empowering, regardless of its perceived source. The difference for me is now I realize God is not necessary because it’s ME doing the coping (along with everything else), not God.

      While I’m not sure I think lack of belief and disbelief are exactly the same, disbelief is the “unpreparedness, unwillingness, or inability to believe that something is the case” ( so your assertion babies do not disbelieve in God is arguable since they lack the ability to conceive of God and therefore believe (which is strange if God exists). Regardless, babies have a lack of belief. Belief in deity is learned, not the default state.

      Atheism is the lack of belief, nothing more. It is not a system of belief or a religion and no amount of mental gymnastics can make “x” out of “not x.”

      Therefore, my assertion stands – atheism is the default state.

    • 2.5

      Christopher Lee Crowell

      Nov 03, 2012 at 9:28

      And, forgive me as well if I don’t put much weight on a Christian’s speculations about atheism. ;)

    • 2.6

      Cameron Harwick

      Nov 03, 2012 at 12:52

      That’s just it though. Peace, goodwill, and tranquility aren’t the primary objects of faith. That would be a mercenary faith no less than one of fear; believing in God in order to get other things. And like you’ve said, faith isn’t even necessary for them. Saving faith is, primarily, an overriding belief in the supreme value of the divine. If that also happens to be a powerful method by which to cope with life, so much the better. But the side benefit cannot be confused with the final goal.

      I don’t presume to tell you what any atheists think or feel, but speaking strictly categorically, “lack of belief in God” is not the same as “belief in the lack of a God”. If I asked you, “does a transcendent God exist?”, what would you say? If it’s anything more certain than an unqualified “I don’t know”, then you have a belief system of some sort. But then, an unqualified “I don’t know” would be agnosticism, not atheism.

      If you want to define atheism to include agnostics and babies and cats, that’s fine. But that’s so broad as to be useless. And regardless, Richard Dawkins is not an atheist in the same sense as a plant. It’s a semantic bait-and-switch to define atheism broadly and then evangelize the narrower meaning. So what would you call the set of belief systems in which God does not exist?

    • 2.7

      Joseph Sileo

      Nov 03, 2012 at 21:56

      “So what would you call the set of belief systems in which God does not exist?” Buddhism

      not really… but if we are pulling quotes “Atheism is as much a religion as not stamp collecting is a hobby”

    • 2.8

      Joseph Sileo

      Nov 03, 2012 at 22:01

      Everybody is in one form or another an atheist. I presume Cameron that you do not believe the Koran to be the one true word of God. I presume you do not believe that Vishnu is a powerful deity. In those two cases (and many more unnamed cases) you are an atheist. Not because you have a specific reason to think them untrue (as I am pretty sure you have not studied Hindu texts in depth) but because you have not been given sufficient evidence to think them true. Those who call themselves atheists go just one god further.

    • 2.9

      Joseph Sileo

      Nov 03, 2012 at 22:09

      oh wait I have a better one…”So what would you call the set of belief systems in which God does not exist?” Science

    • 2.10

      Christopher Lee Crowell

      Nov 03, 2012 at 22:44

      @CJ: I once had a deep, overriding belief in the supreme value of the divine. I knew I was saved by the grace of god because I trusted in Jesus as my personal savior. There was nothing I couldn’t handle if I just trusted in god and prayed for understanding. It felt great.

      Now it feels even better since I stripped the superfluous supreme being caca. I agree, saving faith is a powerful coping mechanism. But I also recognize that’s ALL it is, a coping mechanism, just like the prayer example I gave is also a coping mechanism.

      I’m not sure you’re able to wrap your head around how I reject so-called “divine grace” or whatever concept you prefer. I clearly recall being amazed by atheists; how ould they NOT be willing to believe, to accept the huge amount of evidence for his existence, etc. they just didn’t understand how awesome god was. I was never angry at god. Quite the contrary, I didn’t expect god to protect me from tragedy, rather I believed he would always guide me and give me strength. Until one day I realized I had to make a choice – do i believe or not? I had to be honest with myself – I didn’t. No even close any more.

      Since then I have become more and more certain god is simply not necessary and has absolutely nothing to offer me to make my life any better here and now. I got this, thank you very much. I and I alone am responsible for myself in every way. No blaming satan or crediting god, it’s just me. And that I believe is the only way to be truly, fully responsible and accountable for yourself, to fully own your every action good or bad. There is no hereafter, only now. Make the best you can of it, this is it. Atheism allows life to be beautiful NOW, when it really matters.

      Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive; you repeated a commonly held misconception. Atheists can be agnostic and vice versa. An agnostic atheist could also be called a “weak” atheist (as opposed to “strong” atheists who contend “there is no god.”). A weak atheist would likely accept the existence of “god” or “gods” given credible scientific evidence. The weak atheist merely asserts there is no credible, empirical evidence of the existence of god(s) and therefore does not accept the existence of said god(s).

      To split a hair, I do think it can be adequately proved the god of the bible does not exist or at least is not a supreme being worthy of our praise or worship.

      A broad definition of atheism, simply the lack of belief, is perfectly useful and accurate for atheists whose ONLY common denominator is that lack of belief in god(s). You are correct, it is useless for those who wish to insist atheism is some kind of religion and evolutionary science is its scripture. Atheism by definition can not be a religion. However, religious folk desperately NEED atheism to be a religion/belief system. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality of the situation. In line with Joseph’s quote, atheism is a religion like baldness is a hair color. ;)

      Ironically, I lost the last of my faith while living on Faith Rd. It was 1999 and George Carlin was the catalyst. Thank you, George; I owe you my freedom.

    • 2.11

      Cameron Harwick

      Nov 03, 2012 at 23:35

      How do you reject divine grace? “god is simply not necessary and has absolutely nothing to offer me to make my life any better here and now.” That’s how, right? That’s not at all hard to wrap my head around. It’s a belief in the supreme value of the here-and-now (which, incidentally, is the default state of man).

      I haven’t made an evidentiary case for God; the question is not evidence, but interpretation of it. To interpret it naturalistically is not surprising or difficult to comprehend. I also didn’t imply you were angry at God – like I said, I won’t presume to tell you anything about yourself that you haven’t already told me. On the contrary, you just made the very point I did right before: that a faith focused on the here-and-now isn’t a faith worth having. Given what you had, you made the logically consistent choice.


      Ok, you can define atheism broadly to include things which are not belief systems. But, “it can be adequately proved the god of the bible does not exist or at least is not a supreme being worthy of our praise or worship” – that’s a positive statement of belief. Belief open to potential revision is belief nonetheless. You could have prefaced it just the same with “I do believe” instead of “I do think”. That is narrow atheism, and that is a belief system (I use this term rather than religion because religion usually contains an element of praxis too).

      It would perhaps be more apt then to say, “atheism is a belief system like baldness is a hair style.” No clear line separates “bald” from “short hair” from “long hair”. (To beat this analogy into the ground, you might say that length is belief and style is praxis, so zero length makes style irrelevant. Nevertheless, zero is still a length). Likewise, narrow atheism is as much an interpretation of the relevant facts of existence as Christianity. It’s a conceit to think that it would be exempt from the logical scrutiny given to any other interpretation.

    • 2.12

      Joseph Sileo

      Nov 03, 2012 at 23:42

      Since we are sharing, I came to atheism by reading about paganism. I noticed strong parallels between neopagan practices and catholic practices. The defining moment (I think) came in sophomore year in World Literature class when reading the myth of Osiris Isis and Horus. The parallels between the myths that predated the bible and the stories of the bible seemed much more than a coincidence to me. The walls came crumbling down afterword. It caused quite the problem for me. To pull a quote from my favorite Jew, “I would love to have the faith to believe that the world was created in seven days… but I have thoughts… and that can really f**k up the faith thing” – Lewis Black.

      I would argue that we are all agnostic by default since atheists in the strictest sense don’t claim to know and Christians admit you can’t know (must have faith). It really boils down to whether you believe (theism) or whether you don’t believe (atheism). You can have atheists out there who are absolutely certain, in their own minds of course, there is no god. But many I think just simply lack belief. This is the truest definition of the word, if I’m parsing my classical languages properly. a- (without) theism (belief).

      All of this is beside the original point of the article. The original point was the idea that Penn does not think morality should be reward based, and your response that all morality is reward based. Yes all morality is reward based. However saying ultimate reward/punishment (heaven/hell) is the same as the warm and fuzzy feeling inside is an oversimplification at best. They are two COMPLETELY different things both in weight and legitimacy. The former is based solely on the idea that such places and divine beings exist. So to answer the question “So if, given enough explanation, Penn’s ideas of morality turn out to be reward-based after all, doesn’t that soundbite misrepresent what atheism is?” No it does not and atheists should continue to repeat it.

      Atheists believe (if they believe anything at all) that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To date no such evidence has been presented to support the existence of a divine entity or after life. Thus to their knowledge and understanding of the universe, this is the only life we get so we should make it a good one for ourselves and those we are attached to.

      I will rest (temporarily of course) my argument with another quote “The history of religion would seem to run counter to your claim of atheism as a default. Superstition is the default state of nature.” – C Harwick. I accept your concession…welcome to the club :P

      Fun side note: if you type “neopagan” in a textbox in the latest version of firefox, spell check suggests “propaganda” as a correction. Also Word 2007 auto-formats smiley faces.

    • 2.13

      Cameron Harwick

      Nov 04, 2012 at 0:04

      a- (without) theos (God)
      a- (without) gnosis (knowledge)

      Etymologically at least, the former does suggest what we’ve called narrow atheism.

      As for “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – empiricism is the wrong approach to the question of God, regardless of whether or not God exists. It presupposes what it’s trying to prove (naturalism). No wonder you don’t find any evidence! That presupposition works fine as a heuristic so far as we’re dealing with natural causes, but it’s absolutely inadequate for questions about the supernatural.

    • 2.14

      Joseph Sileo

      Nov 04, 2012 at 0:32

      There are plenty of things that could happen to empirically show the existence of god. He pops in from time to time to say hello, angels flapping about, etc. These things being well within his power. He is god after all. It is not that the empirical approach can’t detect God, but that an entity which requires faith in order to exist could not possibly withstand an empirical approach. I submit that extraordinary evidence remain a prerequisite to acknowledgement let alone worship.

  • 3

    Shane Allman

    Nov 03, 2012 at 16:47 | Reply

    Equal Oppertunity morality, one of which has no god or lack thereof!

  • 4


    May 21, 2013 at 19:02 | Reply

    Hey Cameron,

    It’s been a couple of years since you’ve written this piece. I’m curious if and how your position has changed since then?

    • 4.1

      Cameron Harwick

      May 21, 2013 at 20:33

      It occurs to me now that the quote might be clumsily trying to say that heaven is a mercenary reward (rather than saying that all rewards are mercenary), so I’ve added a link to the end which addresses that point. It’s also addressed in The Weight of Glory (from which I got the C.S. Lewis quote, and to which I’ve also added a link). But I stand by the original thesis, that it’s a poor argument in any case.

      What brings this to your mind?

    • 4.2


      Jan 06, 2014 at 14:40

      Sorry about the long reply. I had forgotten about this posting, and I just saw that you replied. I cannot for the life of me recall what I was thinking (perhaps I had a salient point or perhaps it was just curiosity). I remember being trouble by the comments in this post when I first read it, since I thought some of the posters brought up good points. Now, I recognize the more flowery rhetoric for what it is and I would say that I more or less agree with your thesis as well. The claim that we shouldn’t be motivated by reward and/or punishment is definitely wrong.

  • 5

    Matt Richmond

    Jan 03, 2014 at 9:47 | Reply

    Any atheist muttering that statement is seriously misguided in their understanding of morality, incentives, and general decision making. Nothing is done from the standpoint of pure altruism, and any atheist claiming an objective morality is treading awfully close to hypocrisy.

    Then again, I’ve never cared much for atheism. Agnostics *never* engage in such misguided commentary. 8)

  • 6

    Adthea Collins

    Jan 03, 2014 at 14:48 | Reply

    It is a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of grace. There are some Christians who misunderstand grace as well (or reject the following statements.) This “do something for a reward” bit is a grave mischaracterization. We are redeemed by grace and there is nothing we can “do” to receive grace, save to ask for it. If we had to be completely moral or not sin or whatever the “do” part entails, we would fail miserably.

  • 7

    Joseph Sileo

    Jan 03, 2014 at 17:40 | Reply

    Penn Jillette further explaining that quote:

    And do the opening question in the article (“Ok then, what makes something right?”) Sam Harris makes a convincing argument for objectively determining what makes right by starting from a “worst possible state of suffering for everyone” argument. (Clip Here: ) Essentially once you acknowledge a possibility for absolute “bad” then you can work from that. And from there you can work toward good. And morality can objectively be determined by use of that continuum.

    To Matt Richmond’s point about reward and punishment being part of decision making and not “just because” you are essentially right. (I assume you are referring to the “warm fuzzy feeling” as a reward punishment system.)

    I essentially argued the same point in a conversation Frans de Waal. He contended that the “warm fuzzy feeling” is not equivocal to the concrete notion of a celestial heaven or hell even if those are not corporeal places.

    Basically, if we are going to split that hair then we get to open the door to arguing decision making in general and the nature of free will being an illusion.

  • 8

    Marshal Art

    May 12, 2018 at 23:48 | Reply

    Interesting exchange. And while I agree with the premise of the post, I think the discussion misses an obvious point with regards what makes an action or behavior moral. Without God, murder may still, for most people, be a behavior best prohibited for a number of reasons. Most importantly, no one wants to be murdered, followed somewhat closely by not wanting to hurt others. But neither of those things makes murder immoral, or makes protecting people from murder moral. It’s just a preference to which we choose to attach the term “moral”.

    As to why we do good, even the “fuzzy feeling” to which one commentator referred is a reward. And so even if Chriatians act with reward on mind, rather than acting to glorify God…which is how it’s supposed to work…so what? Even atheists do so as well.

    To look at it from the other side, both atheist and Christian act to avoid a negative reward. Separation from God for one, as well as the more immediate guilt or other negative emotion or outcome from not acting. Fear either way.

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