Consider someone who believes in any kind of reincarnation or perfect punishment after death, a theist. That is, all she/he does in this life is done in light of complying with her/his God(s) wishes.

Is it possible for a person like this to be genuinely selfless in the sense of leaving a better world for future generations for their own sake? If so, how?

I don't see what could prevent this hypothetical person from being selfish all his/her life, knowing that the burden will exist only for future generations and not for himself/herself.

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NOTE: this is a provocative post, meant to point that this community moderator deemed this post NOT offensive "Why should an atheist care about what happens to the world after his/her death?" but finds offensive to make counterpoints to it.

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    Does this answer your question? Why should an atheist care about what happens to the world after his/her death? Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 8:29
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    This doesn't need to be a purely provocative question. It has merit - even as a response to its opposite post - and would be improved by removal of your 'note'. Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 11:11
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    I'm a militant atheist and I don't find the other post offensive. Ignorant if you want, but not offensive. Some religious people have genuinely no notion of why we could have moral standard without a giant magical stick and carrot to retribute our behavior. It's scary and childish, but all the reason more to introduce them to the topic of moral philosophy. Anyway, asking about the reasons for secular morality is in the scope of this SE, and your ranting is not. No double standard here. Maybe grow a thicker skin.
    – armand
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 11:57
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    I was thinking that some post by famargar got removed. Sorry for the confusion.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 12:09
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    I equally don't see what could prevent this hypothetical person from being altruistic all his/her life, knowing that the benefit will exist only for future generations and not for himself/herself. There's nothing irrational, at least, that I can see in either case. It depends on how the person identifies her/ his interests - as self-regarding in your theist's case or other-regarding in the case I've described.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 12:53

6 Answers 6


If we agree on the premise that there's no reason for an atheist to care what happens after their death, then the corollary to that claim is that theists do care about it only because they are afraid to be punished in the next life or hell. Which is indeed far from selfless.

If you promise a theist a guaranteed reward or punishment after death (to take out the religion-related self-interest out), they have exactly the same reasons to care for others as atheists. Either you accept that both theists and atheists may have such reasons, or you deny selflessness to both.

In other words, true selflessness is above religion and cannot be substituted by a religious belief.

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    Perhaps we could realize that Religion is not really functional.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 14:26

"You will eat, bye and bye, In that glorious land above the sky; Work and pray, live on hay, You'll get pie in the sky when you die.

Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out, And they holler, they jump and they shout 'Give your money to Jesus' they say, 'He will cure all diseases today.'"

-Joe Hill, lyrics from The Preacher And The Slave

There is certainly a caricature, especially of US Evangelical Christianity, that reaches it's peak in 'Prosperity Gospel' megachurches, of a pitch for religion that it's about what believers will get - but that is actually formally heretical. Those focused on post-life reward do so often at the cost of not helping or solving things now, eg see the criticism of Mother Theresa by Christopher Hitchens and others. The attitude of resignation to current evils has roots in particular in Boethius' On the Consolation of Philosophy, where the ideas served a very different function, basically focusing in a very Stoic way on your internal conditions rather than external - even if like him you were on Dark Ages death row. It was meant to be about cultivating yourself to be ready for Heaven, not just obedience to the church to get rewards. Work on yourself, and it will be it's own reward:

"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, bThey have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, eenter into thy fcloset, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret dshall reward thee openly." - Mathew 5-6

Religious people and not can apply many similar tools, because religious metaphors are also culture-building psychotechnologies: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view? See this article too Whence comes nihilism, the uncanniest of all guests?

Buddhism is exactly not focused on rebirth, good or bad. It's focused on Awakening, that ends the cycle now. Rebirth is just a way of talking about how the consequences of our actions outlive us. Awakening is a way of finding meaningful actions from within this very moment, instead of attached to consequences outside of our lives and experience. The Bodhisattva Path of Mahayana Buddhism is specifically about forgoing the rewards until the hells are emptied.

In Judaism they say Shabbat is practicing for heaven. The reward isn't just beyond life, it can be in this life, and is embodied simply by living well together. That is the path for future living well together.

I've got more to say, but given you just seem intent on attacking religious people as necessarily selfish, I expect the thread to get closed before I have time to finish.

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    "A word to the wise is enough."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 12:06

As a human being, I have responsibilities. Ignoring these responsibilities means I lose the right to call myself a human being.

Theists often try to push these responsibilities to a “higher being”. I consider that cowardice, and as an atheist I don’t have that cheap way out. That’s why I care about how I leave this world.


I suppose a theist could care for much the same reason that an atheist would care, because caring derives more benefit than harm for them selves.

I do not believe in "selfless acts" (outside of accident) as any selfless act provides benefit to the person committing the act, even if that benefit is just the internal knowledge that they did the right thing. Caring about others and future generations can derive more benefit in the form of internal peace/dopamine/ability sleep/ whatever you want to call it, than the alternative of acting in a selfish way that provides more material benefit.


The world is like a house that's inherited by future generations. The house will be affected by the wear and tear of each generation so the idea of making the world "better" for the next generation is pointless, since what is best is not the same from one generation to another. The best that can be hoped for is that each generation use and care for the house responsibly so each future generation has a decent place to live.

I dont see any religious belief including atheism that is contrary to this simple idea.

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    How is making it better pointless?
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 0:16
  • @Tim Perhaps pointless is not the right word. What is "good" changes from generation to generation so applying the notion of "better" seems inappropriate.
    – user59124
    Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 0:25
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    @SteveSaban: You are so wrong. This castle has been on the same spot for 900 years. The same family has lived tee the entire time. Each generation has maintained and improved the buildings and rooms. That the next generation will live there makes it important that the current generation maintain and improve things. So with the Earth. Each generation is responsible for maintaining and improving things for the next generation.
    – JRE
    Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 10:25

There are many philosophical positions that tend to promote nihilism, which given human psychology, tends to lead to lack of caring for others.

Many of the critiques of atheism by the religious focus on the way material reductionism removes any value to: values, morality, reason, consciousness, selfhood, and makes any agency, willing or choice irrelevant.

Atheists can make a very similar critique of most monotheism -- if the universe is under the control of an omnipotent and omniscient being, then every thought and action a believer or UNbeliever may take has been pre-planned and scripted by a puppet-master, making any agency or choices we might think we are making -- just self delusion, as well as irrelevant to the future of the universe.

The range of philosophical world-views that can actually support relevant and effective agency and morality -- is actually fairly small. One can find such space within both atheist and theist worldviews.

To get there as an atheist, one can go the Buddhist route, and accept spiritual dualism, but reject theism. OR, one can accept emergence of causal consciousness, and the reality of abstract objects, such as moral principles.

To get there as a theist, one can accept theistic pluralism, such that there is no single puppetmaster. Ditheism is the easiest such route. Massive polytheism will work as well.

Note, your premise is partially valid, as there are more routes to moral relevancy for atheists, and as percentages, more atheists today hold the views that allow moral relevancy than do today's theists.

  • I think most monotheists would sooner accept atheism than polytheism.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 15:34
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    Di-theism can be a disturbing worldview. The Enemy is powerful and effective, and none of life today, afterlife, or the future of God or the universe can be assured. BUT -- for any who are realists, what our universe is like, is not affected by what we wish it were like. But for those who believe in agency, its future IS affected by what we strive for, and accomplish.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 15:42
  • @ScottRowe: Jewish theologians formally declared Christianity not monotheistic, because of the Trinity. The Devil is often pictured as a kind of deity. In Jewish history they had the Metatron/Enoch heresy of an angel elevated to near god-hood. Monotheists have accepted polytheisms, or at least henotheism, just dressed up a bit, & with different levels. But Hinduism has different levels too, with all ultimately as manifestations of Brahman. I don't see the difference as clear cut, & there has been 'drift' & religious entrepreneurialism always, from the Golden Calf to Santa Meurte
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 17:15
  • @CriglCragl -- Yes, there are "I'm more monotheist than thou" competitions between the monotheist religions. I am fairly sure Sikhism wins that competition... Note that the problem of relevant agency remains for any theism that has only one omni-God, no matter how may secondary or demi-gods are included.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 18:09

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