Threaten Me, Please…

HTF__Threatening_Base_by_FlameBunny700As an atheist, I have a recurring conversation with many believers. They can’t understand why I bother to try to be a good person without the impending fear of judgement and damnation. If I don’t think God is watching me and keeping score, why don’t I just go on a hedonistic binge of barbarism?

I always try to patiently respond that my motivation is mostly internal. I want to judge myself to be useful, productive, helpful, and caring. There is an external aspect to it as well. I want my family and friends to judge me positively. I don’t believe in life everlasting. My only shot at living beyond my mortal years is in the recollections of those who might remember me. And for reasons of my own making, I want that legacy to be based on fondness, respect, and maybe even admiration, not on infamy. That is what I aspire to, and what inspires me.

What I don’t usually share is that their question frightens the hell out of me. The implication (or in some cases, the outright admission) is that the only thing standing between them and a life of raping and pillaging is belief in some exogenous force poised to reign retribution down upon them. They are not a tamed animal, they are a caged one.

Of late, I’ve begun to wonder if this same need for external fear-based motivation extends beyond the realm of religion and morality. In economics, I hear the repeated notion that minimum wages, guaranteed health care, food stamps, unions, and any other program designed to help the poor or the working poor is inherently destructive. It removes the incentive to work harder, train harder, or even to work at all. The underlying assumption seems to be that absent the fear of homelessness and starvation, no one would get out of bed in the morning. It isn’t enough to have a sizable carrot in front of you unless there’s a big angry stick behind you to keep you moving.

This same attitude seems to bleed into foreign policy as well. The notion that the USA must remain the preeminent military power on the planet because otherwise we’ll lose our ability to influence other countries seems predicated on the notion that our power comes from fear that we instill. We repeatedly demonstrate that fear of terrorism will motivate us to actions we would otherwise never consider. In fact politics has largely degenerated into a game of which party can paint the scarier future if the other guy wins.

It even strikes me that much of our gun-culture stems from fears that everyone else, left to their own devices, would pose a threat. It is only by being a bigger threat yourself, that you’re able to keep them at bay.

I do believe that most people view others through their own life-lens. That is, they project their own desires, tendencies, and morality onto the behavior of others. People who worry about the downside of atheism, economic security, and world peace are reacting from the awareness that they themselves realize that in such a world, they would rapidly fall into an existence of varying degrees of unfettered sociopathy.

That there exist so many people contained only by a variety of fears is more than disconcerting. And it would be one thing if there was a recognition that fear-based motivation was destructive and there was a collective consensus to mitigate it. Conversely, what we’re seeing is a resurgence in the idea that fear-based motivation is essential and good.

I had hoped for better, but in the end, maybe we are just barbarians with iPhones.

5 thoughts on “Threaten Me, Please…

  1. I have to disagree with one part of your conclusion. My sense is that many of these people view themselves as exceptional — peaceably disposed, kindhearted, etc. — but don’t see others this way. And in this, I see a great failing of empathy, of willingness to make the effort to, reversing Burns, see the other as we see ourselves. And I hate to say it, but given my experience in other places, but especially in Japan, I see this as a very American failing. And I’m not sure how to fix it; individual families are individual families. Perhaps a greater emphasis on empathy and EQ in schools? I will say that my experience now of almost 20 years outside the US has made me more empathetic than I was when I lived there. Having to deal with being “the other” (and a possibly scary other, at that) regularly makes you more aware of the need to understand the other. I still have my views and such, and they are formed in part by being American, but I am a lot less full of confidence in my rightness and the need to enforce how I want to do things than I was. I am a bit embarrassed looking back at how self-centered I was. I look around me now and see a world overwhelmingly full of kind, generous people. I see so little to fear. And yet, like you, I am struck by the number of people who still seem to be driven by fear. And I think it is in part because they cannot see the other, and themselves as other, clearly yet.

  2. Wow. So much here and so much that I agree with, but much that I don’t. People are driven by fear, but not only by fear. If you talk to a recent religious convert they will tell you how their heart is filled with the Holy Spirit (or pick the God of your choice) and how happy they are. People don’t convert to be afraid. Likewise the people who question you aren’t necessarily driven by fear, its just they haven’t thought it all the way through. If someone only believes in their religion because of the threat of eternal damnation, then they’re believing for the wrong reason. The irony is, an omnipotent God would know that and they’re probably screwed anyway.
    But when it comes to the economics, the assumption is simply that some people respond to incentives. If you are denying that then there’s no point going further. It’s hard to think on many “theories” that have more empirical evidence. As an engineer, you know that there are badly designed machines out there. It’s not the intention of the design, it’s the design that matters. Just because they are designed to help the poor, doesn’t mean they do. It is the job of scientists, economists in this case, to point out the design flaws. It’s not that we can’t help the needy, but we have to use the tools at our disposal to come up with a design that works.
    Let’s do a mental exercise for a moment. You are in charge of a political party and your goal is to keep your party in control for perpetuity. You want to create a class of voters that are always going to vote for you. To do this you could try and reduce economic mobility. But you need them to always and everywhere think you are doing things for their benefit, and your opposition is … not looking out for their best interests. You need to convince people that your party’s policies are in their best interest even when they are not. Which party’s platform does this describe? Maybe both, but I think it’s more descriptive of the left. The important thing here, is that it doesn’t matter whether it was intentional or not, that’s what is happening. Let’s get rid of tribalism and push for things that work, regardless of who comes up with it.

  3. Actually I’ve had the religion discussion with many people and probed at the fear motivation part. My description was not hyperbole. They admit that it is the fear of judgement and damnation that keeps them in line, and it is what appeals to them about religion. It contains their darker angels.

    As to the mental exercise, it will not surprise you that I would attribute that description more to the right. But out of curiosity, I’ve posted the question verbatim to the Cogitorium Facebook page (without any commentary from me). I’ll be interested in the response as there are vocal fans from both sides out there. Stay tuned…

  4. On the religious question, I submit that they may believe it without it actually being true. It justifies their position. You grew up Catholic. Do you have the same answer now that you did then?

    I haven’t looked at the facebook page yet, so this is not biased by that. (You’ll just have to take my word for it.) I think the majority of people think the programs we are talking about do help the poor, so they wouldn’t see the contradiction. I expect answers to pretty much come down party lines. I want to know if you see the contradiction. I’m curious as to what parts of the right’s platform you think fit the bill. Maybe you should hold back as to not influence the Facebook tally.

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