Chapter 5: Reward and Punishment
It seems that I’ve been unable to convince you of the existence of Widget. But, that is too bad for you. You see, if you were to believe in Widget, then at death you would be magically transported to live in bliss with him forever in another plane of existence. Not only will you miss out on this opportunity for eternal happiness, but your denial of Widget’s existence will consign you to an eternity of extreme and constant suffering.
Now that I’ve told you about the consequences of disbelief in Widget, are you more inclined to believe in him? Do you, in fact, believe in Widget now?
I’m assuming your answer is a resounding No!
When we know something cannot possibly be true (such as the “square circle” called Widget), then nothing can make us believe in it. Not even threats of punishment or promises of reward.
In fact, if the punishment or reward is to be meted out by the very individual we find it impossible to believe in, then the punishment and reward are equally impossible to believe in. Such threats, then, amount to absolutely nothing. All they do is reveal the true spirit of those who engage in such scare tactics.
Historically, such a system of promised reward and threatened punishment has been used to encourage a belief in the Christian god. “Saint” Pascal expressed it in philosophical terms when he likened it to a wager:
To paraphrase Pascal, there are four possibilities when it comes to belief in God:
There are lots of problems with “Pascal’s Wager”.
So, whether the Catholics are right or wrong, you’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose by becoming Catholic. But if you don’t become Catholic, and the Catholics are in fact right, then you have made the worst possible decision, and you’ll be punished.
Fine, so you become a Catholic. But now I come along and tell you that if you don’t join the First Church of Widget Worshippers, not only will you be tortured in the afterlife, but so will all of your family and friends (here and now in this life!) Now, since I’ve threatened more than even the Catholic church, you should switch to the Widget religion if you really want to follow the logic of Pascal’s Wager.
So, where did this idea of an afterlife -- with rewards and punishments for believing in God -- come from? It’s no mystery; it’s a well-known, undisputed and indisputable fact that men made it up!
Since it is a story made-up by men, we have no more reason to believe it than any other story or idea that men may make up. We do know that some men (and some women) have a propensity for lying, and since all the contradictory tales of religion cannot be true, we know that there have been many instances of people making up religious lies.
Take Joseph Smith, for instance, and his tale of an angel dictating the Book of Mormon to him! This story cannot stand up to even the most cursory investigation (and yet there are millions of Mormons who claim to believe it!) It’s no more believable than my purposely-ludicrous Widget.
Since ideas concerning the afterlife cannot be verified, the only way we can ascertain whether it is likely to be true is to use our old reliable “baloney detection kit”: our common sense. Let’s apply common sense to the idea of an afterlife where immortal souls are rewarded or punished based on their belief in God.
First of all -- to state the obvious – it appears that when something dies it is dead.
For instance: when you swat a pesky fly with your fly-swatter and kill it, that fly is dead. Some other bug or some animal may come along and eat its dead body, or it may be left to decompose (which means smaller organisms will eat it). But that fly is no longer buzzing around somewhere in a spiritual realm. (Unless of course there are flies in heaven.)
Another example: when your pet gerbil dies, you bury it in the backyard and its little body decomposes. And that’s that: end of story. You may “keep the gerbil alive” in your fond memories of it, but that’s the extent of it. The gerbil isn’t continuing to think and remember the time it spent with you; its consciousness is gone forever.
Of course, being human we are biased towards humans, and so we want to believe that we are the only animals with “souls”. But there is no basis for this belief other than wishful thinking.
We know that thoughts are directly tied to brain function. Electrical stimulation of various areas of the brain will cause a patient to vividly recall long forgotten incidents, or to perceive imaginary sights and sounds in the here and now. If consciousness were housed in an immaterial soul, then no amount of physical stimulation of the brain could possibly cause thoughts to occur.
Since we know that thoughts (and hence consciousness and self-awareness) rely on brain functioning, it isn’t too hard to figure out what happens to thoughts (and hence our self concept) when the brain ceases to function at death.
If we were really an immaterial soul, housed inside a physical body until “release” by death, then unconsciousness would be difficult to account for. What happens to the soul when we sleep, or faint, or are knocked unconscious by a blow to the head? If we are really immortal souls, why would we ever have a lapse of consciousness? Our bodies may need to recuperate, but surely an immaterial soul would not: and if this soul is supposed to be our consciousness -- our “real self” – then we should never black out.
Amnesia would also be impossible: how could the soul ever forget who it was?
So, our common sense leads us to the conclusion that when we die we are just dead. Just like the fly. Just like the gerbil.
As far as punishment goes, we need to ask how an immaterial soul could ever be harmed by physical fire or metal pitchforks (or any of the other crude torments dreamed up by the Catholic church in the dark ages to scare people into tithing and conformity.)
More importantly, we need to ask what purpose such punishment would serve. Since Hell is depicted as a place of no return, it cannot possibly serve to “rehabilitate” anyone. So, what purpose would it serve to torment someone for eternity?
Think of the worst person you can imagine: Hitler, or Charles Manson: someone like that. Our human anger against such monsters is understandable, and our baser instincts may long to see such people suffer as they caused others to suffer. But not for eternity. Imagine if the Allies had found Hitler at the end of WWII before he had a chance to commit suicide. What do you suppose they would’ve done with him? Well, what was done with the other German war criminals? They were put on trial, and many of those who were found guilty were executed by hanging. When hanging is done “properly” it is an instantaneous death. But suppose some irate soldier with a flame-thrower was the first to discover Hitler cowering inside his bunker. Suppose his rage against this man was so great that, without thinking, he set Hitler on fire and watched him die in horrible agony. It’s understandable, and I suspect the soldier would’ve been given a “slap on the wrist”.
But what if Hitler hadn’t died within a minute or two? What if by some miracle he just kept burning – and screaming? How many minutes do you imagine that any human being could stand by and watch such a scene before putting the man out of his misery? Five minutes? Ten? I don’t think anyone with a shred of humanity could watch more than that. So, how long could a “God of love” watch? A God with none of our baser instincts? Not for an eternity, surely: not for one moment.
Having dispensed with the fairy-tale punishments of religion, what can we say about the rewards? Since there can be no proof of the existence of an afterlife, we must look to our present life. Here we find that there are some rewards for belief in God.
When you believe in God you join a large group of like-minded people. These people will accept you and may even be friendly to you as long as you continue to believe as they do. So, it is conditional “friendship,” but that’s better than nothing, and is more than many people ever achieve.
When you believe in God you get a false sense of security; your eternal life is taken care of, and you’ll see your dead loved ones again in heaven.
When you believe in God you have a way of coping with problems: it is all God’s will, and He knows what’s best.
Many people also believe that a belief in God is necessary to keep society in line. “Why be good,” they ask, “if there is no God to reward or punish you?”
Such are the rewards for belief.
What can we say then about the rewards for disbelief?
First of all, you’re facing the world as-it-is without deluding yourself with “comfortable lies.” There is strength to be found in that. It is also what makes progress (i.e. improvement) possible. Advancements in medicine, health, and every other scientific endeavor have been made only when religious ideas have been abandoned in favor of reality. For instance, it was once held that demons were the cause of disease (modern faith-healers still hold this belief). Real progress in treating and curing disease was not made until the medical profession abandoned this belief and studied reality.
Second, you don’t have any phony “religious friends” who will dump you the moment you start thinking for yourself.
Third, you actively seek ways to improve your life and society instead of shrugging it all off as “God’s will”.
Fourth, you are free to adopt the methodology of science: forming hypothesis and testing them by empirical evidence; revising your beliefs about the world to ever more closely reflect reality. This is in contrast to a religious belief in which all new facts must be made to somehow fit into the preconceptions of your religion (and being denied if they can’t fit: such as the idea that the sun does not orbit the earth).