In Part I, I talked about how a conservative Objectivist mindset transforms the existence of those in need into a perceived threat. The catalyst for this weird transformation of perception is fear, the fear which is the touchstone and the key element of the mindset I’m trying to describe. This fear became more clear to me recently because of a conversation where someone influenced by this mindset felt safe enough to reveal the way a true, deep fear of not being able to provide for his family’s needs in the future constrained his desire to give to charity. This fear is entirely reasonable for someone who realizes that social policy based on the Just World fallacy, combined with the very real risk of bad things happening no matter how hard one tries to be good, means that just being good isn’t enough: one has to conserve every advantage one gets, hoarding the good things that happen, because the destruction of social justice means that one is right to fear for the future. This approach to the world encourages, even forces, otherwise charitable people not to give. If I am truly afraid of living on catfood in retirement, because I know that social justice is lacking, then I have even less reason to donate now. The system becomes self-perpetuating.
Something similar happens in morality when a religion relies on the threat of punishment as the primary motivation for doing good. This is why a type of Christianity based on a fear of hell is a lousy kind of Christianity and ultimately counters its own precepts.
Objectivists like to position themselves in the posture of Nietzsche, as defenders of “real” morality against the thievery and “mooching” that they think Christianity pushes. (Aside: they would make the same criticism of any morality or system of ethics that encourages feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, etc, but I’m going to stick to Christianity here because it’s the dominant one they rail against.) The Objectivist caricature of Christianity is that Christians think that people in need want to punish those who are well-off. The Objectivist viewpoint sees itself in opposition to a perverted Christianity where Jesus wouldn’t just want the homeless to be housed, he would insist that if those with houses don’t house the homeless, the houses should all be burned down to punish the evil people who have houses to begin with. This is not what Christianity teaches, but some versions of Christianity come perilously close by relying on the fear of hell to motivate positive action.
I was recently involved in a conversation about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. They both die, and Lazarus finds himself in comfort with Abraham, but the rich man who had ignored Lazarus while alive finds himself in torment. When the rich man calls out to Abraham and asks Abraham to send someone back from the dead to tell his rich brothers that they ought to look after the poor, Abraham refuses, says that even if someone came back from the dead to tell them so, the rich wouldn’t want to give to the poor.
Some people in the conversation I was in insisted that the point of this parable was that if people sin (by not providing for the poor), they will be punished in hell in the afterlife. They said that if there wasn’t any punishment, then the whole parable loses its impact: that without the threat of torment, there is no story. This is ridiculous, both based on the story, and based on the real-world examples of what fear actually motivates. Notice how in their telling, the parts that I italicized become a mere side-note. Fear of hell only creates fear of hell; it doesn’t drive people to go find out what’s in that side note and put it into action.
When I was Christian, I found it crucial to understand that this parable was being told by Jesus, who would soon die and return from the dead. This is a story that’s not meant to be taken on its own. It only makes sense after the fact, in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Christianity, Jesus is the man returned from the dead, just like the rich man suggests in the story. Jesus is saying, “I know you won’t listen to me, and in fact, I’ll tell you a story about how you won’t listen to me, because what I’m telling you is that taking care of the poor is the right thing to do. You already know that, and you don’t want to hear it.” That was how I understood it, and that makes the whole story a marvelous joke, a valid ethical message regardless of whether you believe in Jesus as the savior, and something that is not at all about hell or even about the afterlife. If Jesus wanted people to believe or to act morally because of fear of hell, he would have shown them hell. He didn’t: according to Christians, what Jesus did show was his own resurrection. This isn’t a story about what happens after you live. It’s a story about how to live, which is why Jesus came back to life.
But some Christians insist on taking the Just World fallacy too seriously, and pervert the religion into a story about how God will make the Just World fallacy true in the end. Instead of holding up the threat of being left out in the cold, being hungry and naked and poor, they hold up the threat of eternal fiery torment. Why stop at the little threat when you can go all the way? If a small threat drives people to do a few good things, this thinking goes, a bigger threat will drive even more good things! But when we look at the result of the fear instilled by hard-core Objectivism, we realize that fear is a lousy motivator. It doesn’t motivate people to do good things; it motivates exactly the opposite, and in the process, it creates a response of defensive anger that becomes self-hate and eventually hatred of others. When the existence of those in need triggers that fear, defensive anger lashes out at the trigger, not at the source of the fear.
Fear isn’t the answer. Love is. Fear is about death. Love is about life. Threats tell us about how we will die and introduce creeping rot into every aspect of existence. Love creates life, love teaches us how to live, and love gives us the courage to go out and do it.
Coda: As I’ve said, I am no longer Christian, and I do not want to dictate to Christians how to be Christian. But I think that any morality, secular or religious, based ultimately on a threat of punishment has a similarly destructive outcome, and this example was a good illustration. The idea that humans are depraved and deserve to go to hell is one of the reasons I’m not Christian any more. I think that a form of Wicca that uses the Rule of Three or the idea of karma as a similar threat is equally wrong and bad. Life is about love, and love about life.