This question is one that hasn't been hit (although it's been approached).

Is it possible for a person to not believe in God but live according to a moral standard? Or is belief in God a prerequisite for morality?

Morality, defined
In order to help refine this question a bit, we'll have to define morality as the parts of the Bible that tell us what is "right" or "wrong", excluding the parts that talk about how we should worship God. (I know that practically invalidates the Bible, Christianity, and almost all doctrines on morality, but I can't think of a better way to make sense of this.)

I want to point out that I am seeking a Christian perspective on this. This does refine the question to deal with morality of the Bible more so than the broader definition of morality.

  • After significant editing, you asked to have this post reopened. But the answers (and voting) are now completely out of context. Isn't it better to re-ask the question if you want to save it? If you prefer to delete the existing answers, go ahead and reopen. (note, the removal of related comments was inadvertent) Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 17:02
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    @RobertCartaino After much thought, I agree that reopening this question as it was would completely invalidate the answers. Also, I like having this question around and closed as an example of what not to ask. (Plus, I'd hate to invalidate all that rep for these answers.) I decided to take your advice, rollback and repost the question.
    – Richard
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 18:37

6 Answers 6


If it is impossible for Atheists to be moral because they don't acknowledge the same source of morality that Christians recognize, then I would argue that it is also impossible for Christians to be moral, because neither do they fully understand the source of morality that they claim to attempt to adhere to. And without full understanding, it is impossible to fully acknowledge the source of the morality.

Perhaps Christians can be "more" moral than Atheists (since they have a greater understanding of the source of morality), but since the question is asked in binary terms, I believe the binary answer is the same for both groups.

If on the other hand, morality is simply acting in accordance to a moral code, then it is certainly possible, if only in isolated incidents, for either Atheists or Christians to behave according to any given moral code.

Anyone is likely to behave according to any "code of conduct" occasionally, even by accident.

So my elevator answer would be: It is just as possible for Atheists to be moral as it is for Christians to be moral.

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    Given the extremely limited definition of "moral" that I was forced to take, I think this best fits the question. If the question were to deal with morality inclusive of belief in God, I think the difference might be more clear-cut. But then, it would be an entirely different question. +1 Nice answer!
    – Richard
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 18:46
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    @Bane, I ask you for patience and respect for people's sensibilities here. Here's a more constructive way to say what you said (if I understood correctly): "For many people, morality boils down to two rules: hurting others is bad and helping others is good." When put that way, it is clear that the comment is off-topic, as it doesn't answer the question nor address the answer. Commented May 10, 2012 at 2:24

Atheists certainly argue that they can live according to a moral standard (here is one summary of many--since atheism isn't one belief, there are many viewpoints). Indeed, some atheists (Sam Harris being one of the most prominent and vocal of these) argue that Christianity leads people to abandon common-sense morality in certain instances and thus, at least given an otherwise affluent society where morality is prized, atheists have an easier time being moral. Of course, Christians and Muslims and others have their own arguments as to why they are more moral than anyone else. My impression is that for the most part different faiths start with different background assumptions from each other and from atheists, so it's very difficult to reach any sort of agreement between all groups.

We could ask whether it is possible for atheists simply to abide by standard moral precepts--don't kill, lying is bad, etc.. Here--and this should go almost without saying--the answer is a resounding yes. In addition to numerous personal anecdotes that could be told, according to an article in the Journal of Religion and Society (summarized here):

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.

The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.”

So not only do they manage, but they might even manage to do a better job of it than believers (in Western democracies, anyway).

But should we expect believers to be more moral (in this sense) than atheists? Not necessarily; the parable of the Good Samaritan summarizes the situation nicely (Luke 10:30-37 (ESV)):

30Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. [...] 36Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" 37He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise."

The compassion shown to neighbors is something to seek to emulate--and neighbors do it independent of belief. Though "love thy neighbor" is important (and actually mentioned in the Good Samaritan parable), is not the most strongly emphasized requirement for being a Christian (quotes taken more or less at random out of a very large number with a similar message):

Romans 10:9-10 (ESV):

9because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

Romans 3:21-34 (ESV):

21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—-22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus

  • Samaritans were not athiests, they were the other half of the kingdom of Israel. No, love your neighbor isn't the most important commandment, it's the second most important commandment. And those stats don't reflect my family or any of the other Christians on this site who actually care about their faith.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 2:59
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    @Peter Turner - I'm aware of who the Samaritans were; the point of my quoting the parable is that it was because they were neighbors that the Samaritan was the compassionate one, and given who the others were, it seemed apparent that it was personal familiarity, not any particular religious belief, that motivated the kind actions. Therefore, there seems no reason to believe that atheists would do differently. And of course the stats are stats and provide only a very coarse picture; there are very many Christians who are deeply moral (and very many non-Christians who are also).
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 3:52
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    @Peter: by the time of Christ, the Samaritans weren't "the other half of the kingdom" anymore; they were the people who had moved in when the other half of the kingdom was sacked and the ten tribes were carried away into captivity. They had brought their own culture and religion, and slowly mixed in Israelite customs and elements of Jehovah-worship that they absorbed from their Jewish neighbors, without ever really abandoning their old ways. Needless to say, that led to a lot of tension between the two groups.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 5:00

As an Atheist, I'd like to think I'm leading a Moral life. Some examples:

  • I give copious amounts of my income to charity, most recently via Humble Bundle 3
  • I have a job that affords me many chances to make a difference in people's lives for the better, within the limits of my own physical means.
  • When I drive; I let other drivers into my lane, don't cut people off, am understanding when people make mistakes, and let others go first at stops.
  • When I date, I try to be mindful of the other person's feelings and not take advantage of them.
  • Don't steal or murder.
  • Try to be educated about other cultures and respect them.
  • I'm a feminist.
  • I'm socially liberal. (which I consider moral, since this means I don't care what others do by themselves or with other like-minded individuals)
  • I genuinely am trying to leave the world a better place than I found it.
  • I pick up litter.

These are just things I can think of now. It really depends on your definition of Morals, I guess. But if you define being Moral as not hurting people intentionally. I definitely fit the bill.

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    Good, now sell all yor possessions and follow Jesus!
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 3:02
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    @PeterTurner: why not Vishnu, Zoroaster, Odin or other Kami?
    – DampeS8N
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 4:33
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    because they didn't have feet.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 13:31
  • @Peter Turner I'd defer to the pope/televangelists/dogmatic christians/...
    – starblue
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 19:29

If we define the moral standard as following God's laws other than the parts which require a belief in God, then yes, it is theoretically possible for an atheist to follow God's law and be moral. I say "theoretically", though, because it is likely not possible for any man to follow God's law. In this sense, an atheist can be just as moral as a believer.

As far as being moral to the point of being accepted by God, no, an atheist cannot be moral enough to be accepted by God. Jesus tells us, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38 NIV) An atheist obviously cannot follow this commandment.

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    Isn't the entire point that none are "moral to the point of being accepted by God," without Christ?
    – user202
    Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 21:13
  • @IanPugsley Jesus was, so with enough faith we could be. Even with the little faith we have, though, we are accepted through Christ.
    – a_hardin
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 13:07

An Atheist has access to the Natural Law because it is written on their heart the same as it is on any Christian. Therefore, they have no excuse for not being moral, other than the fact that they (and us) often ignore the truths inherent in our humanity.

By virtue of baptism, we are freed from the punishment due to use because of original sin, we certainly are not freed from the inclination to sin.

No one is moral enough to merit entrance into Heaven, and according to Catholicism at least, someone totally ignorant of the Gospel is still saved by Jesus through a baptism by desire if they lived a moral life and under other circumstances would have accepted the Gospel.

Here's my opinion:

The previous paragraph was about a person who is totally ignorant of the Gospel. But, in this day and age, we have a curse of violent distortions of Christianity throughout the world and it is perfectly conceivable in a way previously unknown that anyone could become an atheist merely by virtue of being presented with a distorted version of Christianity.

However, you'll know whether anyone is acting morally by their fruits (Mat 7:16). There's nothing magical about Christianity, but there is something special about being open to God's grace. So, Christians have a larger responsibility and a bigger task, by virtue of being given more graces. Atheists who can prove that they kept their heads above water are commendable (and moral). So go commend them to Our Lady, so they will be all the more moral.

  • This answer seems to presume that rejection of Christianity can only come about by a distorted presentation of it. However, what about people who simply aren't convinced that any of it is true? That is to say, they simply don't find there to be sufficient evidence. Not saying that there is or isn't, just saying that a distorted presentation of Christianity isn't the only thing that would make someone reject it. Someone could give an accurate view of Christianity but simply not provide enough evidence to convince the person. Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 18:17

Oh, for sure. As long as "morality" can be defined as adherence to a code other than that defined by the Bible and Christian teachings. Some fundamentalists teach that adherence to God's law is the only morality; "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". However, many of the most well-known and well-studied moral theorists of history were Christians who endeavored to explain the morality of the Bible in ways that didn't depend on the divine authority, so to convince nonbelievers that the Law should be followed. Others were those who rejected Christianity, or theology outright, and attempted to solve the problem of the source of morality in the absence of divine authority.

Hedonism, for example, is a moral code stating that the action that causes the most pleasure and the least pain for all involved is the right one. It was originally posited by Democritius, who developed these principles based on the fundamental tenet that there is no afterlife; what we have here is all there is, so we should make it the most pleasurable existence possible for all. Although the term is now more often used to refer to what is more accurately "Moral Nihilism" ("if it feels good, do it"), the concepts of "net pleasure" and "net pain", when applied to the collective, would result in several fundamental corollaries that mirror Christian teaching regarding our interactions with one another, such as "treat others as you yourself would want to be treated" (because to do so would, in the overwhelming norm, result in the greatest pleasure and least pain, because you would want pleasure and not pain). Common arguments against Hedonism, such that it only concerns itself with physical pleasure and pain, are patently false; when deciding what is moral, all types of pleasure, including mental and emotional, should be considered, and the long-term should also be considered; using drugs, for example, provides some pleasure now, but much more pain in the long term in the form of addiction, health issues, and emotional pain inflicted upon family and friends. However, there are some valid contradictions with "commonsense morality", such as the imperative to save the greater number of people from harm at the expense of those with whom you have the greater emotional tie (most people would reject the idea of sacrificing their perfectly healthy mother in some way to save five strangers; though some Christian scholars would say that's exactly what Jesus taught).

Even outside the bounds of Moral Relativism (which includes Nihilism, Hedonism and Utilitarianism, most of which examine an act by its consequences), moral codes can exist that would result in societies in which we would generally want to live, without relying on imperatives found in any holy text. Kantian moral theory (Immanuel Kant was a devout Christian who sought to logically justify Biblical morality) describes the Categorical Imperative; there are some actions that are categorically moral and others that are categorically immoral. The process for deciding these is not necessarily to consult the Bible, but instead to formulate the imperative, universalize it, and then reason logically to find any contradictions or to reach a conclusion that society as we know it could not exist. For instance, lying is immoral because of a logical contradiction; lying requires meaningful language in order to exist (you have to be able to communicate in order to communicate a falsehood), however if everyone lied, then nobody could tell whether a statement were true or false, and so language would lose its meaning (as the statement could mean what it says or the exact opposite). Murder is immoral for two reasons; first, if everyone murdered at will, humanity would likely die out, and second, there is a logical contradiction that you would not want yourself or your acquaintances to be murdered, but you would want to murder others.

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    TL;DR - Oh, authority. Hedonism, taught. Even others. (Occam may be your friend in providing a better alternative)
    – going
    Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 6:12
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    Have to disagree with the second sentence a wee bit. My old youth soccer coach, an avowed Atheist, was a far more moral person (even according to most Christian theology) than nearly every Christian I have ever met.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 18:12

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