Honorable mention — Haven Morris: Speculating psychology and morality in the hereafter

By Haven Morris

Entertain a brief contrast of hypothetical scenarios.

In the first, a young person in a religious family suggests accepting an alternative or nonexistent faith for themselves. The reaction is misfired chemical: spontaneous and combustive. Voices combine to insist on an eternal paradise, and its opposing pit of fire and everlasting agony. They say that the faithful are moral and, thus, deserve the former, while the unfaithful are wicked and deserve the latter.

Haven Morris

In the second, a young person in a religious family asks whether humankind is inherently good. The reaction is nil; stumbling, perhaps, and uncertain, of these large inquiries suited better for lecture rooms and dialectics.

Entertain that these two scenarios are, subtextually, one and the same. The question of an afterlife, especially one with such stark dichotomy between reward and punishment, takes the place of a conversation about intrinsic morality. Ultimately, to give a choice between heaven, a gilded carrot hanging on a sanctimonious string which guides someone to morality, or hell, a fiery stick clapped threateningly and eternally on an open palm, is not to give a choice at all. It is the authoritarian parent saying, “my way or the highway.” It is a mobster offering a bribe or a set of cement galoshes.

Similarly, it suggests that without reward or punishment consistently present, no one would conform to a “good.” This system of morality is akin to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s concept of pre-conventional morality, wherein a child only learns to do what they are rewarded for, and avoids doing what they are punished for.

This was a morality that ancient people, the people of Hammurabi’s Code, could adhere to. They were, in a sense, children, simultaneously frightened and smitten with the world, with few philosophical constructs. It worked; we advanced. However, our morality didn’t follow. This child’s view of reward vs. punishment, good vs. evil, black vs. white, maintained itself for centuries, and still affects us today. To believe in an afterlife is to stagnate in moral development. It is an infancy created by authority figures and later self-imposed.

My aversion to religious interpretations of the hereafter lies within this principle, that a juxtaposition of utter bliss or utter suffering is necessary to motivate basic human kindness, and as a tool to cultivate a following. The hypothetical authoritarian parent frequently raises unstable, dependent children with no intrinsic motivation. The axiomatic mobster rules with fear, breeding resentment and conflicts within his colleagues. Promises of divine afterlife accomplish the same results of both, tenfold.

Entertain the idea that religion has prevented the evolution of our collective moral fiber. Entertain the broad theory that humankind is only moral through self-discipline. Entertain the litote that the world does not fit into two cups. But for heaven’s sakes, don’t entertain the afterlife.

Haven, 17, attended Stuttgart High School in Stuggart, Germany. He is a published poet and has lived on four continents. He plans to major in psychology and minor in film.