The best route to improving people's behaviour is to educate them on the effects of their actions, so they want to do good. The suboptimal route is to force people into good behaviour through threats. The greater the power and wisdom of a teacher or parent, the more possible the moral route. The more tyrannical and hateful the teacher, the more appealing the fear route. Religious texts have strongly veered towards the lesser of the two approaches, reflecting human values at the time of their writing.
There are many occasions where "and fear God" is added to other instructions, seemingly without adding anything except highlighting the poor persuasive power of the author. Examples include Lev. 25:17, Deut. 6:2, 31:12-13, Joshua 4:24, Psalms 96:4, Proverbs 24:21, Ecc. 5:7, Jer. 5:22.
There are verses where "fear God" is given as a primary instruction, as in Deut. 6:13, 10:12, 10:20, 1 Sam. 12:14, Job 28:28, Psalms 19:9, 33:8, 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, Ecc. 12:13, Ecclesiasticus 1:8,11, 7:29,31.
And many verses where it is implicit or explicit that if you fear God, you'll get rewards, such as in 2 Kings 17:39, Psalms 25:14, 33:18, 34:9, 103:11,17, 112:1, 115:13, 128:1, 147:11, Proverbs 22:4, Ecclesiasticus 1:12-13,18, 2:8-10, Ecclesiasticus 19:18. These verses are written to appeal to the selfish, who are looking out for their own self-interest. For this reason, the "fear God" parts of the Bible are probably best considered to be a human construct, rather than the demands of a good god.
Contradictions are inevitable with such a large text as the Bible, and Ecclesiasticus 2:12 says that fearful hearts bring woe upon themselves.
Biblical morality so stunted ethical thinking that "the third century Church Father, Tertullian, could not imagine how God could not demand fear"1:
“But how are you going to love, without some fear that you do not love? Surely [an unfeared God] is neither your Father, towards whom your love for duty's sake should be consistent with fear because of His power; nor your proper Lord, whom you should love for His humanity and fear as your teacher.”
Pascal's Wager is a rhetorical argument proposed by Christians against atheists, and holds that it is 'safer' to believe in God because if you're wrong, you don't lose anything, but if you disbelieve then you could end up foregoing the benefits of heaven. It is a very common argument2. The problem is with this argument is that if you were so shallow as to be convinced by it, then, it probably will not work out for you. Altruism for the purpose of getting yourself into Heaven is fake altruism - it is merely a holy form of selfishness. As such, any moral God will not entertain you any more than any other selfish person. The atheist who does good for its own sake is clearly a more moral person than a theist who does good with the reward of heaven dangling in front of them, and the threat of hell burning at their behind. So, in other words, it is better morally if you try to be a good person without believing in heaven, hell, and God.
Guy Harrison in "50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God" (2008)3 documents that the lure of heaven is one of the reasons that entices people to be veer towards theism, and in his discussion highlights a particularly unsavoury example of selfishness disguised as philanthropy. It derives from Benny Hinn, the famous Christian televangelist, after he asks for donations.
“Hinn then informed the audience that his ministry accepts donations by checks and credit cards. Scores of assistants fanned out into the crowd with big buckets. 'Don't just give,' he added, 'Sow, so that you can reap a mighty harvest!' This is an interesting point Hinn makes at his services because it seems to eliminate any element of altruism from the donation.”
The fact that Hinn frames donations in terms of what you will get out of it later really is a damning indictment of the entire concept of "doing good in order to get into heaven" element of Pascal's Wager.
Theists have a two-pronged pair of incentives that serve to lessen the worth of any apparent moral act on their behalf. If I am threatened into behaving in a good manner then I am at best amoral, because I am not acting with free will. If you believe that a supreme god is going to punish you (in hell) or deny you life (annihilation) if you misbehave, it is like being permanently threatened into behaving well. In addition, if you believe there is some great reward for behaving well, then your motives for good behavior are more selfish. An atheist who does not believe in heaven and hell is potentially more moral, for (s)he acts without these added factors. Most atheists who do not believe in divine judgement, and most theists who do, both act morally. Some of both groups act consistently immorally. The claim that belief in God is essential or aids moral behavior is wrong, and any amusing theistic claim that they have "better" morals, despite acting under a reward and punishment system, is deeply questionable. Who is more moral? Those who act for the sake of goodness itself, or those who do good acts under the belief that failure to do so results in hell?
Consider the fates of these three people:
Out of all the religions, this person picks the one that sounds like it will give the best rewards after death.
This person simply accepts whatever religion he was born with, and tries to live his life as best he can.
Out of all the religions, this person doesn't know which to pick even though he studies them, so he tries to simply live his life as best he can, deliberating carefully over the moral stances that he takes.
Imagining for the moment that god is benevolent (good) and judges us, then, it is surely the third person who deserves most merit. The first person, who follows Pascal's Wager, is openly self-centered. Given that many religions proscribe punishments for those that worship the wrong god, the third position (pick no religion) is the safest of all three options.
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The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.