I wish to tell you about The Inquisitor.
I fear I am going to insult your intelligence. I do not wish umbrage on any of my fellow humans, and especially not on you. I only wish an audience with those who embrace foolish notions about goodness, so you can stop reading here and I will address the other fellow.
Christians frequently ask me a question: wishing to challenge not what I believe, but what I don’t believe. I will call my sample Christian “The Inquisitor.”
Here is the question:
“If you do not believe in an afterlife, then why try to be good?” The implication is that if there is no reward or punishment, then there is no legitimate moral motivation.
I think the question is designed to expose a flaw in the character of a non-believer. While its intention fails, it does suggest a serious hole in the righteous fabric that is The Inquisitor. It means that The Inquisitor cannot fathom why anyone would behave morally or seek out goodness except under duress or the threat of eternal punishment. By asking the question, The Inquisitor admits that he does not feel like a good person from within, but only acts “right’ out of fear. He therefore reveals two vices. 1. He is not intrinsically good, or if he is, he is unaware of the fact 2. He is too cowardly to “be himself.”
A better question, which I have never been asked, by the way, would be: “If you do not believe in God, how can you be good? What definition of the term are you using and where did you get it?” I can confront that question also, but only with the expenditure of lots of mental energy, and not as capably as I can handle the absurd substitute question your boilerplate Christian asks.
Psychologists have virtually disproved pure behaviorism (reward and punishment as motivation) in humans. The theory is universally dismissed in favor of a cognitive psychological / behaviorist blend. One of the consequences of this is the idea that decent people live decent lives purely out of fear of blatant punishment, is unscientific, which makes The Inquisitor’s question even less sensible.
A person will always behave properly if he has a gun to his head, or if the threat of Hellfire is chasing him. This does not mean that he is good. Here is what it means: he has a gun to his head or the threat of Hellfire is chasing him!
The things you have the opportunity to do, do not define you as a human. It is the things you are willing to do that matter. It is natural for people to focus more on specific actions and less on internal integrity because actions are something you can measure, and one’s level of goodness is very difficult to determine. In other words, you can watch what a man does, but you cannot watch what he would do if sufficiently motivated.
One person is not better than another because he has fewer opportunities to commit sin, or less motivation. Additionally, one man is not better than another, because we do not have the option to observe how good he is.
A man who attempts murder is no better than a man who commits murder.
Other than the fact that the second man is more capable, there is no culpable difference between the two crimes. We reward the first man with a lighter sentence because he bungled the job. The second man possesses one vice that we see: he attempts to commit murder. The first man possesses two vices: 1. He attempts to commit murder. 2. He is a failure. That is all we know. We treat the more virtuous man far more harshly. Why? “In the name of justice!” proclaims The Inquisitor, who often perceives himself as one of God’s earthly ambassadors.
A man who would commit murder, but refrains because the potential consequences are horrific is not better than the other two men. A man who shuns evil only because he is afraid, is still evil. His fear is not a virtue. It extenuates nothing.
Unlike the Inquisitor, I am not implying, nor do I believe, that all Christians who behave well, do so out of cowardice. I am merely pointing out that all of those who ask me that question cannot understand why a Christian would be good unless he is a coward.