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Sarah looks after vulnerable children on weekends at a children’s sheltered home. During the week, she trains to be a social worker. In her early thirties, she is still feeling her way, looking for fulfillment.

She doesn’t believe in God. She did once, but now the idea doesn’t even register in her daily life. What registers, what gives her meaning, is the nature of her work. As tiring and challenging as it is, it is also incredibly rewarding—for her and for the lives she touches.

Sarah is a close family member of mine, and we often get embroiled in deep existential conversations. Her journey away from the clutches of religion followed a recognizable path: she studied religion at university, showing once again that the best argument against Christianity is the Bible. Without God, her journey has detoured to an ever-shifting destination of existential self-discovery.

During one of these chats, I ask what motivates her, and without a pause she reaches for a well-thumbed book. It falls open to a highlighted passage from an interview with a worker very much like Sarah:

What keeps me here?… In the beginning I wanted to help. And now…I still want to help, but it’s changed. Now I know my limits. I know what I can do and cannot do. What I can do is to be here and advocate for people at various stages in their lives, and to allow them to be who they are. We have an obligation as a society to…support people for who they are and to give them respect. That’s what keeps me here.

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté.

It’s not to get into heaven or avoid hell. Yes, she may get the personal fulfillment that her work has real moral value, that she is helping the world. The cynic might even say she could have “smug, self-satisfaction,” though she rightfully denies this. The value, as she sees it, is in the positive impact in making the world a better place in her own local way.

As the interviewer Gabor Maté sees it, “Some people are attracted to painful places because they hope to resolve their own pain there. Others offer themselves because compassionate hearts know that here is where love is most needed. Yet others come out of professional interest; this work is ever challenging.” Sarah sees herself as the compassionate heart. She’s certainly not chasing money. 

You could say the same about Jill. Jill believes in God. A lot. So much so that, at the weekend, she feels duty-bound to witness, to convince others to believe and live as she does. During the week, she works for her church. Not a megachurch, just a regular, influential community organization.

“It’s an enormous privilege to do what I do,” she says, “to make the world a better place by bringing the light of Christ into people’s lives.” 

Jill is compassionate, always thinking about those in her community and congregation, though I would argue there is something different in her psyche. Of course, there is an element of helping others: “Unbelievers need to hear the Gospel. How else will they avoid the evil grasp of Satan? I might be their only hope of avoiding eternal damnation,” echoes the thoughts of many who witness. But there is more to Jill’s reasoning than this, whether she knows it or not. She’s a friendly woman, but there always seems to be something else operating behind the scenes.

We could certainly find parallels between these two people. The interesting difference comes when we repeatedly ask “Why?” 

For the Christian carries with them, at all times and in all places, the promise of the greatest outcome ever—the biggest, brightest carrot—and the threat of the worse consequence ever—the thorniest, most painful stick. They walk daily through life tailed by these twin shadows.

This is the world of applied moral philosophy. The devil is in the details, and those details can diverge. In magnitude, the answers these two women give are light years apart.

Let me explain.

I’m a philosopher. A lot of my waking hours are spent thinking about and debating these issues. And my first-ever debate related pretty directly to this Sarah and Jill issue: Is there such a thing as altruism?

I was 15 and more interested in beer and girls and music than moral philosophy. But I found myself intrigued by the question. Are we only ever moral for selfish reasons? When push comes to shove, do we give to charity because it makes us feel good, or makes us look better to others in some example of virtue signaling?

This may well be an aspect of all moral actions. But it’s certainly not the only one. 

When both Sarah and Jill want to make the world a better place, we can ask them why. And they answer, “Because it makes the world a better place.”

To Sarah, this is a justification in and of itself, even if she also gets some self-satisfaction and pleasure from so doing. I am playing Devil’s Advocate to some degree here, because Sarah is not the sort of person driven by self-satisfaction, but a critic could push further: “Why, Sarah? Why do you want to make the world a better place?” 

“Because,” she says, “that is just a good thing for everybody. It’s what we all want, or should want. Happy people with improved wellbeing.”

Jill answers slightly differently. Perhaps very differently.

“Because,” Jill offers, “that is a good thing for everybody. Everybody gets to access God’s love, everybody who sees the light gets to enter heaven, to live in paradise for eternity.”

Do you? Get to live in heaven? For eternity?”

“Well, yes.”

For Jill, there is no getting away from the fact that every moral action she takes is also largely about her own union with her particular god. Every moral action is influenced considerably by the idea that she will get closer to God, to be seen in a good light by God, to access God’s love. For eternity. Forever and ever in paradise.

There can be no greater thing in human conception than heaven because heaven is whatever an individual can imagine to be the greatest thing. Forever and ever.

Likewise, there can be no worse thing in human conception than hell. Because hell is whatever an individual can imagine to be the worst thing. Forever and ever.

We don’t need to argue about the theology and history of these ideas. Heaven and hell mean whatever they mean to, say, a Christian. And they are there, in the consciousness or subconsciousness of every Christian, bathing every moral action someone like Jill makes in their light, or threatening her with eternal darkness and torture. Every single moral action is informed—tainted—by these twin bribes.

That’s not to say Jill can never do things that are good for others, or the world, for earthly moral reasons, as long as they are consonant with the religious framework that scaffolds her life.

So, can Jill ever really make a moral decision devoid of self-interest?

And I’m 15 again, on the debate stage.

Perhaps no one can; perhaps true altruism really is a pipe dream. But what I am certain of is that the level of self-interest for Jill is on a scale insurmountable for seculars, for Sarah. No decision is absent of the influence of hell’s devil on one shoulder and heaven’s angel on the other. These might be promissory notes left floating, never to be cashed in, on the winds of death, but they are the biggest promissory notes you can possibly imagine.

Or, to put it another way, this is moral fraud on an epic scale. After all, bribery is a form of corruption.

Secularists—those not preoccupied with the real or perceived demands of a religion and divine belief system—prefer to live in the here, live in the now, and work hard for the future.

The worst a cynic could say about Sarah is that she’s pulled along by smug self-satisfaction. This is not in her motivation as far as I can see, but if it were, that vice would pale beside the self-satisfied promise of eternal paradise.

And when Sarah fails to live up to her own moral expectations, as we all do at some point, she doesn’t beat herself up with the idea that it could lead her to the gates of hell. And she isn’t trying to make the world a better place mainly to avoid that punishment. 

Suppose I said to my son, “Mow the elderly neighbor’s grass or I will kill you,” and he did this good deed. Even though the outcome may be worthy, the intention is not—and in the moral balance, that matters. Wandering next door to offer the good deed out of the goodness of his heart would be worthy in an entirely different way, motivated by the good itself instead of by avoiding death. 

There’s the crux of the difference between the good works of Sarah and Jill.

I wouldn’t blame my son for responding in that way to a monstrous threat, and I don’t blame Christians for their predicament. They are victims of a great moral and religious swindle. And it doesn’t just affect their moral actions but their decisions to believe at all in their deity. I call this “the greatest memetic failsafe known to humanity.” If a meme is an idea that maintains over time because it offers some benefit that promotes its continued existence—like evolution and genes—then we can see religion as a network of ideas that survives because it threatens the biggest stick and promises the biggest carrot.

“Believe in me and I will give you heaven forever; walk away from me and I damn you to hell forever.”

Belief in God is a decision with great moral significance. To attract people from such belief over to non-belief is to overcome these twin bribes, and that is a tough sell. Atheism, humanism, secularism—whatever -ism you want to offer—does not come with a free season pass to heaven, and it certainly doesn’t threaten people who don’t sign up with eternal damnation. As an approach, this is not healthy. Instead, such people prefer to live in the here, live in the now, work hard for the future.

Sarah does this, and working hard for the future is about working hard in the present. Today. Always today, since tomorrow never comes, and yesterday’s always done. She does this without the promise of the biggest carrot and without the threat of the biggest stick.

And that’s got to be a healthier way to do morality, to do the world, to be human.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...