“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” — Albert Einstein
When I was a kid, my parents hired babysitters whenever they needed to go out to social events for adults. Two of them I remember well, Melanie and Heather. They were both devout Christians and during our time together, they made many attempts to “convert” me. They seemed well aware that my family was not religious. We didn’t attend church. We didn’t read the Bible. We just did the best we could to live in peace.
Melanie and Heather were the first people to really introduce me to the concepts of heaven and hell. The story they told me was simple. God created all of us. God loves us. But, God told us that if we’re good, we go to heaven. If we’re bad, we go to hell. They told me that God could see and hear everything that I was doing. He was always watching, keeping score. I have to admit that I was a bit creeped out by all of this, and I began to feel self-conscious about what I was doing all the time.
Somehow, my Christian babysitters convinced us kids, and I assumed that my parents approved, to go to their church. I sat for the sermon and went to their Sunday school. I think I must have been nearing adolescence, or at least in 5th or 6th grade at the time. I was bored in the sermon. I tried reading the Bible and it felt too much like a fairy tale.
I sat on the Bible in class once, too. I was lightly admonished by my Sunday School teacher. He told me that I was sitting on “The Word of God”, and that I should have more respect for it. I don’t even think I was old enough to understand what he was talking about.
But I never did forget that good and bad and heaven and hell story. Around the same time, I found the stop-motion animated series, Davey and Goliath. I’ve always loved animation, but those episodes only intensified my fear of hell and of God’s implied wrath. Every time Davey ignored the advise of his dog and plowed on to the blunder of the day, I winced. I thought it was cool that he really tried to make amends. But looking back now, I noticed something else.
Davey wasn’t making amends just out of compassion. He was making amends to be seen as “good enough” for heaven. He was acting on a bribe. It seems to me now, that Davey wasn’t taught the skills to do better. He was just expected to do better by the grace of God. He was taught the morality of his sins, not the skill to avoid sinning.
All of that experience leads me to think that Christianity, Judaism and Islam have been misappropriated as social control systems. I would like to think that the original intent of those “Abrahamic” faiths, is to provide spiritual guidance to know one’s creator. You know, it’s better to assume ignorance before malice.
Einstein rightly observed that many people are being “good” just to go to heaven, just to get that reward. I’m not sure about the sorry lot part. I think it’s more like confusion. There is no good and evil. There is only confused, what we call “evil” and less confused, what we call “good”. That confusion is evidence of a lack of skills or capacity or both, to respond proactively to the demands of our environment.
The skills I speak of are *interpersonal skills”. Western Religion seems to function better as a spiritual guide than an interpersonal guide. Wars, genocide, racism, and some really bad child rearing practices all suggest signs of confusion. It is, I think, rather difficult to preach morality without teaching the skills to achieve the standard set by the morality so preached.
But lets assume for the moment that you do go to heaven after you die. Everything there is perfect, right? You’re happy. All your needs are met, well, in heaven, you don’t have any needs. Do you? Do you automatically get along with others, or do you have freewill? Do you have the skills to get along with others? When you get to heaven, do you automatically get the skills you need to get along with others in heaven? If God gave man freewill on earth, what does he get in heaven?
I don’t believe in heaven. I am agnostic about heaven, god, hell and everything else. For all I know, I’m a subroutine in a very elaborate computer simulation. Thank God I’m not Mr. Smith. I still don’t know who I am. But I’m here.
I live a life of relative peace. I am good to people not because I want to go to heaven. I am good to people because I want heaven on earth. I am good to people because I feel good when I help others. That is by far, the single greatest gift of being a member of humanity, of a family, of being a father, a husband, a worker. I love how I feel when I help people. I’m hardwired for it. Helping other people is coded in my genes. I don’t need to be bribed to be good to other people. I just know that I sleep better at night, knowing I did the right thing.