Culture

Is Religion Compatible with Life on Earth?

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Even if we conclude that God exists, that does not mean He is worthy of worship. Different presentations of God offer conflicting moral prescriptions, many of which defy our objective sense of right and wrong. It’s easy to understand why critics of religion, like author Craig Biddle, deem faith illogical and even evil. Examples like Islam’s Sharia law speak for themselves.

But Biddle argues that any religious prescription ultimately proves counter-productive to human happiness. From his book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts That Support It:

To the extent a person is religious, he believes that he has a duty to self-sacrificially serve God. This duty requires him to abandon his own selfish dreams. If he sticks to his faithful convictions and abandons his dreams, he cannot be happy, because his dreams go forever unrealized. Conversely, if he hypocritically abandons his convictions and pursues his dreams, he still cannot be happy, for he is filled with moral guilt and dread of divine retribution.

Biddle offers the hypothetical example of a young girl who desires to be an accomplished ballerina, but feels compelled to serve God by becoming a nun or missionary. We might likewise consider the tithe. What could you do with the money contributed to your church? Aren’t you sacrificing whatever you could do – whatever debt you could pay, whatever provision you could acquire, whatever dream you could chase – by giving up a portion of your income to religion?

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Of course, sacrifice isn’t confined to religion. People may feel compelled to sacrifice their personal interests for the sake of any “other” – the race, the nation, the community, etc.

The point is that if altruism is moral – if morality is a matter of self-sacrificially serving others – then morality is an impediment to your life and happiness. Being good is not good for you. Either life is a paradox in which it is neither practical to be moral nor moral to be practical, or self-interest is moral. It is one or the other.

Believers should find this challenging. As a Christian, I hold that my faith is “good for me.” Yet, I note an abundance of teaching suggesting that my own good should not be my primary concern.

Is it possible to be both religious and self-interested? Perhaps the better question is: if religion is not self-interested, then why is anyone religious? What’s the point of believing if not to better one’s self? And if benefiting others is a moral imperative, how does preaching a doctrine of sacrifice help anyone?

In his analysis, Biddle points out that most people do not take their religion very seriously. They live what he calls “a compromised, semi-guilty, semi-repressed sort of happiness,” subscribing to some of their religious doctrines some of the time and otherwise pursuing their own interests.

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That may prove a fair description of most people’s religious experience, a muted pursuit of happiness encumbered by guilt. But is that what religion should be?

The alternative to a self-sacrificial morality is a self-interested morality. But selfishness is antithetical to religion. Is it not?

We have to define our terms. If by “selfish” we mean irrational whim-fulfillment, the personal subjectivism of hedonists, criminals, and dictators, then most believers would rightfully shun it. But is it truly selfish, in a rational sense, to be a hedonist? Do we really benefit in the long-term from following our subjective whims?

Biddle argues otherwise:

For a policy to be selfish, it has to account for one’s actual nature and needs – both material and spiritual; and it has to account not only for the present, but also for the more distant future. A policy of self-interest must recognize the fact that man is a being of body and mind whose life occurs not for one moment or a day, but for a span of years and decades.

Religion offers claims regarding our nature and needs. It tells us that we are eternal beings living in a temporary form. It tells us that our eternal disposition will be determined by our relationship to the divine. In this way, it is an appeal to self-interest. It is a call to selfishness. If you want to enjoy eternal life, you will do that which is required as prerequisite.

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Oddly, however, that is not how many believers and religious teachers think of their faith. Far from a selfish pursuit, religion is cloaked in the garb of sacrificial service. Instead of being presented as good for you, it is presented as good for God or good for society or good for others. If religion is good for others at your expense, why be religious?

I submit that Christianity, properly understood, is not a suicidal sacrifice. On the contrary, it is nothing but gain – infinite, unqualified gain. That gain is the cause of Christian joy, a self-interested joy which delights in personal salvation.

A cultural rejection of self-interest has been informed by religion in general, and Christendom in particular. However, believers would do will to note that God – in whose image we are created – expresses unabashed self-interest. The Bible commands joyful praise, not as a dictatorial obligation, but as a rational response to who God is and what He has provided.

As we continue in this series, we’ll take a closer look at the objective morality which Biddle describes…

… a non-sacrificial code of morality… to defend such a code, we need to ground it logically in observable facts; we need to discover a natural, provable, objective standard of value on which to base it. Without such a code built on such a foundation, the sacrificial moralities of subjectivism are unanswerable. And on the terms of such moralities,  a life of genuine happiness is unattainable.

As we explore this objective morality, we’ll find it modeled by God himself.

Catch up on this series’ previous installments: Part I: “Christianity’s Human Sacrifice Problem,” Part II: “Is Religion Illogical?” Part III: “Would Christians Object to Living Indefinitely Through Technology?