The Road to Heaven is Paved With Bad Intentions

My Facebook feed surprises me all the time. This morning I woke up to the following video. It is of one of my former high school classmates who talks about her eight-week experience in Peru serving underprivileged children.

The problem with the format and presentation of such videos is that they do not have the sole and innocent purpose of giving an inspirational message; rather, they are first and foremost promotions of one’s own religion and beliefs. For example, she says she is inspired by the words of John the Baptist about the coming of Jesus, and says “that it was and remains a message of great hope… If only we hear the voice calling us, inviting us to testify to the Light.” For the millions of people who don’t believe in superstitious nonsense, the message of John the Baptist and of the legendary Jesus is an empty one. More importantly, it does not and should not have anything to do with our service and solidarity to our fellow human beings. We most definitely should not be giving an “if only” statement about religious belief, as if the main problem in the world is not enough people accepting the apparent “truth” of some message from the Middle East thousands of years ago. In short, for the millions of good, moral nonbelievers in this country, such testimonies are not only non sequiturs, but also serve to alienate.

I admit that I have not done anything as spectacular as going to Peru, and that is no person’s fault but my own. But whenever I have done something worthwhile, whether that is helping raise money for Doctors Without Borders, volunteering to teach chess at a local school, or giving out free hugs, I have never been asked, nor do I think I should have been asked, what religion I belong to.  We should do work for goodness sake, and not because we are compelled to do so by a religious authority figure.

And when we do good works, we do should it humbly. We do it not to serve our religion, to serve ourselves and our salvation, but to serve other people. Saying that God’s voice is talking to me and telling me what to do is not going to cut it. This is so especially important because religion, beyond the core humanistic values that they all share, have served only to divide so many people for so long. It is about time we stop this and start serving our neighbor beyond the confines of our own religion.

It’s no surprise why in interfaith circles, everybody endorses values like “peace,” “cooperation,” “love,” and “service.” That’s because these are not Catholic values or Protestant values. They are not Christian values or Muslim values or Hindu values. These are HUMAN values, and the fact that they exist across multiple cultures and religions suggest that they transcend their respective religions.

This transcendent human morality, one that is valid across all religions, is the foundation of what we call humanism, and it has existed for tens of thousands of years. Humans were not raping and killing each other on the streets before Yahweh showed us the Ten Commandments or before Gabriel appeared before Muhammed. People like Confucius could write the Golden Rule before the time of Jesus. In fact, morality does not come in tablet or rule-based form, but exists in the heart of every person reading this post.

This does not mean that Christians cannot do good works. The overwhelming number of religious people, including my former classmate, have done enormous good in the world. The challenge, the “if only” I propose, is that we all reflect on how we can really build a better world. We should wonder whether associating common good works and packaging it in a specific religion is a good idea or simply an ultimately divisive, alienating, and counterproductive activity.

Take for example a very moving documentary I saw at Skepticon. It was called “Give a Damn” and it documented one atheist and two Christians who decided to travel across Africa together to experience life in the poorest parts of the world. They had great adventures and setbacks, including a devastating plane crash. They met wonderful people, helped many locals, and came back to raise awareness of about global poverty. The most important part of the documentary is that religion, for the most part, didn’t matter. Love and concern for people across the globe is a human experience and a human activity, and these wonderful people could talk about their experience without the need to proselytize or to bring in heavy theological baggage.

It is therefore a good question to ask, especially in this holiday giving season, what the motives are for many charitable organizations. The next time you put coins in a Salvation Army can, I ask that you think and learn more about the organizations you are supporting and giving money to. Think about whether you’re doing something because your religion tells you to, because you want some supernatural reward, or because you really want to. The road to Heaven, after all, is paved with bad intentions.


Posted on December 11, 2011, in Humanism, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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