A recent article in Time about the debate in Christian circles of the existence of Hell got me thinking recently about the nature of moral behavior (if you want to read the article, you can check it out here).
The article highlighted one of my biggest pet peeves about how many use religion. Instead of doing the right thing out of decency or compassion, they’re doing it to get into Heaven (or out of Hell). In other words, they’re only being good to save their own butt.
When I lived inKalamazoo, I was friends with a priest who was a regular shopper at the Barnes and Noble I worked at. We talked about this subject once and he felt doing the right thing to get into heaven was like trying to perform a complicated magic trick. In my mind, it means you’re trying to bribe God into giving up the reward.
Your behavior counts for a lot but so does what’s in your heart when you do it. I’m not what you’d call a strict religious person but I believe in values taught in the Gospels (it’s why my son is in Sunday School). Jesus is all about compassion and doing things out of love. The focus on getting your heavenly reward takes all the love out of it.
Religion’s Achilles heel is how it often turns into an exclusive club to help its members feel superior. Do you have low self esteem? Then just get baptized, born again, or many other options and poof, you’re now better than all those other people. And not just for now but all of eternity!
I don’t think the lesson of the Sermon on the Mount was to “go after yours!” And that’s all you’re doing if your big focus in life is getting into the good bracket for Judgment Day. It’s my big beef with the fundamentalist approach to religion (any religion). All of their talk about salvation and making the world pure is about making themselves the better people so they can get their reward.
I’m harping on Christianity here but the same goes for any other religion. Do you know what the rules of Muhammad’s final sermon were? They were:
Allah has forbidden you to charge interest.
Your women have the right to be fed and clothed in kindness.
Say your five daily prayers.
Fast during the month of Ramadan.
Give your wealth in charity.
Perform Hajj if you can afford to.
An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab.
A white has no superiority over black.
No prophet or apostle will come after me and no new faith will be born.
How many Islamic suicide bombers have followed those rules? All they cared about was their shot at paradise which left them open to be manipulated.
It’s an extreme example but undercuts the issue that has dogged the religious world for all of history. The promise of Paradise has led nations to war and people to drink poison Kool Aid. At the end of the day, I think the world will be a much better place if we’re raising children to be good just for the sake of being good. Sure you can teach them they’ll receive a reward after they’re dead but they have to deal with life in the meantime.
I may sound pessimistic but I’m actually not. The modern world affords more opportunities for debate and discussion than any other era in human history. People of various faiths have an unprecedented opportunity going forward to pull their religions away from the social and political pressures that have shaped them for so long.
I do think this is happening, which is why you see such an emotional response from the fundamentalist lobby. To emphasize compassion and connection with your fellow people (and world) is to knock over the pillars they’ve placed themselves on top of. To challenge their view of religion is to challenge their specialness. It’s like they built a giant statue but the foundation is weak. I swear I heard a story about that somewhere.