On Philosophy

August 9, 2007

Zoroastrianism Is The Best Religion

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Personally I don’t think people need religion. I have too high of an opinion of human potential to believe that the majority of people need to live in fear of some supernatural punishment in order to keep them on the straight and narrow path. But if we did need religion I think that Zoroastrianism would be the best choice. Well, real Zoroastrianism is like any religion, over the years it has built up layers and layers of complexity and dogma, not all of which are desirable. So perhaps what I want to endorse is not Zoroastrianism, but a religion that borrows some of its central themes.

Let me describe this religion. Like any good mythology we start at the beginning of time, where nothing exists except a good deity and an evil deity. The two struggle, but since they are both omnipotent they are evenly matched, and thus neither can get the upper hand. To settle their dispute the two gods decide to jointly create the universe. They agree to leave the universe alone after its creation for a certain length of time. And after that time is over they will put all the good on a scale against all the evil. If there is more good then the good deity wins, the evil deity is destroyed, and the universe and all its souls fall into the power of the good deity. But, if there is more evil then the evil deity wins, the good deity is destroyed, and the universe and all its souls fall into the power of the evil deity.

Obviously this has the technical virtue of solving the problem of evil, but that is not why I think it is superior. Its superiority comes from abandoning the basically selfish core of traditional religions while still giving people motivation to do good. The selfish core I am referring to is, of course, the idea that each individual is responsible on their own for their eternal fate. This encourages a certain level of self-interest, because in the long run it doesn’t really matter what other people do, as long as you do more good than evil. And it also encourages a kind of cynical attitude about doing evil, where people feel that they can get away with a certain level of evil so long as they do enough good to “cancel it out” (or worse, that they can be forgiven for it without doing extra good), which is not a healthy attitude.

The religion I have described here avoids that problem by making every act of good and evil count. There is a lot of evil in the world, so doing just a bit more good than evil isn’t enough, you have to also work at balancing out all the people who do more evil than good. And it doesn’t matter how much good you do, every act of evil still helps out the evil side of the equation. Additionally, the idea that at the end of the universe the good and evil done by everyone is summed together helps promote the idea that doing good is a team effort. It’s not enough just to do good, it is important to encourage others to be good as well, and to stop as much evil as is possible. Thus it is harder for a believer in this religion to take a passive attitude towards disasters elsewhere, since their eventual fate is affected by more than just events that involve them personally.

Finally I would like to mention that this religion would also do a better job at giving people a sense of purpose and direction in life, something that is also occasionally pointed to as a reason that people in general might need religions. Most religions contain the idea that individual lives are all part of some divine plan, but what that divine plan is and how people are contributing to it is never revealed. Obviously that must undercut the message to some extent; it is hard to feel like you are part of something larger when you don’t know what that something is. In contrast the divine plan is made quite clear by Zoroastrianism: produce as much good and as little evil as possible. Nor is there any ambiguity about the role that individual lives play in the plan, everyone is responsible for tipping the scales a little more towards the side of good at the end of time.

But it is impractical to actually create a religion without actually believing in it, at least without deceiving people, and that would be unethical. More importantly I don’t think that people actually need religion for the reasons given. I think it is perfectly possible for every person to be motivated to act ethically and to feel satisfied with their life without religion, given that they are raised without religion. The transition from religion to no religion is, naturally, harder (as extra education is required to fill the role that religion used to), but I believe that many people could manage it too, if they wanted to.


  1. One possible drawback is that a committed Zoroastrian (or Peter-Zoroastrian if we’re going to discuss your “religion that borrows some of its central themes”) may unknowingly become a paternalistic jerk by trying to make everyone do good. Since this problem is all too prevalent among Christians already, I can see how this would become almost crippling to society unless you made it very, very clear in Peter-Zoroastrianism that being a paternalistic jerk is very, very evil and that the freewill of others (in a religious sense) deserves respect.

    This isn’t even to mention, really, that Peter-Zoroastrianism could lend itself to some old-fashioned consequentialism—and undoubtedly, the same “kidnapping hobos for unconsenting organ transplants” type of situations would arise from most people’s understandings of “good” and “evil”, insofar as they are real things that should be maximized and minimized.

    Comment by Philip L. Welch — August 9, 2007 @ 12:49 am

  2. The same could be said about any religion, that if you set it up with bad moral standards than it will be a problem. So really it’s a sperate question from what I am dealing with here, considering what attitudes the religion promotes, aside from its ethics. (As you can basically glue any ethical system to any religion) Secondly, I think it would be obvious that killing someone would always tilt the scales in the favor of evil. Of couse there might be a situation where the most good can come through killing somone, but I would tend to endorse those courses of action. I am a consequentialist; if you don’t think consequentialism can satisfy our intuitive demands on ethics read some of what I have written about it.

    Comment by Peter — August 9, 2007 @ 9:56 pm

  3. Your Zoroastrianism doesn’t solve the problem of evil.

    Why did the good deity agree to the creation of the cosmos knowing that there was the risk that humans would fall into the hands of an evil deity – that’s not a very responsible and loving thing to do is it? If on the other hand he knows that good will triumph, isn’t it wrong of him to put us through all that stress of not knowing. Mental stress like that is painful to a human being.

    I’ve personally never felt the problem of evil was much of a problem for traditional theism. Evil is normally the work of human beings, not God. It is an outcome of free will , and if we ask ourselves whether we would prefer to live in a world without evil but lose our free will, I think most people would say they were not, since free will defines their identity (it’s one of the reasons why slavery is such an appalling system – that it attempts to fetter our free will) . You could perhaps ask why God couldn’t come up with a world without tectonic plates, extreme weather and cancer causing solar radiation.
    That seems to me the main locus of the problem of evil in relation to God. Presumably he would answer that it’s not easy creating a cosmos. Which perhaps calls into question his traditional omnipotence.

    Comment by field — August 10, 2007 @ 2:24 pm

  4. you are missing the key point: the deities are equally powerful – the only way for good to come out on top is via the universe, so the ends justify the means.

    Comment by Peter — August 10, 2007 @ 4:04 pm

  5. No, you are missing the key point:

    Either the outcome is

    1. Undecided at the point the good deity agrees to the challenge, in which case the good deity knows that these people he has jointly created may end up in the hands of an evil deity.


    2. Pre-ordained, in which case the good deity is putting us through suffering, without telling us that there is no need to worry.

    If as you claim this is the ONLY way for good triumph then you did not make that clear in your introduction. In fact that seems quite contrary to what you wrote, since you are saying that the evil deity has indicated his agreement to abide by the results of the challenge, suggesting free will. However, this might just be a ploy. In reality if he starts to lose, the evil deity may renege on the deal – that ‘s what evil entities do. But all this implies that the evil deity might be capable of being persuaded to abandon his evil campaign.

    Comment by field — August 10, 2007 @ 7:53 pm

  6. Theologically these are easy to get out of. Since each of the gods is equal obviously they must not be able to perfectly forsee the other’s moves. Secondly we can assume that the gods have entered into a joint compact that is unbreakable by them. Thirdly the possibility of the elimination of evil is judged desirable enough to warrent the risks.

    Comment by Peter — August 10, 2007 @ 8:13 pm

  7. Actually, this is getting close to why the medieval philosophers/theologians (same thing?) said that an absolutely Good being (God) is possible, but an absolutely Evil being (Devil God) is not. Any evil being has to have a certain amount of good in it, just to get stuff done. If the Peterarian Devil God is absolutely evil, then it cannot be trusted to abide the rules of the game. On the other hand, its love of bad things like living an unexamined life, giving up on its plans, and so forth will mean that it gives up on the whole project before too long.

    Accordingly, according to the medievals, the Christian devil isn’t the pure evil counterpart to the good God, just an exceptionally evil being that hates God. (Of course, that’s a change from the Old Testament view of Satan as “the accuser” who works for God finding people with unworthy souls and condemning them, but whatever.)

    In any event, all theodicies end up putting qualifiers on at least one of “God is Benevolent,” “God Can Do Anything,” “God Knows All.” The most common theodicy is probably the Free Will theodicy, which says, “Yes, but it’s more benevolent to give people free than not” (which is weird, because we take away the free will of prisoners all the time), “Yes, but God can’t do logically impossible things, like make a world with free will and without evil” (which raises questions about what makes it logically impossible to at least stop the Hitlers and whattnot), and sometimes (but not always) they even say “God doesn’t know how a choice will go until its made; He just knows about the fate of the universe in general terms.”

    On the flipside, Calvinists tend to bend benevolence more, so as to preserve a strengthened omnipotence (“The world is the best possible as is, if you take the broadest view.”).

    My inclination is that the best of the three to break is benevolence, but I’ll cut off my comment here, since I’ve gone on too long already.

    Comment by Carl — August 10, 2007 @ 10:13 pm

  8. I always saw the flaw with that as primarily the confusion between bad in the ethical sense and bad in the functional/operational sense. So the evil god / the devil we would suppose is bad in the ethical sense but “good” in the functional sense, just as a good burgler is good at stealing, but a bad person.

    Comment by Peter — August 10, 2007 @ 10:45 pm

  9. Carl makes some good points. I liked that OT Satan – God’s secret agent out in the world, seeking out those who don’t obey the law! As Winston Churchill’s son said after reading the bible for a bet: “Isn’t God a shit!”. You are definitely right that there is a a trade off going on in views of God. Personally, although not a committed theist, I think the best trade off is to accept that God is not omnipotent and that, as the Bible suggests, creating the cosmos is a substantial bit of work even for a God. If God was ominpotent why wouldn’t he create the cosmos in an instant?

    Given Peter’s qualifications, I think it would have been better if he had said equally potent rather than equally omnipotent. But I do find the concept of an evil deity who keeps his promises like a gentleman rather strange! Also, you are still left with the problem that by taking on this bet the good deity has allowed a race of potentially suffering beings to have been created, who have the prospect of possibly falling prey to evil.

    Comment by field — August 11, 2007 @ 1:23 pm

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