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Does Society Need the Threat of Hell and the Promise of the Reward of Heaven?

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consutlant
posted Friday Jul 14, 2017 06:45 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consutlant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

You can read my full bio at http://www.BoBennett.com.

Dennis Prager, a conservative talk show host, was recently on several podcasts where he made the claim that (and I am paraphrasing), societies need God because without God, there is no objective right or wrong, and this idea will lead to a society that will not be able to function effectively. As an example, Prager tells a story of a friend who didn't cheat on his wife because his friend thought that "God was watching." There are a couple of issues here: 1) the idea of objective morality (i.e., without God, right and wrong is just opinion) and 2) people need the threat of Hell and the promise of Heaven to behave. Let's start with the first.

I have written extensively about morality many times (see my video on the topic), including the idea of objective morality and its problems. In short, to make a claim of objective morality, we all need to make a subjective call which makes morality only objective in theory and subjective in practice. Secular folks need to make the subjective call that human well-being or flourishing should be the foundation for morality. Religious folks need to make the subjective call that their version of God should be the foundation of morality. Secularists could assert that nature/scientific facts are the foundation of morality, and theists could assert that their version of God is the foundation of morality—it doesn't matter. The entire "objective" debate is pointless in my opinion because even if morality is objective, there is no way we can know how to apply that in practice due to the subjectivity of language. For example, the Bible tells us "Thou shall not murder." What is murder? "Unjust killing." What is "just" killing? To the ISIS soldier, it is killing someone because they drew a picture of their prophet. To the American soldier, it is killing someone who is "threatening our freedom." To the Christian extremist, it is killing a doctor who performs abortions. The point is, delineating murder from "justified killing" is highly subjective. Perhaps there is a God who determines what is ultimately just or not, but we will never know. Likewise, it is impossible to know the long-term effects of killing someone and how it will ultimately affect the well-being of humanity. No matter how you slice it, morality is functionally subjective.

Objective or subjective, the question still stands. How does believing in eternal punishment or reward affect behavior? I had heard people say before (not many people, but a few) that if they didn't believe in God that they would steal, cheat, rape, and murder. In other words, they are like an inmate being carefully watched by an armed guard, but the moment the guard is not looking, they will not hesitate to start sticking a shiv in people. Did they say this simply because admitting that they don't want to rape and murder people would invalidate their argument that the threat of Hell is needed, or did they really mean it? I can't be certain. The data is mixed when it comes to the moral actions and behaviors of believers vs. non-believers, and many studies have been done in this area. In general, there is no reason to think that belief in God has any effect on morality. In general.

What about the people who say they will murder and rape indiscriminately without God? Do we want to risk that they are not being honest? Given the wide range of empathy experienced by people, we know that as much as 5% of the population are sociopaths (those with very little or no ability to empathize). What if these people, assuming they are believers, no longer believe and start behaving immorally every chance they get because the threat of eternal punishment is no longer in the equation? It does make sense that without the threat of Hell and the promise of eternal paradise, some people will behave more immorally. From this, we can logically conclude that there will be a positive correlation between moral behavior and belief in eternal reward and punishment or put another way, there will be an increase in immoral behavior as belief in eternal reward and punishment decreases. But this fact does not justify the conclusion that secular societies are or will be worse off. There is more to the equation.

Religious belief also carries a lot of baggage, especially by those who hold extreme or fundamentalist beliefs in their religion. For example, the hatred and persecution of gays, treating women as inferior, treating people inferior that aren't part of one's religious group, killing in the name of their God, holy wars, religiously-motivated terrorism, and more. As beliefs decreases, it logically follows that religiously-motivated violence and immoral behavior will also decrease.

Dennis Prager says that we can ultimately know if belief in God is good for societies or not by "their fruits" (he meant that metaphorically). How can we answer this question? One way is to look at non-religiously motivated rankings of the best countries in the world and see how many of them are secular. Perhaps the gold standard of this kind of ranking comes from US News and World Reports. Here are the top 10 countries on that list:

  1. Switzerland
  2. Canada
  3. United Kingdom
  4. Germany
  5. Japan
  6. Sweden
  7. United States
  8. Australia
  9. France
  10. Norway

Based on a recent Gallup poll, out of these countries, eight of those countries are mostly secular (more than 50% of respondents claiming to be either not religious or atheist. Norway was not included in the Gallup poll, but other surveys confirm it is mostly secular. That leaves the good 'ol US of A. Still very religious. Given that vast majority of people on the earth still believe in some kind of god, at the very least, we should acknowledge that the claim that belief in God is needed for good society is absurdly and demonstrably false.

Sorry, Dennis.

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