Episode 21: Ultimate Accountability and The Loss of Free Will
According to the monotheistic traditions, the concept of right and wrong extends all the way back to the beginning of time, when God bestowed Free Will upon the first man and woman. By providing us with the ability to make decisions according to our own wants and desires, God allowed his creations to be autonomous beings, instead of mindless robots worshiping him upon command. Indeed, according to Scripture, because of Free Will humankind was able to be tempted in the first place, setting the stage for sin, evil, and immorality to enter the world. But as we will see, the belief that we are ultimately accountable to God, which results in a system of divine reward and punishment, only serves to undermine the basis of morality and abolishes the very concept of Free Will.
Ultimate accountability is a cornerstone of the monotheistic faiths, because if we are not held accountable for our actions to a divine, higher power, then we are free to do whatever we want without any consequence. According to the theistic worldview, ultimate accountability is so crucial because even if someone performs evil deeds and is never brought to justice or punished for their crimes, there is no hiding from God, who has the final say and judges all actions according to an absolute moral standard. Therefore, in the end, God’s justice will always prevail.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every man may receive the things done in the body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. (II Corinthians 5:10)
We will all stand before God’s judgment seat. So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:10,12)
The idea that everyone will be held accountable for their beliefs and actions after they die results in one of two consequences. If an individual has successfully adhered to God’s will, according to whichever religion or religious denomination that might be, the reward is entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven to spend eternal paradise with the Creator of the Universe. In contrast, if an individual has not adhered to God’s stipulations, again, according to whichever religion or religious denomination those might be, a punishment will result, whether it be merely a separation from God or to be eternally tortured by the devil and his minions.
However, theists propose that good and bad deeds are not the only factors God will consider when passing his divine judgment. Indeed, theists contend that access to heaven cannot be purchased or obtained through works alone. Even if atheists and other non-believers live moral lives, give to the poor, volunteer their time, and so on, God will still pass judgment on their lack of faith.
For by Grace are you saved through Faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Therefore, as we continue to think about the concepts of Free Will and ultimate accountability we must keep in mind that theistic morality is not solely based on doing good deeds, but acts of faith as well, such as: accepting Jesus as your savior, being baptized and born again, confession and repentance of sin, taking holy communion, praying, fasting, making pilgrimages, abiding by dietary laws, adhering to a certain dress code, the adoration of sacred relics, and so on and so forth. However, the belief that everyone will be judged and subsequently rewarded or punished, based on an acceptance of God and for following certain religious tenets, creates a very serious problem for theism, namely, the loss of Free Will.
Before we continue, please keep in mind when discussing Free Will we are referring the theistic understanding of this concept — that human beings have the ability to make their own decisions, and subsequently, are free to accept or reject God’s laws. In contrast, free will, according to a modern, philosophical and scientific understanding, is much more complex.
In reality, Free Will is not entirely free. The actions of human beings are governed by predictable and reliable patterns of behavior, but individuals themselves are unaware of what decisions they will make or what courses of action they will take until actually do so. Sam Harris explains in his book “The Moral Landscape”:
Although we could spend an entire episode examining the philosophical and scientific implications of free will, for the purposes of this discussion, we will keep to the simpler, theistic understanding — that God bestowed freedom of choice upon humankind, enabling us to make our own moral decisions. To further explore the theistic concept of free will, let’s perform a thought experiment. Imagine I have a list of arbitrary demands that I want everyone to follow, such as standing on one’s head three times a day, the shaving of one’s eyebrows, only consuming yellow food on Wednesday, and all unmarried women must wear their trousers backward. Those who diligently adhere to my instructions will receive $100,000 for every year they comply. However, I have a special police unit to enforce these rules on anyone that fails to participate. Any time someone does not stand on their head three times a day, who does not shave their eyebrows, and so on, will be violently beaten and threatened at gunpoint until they comply. However, those who continue to refuse will be shot in the head and killed.
What can these two scenarios tell us about Free Will? For anyone that desires to have an extra $100,000 a year, the decision to adhere to my demands is very easy. In fact, most everyone would jump at the chance to follow my silly rules, because the inconvenience is offset by the high value of the reward. However, what do you think would happen if no monetary compensation or physical punishment were involved? Given the option, would anyone waste time shaving their eyebrows or wearing their trousers backward simply because they are told to? Without any desire to engage in these actions of their own accord, there is no inherent motivation to follow my instructions. But what about the individuals that initially failed to comply with my demands? Although by doing as I say they can avoid pain, misery, and even death, are they participating because they truly want to, or because they are afraid of the consequences if they don’t?
In either group of participants, the motivation to adhere to my instructions is disingenuous. When a reward that is too-good-to-be-true is added to the equation the participants are compelled to perform an action despite not having a genuine desire to obey. Indeed, this concept is even better exemplified in the punishment scenario, where the well-being of an individual is threatened. Although the participants have Free Will to comply with or to disregard my instructions, the alternative of being shot in the head is not much of an option when it comes to exercising one’s freedom of choice. Free Will is the freedom to make a decision without being coerced or bribed.
At some point today you will need to decide what you want to eat. You can either run to the store to buy groceries or you can dine out at a restaurant. In either scenario the outcome is the same, you will be fed. Therefore, when you exercise your Free Will you make decisions according to your own wants and desires, independent of bribery or coercion from outside influences. Take the decision of what food to eat, what cloths to wear, what movie to watch, or any of the numerous choices you might make on a daily basis, and compare them to the decision of whether or not to believe in a god. It is apparent one’s Free Will is influenced in quite a different manner when it comes to choosing a religion.
However, some may argue that within society there are laws against certain actions, such as theft, rape, murder and so on, that if broken will result in a punishment, namely prison. Therefore, even though we can be punished for breaking the law, it does not mean we have lost our Free Will and that we are bribed or coerced into adhering to the law. As follows, theists believe God has set similar boundaries by claiming we must believe in him, and a failure to do so breaks the law and results in the punishment of an everlasting hell.
But we must keep in mind the decision of whether to accept or reject God’s existence is fundamentally different to the decision of whether or not to commit a crime. In essence, it is the difference between an idea and an action. No matter how one responds to the question of God’s existence, the answer itself cannot influence the external world and thus cannot have a moral consequence. Only when one chooses to act on a belief can there be physical ramifications; and although a concept can be accurate or inaccurate, a mere “idea” cannot be inherently moral or immoral.
The Holocaust is one of the most depraved, immoral acts known to man. The belief that led to the Holocaust was that the Jewish people were genetically inferior to the Aryan race. Although scientifically inaccurate, this belief does not violate the definition of morality, because ideas and beliefs in-and-of-themselves cannot physically interact with the outside world by denying autonomy or causing a detriment to society. It is only the actions stemming from a belief that can be labeled as moral or immoral. Therefore, when Hitler chose to act on his beliefs about racial purity by systematically murdering the Jewish people, his actions became immoral independent of his beliefs, however scientifically inaccurate they might be.
Even a belief that is considered accurate, according to a particular worldview, cannot attest to the moral implications of said belief. A Christian might believe that a human life begins at conception, but if this Christian were to then assassinate an abortion doctor it would not mean the belief about conception is immoral.
Whatever meaning you personally derive from a belief, no matter how rational or irrational it might be, the manner in which you respond does not by extension cause the belief itself to be morally good or morally bad. Therefore, your response to the question “Does God exist?” cannot promote or deny individual autonomy or the well-being of society anymore than not believing in dragons or believing one day aliens will visit planet Earth.
Keep in mind, when referencing beliefs we are speaking in terms of beliefs about ideas. Beliefs about actions would still carry their inherent moral implications, according to whether the action promotes or discourages the definition of secular morality. Therefore, the belief that “cold blooded murder is acceptable” is still considered wrong, because the belief is regarding an action that is already determined to be immoral.
Although beliefs about ideas have no intrinsic moral consequences, many actions do. Independent of whether you “believe” charity is morally good or bad, the act of giving to the poor has an objective moral value, because improving someone’s standard of living positively influences the life of another human being, just like the immoral action of murder negatively influences the life of another human being. Although certain actions like charity and murder have intrinsic moral consequences, there are many examples of actions that do not have moral value at all.
Take our previously discussed examples of choosing what food to eat, what cloths to wear, or what film to watch. The outcome of making a choice in either of these scenarios does not carry a moral consequence. Therefore, whichever film you decide to watch this evening does not have a moral outcome, or any outcome beyond that of your level of entertainment. On a side note, imagine how your Free Will would be influenced if I were to ask you to choose between two movies, but I’ll torture you to death if you pick “Transformers”.
The intrinsic moral consequence of deciding what film to watch is much the same as deciding what religion to follow. But for a moment, imagine that God does not care if you acknowledge his existence, whether or not you perform various sacraments, or if you even pray. If there were no ultimate reward or punishment for acts of faith, then what would be the moral implications to the external world? Rituals of faith cannot influence the autonomy of others or effect society at large. Therefore, just like beliefs, displays of faith carry no intrinsic moral consequences, similar to standing on one’s head three times a day or only eating yellow food on Wednesday.
Although it might make one of my followers very happy to shave her eyebrows because she believes she is gaining my approval, the act itself has no moral value because it cannot promote or discourage the definition of secular morality. In much the same way, believing Jesus is your savor or praying five times a day have no intrinsic value other than garnering God’s approval, and as we have already examined, the reason someone desires to obtain God’s approval is to successfully pass his impending final judgment.
Anyone that believes in God and accepts the ideas of heaven and hell, also accepts that their faith and level of devotion to God will result in a reward or punishment as determined by their ultimate accountability. The ever-looming threat of judgment is designed to instill fear into the hearts of believers, allowing them to be bribed and coerced into holding beliefs and performing actions that otherwise would not be of moral concern if God had not designed and implemented a system of reward and punishment.
A belief that has the imposed consequence of a blissful reward or a tortuous punishment is no different than being bribed or coerced into doing something under severe duress. If one is forcibly compelled to believe in something to avoid the consequences of not doing so, then there is no integrity or authenticity to that belief.
In order for the theistic concept of Free Will to be truly “free”, our decision to hold a belief and to accept or reject God cannot have an eternal reward or punishment, as a truly sincere belief is not born out of coercion. God’s system of ultimate accountability is fundamentally flawed, because it destroys Free Will and makes genuine belief impossible.