Abrahamic religions often hold that there is some sort of reward or punishment in the afterlife. These are, of course, heaven and hell. They hold that if you do or don’t do certain things, you’ll go to hell and burn in sulphurous hellfire for eternity. Similarly, they hold that if you do do or do not do certain things different things, you’ll be in paradise forever.
In a similar vein, other religions believe in karma. They hold that if you do or don’t do certain things, you’ll come back as pond scum or the like. Similarly, if you do do or don’t do certain different things, you’ll stop reincarnating and achieve Nirvana.
Recall how many of those religions emphasize the desirability of in–conversion. They often try to get you to convert by emphasizing what will happen to you if you don’t convert; that is, bad things will happen to you. To you. Notice who the emphasis is on. You. This is therefore immoral.
Because it’s selfish, that’s why. Belief in afterlife punishment or reward causes people to be motivated by a selfish desire to avoid something bad happening to them (such as burning in hellfire forever) and to get something good to happen to them (such as living in heaven). It causes people to directly consider what happens to them. Although it might indirectly influence someone’s interactions with others (for example, you’ll burn in hell if you aren’t nice to other people) it still ultimately motivates based on what happens to the actor. A truly good person would be good purely for the sake of being good; they would need no other motivation. When asked, “What is in it for you?” they would reply “Nothing, but I’m being moral anyway.”
I have thought of a few possible objections to my conclusions. Hence, I’ve taken the liberty of preemptively debunking them. And that is after the jump.
The first possible objection is that it irrelevant whether someone does something because it benefits them or whether they do it for its own sake. This is incorrect because of the traits of the person under discussion. If they are doing a good deed, they have certain traits and virtues and vices. If they are doing the same thing, but doing it because they want to avoid hell, they have the same traits, but with the vice of selfishness thrown in. This is clearly worse than the first example. Therefore, this objection does not apply.
Another possible objection is that I’ve actually proven the non–existence of heaven, hell, and the like as I have shown them to be a bad means for motivating people. Although this is true— I have shown that it is bad to use them to motivate people— it is irrelevant as to whether those things actually exist. One might ask what the philosophical gain one would get from an unnecessary belief, but that is a separate question from whether heaven, hell, and the like exist.
The last possible objection is that the same reasoning could be used to argue against any form of punishment, such as prison and the like. This fails on the grounds that there are other possible motives for punishment. Consider the following: apparently, Eucalyptus trees are capable of dropping entire branches at once. It is not difficult to imagine this killing someone if certain conditions are met. Suppose that happens. What do we do to the tree? One thing we don’t do is arrest it and throw it in a plant jail. Why? Because plants don’t think; they aren’t rational beings who can be held responsible for their actions. If we don’t make criminals get a punishment that is appropriate for their crimes, we are not holding them responsible for their actions. This is disrespectful for them because it is not treating them like a person, but rather just like a thing. Since this therefore offers a non–utilitarian justification for punishment, this objection does not apply.
Of course, the above does not really rehabilitate the concept of hell because hell is like the brutal, barbaric despot who uses the executioner’s axe to punish all crimes. If it makes no sense to use execution or life imprisonment as the only possible punishment for any crime (even minor ones like stealing a $1.00 candy bar), it also makes no sense to use the same punishment (that is, everlasting hell) for all “wrongs”. Such is characteristic of totalitarian despots who cannot see subtlety, and who are merciless, brutal, and bloodthirsty. Those are not characteristics of a civilized society.