According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of people surveyed believe that it's possible to be moral without believing in God. Two-thirds of respondents agree with this sentiment overall, and the percentage is even higher for those who are younger, less religious, or more politically liberal. Whether they define goodness as doing the most socially acceptable thing or having an intrinsically altruistic motivation remains to be seen.
Some define morality strictly by its outcome. For those who espouse this viewpoint, a person's reason for behaving well doesn't matter as much as his or her decision to do so. If people treat others with kindness, the motivation behind it is secondary.
Others argue that it is not enough to act ethically; one must make good choices for the right reasons. Even those who don't believe their intentions are a vital factor in making a moral decision may find that understanding what motivates them is helpful when the best choice is unclear or difficult.
For people of faith, a belief in a higher power is often the foundation for facing ethical quandaries. Repopularized in the 1990s, the question "What would Jesus do?" reflects this tendency to look to God for direction on the right way to behave in any given situation. It serves as a reminder to believers to stop their gut reactions and consider how God would want them to respond. They may draw upon what they have learned by attending church, reading scripture, or praying.
Best Interests of Others
Another common motivation that serves both religious and secular people is the adoption of other orientations. That is, they choose to act in ways that put others' needs or desires ahead of their own. By centering what's best for other people, they believe they are more likely to avoid selfish intentions and less likely to behave in a manipulative manner.
Different people may not prioritize the same values, but many believe that as long as their behavior is consistent with what is most important to them, they are good people. It can take a lot of soul-searching to discover one's core values, and a lot of folks change these central tenets of their personal code throughout their lives.
People often draw on the wisdom of others to narrow down their values to the primary few that should guide their behavior. For example, the triple filter test attributed to Socrates is a set of three questions to ask before speaking:
- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- Is it useful?
Those who use this test can then decide that any statement that doesn't meet all three criteria would be best kept to themselves. A similar checklist can be used regardless of what one's core values might be.
Most cultures and subcultures have their own general code of behavior. Much of this code is communicated explicitly through laws and regulations, but there are also important social norms that newcomers to the region may not understand. Those who are revered in one place may be villainized in another. Even if they share the same basic religion or values as those they interact with, they may be regarded with attitudes of distrust until they learn to express themselves in ways that are considered correct or polite. In this way, the concept of being good not only varies from person to person but also from culture to culture.
It makes sense that people who are not religious would believe that one can be good without God. There are so many factors used to determine what constitutes goodness overall, however, that even most believers contend that it is possible.