Six Arguments Against Religion V: Regulating Virtue and Selling Salvation

When people lose their sense of awe, they turn to organized religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they turn to authority. — Tao Te Ching 72 (Stephen Mitchell’s modern Zen-influenced translation)

God’s Cops

Like any laws, the rules of religion tell you how to behave, and specify punishment for lawbreakers.

Sir, we caught you red-handedly not loving your neighbor as yourself. Uh-oh! You’re headed downtown, buddy. The sentence: eternal damnation. No bail.

But regulating virtue is nonsense. If I tell you to be virtuous — not just act virtuously, but be virtuous — and threaten you with punishment if you fail, and then you act virtuously, have you magically become virtuous? Even Jesus said that adultery committed in the heart is still adultery. The whole point of virtue is that it’s something you choose to be, of your own free will. Otherwise you’re play-acting. And omniscient Gods can tell the difference.

Even worse, to my mind, are rules which specify penances for certain acts. Committed adultery? Put other gods before the Lord? No problem; just meditate, or chant, or — best yet — donate more money to the church! Your good acts will make up for your failings, and you’ll get to keep your badge and get into the City of God.

This is just selling salvation.

Judge Not

Now, don’t get me wrong. If you commit adultery, there will be consequences to those actions. But it’s not the job of the church to mete out that punishment, or sell those indulgences. Didn’t Jesus say judge not, lest ye be judged and found wanting? Why don’t the churches heed this advice, too? (For that matter, why didn’t Jesus…? He certainly cast his judgement on a lot of people. Aha, another Mystery to contemplate!)

But even if the church doesn’t itself mete out punishment, but just threatens God’s punishments, the same problem occurs. It’s simply a fact that virtue is not something you can be scared into; otherwise it’s not virtue. Certainly a threatened punishment can encourage you to act better, and maybe when you start acting right, you’ll realize you like virtue and you’ll be virtuous for its own sake. But more often, threats lead to resentment, fear, and closed-mindedness.

This is a very serious criticism indeed, and holds not just of religion, but of any moral or ethical system that lays out desiderata and consequences. The injunction Do Not Steal, and the threat of some kind of punishment, doesn’t keep you from wanting to steal, regardless of whether the law is laid down by God, Obama, Immanuel Kant, or the local Mafia Don.

What’s the answer here? I can only offer my own opinion; and it’s not something that’s easy to state plainly. Let me ask questions instead.

  • Are you believing in your religion just because of the punishments and rewards involved? Suppose you’re Christian, and then, as you’re dying, you find out that Islam was right all along. Whoops! But Allah is merciful, and gives you one last chance to convert to Islam real quick, to escape the Muslim hell. Would you still adhere to Christianity? If not, are you believing for the right reasons? (If you’re not Christian, substitute your own belief system here.)
  • If virtue is its own reward, why isn’t sin its own punishment?

18 responses to “Six Arguments Against Religion V: Regulating Virtue and Selling Salvation”

  1. You may know, but many evangelical Christians attempt to convert people by sharing with them the Roman Road, which is a collection of verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans. And the first verse is…

    Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

    And the step the convert is supposed to take is…

    Admit that you are a sinner.

    I think this is very telling. It shows that the evangelical version of Christianity centers around sin. And this Roman Road is exactly as you say, an evangelical acting like a police officer telling the prospective convert that whether he knows it or not, he’s been violating God’s law. The Roman Road doesn’t begin with love, wonder, or beauty. It starts with you’re a sinner. You’re less that you should be. You have disappointed the ruler of the universe. You should be ashamed of yourself. You may have thought you’re a good person, but you’re not.

    BTW, here’s the whole road…


  2. Suppose you’re Christian, and then, as you’re dying, you find out that Islam was right all along. Whoops!

    Heh… “I’m sorry, but you all guessed wrong… it was actually the Mormons.”

    You make some very good points here; true virtue is a way of life, not answers to a checklist.

    I find the Stephen Mitchell version of Tao you quote highly evocative… unfortunately, it also seems to be highly idiosyncratic. I read seven or eight other editions of that passage (including a character-by-character translation), and I’m rather at a loss to see how Mitchell gets religion out of it at all; there are some rather large variances in the other translations, but they all seem to be in agreement that the basic thrust of the passage is an admonition to the ruler not to unduly oppress the people.

    I won’t clog up your comment box with all of that :), but if you’re interested in what I found drop me a line and I’ll write up the results of my (admittedly quick) comparative analysis…


  3. A very interesting post. Like you, I’ve never found the threat of punishment a particularly compelling reason to believe in any faith, and there’s an interesting discussion to be had around the idea that God punishes us for failure even though he knows we’re fallible and will sin. (Personally, I think he doesn’t, but that’s a topic for another time!)

    I wanted to pick up on one thing – your last sentence says that ‘If virtue is its own reward, why isn’t sin its own punishment?’ There is a school of thought in Christianity (I can’t speak for other religions) that sin IS it’s own punishment – in fact, I think St Augustine said this. I think it depends on how one defines sin and hell (assuming that hell is the punishment for sin after death). Sin can be defined as that which separates us from God, or that which mars the image of God in us and makes it impossible for us to relate to God the way we were designed to. Hell, too, has been defined as eternal separation from God, which is punishment enough, as God is the source of all light and life both in the here and the hereafter. So if you accept these definitions, God doesn’t directly or actively ‘punish’ those who sin. They separate themselves from God by their actions, and then suffer the obvious consequence of that if they die in that separated state.

    I’m sure this isn’t the only way of interpreting the relationship between sin and hell and punishment, but I thought I’d offer it as an explanation of how sin might be ‘its own punishment’.

    (On a side note, I think it’s possible to argue that although hell (as defined above) exists, it’s impossible to know whether anyone is actually in it, because we don’t know the state of any person’s soul, and we don’t know whether God, in the moment of death, gives everybody a chance to repent. This may be an entirely unorthodox opinion of mine, though. 🙂 )


  4. Bill — that’s very interesting, and squares well with some recent studies in the comparison of moral systems between self-identified conservatives and self-identified liberals. Conservatives in general feel that submission to a duly-constituted authority is extremely important — just as important as, say, fairness and individual liberty; while liberals feel that submission to authority is less important than fairness and individual liberty. In other words, everyone seems to agree that submission to a duly constituted authority is important, but liberals think it is less important than fairness and individual liberty. I don’t have the link to the study at hand, but if people are interested I can dig it up. Anyway, it would make sense for them to place Submission to God’s Authority as a high priority in their mission. But it just turns liberals off. 🙂


  5. Erik — thanks for giving Stephen Merrill credit! 🙂 I composed this quickly a few weeks ago, and didn’t get a chance to go over it in depth before I posted it. It is very interesting to compare the translations; usually I do that before posting a quote, but I didn’t in this case. I’d be interested to see what you found!


  6. Melanie — I’ve heard that definition of sin before, and it is compelling. One thing I’m not clear on, though, is how we can ever truly be separated from God? Isn’t it usually said that God is present in everything, everywhere? … I think I’d prefer something like this: sinful actions are those rooted in the illusion of separation. We are never really separated, but when we act as though we were, it can lead to ‘sin’. And I’d absolutely agree that sin is its own punishment.


  7. Jeff,
    I have posted the results of my informal Tao survey as a page on my blog:



  8. Jeff – I think one of the reason conservatives favor submission and liberals favor fairness and liberty is that conservatives believe humans are mostly evil and liberals believe humans are mostly good. And I’ve also believe some people become conservative out of fear or undeveloped coping skills. They are afraid of the world and many of the humans in it. Thus the need for gun ownership, capital punishment, and a strong military. This may be due to being raised in an environment of fear, or had some bad things happen to them and didn’t learn how to deal with it yet. To them, God is a protector, a bodyguard against all the bullies in the schoolyard. God is the alpha dog leader of the pack and their instinct is to roll over and submit in order to gain favor.


  9. Jeff – thanks for the response, and you pose an interesting question – how can we ever really be separated from God?

    I suppose this takes us into a discussion of what the relationship between God and the world is. As far as I understand Christian doctrine, God and the world are definitely not ‘one’ – God creates the world, it is dependent on him, so it can’t be the same thing as God. But God also ‘sustains’ the world, holds it ‘in being’ – which I have always taken to mean that God is deciding, at every moment, to keep the universe in existence. So yes, in that sense, God is never separate from the world, or his creatures – because if he ever really separated himself from us, we would simply cease to exist. (Possibly another description of hell??) Somewhere there is a balance of God being separate (as in a separate entity) from the world and God also being ‘in’ the world. I’m not quite sure exactly where that balance lies, I’m afraid.

    So in part I would agree with your illusion theory. But in my first comment I also referred to the ‘image of God in us’. Sinful actions mar or destroy or in some other way damage that image, and we could speak of a separation in this case – a separation of the self from its true purpose or design. It’s one of the reasons why I think some of the Christian ideas about sin are compelling…because they express the idea that doing the wrong thing hurts our true self just as much or more as any external consequence of the action.

    (I appear to have the habit of writing long comments, I’m afraid! Thanks for the arena for discussing such interesting issues.)


  10. Bill writes:
    “some people … are afraid of the world and many of the humans in it. Thus the need for gun ownership, capital punishment, and a strong military.”

    If you leave behind “the need for gun ownership” while your neighbors haven’t — and if you make the fact known among those neighbors — neighbors who feel the need of a gun may feel the need to use it on you (once they know for sure that you can’t or won’t shoot back).


  11. Melanie — thanks for your comment! And write as much as you want — I *love* long comments! 😉

    Here I have to disagree with the usual Christian doctrine. I think the universe is eternal, and has no ‘creator’. I have no reason to believe this other than my own intuition, and in fact the scientific evidence is against me; but hey — science has been wrong before. 😉 However, I definitely agree that ‘sin’ (by which I mean those actions usually described as sinful) does at least as much harm to the soul of the sinner as to the world and people around them. I don’t know if a soul has a true purpose or design; I think our soul’s final form is shaped to a very great extent by our own choices, in the exercise of our free will, and nothing — not even God, or Spirit — knows what that final form will be.

    Kate — true enough. But to me, your argument sounds less like an argument for gun ownership, and more like an argument to find different neighbors. 😉 (Or to pass laws banning gun ownership… or to choose voluntary poverty, so that your gun-wielding neighbors will not want to steal from you… etc. I’m just saying there are other options.)


  12. Re:
    “your argument sounds less like an argument for gun ownership, and more like an argument to find different neighbors. ;-)”

    There may *be* no different neighbors. When Neighbor X knows that Neighbor Y has disarmed him/herself (voluntarily or otherwise) — while Neighbor X remains armed (lawfully, or otherwise), this may turn a formerly decent-acting Neighbor X into a willing, and eager, predator on Neighbor Y (and/or on Y’s equally unarmed children)


    ” … to pass laws banning gun ownership…”

    Gun-prohibition laws — because they *are* laws — are (as a rule) obeyed only by the law-abiding. Law-abiding Neighbor X is therefore still at risk from scofflaw Neighbor Y.

    Also, an odd thing (historically) — the governments which have been the most eager and competent at gun-prohibition laws have been the tyrannies. One of the most comprehensive and widely/effectively enforced gun-prohibition laws was that enacted in 1933 by the newly elected Chancellor of Germany, one A. Hitler.


  13. Kate — I have heard these arguments before, and remain, respectfully, unconvinced. 🙂 By this logic, all nations should immediately try to acquire nuclear weapons, or else the scofflaw nations will invade them. Surely it is more reasonable for the nations to gather together and agree to ban them? There are more powerful and effective weapons of international diplomacy — weapons like forthrightness, honor, trustworthiness, and — when those fail — economic power and strength in numbers. It is to everyone’s benefit to build a community based on trust and mutual vulnerability. I would rather try to build a community based on these principles than live in a fortress, and own a deadly weapon that I might misuse, or might be fired accidentally by my children, or might be taken and used against me. If I don’t want my neighbors to attack me, I find it’s more effective to make friends with them. This might not work in all cases, but it will work 99.99% of the time. I think, on balance, owning a gun — or nuclear weapons — is the riskier option.

    Of course tyrannies have effective gun laws! But that doesn’t mean gun laws are bad. Hitler was also a painter, a vegetarian, built interstate highways, and founded Volkswagen. Not everything he did is automatically a bad idea. 😉


  14. Re:
    “Surely it is more reasonable for the nations to gather together and agree to ban them?”

    Let’s say that, today, the leaders of all Earth’s nations get a memo to read your blog, do so, then call a meeting to /a/ destroy all nukes at 9 AM Greenwich time tomorrow, and /b/ never, ever make any more.

    Let’s say that *just* *one* nation’s leaders — out of all those hundreds of nations big and small — don’t agree.
    Oh, maybe that nation’s leaders attend the meeting and piously sign the treaty and *appear* to destroy their weapons along with everyone else — while secretly holding onto just one nuke somewhere (or evading inspections by moving the nukes and labs into space, disguised as some other form of payload on a launch to a space-station, whence it will be even easier for them to bomb everyone else).

    — or (if you’re not into military science-fiction), maybe that one nation’s leaders just decide, on the way to the meeting, to turn around, go home, and send a melodramatic text-message:
    “Fools! You newly sincere pacifists are destroying all your weapons, while we retain ours: the bombing begins in five minutes. Signed, Guess Who. Clue: We’re the country that sent the rest of you guys that anonymous memo suggesting you read Jeff Lilly’s blog.”

    Well, let’s assume that none of those things happen — that all the leaders of all the nations of the world *do* get rid of their nukes, ban all nukes and all war and all weaponry forever, and that they really mean it: there are no hold-outs. Sooner or later, Earth will be visited by some space-faring species whose *own* nations are not signatory to the treaty — and who don’t want to be.

    I hope I’m wrong — but I don’t think you’re right.


  15. Re “judge not, lest ye be judged” —

    Exhortations to “judge not” are self-contradictory because they are themselves judgmental (they make the judgment that one should not make judgments!)

    In any case, a human with a functioning brain, nervous system, and sense organs cannot avoid judging: to perceive and think is, inevitably, to make judgments.

    One of the smarter people I ever met preferred an altered version of the quote, which he claimed to have gotten either from a 1950s novel or from a book on self-esteem (he didn’t recall which) — “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”


  16. Kate — re nuclear weapons — I think the main problem with your example / argument here is that it implicitly assumes that nuclear weapons are the only effective tool of war and diplomacy. There are plenty of ways a nation can prevent itself from being a target of nuclear war without itself being a nuclear power. New Zealand, for example, has actually outlawed nuclear weaponry from its sovereign territory (which has caused some friction with the US, since of course we’d like to dock our nuclear submarines there). It hasn’t been attacked by any of the nuclear powers, has it? Because using nuclear weapons is not without consequences. Maybe you’d say, well, the US or one of the other nuclear powers would jump to New Zealand’s aid if anyone were to attack it, so effectively it IS being defended by nuclear weapons. Maybe so, but I think that the primary reason no one has attacked it is because New Zealand is an open, free country which offends no one. No one has any REASON to attack it.

    Similarly, if imperial aliens come from abroad, they will have to ask themselves whether it’s more cost-effective to land all their troops or drop their expensive bombs, destroy our economic infrastructure, and send their human slaves to work in the rabidium mines… or to simply trade with us, work with us, and hire our workers. Mutual trade is almost always more cost-effective, which is why the American Empire is an economic empire, not a nuclear one.

    For another example of how nuclear warfare can be avoided without each nation having its own arsenal, check out my “Virginia Dare” short story. 🙂


  17. Kate — re “judge not” — good points. 🙂 I do think, though, that the practice of actively reserving judgement is a good one. Obviously this is itself a judgement, but I’m not saying all judgement is inherently bad — just that it’s good to practice not judging everything and everyone all the time.


  18. […] by executivepagan on April 12, 2010 The other day Jeff Lilly began a post with a quote from the beginning of chapter 72 of the Tao Te Ching, as translated by Stephen […]


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