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)
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.
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?