Is belief in a judging or punishing god necessary for people to act morally?
If you behave because of the threat of punishment in the afterlife, then yes, you need a god—or some other being outside yourself—to make the threats that reinforce your morality in this life. Indeed, the rest of us also need you to have this being, if only to protect us from your lack of morality.
But if you behave because of the good that’s already in you and which you see in others, no god is required for you to be moral.
Goodness is its own reward for you.
Many religious people, especially those of a fundamentalist bent (like I used to be years ago), would have poor morals if they didn’t fear a punishing god. They’re attracted subconsciously to the idea of such a god, which is perhaps one reason why as adults they choose to believe in it.
These folks need that fear of punishment to keep them from hurting other people. You can see this tendency expressed in their zeal to condemn others, even if it’s disguised as enthusiasm for their own cause.
If a supernatural being identifying itself as “God” appeared to me and said that raping is good and killing is okay on Sundays, I would recognize that being as not God. Some people would immediately feel free to do these things, though, because (believing the being to be the “real” God) they would no longer fear afterlife punishment as a consequence.
As with any large group, not all religious-minded people are as I described here. Many of them would continue to be moral people—even without the threat of afterlife punishment—because they already have good in them.
This is perhaps one reason why as adults they choose to believe their religion’s strong moral teachings.
(Written in 2005 and freshly edited on December 19, 2016.)