Too many people base their morality on shallow and ultimately unsound reasons: a fear of hell, a desire to get into heaven, and parochial obedience to God. They do not represent true goodness. Good and ethical conduct should stem from empathy, compassion, and rational sincerity – it should be done for it’s own sake, not out of primal instincts such as fear, self-preservation, or obedience to a higher power.
But alas, that is where many theists, particularly of the Abrahamic religions, seem to ultimately derive their moral compass. It’s all rather clear cut – if you don’t do what God says or approves of, you go to hell; if you follow what is “right” as commanded by God (or interpreted by you, your choice, or the Bible) than you earn the reward of heaven. It’s basically a celestial stick and carrot, and is akin to the sort of moralizing paternalism that guides the actions of children (who are self-evidently lacking in reason and are in their formative years of ethical and moral development).
Of course, this isn’t to say that all theists prescribe to such a disturbingly selfish notion of morality. On the contrary, I’m fortunate that most of the religious people I’ve encountered are far removed from such a basis in conduct, if only because they’re also far removed from the dogmatic and fundamentalist notions of God that justify it. Most Christians, particularly in my younger demographic, seem to take a more liberal view of God, one which downplays the concepts of heaven and hell.
Nevertheless, there are many theists that do ground their actions in this perverse notion of morality, with disquieting implications for society. What does it say about our race when so many of us feel a need to be intimidated into doing good things? Why do we need God to determine what is right and just? And why should heaven be an incentive? Why have an incentive at all? Ultimately, my concern is that people raised under such notions will ultimately fail in developing a true ethical and moral foundation. Instead of learning the value of doing good things for their own sake, or out of a more tangible sense of empathy, they’ll come to see good deeds as nothing more than a way to make God happy and ensure their place in eternal happiness. Does that sound like a sincere basis for goodness? Is bribing or threatening you to do a good thing make it genuine on your part?
What I find even more disturbing is how many theists seem perfectly content with all this. They see no problem with basing their morality on these “incentives” and in fact see it as simply the way things are (which I interpret as a euphemism for having personal reservations about something but ultimately getting over it because, well, that’s just what God intended, so end of story). I’m reminded of the story of Abraham, and how the patriarch of the great monotheistic faiths was willing to murder his own son just because God commanded it. Obviously, we all know that God had no intention of letting Abraham kill his son – it all just a test of his faith. But he certainly didn’t know this. Despite his reservations, Abraham was going to go through with this disturbing act, believing full well that it was the right thing to do because God said so.
So what does this say about the nature of morality in Christianity and the other “Abrahamic” faiths? Is it just what God decides? What if God were to hypothetically command a follower to go on a killing spree? Would he or she do it, since God is the source and final authority on such things? Christians retort that God would never do such a thing, and that his very existence embodies what is good and right. But that misses the point: what if they were placed in Abraham’s place, not knowing it were a test? What would they do then?
There is more I wanted to write on this subject, and I was hoping move the topic along to Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro dilemma. But I think I’ll leave that for another post, as it is getting late. I look forward to any replies, particularly from theists.