The Carrot and the Stick Don’t Work

There’s one thing a lot of fundie trolls don’t understand about atheists. If someone directed you here, pay close attention:

We don’t take bribes. We don’t respond well to threats. That’s why Pascal’s Wager doesn’t work on us.

Many fundies don’t seem to understand the difference between belief and allegiance, either. We do not believe your god exists. We do not believe heaven exists. We do not believe hell exists. We believe these things are a bunch of tribalist superstitions born out of a fear of death as well as tribal sadism towards the out-group. Unlike wishful thinkers, your typical atheist doesn’t believe the universe is designed around our desires. Even if some of us want an afterlife, we do not believe the universe is obligated to provide one just because. When people die, as far as we’ve been able to tell, they die. I’d rather people be honest with themselves and face death with courage and integrity than allow someone to manipulate them with false promises and threats of an afterlife. We don’t want our pursuit of truth to be distorted by selfish desires. It’s not “hate” to value honesty and humility. My desire to be honest with myself is just the first hurdle you have to jump.

Even if you do manage to get me to believe in your god, you’d likely discover that I’d become a much more passionate enemy, not an ally. If your god is anything like the other fundie gods we’ve been told about, there’s probably no shortage of reasons for atheists to hate it. We hate torture. We hate murder. We hate slavery. We hate deceit. The typical fundie god is guilty of all these things. A god who murders, tortures people for eternity, wants people to submit to his arbitrary rule for the sake of his “glory,” and so on is quintessentially evil. And you want us to either succumb to his bribe of eternal, depraved hedonism or cave into cowardice out of fear of being tortured forever in the chamber of horrors he knowingly created. We choose not to swear allegiance to evil. If you want us to praise your god, you should make sure he’s real, and that he’s worthy of praise.

The doctrine of heaven and hell is disgusting as a superstition. We’ve seen people manipulated into performing all sorts of atrocities throughout history in the name of this doctrine. Right now, many children indoctrinated into fundamentalist religions are living lives full of unnecessary anxiety and fear, terrified of their own “sinful” ability to think and humbly doubt the value of faith. I was lucky to be initially raised as a very liberal Christian and have a happy upbringing, but I’ve ready plenty of deconversion stories from other atheists who lived in constant fear of hellfire or in sorrow for the tormented before they realized the absurdity of their childhood religion. Hell is incompatible with a merciful, benevolent deity. The idea that hell exists forces compassionate people to cut off their empathy or to live in psychological torment knowing that some people are going to suffer forever.

As superstition, the doctrine of heaven and hell is also a cheap way to short-circuit utilitarian aspects of morality. Normal people of normal morality generally want to maximize the happiness in the world while minimizing the suffering. Moral reasoning is usually about determining the most effective ways to do that. Throw in heaven and hell, and suddenly god can outlaw any kindness because he’s got an infinite supply of suffering to counteract the benefits of a good act. He can also command any evil by throwing eternal pleasure on the scale to counteract the suffering it causes. It’s a slimy way of turning moral questions of which actions help or harm others into “might makes right.” The doctrine of heaven and hell makes morality arbitrary and baseless at worst. At best, heaven and hell are redundant and distracting to moral reasoning. It gives power to the priests and gurus to proclaim anything moral or immoral for their own selfish gain. If heaven and hell were real, however, they’d also represent a far below optimum situation for a utilitarian thinker. There’s no good reason the people in hell have to suffer forever. It’s completely arbitrary.

As a real place, hell would be contemptible for its purposelessness. It’s not punishment. Punishment works in two ways: First, it encourages correction of undesired behavior. We admonish misbehaving children to “think about what you’ve done” while being grounded or confined to a corner in hopes that they’ll realize their misbehavior harmed another, and that’s why they shouldn’t repeat the act. They’re allowed to reenter society if they’ll behave. A person suffering eternally in hell has no ability to reenter society and make up for his misdeeds.

The other side of punishment’s value to society is the deterrent effect, to provide additional motivation for a person to refrain from immoral behavior. A would-be murderer who doesn’t stop himself out of realization that he’ll end someone’s life and cause his loved ones to suffer might still stop himself if he’s afraid of getting caught and imprisoned for life. The idea of hell might give a believer pause, but it’s completely ineffective to someone who doesn’t make the same irrational leap of faith: There is currently no good evidence that hell exists. There isn’t even a consensus on who ends up there or why. There are many believers who will happily do evil and then go through rituals of easy forgiveness to negate the perceived risk. They’ll often go on doing the same evil as long as they think they have an easy out. Details like these seriously compromise the deterrent effect of hell.

A “punishment” that lacks deterrent or corrective value is simply retribution. It’s causing suffering for the sake of vengeance and self-satisfaction. We may have a selfish, instinctive drive towards revenge, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to act on it.

Worse, many fundie believe that non-believers automatically go to hell. Think about that. We are mere human beings. We aren’t perfectly knowledgeable. We can deceive ourselves. Other people can deceive us. Our knowledge is limited by our time and resources. If your god exists and I don’t have good evidence, that’s not a moral failing on my part.

If I’ve been deceived, do I deserve to be tortured forever for being too trusting toward someone? If I misunderstood something, do I deserve to be tortured forever for not being insightful enough? What if I simply didn’t encounter anyone who could provide the necessary evidence? What if I didn’t have the time to spare for an investigation of yet another supernatural belief? What if I unknowingly wasted time investigating other supernatural beliefs, not knowing ahead of time that they’d be false? What if countless fallacious arguments strongly biased me against listening to a useful argument?

I don’t lack excuses. Being mortal means I have plenty of excuses to humbly doubt. When I ask why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being who allegedly designed my brain won’t meet reasonable scientific standards of evidence, suddenly acknowledging my limitations as a mortal becomes “arrogant.” Science exists because we know we can easily fool ourselves. We carefully control experiments, try to replicate results, and analyze statistics because we know we can make mistakes. Science is about taking careful measures against self-deception. Science is how a humble person achieves confidence in a belief. Faith is arrogance reinforcing itself.

The doctrine of heaven isn’t much better than hell. As I said above, heaven can be used to short circuit utilitarian morality by promising infinite happiness against the finite suffering caused by doing evil. Of course, as I implied at the beginning, it also subverts morality by acting as a bribe for the selfish. All too often, heaven is offered to me by fundies as a reward for condoning evil. I would feel ashamed of myself if I accepted it. This bribery attempt often goes hand-in-hand with an assumption that atheists are all selfish Randroids or something, as if every decision I make is based solely on how I would personally benefit. The bribery approach completely ignores any concept of morality. That’s when things turn ugly.

I would rather suffer than condone the actions of a fundie god. Once, my moral stance was characterized as “cutting your nose off to spite your face,” seemingly to ridicule the very notion of compassion, integrity, and self-sacrifice. As a moral person, I’m naturally inclined to feel bad when others suffer. The only way I could enjoy heaven while others suffer in hell would be to succumb to carnal pleasure to the point that it obliterates my compassion. It would destroy one of the most precious components of what makes me and add a monster from my id to the torturer god’s army. It would mean becoming an enemy of everything worth standing for. If I chose inaction against evil and a relative neutrality in heaven while refusing the base pleasures, I would spend eternity in a state of empathetic suffering for those in hell and in regret that I didn’t take a stand for their sakes. Hell would probably be the lesser suffering, since I wouldn’t have such regrets and I’d be able to take some satisfaction that I bravely took a stand for justice and tried to change the world for the better, even if I lost.

If you want to convert me, remember you’ve got two hurdles to clear. You’ll need good evidence to justify the belief. You’ll need a god with actual moral character to win my allegiance.

2 responses to “The Carrot and the Stick Don’t Work

    • Yeah, but the typical advocates generally try to avoid mentioning stuff like the droning eternity of doing nothing but praising over and over, day in, day out. Or assimilation into a mindless collective. Or whatever dystopian version of heaven you’re thinking of at the moment.

      Of course some of the stuff I wrote is kind of a logical necessity for a “paradise”: If there’s suffering in hell, a moral person can’t enjoy heaven unless you make him depraved, and to do that, he’d need to be forced to feel overwhelming base pleasure to forget his “higher” suffering.

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