Why, When it Comes to Religion, the Ends ALWAYS Justify the Means


One of the great philosophical debates (and the first thing you learn in any Intro to Philosophy class) is about deontological vs. utilitarian morality: Are “right” and “wrong” a result of certain actions being inherently right or wrong (killing and stealing are wrong in principle) or is it determined based on the consequences of those actions (killing and stealing are wrong because of the harm they do to others)? Or, in even more simplified form, when it comes to “right” and “wrong” do the ends justify the means?

Traditionally, these two approaches to morality seem to line up pretty closely with debates surrounding religious vs. secular morality. Either we should obey the commandments because God commands us to, since through his divine authority he has determined what is “right” or “wrong” via cosmic fiat, and going against those divine dictates is, quite simply, wrong (Euthyphro’s Dilemma be damned), or we should follow secular/humanistic ethics, which generally consider right/wrong to be based on the real-world consequences of our actions, meaning in some cases it may be permissible–even morally obligatory–to perform acts which may otherwise be considered “immoral” (a parent stealing medicine to save the life of his child, for example).

Traditionally, this leads to the notion that secular/humanistic/utilitarian ethics means that the ends justify the means, and as long as the final outcome is beneficial the methods you use to get there are ultimately irrelevant (think Watchmen’s Ozymandias).

But it seems to me that in a way, this dichotomy is precisely backwards, and not only do the “ends justify the means” when it comes to traditional religious morality, but they do so to a literally infinite degree, and that’s for one reason: Because the traditional concepts of “Heaven” and “Hell” introduce the element of infinity to the equation, with notions of everlasting infinite torment or everlasting infinite bliss; and when you perform the cost/benefit analysis on anything involving infinity, the answer is always similarly infinite (math nerds like me might point out exceptions like series of infinite sums which converge on finite numbers, but obviously that doesn’t apply in this case).

So what does that mean? It means that any amount of harm you do to anyone—lying, killing, even torture or mass murder—pales in comparison to the harm you can inflict on someone by causing them to go to hell. Infinitely so. Even increasing the odds of someone going to Hell by a miniscule fraction of a percent is still a transgression of infinite harm, since even .00001% of infinity is still infinity.

And the same goes for heaven; no matter how much good you may do in the world, it will be infinitely trivial compared to even one act which increases the odds of someone reaching Heaven.

Even more disturbingly, the flipside is also true: any action, no matter how abhorrent, is perfectly acceptable in the Heaven/Hell equation, and the ends ALWAYS justify the means provided that the end goal is helping others reach heaven or avoid hell since that end goal is literally a positive of infinite value.

Of course thankfully, with the exception of religious extremists, nobody really applies this logic to their day to day lives, or actually considers these implications and takes their beliefs to the logical extreme.

And we all should hope it remains that way.

Follow-up: Sacrificing One’s Soul

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 4

Saying that religious claims “don’t make sense”. It’s true there are countless religious claims which don’t make sense, and can never make sense. But I’ve always felt that saying something “doesn’t make sense” sounds a little too close to “I don’t understand it”. It’s the kind of thing one might say when trying to understand advanced calculus, not just things which are inherently nonsensical. But most of us are atheists precisely because we do understand religion, and speak from a position of having too much information on the subject, not too little. So that’s why I find myself catching myself, and instead of saying the concept of the trinity, for example, “doesn’t make sense” (which it doesn’t), I say it’s incoherent. Instead of saying that the concept of an infinitely loving God punishing people with infinite torment for finite sins “doesn’t make sense”, I say that it’s paradoxical, not to mention unethical. To me that sends a much stronger message: that the issue isn’t with us, it’s with metaphysical claims that directly contradict what we know to be true about the world we live in. Other options: logically invalid, fatally flawed, internally contradictory, unintelligible.

“When it comes to the Bible, you can’t just pick and choose what you want to believe…” Not only can Christians do this, they absolutely have to. And as I point out here, every time someone repeats this cliche they are actually giving the Bible far more credit than it deserves. Also, do we really want to imply that absolute fundamentalism is the more admirable position, simply because it happens to be more logically consistent?

“Christians believe serial killers can still go to heaven just by becoming Christians on their deathbeds”. For the most part this is absolutely true–particularly when it comes to evangelical Christians, who largely believe that salvation is achieved by faith and faith alone. But a secular argument could at least be made that it is conceivable for someone to commit the most horrific crimes imaginable, and eventually come to deserve forgiveness for those crimes before dying. But consider the same scenario in reverse: a law-abiding, devout Christian who later becomes a sadistic mass murderer, and remains one until the day he dies… How many people realize that according to the Christian doctrine of irrevocable salvation (“once saved always saved”), this hypothetical person is still guaranteed a spot in heaven while Einstein and Gandhi burn in Hell? Such a scenario is FAR more perverse than the hypothetical “deathbed conversion”, yet is every bit as consistent with the professed beliefs of fundamentalist evangelicals.

For the rest of the series:

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 1

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 2

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 3

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 5

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 6

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 7

Could you really refuse to worship an “Evil God”?

I sometimes hear other atheists say they would refuse to worship the Christian God, even if he were real, because they would refuse to worship such an evil being.

That’s an admirable position, but I honestly doubt whether anyone could truly make such a choice. If “God” were to manifest himself in an undeniable way, could anyone truly turn down the rewards of Heaven and subject themselves to infinite torment in Hell, strictly out of principle?

Maybe, but I honestly can’t say I could, and I can’t blame anyone else who couldn’t either.

Consider that when someone has a gun to your head, you can’t be held to the same ethical standards as if you were simply doing something on your own volition. And the threat of “Hell” is essentially a gun with infinite capacity to inflict INFINITE harm and suffering, pointed directly at your head.

For that reason I can’t honestly say that I wouldn’t do ANYTHING to avoid such a punishment (if I believed it existed) no matter how morally abhorrent that action may otherwise be. Even something as detestable as worshipping an evil being.

Good thing there’s no reason whatsoever to believe that such a being exists.