Every conscious thing we do or choice we make is somehow motivated by the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. The only variables are the kinds of things that bring varying degrees of pleasure and pain to each individual, the premises on which expectations of pleasure or pain are based, and the ability to delay gratification.
For example, many nature lovers go to work instead of spending the entire week at the beach because the former guarantees some future comfort that outweighs the immediate fun the latter brings. Some smokers quit because they’ve decided that the pleasure they get from cigarettes cannot compensate for the pain of a present or potential respiratory illness. Most people do not normally steal because the initial gain will be quickly neutralized if they get caught (or their conscience takes the fun out of taking things that don’t belong to them). And if they believe in an afterlife, getting away won’t even matter.
Which brings us to a common theistic argument against naturalism-based morality: If there is no eternal punishment, there is no ultimate justice and evil people like Hitler and Stalin can get away with atrocities. But there are many answers to this. One, the fact that there can be no ultimate justice without an afterlife does absolutely nothing to support the existence of either Heaven or Hell. Two, if most people believe in the afterlife, civilized societies will have less reason to be vigilant in preventing another Holocaust because they can just leave justice to God. Three, if Christianity is true, a serial killer who rapes and tortures his victims can still enter Paradise if he repents and accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior just before he dies (while his atheistic albeit innocent victims’ suffering will resume in the Lake of Fire).
As the Holy Week approaches and Christians prepare to meditate on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, many of them claim to worship Christ not out of fear of damnation or the expectation of eternal reward, but because of an overflowing gratefulness for His great love and “ultimate sacrifice.” If this is really the case then why won’t they worship the sun as well, or at least give it some devotion with the same level that Catholics give to the Saints considering the sun is the ultimate sustainer of all life on Earth and that we all get to survive because it burns itself up? Could it be because the sun can be expected to rise every morning and set every evening regardless of what people do or don’t do? If they argue that the sun is just mindlessly burning itself without intending to sustain life while Jesus purposely died so we could be saved, would such salvation be available to those who reject Christ?
No matter how people rationalize worship and obedience to God’s supposed commands, it still all boils down to pleasure and pain. It’s just a matter of adopting the premises set by one’s chosen religion and delaying gratification by giving up on earthly pleasures for the sake of some greater eternal pleasure in the next life. As a response to this, my fellow freethinker Andy wrote a short but profound piece on materialism:
The master passed by a minister preaching against materialism. He was exhorting the congregation on the virtues of sacrificing their earthly desires for the rewards of heaven.
“Our treasure does not lie here on earth,” he said, “But it lies in the bosom of our heavenly Father.”
“Interesting,” remarked the master. “You preach against materialism but yours is even worse because you desire to bring it to the next life. You tell people not to cling to their possessions here by guaranteeing that they will have all those and more in the next life. You are after intangible rewards, but a reward nonetheless. What is so virtuous about that?”
Indeed. And as Bertrand Russell said, “The people who are regarded as moral luminaries are those who forego ordinary pleasures themselves and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others.” In this country, people who officially gave up sexual pleasure preach that couples should not have too much fun while avoiding pregnancy and the consequential responsibilities and sacrifices that come with bearing and raising children. But in fairness to them, they are probably just acting on good faith based on the premise that God does not want us to enjoy life in this world too much because His plan is to give us the ultimate pleasure in Heaven. I just wish that our supposedly secular government would treat this premise with a little skepticism especially when crafting our reproductive health laws.
Image by Jong Atmosfera