A common objection to the unique value of any particular religion is that all religions essentially teach the same things. This is deeply mistaken. For example, Christians are trying to gain eternal life, while Hindus teach that they have eternal life and are trying to get rid of it. In so many ways, the major religious world views could not be more different. But there is a sense in which I resonate with this objection. There does seem to be a basic ‘religious’ way of looking at the world (that many hold regardless of whether or not they actually believe in a cosmic god figure). It goes something like this: the ultimate outcome in this life or in eternity is the result of your moral achievement in this life. Religions differ wildly on what constitutes a good outcome and what constitutes moral achievement…but this is not my point here.
I’d like to look carefully at this basic line of thought: ultimate outcomes are based on our temporal moral achievement. I think the first interesting question is how does a god score morality? Let’s assume that it would be some sort of equation of the form:
Where A, B and C are weighting factors, the sum of which would be 1 and
X, Y and Z are certain moral behaviors or transgressions (in which case the weighting factor would have a – sign).
For example, if Muslims are right, if X=eating pork, A = a significant, negative multiplier. However, if Hindus are right, if Y = give grain oblations to Ganesh, then B = a non-trivial positive multiplier. And if yuppie liberal Christians are correct, if Z = driving a Prius then C = close to 0.9
But would every one use the same equation? Would there be a constant added for overcoming poor environment or propensity genetics? A degree of difficulty multiplier if you will?
Setting the Grades: To Curve or Not to Curve
But let’s assume that a god is good at math and can come to a univariate quantitative evaluation of our lifetime moral performance. Let’s assume that global, historic morality is normally distributed. So below, I have plotted an arithmetic scale of human goodness (from 1 to 0, with 1 being the best person ever and 0 being the worst) versus the rate of occurrence of each of these moral states.
So, how does god decide where the cut
off is between the positive religious outcome and the negative religious outcome? Does he/she/it grade on a curve? Does he have a percentile that he is shooting for? If so, does it suite me to sabotage the moral state of others in order to augment my relative position? Or, by helping those close to us (say, those in our church/mosque/synagogue/neighborhood) pursue moral goodness, are we damning others by allowing those we care about to surpass them? It doesn’t make much sense to me that God would grade on a curve.
So maybe God has an absolute standard for a positive cosmic outcome. But where is it? Most people place it above Hitler, Stalin, Sadam and abortion clinic bombers, and conveniently below themselves. Consider any placement of the demarcation that is neither 100% nor 0%. Let’s place it at 50% for argument (i.e. ‘heaven’ is a lot like lake Woebegone). Consider someone who comes in at the 50.000001 percentile and someone who comes in at the 49.9999999 percentile (represented by the small circles in the plot below). These people lived remarkably similar moral lives. The difference between them would be a single lie or a single malicious thought or eating a single doughnut during Ramadan or buying a car with slightly worse gas mileage, yet there is a dramatic non-linearity in consequence for a minor difference in achievement.
Two Attempts to Smooth the Outcomes
Purgatory is a doctrine that was developed that seems to mitigate the non-linear outcome. There is a zone of graded consequence between the good and bad outcomes, such that consequence is more of a smooth function of lived morality. But purgatory doesn’t really work on a number of levels. It only appears in Christian sects and is so foreign to the Christian worldview that even the sitting Pope doesn’t accept a classic version of it.
Reincarnation is another form of mitigating the non-linear outcome. But I find it morally deplorable and politically dangerous to suggest that people deserve their lot in life because of unseen, presumed moral failures from previous existences. Shoot, I don’t even believe that someone’s lot in life is entirely (or even mostly) the result of the moral choices they made in THIS life.
A Stochastic Approach
The Muslim worldview handles this differently. They say that the sovereign will of Allah is not predictive in this way. Righteousness is a factor in who goes to paradise and who does not. In fact they get quite quantitative about it. For example, some teach that prayers during Ramadan are 30X more valuable than prayers offered at other times. In an honest moment one of my Muslim friends admitted to me that he spent a significant amount of time worrying about if his life was sufficient to avoid hell.
But in the final analysis Allah can do whatever he wants so it is more of a stochastic approach. Your goodness can only buy more balls in the proverbial NBA lottery.
Being higher on the moral continuum increases your chances of ‘getting in’ but it is not a deterministic function. It is more like a quantum state than a Newtonian mechanic. So you could, theoretically get a situation like the one below (where the yellow dot indicates a good comic outcome and the red dot indicates a bad one).
Two Types of People
Another approach would be to group the ‘goodness’ data the same way a college professor would group academic achievement. Professors often look for achievement ‘groupings’. There is a cluster of 3 students at the top, they get the A’s. The next cluster gets the B’s. You can’t do this if the data is normally distributed, but, since there are only two consequences, you could do it with a bimodal distribution (below). This is actually a surprisingly common view of the world. One republican friend said to me once ‘the world is full of good people and bad people.’ This is the polemical approach taken by ‘The Dark Knight.’ Heath Ledger’s brilliantly disturbing turn as the Joker was simply described as a fundamentally different mode of human existence.
It is common to look at crass villains and say, ‘whew, I may do occasional bad stuff, but at least I’m a good person’. Even Imus, after the Rutgers basket ball team debacle claimed ‘I’m a good person who did a bad thing.’ But repentance is the burden of the self aware. My response to my republican friend was ‘I am bad people.’ I reject this idea of a bimodal distribution. We all carry the divine image and the scar of a cosmic corruption. Plus, even with a bimodal distribution, you have the same problem in the shared ‘tail’ (see enlargement in the figure above). You still have the non-linear consequence for the incremental difference.
The Special Cases of 1 and 0
So let’s finally consider the two special cases. You can put the line at 0 saying that all surpass it (universalism) or you can put it at or above 1 saying that none achieve it (the gospel). Both of these approaches get away from the problem of non-linear consequence for incremental differences in morality. I prefer both of them to religion. Many people find the former (see figure below) to be more palatable, more just. They tend to be comfortable suburban westerners who have never had a cause for vengeance.
Consider what Miroslov Volf says about the idea that a just God would finally accept all and judge none: “If God were not angry at injustice and did not make a final end to violence-that God would not be worthy of worship…The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves is to insist that violence is legitimate only when it comes from God…My thesis that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many in…the west…(But) it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence (results from a belief in) God’s refusal to judge. In a sun scorched land, soaked in the blood of innocents, it will invariably die…(with) other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.”
Volf grew up in Croatia and experience the violence of the Balkan crisis. He will not worship a God who does not judge the horrible atrocities of human villainy. And neither will I. I will not worship a God who embraces evil…including mine. Only a God who judges me and my dark heart and wicked propensities with those of Hitler, Stalin, St Francis and Mother Teresa can be completely other…what the Bible likes to call Holy.
So I am left with the final alternative. I, with Jesus and Paul, put the line light-years to the right. That we each are good and valuable beyond measure but are also vial beasts unworthy of God’s presence. This is why Christianity does not teach moral performance…heaven as a cosmic reward for moral performance …it teaches unilateral, cosmic rescue. It teaches grace and mercy and, in this way, is not, fundamentally, religious.
 I suspect it would be far more complex than a simple multi-variate linear regression (which I am not even quite doing)…but you’d stop reading if I went into some sort of anthropological dimensional analysis or set up a big old matrix.
 Scientists are famous for assuming phenomena are normally distributed. I suppose I could use a Gumble or Lévy distribution (I’d love to hear someone make a case for either of these), but the argument would progress in the same way, so let’s just assume a normal distribution for now.
 Based either on a curve or an absolute standard.
 This, somewhat comically, disintegrates into the BCS/Playoff debate from college football. The debate invariably goes like this: “Let’s just have a 4 team playoff.” “Well what about that year when the best team in the nation was #5.” “Ok, lets have an 8 game playoff.” “Yeah, but this team had one fluky loss and was playing really well. Do you really want them out of the playoff?”
 See NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope
 This comes up from time to time in a careful watching of ‘My Name is Earl.’ They have trouble navigating this consequence of their Karmic vision that everyone deserves their current state because of past actions. But it is still a hilarious show.
 To discourage teams from tanking their season for draft position the NBA decides draft position by a lottery. But they still want to give the worst team the best shot at drafting good players. So all of the teams that did not make the playoffs get balls in the lottery. The worse you are the more balls you get. So badness increases the chance of a good outcome but does not assure it. This strikes me as similar to Islam where goodness increases your chances of a good outcome but does not assure it.
 Why are the bad people bad? Is it the result of poor moral choices on their part? Is it a big loss in genetics roulette? Assigning culpability for innate badness is fundamentally problematic.
 Incidentally, Leger’s role was the single redeeming quality of this epic train wreck. Let me be the first one on the internet to say ‘This movie sucked.’
 From Tim Keller’s Reason For God