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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Is God Both a Deterrent and Distraction?




An issue that comes up often in atheist/theist discussions is whether belief in God is beneficial to theists in any sense beyond their personal comfort or if it’s damaging to them in creating a codependence upon a higher power. The American Psychological Association released a study a month ago that suggests a bit of both. I’m not surprised this seems to be the case and with my curiosity on psychology of religion (even if I still haven’t read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience) I’m intrigued about the ambivalence. The general conclusions they drew were that if you believed in God while doing some activity, there was evidence that you were less motivated to put your full effort in, but if you were tempted by sweets and had God on your mind, you were less likely to eat them. It’s unavoidable that we’ll deal with people that believe or disbelieve in God on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not. Our own psychology as it relates to God belief or lack thereof can help us understand others as well in that we might share these tendencies to some degree.

With evidence from the study that God is a deterrent against temptation, people would no doubt use this as a support for how God belief is more beneficial in the long run. But I’d respond along with many that this is repressing instead of suppressing instincts and doing something that the human mind can accomplish without recourse to something that is unfalsifiable by nature. Not to mention there’s an irony of authoritarianism that tinges this sort of motivation to resist urges. If you only do this because you feel someone’s watching that you can’t see, feel, hear, etc, then you seem to be doing it purely out of fear of the unknown. And as with any argument about God, religion and morality, it brings up a more pressing issue: are you saying you don’t do bad things only because you’d feel guilt that God is watching you? So if you could be shown there was no God conclusively, you’d just steal, kill, rape, etc? It doesn’t reflect very good ethical impulses for a person to resist evil merely out of reverence or piety. Even Paul said something to that effect in the Bible. Albeit he reversed it and implied that fear of God is preferable to fear of the law in doing good and being righteous. In the reverse, of course, non believers might be more tempted to eat sweets or such, but at the same time, it’s not as if we can’t be mindful of our bad habits and change them through sheer force of will and further good habits. Our tendency to do bad things is universal; it doesn’t mean that one solution is automatically acceptable merely because it has more consistent results if it requires believing a falsehood.

On the issue that I’d linger on more, belief in God seemingly making people lazy, the obvious reasoning and connection people make is that when you believe you are not completely or mostly in control of things you’re doing, then you aren’t motivated to do as well as if you believed otherwise. In short, the criticism lies with a fatalism that’s partly present in monotheistic thinking, or at the very least implied and dismissed or avoided with clever philosophical and theological acrobatics about the nature of God’s foreknowledge and omniscience as well as God’s plan for its creations to have free will, but not sovereignty. Fundamentally the motivation issue is more important to me because it’s something that has always made me skeptical of especially devout religious people. You can devote yourself to certain causes with great passion, but your motivation isn’t humanitarian or humanist in nature; it’s based on either appearing righteous before God or simply following that God’s commands, neither of which make me or most people think you’re a good person. If you do good things because you feel good about doing them without any hope of reward, you’re a much better person in my book. Religious people can do this, of course, but you still expect some reward, either because of your works reflecting your faith or your faith as the motivation for doing good works. But that seems self serving and myopic in perspective since you’re concentrating on either getting yourself or others to heaven by saving them, witnessing to them, etc. Even charity can have this subtle undertone, though it isn’t always the case, I’ll admit. Some religious people don’t even think about evangelism when they’re being generous to others. But the attempt at any time to use your kindness to other people as a stepping stone to preaching really irks me and seems to actually put a wrench in the process. People would initially see you as kind and then react with disgust at how sanctimonious you are in doing it just to get that chance. By all means, do your charity work, I’m behind you. But underpinning everything with God makes you appear not only to have a holier than thou attitude, but misses the point of what ethics are supposed to reflect in great part, good relationships with other people, even if you disagree with them.

Regardless of if either of these possibilities is true across the board for theists or atheists, I can’t help but see the damaging effects of both for theists in particular. Resisting temptation due to fear of or reverence for a supernatural entity instead of for the sake of practicing virtue for its own benefit is not ultimately helpful for anyone. And I think everyone could agree that not being motivated to do your best at any activity because you affirm that things are to an extent determined not by your own efforts but by an agent outside of your control is damaging. We can all admit that there are things we can’t avoid or control without bad repercussions, e.g. the weather or time. But when you lose desire to diligently work because you put your fate in God’s hands, it not only hurts your relationship with others, but does little for your own work ethic. I’m not saying this applies to everyone, but the mere possibility suggests that if not confronted, people could just accept their laziness due to belief in God as something that they just have to accept in part since they can’t just suddenly disbelieve. No one’s saying you can’t believe in God and still be a hard worker. It’s just that the tendency for abuse of belief in God as an excuse for not working as hard is not conducive to progress in any sense of the word. Being mindful of how your beliefs affect your behavior is crucial and should not be pushed to the side, but made a priority. Even atheists should consider this, not just theists. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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