Why I Don’t Like the Carrot and Stick (Being Teachings about Heaven and Hell)

Today, black tea in the hopes of waking up enough to finish packing before the movers get here.

There are people who will do the right thing even when there is no extrinsic reason for them to do so.  To some people this sounds obvious – to others it comes as a surprise.

It came to me as a surprise.  I was raised to believe that people only acted based on extrinsic motivation.  That was why you shouldn’t trust people who weren’t Christians.  Without “love for God” pulling them and fear of hell burning behind them, they’d rape, lie, cheat, and steal whenever no one was looking.  After all, we are all born with a fallen sin nature which is totally and completely corrupt and we would all do every possible thing wrong if we had not been saved by the grace of God and had our sin nature replaced by God’s grace.

It came as a surprise to me when people who didn’t believe in God or hell could have hurt me and gotten away with it, but didn’t.  It came as a surprise to me when I experienced random acts of altruism from atheists.  And that was how I learned the very important fact that some people don’t need the carrot and the stick to do the right thing, or go beyond it.

And at that point, this aspect of some religious teaching began to bother me.  I don’t see the ethics of convincing twelve year old girls that they would be sleeping around, taking drugs irresponsibly, and shoplifting if they had not, by God’s grace, been a part of that church.  It certainly isn’t true and it doesn’t give them an accurate and useful understanding of themselves and others.

I also have a problem with the presentation of the carrot and the stick.  Perhaps in some religious systems, the carrot and stick kick in only for those psychopathic personalities that need it in order to behave at all ethically.  But when you terrify normal, decent people into stopping to trust their instincts towards ethical action (because “the heart is deceitful and wicked above all things – who can know it?” – all our natural inclinations are towards ‘evil’) and replace their natural moral compass with the carrot and stick, you create a situation where a person can be ethically manipulated by moving the carrot and the stick.

When you have people who can be ethically manipulated by moving the carrot and the stick, you get carrot and stick holders (priests, respected ethical teachers, etc) overriding natural ethical boundaries with what God ‘really’ wants.

So you’ve taken psychically normal individuals (those born without psychopathology), people who have an internal moral compass, and gotten them to act like psychopaths, that is, to base action on extrinsic rewards.  Only 4% of American are psychopaths, but far more than 4% act based on extrinsic rewards (being heaven and hell).   Some people who have full capacity for internally guided ethical action are instead lying, deceiving, even killing (terrorism) because of carrot and stick manipulation.

Many people think carrot and stick motivation is good – but it’s only when they get to say where the carrot and stick get placed.  Problem is, once you detach someone from their moral compass and attach them to the carrot and the stick, you don’t necessarily get to decide how the carrot and stick are used on them.  You’ve just made them easy to control, and what happens when they aren’t controlled by you?


5 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like the Carrot and Stick (Being Teachings about Heaven and Hell)

  1. Becca,

    Thankfully, the Orthodox teaching on heaven and hell, as far as I know, is there is no place in God, who is Love, for hell. Rather, as we see in many icons, hell is a state in which each soul exists when the nous is clouded over, when the window of the soul fogs with earthly thoughts and selfishness. It is when the windshield of the car is filthy that we lose sight of where we’re going, sunlight fails to pour through, and we crash. With dirty lenses, we can’t see straight, sometimes nothing at all, and may willfully reject the fire of God’s love and instead receive Divine, loving fire as painful scorching. It is like a sun which hardens mud, or softens a wax candle. Same properties, but acts differently on the individual.

  2. Katie C. says:

    I agree with the statement that “a system that depends on coercion” isn’t a good one on which to base your life (from Facebook). But I think this is a misrepresentation of Christianity. When considering any faith, you have to ask yourself if you’re considering a straw man version of it–an idea of Christianity that you were taught in a certain church, a false perception of it that society sees as reality, or that you formed on your own based on your experiences, etc.–or if it’s the picture that God actually paints and that Jesus showed when He was on earth.

    The carrot and stick analogy assumes Christians do good out of a forced duty, in order to get something (eternal life with God) in return. Yes, heaven will be a great reward, but I don’t think the “carrot” is the Christian’s daily motivation to be good. On the contrary, I think Christ-followers have greater freedom and less need to try to attain (or catch, so to speak) a carrot or incentive. God hands us the carrot (other people in our lives may dangle it. God hands it to any open hand) regardless of how altruistic we are. I think a Christ follower typically does good not because of some sort of bribery (i.e. “I’ll be good and you give me something”)–OR because he is magically better than others and therefore not capable of doing terrible things–but because He finds Himself changed by God’s love and forgiveness and therefore more capable to do good and love others. So while I would agree with you about the worldview you oppose, I don’t think this worldview you depict is Christianity–at least not as God teaches.

    I have often considered the goodness of those who aren’t religious at all. When I first moved to a new state after college, I marveled at how kind and generous and trustworthy my new non-Christian friends. It made me think about something Francis Schaeffer (sp?) wrote about: the nobility of man. He believed that men were both noble and depraved at the same time. We were created in God’s image with incredible capacity to think, love, create, etc. Sin does separate us from God (hence, the problem with living without his forgiveness/reconciliation), but it does not completely negate our beauty and our capacity to love, show kindness and do good. I think that’s the reason you’ve seen goodness and kindness in non-believers.

    Lastly (I did NOT think this comment was going to be so long!), consider where the atheist gets his notion that it’s good to do good, be trustworthy, give to others and be kind. Without God’s word, the very idea of doing good seems flimsy to me. I think His influence on the world has given us the very notion that we should be altruistic (even apart from Him).

    • Hi Katie,

      I don’t see how my post could have been a misrepresentation of Christianity when it never attempted to represent Christianity. The closest I got was to say I had a problem with “some religious teaching”. I didn’t equate that with Christianity as a whole. (And I’m interested in the question of why you did.)

      As for your last point – that’s what the whole post was about. People don’t do good because they have an ‘idea of being good’, but because humans have a natural inclination to act with consideration and care towards others. I don’t just base this on antidotal evidence. Scientists have come out with conclusive evidence that this is the case. I’d also like to point out cultures around the world that had not received any influence from the Judeo-Christian tradition also had altruism and kindness.

  3. Katie C says:

    Ok, good question (about why I assume you were talking about Christianity). I did notice that you mentioned “religion” only and not a specific one, but to be honest, I suppose it is because, knowing your upbringing and your past, I thought you were referring to ideas and the religion you’d encountered or experienced in Christian churches, circles, etc. growing up.

    So then, would your conclusion be that all or many religions coerce people into being good for some ultimate (or maybe more immediate) prize and that we’d be just as well off without any notion of God or god or gods in the world? Just curious.

    On a lighter note, I wish you could send us some of that tea virtually through the blog. : ) It’s a rainy day in Tennessee and I could use some good chai right now!


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