What is the difference and why choose? As a pragmatist, I evaluate ideas after making observations, weighing evidence, and drawing conclusions based on results. Therefore, in considering which is a better life, a virtuous or a religious one, I will approach the question pragmatically.
Both terms often apply to people who express a desire to be good or to do good. However, my experience suggests that there are some significant differences between how these ideas are implemented in each context.
In religion, leaders determine the congregation’s standards which are codes of behavior, beliefs, and rules. Because they set the standards, the leaders are responsible for maintaining them despite the flock’s propensity to stray from them. Motivation is generated externally. Eternal bliss is promised to those who do well and eternal burnings to those do not, both of which are extrinsic rewards or punishments.
Because the responsibility of maintaining the standards falls upon the leaders, they must also make judgments. This means determining who’s in and who’s out. After all, what good is a standard unless there is a measurement? If the standards are very high, then only those few who are very good at putting on an external show will be accepted. Those who focus on the internal struggle will generally put on an unimpressive external show. They will be rejected.
For example, in religion, love must be earned. Brigham Young teaches me that I am only justified in loving you as much as you are like God. This requires me to judge how well you are conforming to my notion of who God is. Once I determine that you are failing, I must withhold my love (because let’s face it, my notion of God is so immaculately pure that no human could possibly approach it). If you ask me why I don’t love you, I will either lie or explain that you must meet my expectations.
By contrast, in a life of virtue, the individual sets the standards, the morals, and the beliefs. No one is responsible for maintaining them other than the individual who set them. There is still a measurement, a judgment, but it is directed at the self. “How am I doing living up to the person I want to be? I accept others because I know that they struggle as much as I do.” This individual obtains intrinsic rewards for living virtuously. Internal happiness is the object, not an externally bestowed bliss. Hell is not feared because the virtuous individual knows that obtaining happiness or misery is a matter of choice.
In a life of virtue, love is unconditional. “I love you because I want to be good.” This is beautifully portrayed in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan. In the story, a man was beaten by thieves and left to die. Two Israelites, a priest and a Levite (i.e. good religious people), saw him and passed around without offering any assistance. A Samaritan (i.e. religiously bad person) saw him, cared for him, and paid for the expense of nursing him back to health.
In evaluating the results, I am led to choose a virtuous life over a religious one. I know that I will fall down many times, but I’d rather encourage myself to do better than let others beat me over the head with a club called Hell. As Joseph Smith said, “I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled.”
Image credit to Floyd Manzano (here).