New Examiner Article: “Christianity’s Heaven/Hell model not conducive to altruism?”5 min read

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I have posted a new article for the Milwaukee Examiner titled “Christianity’s Heaven/Hell model not conducive to altruism?


For the purposes of this article I have ignored the fact that Christians are rewarded in the afterlife for good deeds and therefore there is technically a reward, albeit spiritually. I am also choosing to ignore the fact that feeling good about doing a good deed is a reward in and of itself. I am choosing a definition of altruism that relies on an purely external and Earthly reward system to negate the existence of altruism in an individual’s action, however in the context of this article the former will be seen as a challenge to the existence of altruism in Christians.

If we take into account the above two arguments it would mean that only people who do not enjoy helping others and whose belief systems does not have a reward for good deeds would be technically capable of altruism – which, in both cases, potentially negates the possibility of altruism in Christianity and most Americans. These arguments might be a bit pedantic or annoyingly philosophical, but I am mentioning their place for completeness…. and now on to the article…

The Article

Christianity’s preaching potentially teaches the individual to be very self-serving and selfish – do good deeds so you can get into Heaven. Now, keep in mind that this is a really broad and sweeping generalization that most assuredly does not apply to all Christianity. It might not even apply to most, but this is just an observation on my part.

Some sermons go on about fire and brimstone and how being sinful will send you to eternal immolation in Hell, or that being virtuous will send you to the white and pearly gates of paradise in Heaven. Christianity seems more concerned with keeping itself from Hell and trying to get itself into Heaven than purely teaching that doing a good deeds with a level of self-sacrifice because it is the right thing to do.

Some people do the right thing just because they are trying get past the big pearly gates by ‘attempting to keep score’ and not because it is necessarily what they really want to do, potentially fostering a begrudging insincerity in their actions, or even self-contempt, guilt, or feeling a lack of worth at not being able to live up to Christianity’s idealistic and virtuous lessons. This guilt driven methodology is counterproductive to the individual and society in general, because it is driven by a negative by emotions – guilt and fear.

Does fear as a motivator get results, especially in the short term? Yes it does, but it is not necessarily one that can continue to get results without significant emotional and psychological breakdown, and is very, very hard to sustain in the long term due to a results in the forms that I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

The way that Christianity is sometimes taught puts its followers at odds with altruism, which I find an interesting paradox due to the virtuousness they espouse. Now, I am not saying that no Christians exhibit altruism, but it seems to me that Christianity’s preaching and motivational methodology being based on a punishment/reward system is not conducive to altruism being a cornerstone to its adherents’ primary internal motivations – gaining reward in the afterlife and preventing damnation is.

In some ways I think that the reason we do things is almost more important than the action itself. Now, I did say almost. If someone does a good thing then they could have done it because if they did not then they would be punished (later in Hell), or if they did it they would be rewarded later (in Heaven), or they did it because they wanted to and it was the right thing to do without consideration of potential positive or negative spiritual rewards. To me the later is the most pure and preferable form of altruism.

I do not want to necessarily say that Christianity and altruism are mutually exclusive, because I don’t believe they are, but I think the emphasis in teaching needs to shift to doing the right thing because it is the right thing, and not because you will be punished or rewarded with damnation or salvation. Such a shift might help to breed more tolerance and acceptance allowing us to potentially work more quickly through contentious civil rights issues such as same-sex marriage. Grass-roots movements as ‘random acts of kindness’ or ‘pay it forward’ are not punishment/reward based altruistic movements, and the action is its own reward are great examples of what could be done.

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