Home » Other blog comments » Conversation on “absence of belief can motivate”

Conversation on “absence of belief can motivate”

This is a summary of some recent dialogue posted in the comments section of a blog post by Robert Martin of The City Bible Forum in Melbourne.
Nothing new added here – this is simply just a re-capture of comments material.

Having just discovered this site in the past 3 days or so, I’ve just come to find this older post, so I’m not expecting this comment to be read.
However, I can’t resist pointing out an extraordinarily obvious flaw in this bit:
“For example a person is motivated to commit a crime because of the ‘lack of belief’ in getting caught. A burglar does not commit the crime with the belief or expectation of getting caught, they commit the crime precisely because there is an ‘absence of belief’. Hence a criminal is motivated by ‘lack of belief’.”

A thief is not at all motivated by the notion of “not getting caught”. They are motivated by the desire to obtain the valuables of the person they are robbing.
They may believe that they won’t be caught, but that is nowhere near their motivation!

I won’t get started on the extended implication that atheists lack morals because they don’t believe they’ll be punished for their acts. Suffice to say that it’s an appalling fallacy.


Paul, Thanks for the comment. Your comments are very welcome and comments on the older posts do indeed get read. I appreciate your comment, yet I think you’re stretching it to suggest that a thief is not at all motivated by the notion of “not getting caught”. Really??? Why is there looting in supermarkets etc when the lights go out? The example that Richard Dawkins uses in the God Delusion (p.228) of the crime wave which occurred in Montreal when the police went on strike is a perfect illustration. Why the spike in crime? People were suddenly motivated because they believed they wouldn’t get caught. I completely agree with you that a person is motivated by the desire to obtain the valuables of the person they are robbing. Yet I would also say that their belief that they won’t get caught is also a crucial motivation.

Also, be careful with what I didn’t say – I don’t think I said that atheists lack morals because they don’t believe they’ll be punished. I completely agree that atheists can be moral – yet you do need to acknowledge the dark side of atheism, and that it does lack the philosophical ammunition to categorically condemn mass murders.

Thanks again for the comments. I really appreciate your interactions.


Rob, the *motivation* is clearly about gaining the valuables.
Motivation is the purpose or drive that inclines one to a particular goal.
The assumption or belief that they won’t get caught is not a *motivator* for a thief, it is a factor in their risk assessment about whether they should proceed with their crime.

A person that is motivated by the notion that they won’t get caught, would more correctly be described as a “thrill seeker”. Such a person isn’t really interested in the object of the robbery – they’d be enjoying the adrenaline rush of avoiding capture.

Both examples are ‘badness’ in the sense that there is a victim (ie., the one that has been robbed), but I imagine the overwhelming majority of thrill-seekers don’t bother with committing major crimes. They’re more likely to engage in extreme sports, etc. to satisfy their need for thrills.

All of this is straying from your original point somewhat, which was that a “lack of belief” can be a motivator. For the context you are describing, I disagree, obviously. And I don’t think you’ve made any meaningful case for it to be true by using the motivation of a thief as an example.

Also, I know what you didn’t say explicitly. But the whole implicit point of your argument is that a lack of belief in god(s), and therefore in divine judgement, acts as some kind of excuse, or in fact *motivation*, for committing crimes. It’s nonsensical.

“…you do need to acknowledge the dark side of atheism, and that it does lack the philosophical ammunition to categorically condemn mass murders…”
Is this a logical argument, or a religious or philosophical assertion?
Either way, the answer is no, I do not acknowledge that. The thinking here is completely bizarre. Do you want to try to explain it me?


Paul. Thanks again. I think you have separated “motivation” and “belief” unnecessarily (I don’t think you can separate the two). Consider again the illustration Dawkins uses about the police force strike in Montreal. What “suddenly” motivated all the crime?

In terms of the other point, I think it is a logical argument (though correct me if I’m wrong) based around the ‘is/ought’ fallacy. I’ll try to explain. If there is no God/afterlife/judgement etc then we are nothing but DNA. Further in this atheist universe there is nothing (or no-one) objective to say that we ‘ought’ to do anything – you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Hence our actions in this universe are ultimately meaningless and hence the dark side of atheism. i.e. you can’t condemn anyone for doing anything “wrong” – likewise we can’t affirm anyone for doing anything “right” for in the atheist universe these categories just don’t exist. In philosophical language – there is no ultimate moral ontology, hence the lack of ammunition.

Does that help at all? What do you make of this?


Alright Rob, I think I see where you’re going.
Suffice to say it’s patently wrong, of course…

On the less philosophical point of motivation vs. belief (of not getting caught), they are clearly different ‘emotions’. There’s not a lot of point in arguing semantics. When I use words, they’re usually based on the dictionary definitions of those words and their normal usage.
The Montreal case is one in which people were *motivated* by the opportunity presented by the lack of policing. I imagine there would also have been other sociological factors at work too – disaffected youth, gang culture, mob and peer group factors, and so on. The *motivation* was still about gaining valuables.
Do you doubt that there would have been plenty of atheists in Montreal that would not participate in looting on the basis that it was just plain wrong? I try to place myself in this hypothetical position, and “not getting caught” doesn’t enter into the equation. Regardless of the risks, or lack of, I wouldn’t be looting because it’s ‘bad’. One of the primary and most immediate reasons is that other people are affected badly by such actions. These things are obvious. They don’t require a particularly deep philosophical appreciation of the universe to understand.

“…you can’t condemn anyone for doing anything “wrong” …” Answer: Not in any biblical sense, no: that is correct. But I can “condemn” them in a societal, basically/generally moral, and legal sense, for behaviour that is unfair, dangerous to others and to decent society as a whole. I assume this is not in dispute… or do you equate atheism (in the absence of religion in society) with anarchy?

On the philosophical issues, if we’re going to find any common ground to agree on, then it might be worth understanding some of the assumptions behind your beliefs.
In particular, there seems to be an assumption that ‘fully-formed’ Christians are the only the people with the ability to appreciate this mystical ‘absolute morality’. Is this correct?
There are folks with other religions that might assert that they have an appreciation for an ultimate moral ontology (let’s say UMO for shorthand). Therefore they would have something in common with Christians, but not atheists. Their understanding of UMO might lead them to completely different beliefs and behaviours to yours. Is their UMO exactly the same as yours? Or is it wrong – some kind of cosmic miscommunication to those people about the nature of morality?

As an aside: Do you accept the facts of Darwinian evolution in largely the same way that (you might assume) I do? It might seem an unrelated concept, but I’ll come back to it later depending on where the argument goes.
Or, do you believe that the earth and humans were literally made by God in his image sometime in the last 6000 years or so?
If the latter, then this discussion I fear has nowhere else to go. I’d consider you an idiot, or perhaps just an ignoramus, of the highest order and wouldn’t be interested in any further discussion with you. I sincerely hope that’s not the case…


Will respond in more detail later – but just quickly (and hopefully to assuage some concerns). I’m not a young earth creationist and I generally agree with the modern scientific account of reality and hence (hopefully) you don’t consider me an idiot and we can continue this conversation. Will respond to your other comments soon.


I don’t think that motivation and belief are ‘emotions’. I’d suggest that motivation and belief are intertwined. e.g. I believe that this tablet will heal me, hence I am motivated to take it. How are they separate?

In your reflections of the Montreal police strike you have actually admitted the very thing my blog post was identifying i.e. the people were ‘motivated’ by the lack of policing! I agree that there were other motivations, I never claimed this as the sole motivating factor. But the crucial factor is that someone was motivated in some way by the lack of a belief. Also, I’m not suggesting that ‘every’ atheist acts the same, but that absence of belief is a motivator!

The next part of our conversation revolves around important areas of moral philosophy which are often misunderstood. Hence to answer your question “there seems to be an assumption that ‘fully-formed’ Christians are the only the people with the ability to appreciate this mystical ‘absolute morality’. Is this correct?

NO! This is not correct. You have described here moral epistemology – i.e. that we are able to comprehend a form of moral reality. But there is a difference between moral ontology and moral epistemology – i.e. the nature of moral reality and how we ‘know’ or ‘understand’ that morality. Atheists are capable of developing a moral epistemology (what you have described) but incapable of developing a UMO as you helpfully put it. I’m not claiming that all claims to UMO are correct or the same, but that philosophically theism is the only way in which any form of UMO can be described.

I hope that you appreciate these points? This area is so misunderstood that I’ll write another post later this week to clarify. I’d really appreciate your thoughts on this, for this is very seriously misunderstood by both sides – i.e. some theists accuse atheists of never having any morals, which is not true. And atheists think other theists like myself are accusing them of having no morals, which is also not true. I hope this helps?



“…In your reflections of the Montreal police strike you have actually admitted the very thing my blog post was identifying i.e. the people were ‘motivated’ by the lack of policing!…”

No, Rob, please re-read what I said:
The Montreal case is one in which people were motivated by *the opportunity presented by* the lack of policing.
Emphasis shifted to “the opportunity presented by…”

As I said, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere on the difference between motivations and beliefs. You seem to be saying they are effectively the same thing. I’m saying they are different.
Your example of taking the tablet actually supports my argument – that the motivation is the purpose for the action.

If you cast your “non-belief motivates…” argument into this example, then you’d be saying something like, “I don’t believe this tablet will have any bad side effects, hence I am motivated to take it.”
That statement is logically incorrect. You don’t take a tablet (or do anything else) for a reason/goal/purpose that is logically negative.
The “motivator” is NOT that there will be no ill effects. The “motivator” is that there will be a positive outcome. “No ill effects” is merely a supporting assumption.

On the subject of a universal moral ontology (UMO)… well gosh, maybe you’ve got me there on definitions. The concept is new to me, and thus far, completely nonsensical.

We can discuss and debate the source of morals ok, I’m sure. That might be interesting.
But this nebulous thing of a UMO seems utterly pointless for any practical discussion or understanding.
I think what you’re saying is that it must exist, and it is endowed by God. And presumably it is independent of humanity.
I think I’ve seen you write elsewhere on this blog on the equality and sanctity of human life in the same terms. Some kind of insistence that these things are divine and indivisible attributes, and that they are self-evident fundamentally “because God”.

I say there is no reason at all to assume that a UMO exists. Morals are a human construct (although some animals appear to display them too) – they are not a divine attribute.
You cannot demonstrate, physically, logically or philosophically, that morals transcend biology. To try to do so “because God”, is classic begging-the-question. The ultimate fallacious circular argument.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s