I’ve been pondering the belief that good people go to heaven while bad people go to hell. “Good” can be defined by absolutist rules pertaining to sin, like the Ten Commandments and much of the Koran, painting a clear map of what it takes to be good enough for God. Or “good” can be left to a person’s own moral values, in which case relativism prevails: terrorists in Iraq, for example, feel that they are doing good for God and expect heaven for actions that horrify people outside their sequestered belief system.
A great deal of harm has resulted from both approaches. Trying to be good enough for God isn’t a realistic basis for action unless we are content to divide into separate moral communities with little or no contact between them.
Since every person wants to lead a moral life–and a large majority say they believe in heaven and hell–what is the connection of right and wrong to Nature, or the universe? What kind of God wouldn’t want us to be good?
India already has an amoral religious tradition; the universe was not created to lead to a moral conclusion–a day of judgment when sinners will all be eternally punished and the righteous eternally rewarded. I am not espousing this tradition, only pointing out that the amorality of modern science, which sees no purpose to creation, has a religious equivalent. Leela, the dance of creation, is a pure phenomenon like the Big Bang, only seen in projected human terms as the play of gods and goddesses.
A God who doesn’t want us to be good may want us to be free instead. In my experience, free people wind up being as moral, and usually much more moral, than people bound by strictures and rules. In an amoral universe, free choice already seems like a truism, because there are no natural limitations to prevent the human race from pursuing any course of action it desires, including highly self-destructive ones. Even the instinct for self-preservation is not an absolute in human nature.
The idea of a God who wants us to be free is an evolving idea. It frightens many religionists and leads to violent opposition. But the history of modern life has moved toward personal freedom inexorably, and a God who evolves at the same time makes sense, given that we see God evolve continuously throughout the Old and New Testaments. “God: A biography” by Jack Miles gives a fascinating textual account of God’s many faces and changes in scripture.
A God who wants us to be free is the next evolved stage after a God who forgives and a God who redeems. These are non-punishing versions of God, and they can be found all over the world–not in mass religion, perhaps, but in many divinity schools and various reform and liberal sects.
Religion can be an ally of reason in this regard, because both can adapt to an amoral universe without accusing each other of breach of faith. The religionist doesn’t have to deny scientific fact, while science doesn’t have to dismiss faith as sentimental morality-based projection. Science already believes in freedom of the mind, and it’s time religion did, too.