Are we High on the Why?

When we were young children, during the process of our natural development we eventually come to understand what “why” means and what a reason for something is.

We come to understand that there can be purposes, meaning or significance behind things. We latch onto that concept (the concept of purpose), and it becomes a very dominating part of how our minds work for the rest of our lives.

The book start with why by Simon Sinek illustrates how, when companies appeal to this intrinsic sense of purpose that we develop, they can more easily resonate with the human psyche. “People don’t by what you do they buy why you do it”. This is how companies like Apple can develop such “religious” followings, not because of what they build or sell (they’re just a computer company) but because of why they do it (to challenge the status quo: “think different”) and because their why resonates with a certain group of people.

It is human nature to seek out meaning in things. We hunger and yearn for significance, for connectivity. We yearn to know that our lives carry deep, significant meaning and deeper importance.

In the introduction to his book Cosmos, Carl Sagan writes:

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries…”

Later on he writes:

“The idea that every organism was meticulously constructed by a Great Designer provided a significance and order to nature and an importance to human beings that we crave still”.

Clearly, even atheists recognise that we hunger and yearn for connectivity and significance.

In the recent FairMormon conference Dan Peterson suggested that this intrinsic longing for meaning and significance is a marker of our divine heritage, and testifies to the fact that we are “strangers and pilgrims” on this earth, or “spiritual beings having a mortal experience”.

But in the sincerity of my heart, I wonder whether this is truly the case. We’re all agreed on the fact that we hunger, yearn and crave for significance. What we’re not agreed on is if this hunger actually has significance. Is there truly a divine heritage behind our hunger?

The story of Santa Claus as a motive for “being good”

When we were children we were told to “be good”. (Clean up your toys, brush your teeth, go to bed on time without a fuss, etc.) But, naturally, the first question a young child would ask is: why?

“Why should I be good?”

“Because if you’re good, and clean up your toys, it will mean less work for daddy and mommy”

But a child doesn’t care about how much work it is for daddy and mommy! They just wanna have fun! This “why” or reason that we give children is insufficient for their needs. They need a more primitive form of reasoning to appeal to their “good side”.

“Because Santa Claus is watching all the things you’re doing, and if you’re a good kid, come Christmas time, he’s going to give you a whole bunch of presents!”

… Now that one works more effectively! Some kind of self-beneficial extrinsic motivation. Children get this, and then they become good. We’ve appealed to their selfish side.

But sooner or later, they outgrow both the need for, and the fiction of, the Santa Claus story. At perhaps different times, but still in conjunction with each other, they:

  1. Realise that there is no Santa Claus watching every move they’re making. (In other language: The shelf of belief collapses due to the amount of contradictory evidence. Interestingly this evidence is more social than literal; no one can actually prove there is no Santa Claus giving gifts to people, but most of us reason our way out of that belief due to the social dynamics of that belief, AKA, doubt injected by other people)
  2. Outgrow the need for this particular extrinsic motivation.

In other words, they reach a point sooner or later where the motivation for “being good” switches to something else, another “why”. You see, at the point when they realise that there is no Santa Claus their behaviour is now under review in their little minds:

“Wait a second, there is actually no Santa Claus. So if I’m good or bad it makes no difference whatsoever to my presents at the end of the year at Christmas time – because those come from my parents anyway. Then why should I be good? Why shouldn’t I be bad?”

I wonder whether (and am relatively confident that) once this shelf of belief collapses, some little children will actually stop “being good” and start being more naughty. This powerful, extrinsic motivator has collapsed completely and so “being good” to a certain degree goes along with it, and so they switch to a new motive for “being good”.

At first, perhaps, the reason behind their continued “being good” switches to becomes a reward or punishment motivation of some form. “Well, sure there’s no Santa but mommy and daddy are real, and they will reward or punish me based on my behaviour, maybe if I am really bad daddy WILL give me less presents at Christmas time”.  And so the problem is alleviated for now.

But slowly the child grows up, and eventually that “why” is no longer good enough. When they become a teenager they frankly care a lot less about rewards and punishments from their parents. (Hanging out with friends late at night is worth any number of Christmas presents!)

“Sure, dad could ground me, sure mom could stop me from going out, but I want to do what I want to do anyway.”

And so they could become rebellious. In fact they realise that they are in control of their lives, and make choices based on what they want.

But, eventually, over an extended period of time, for many people within “normal society” the behaviour of “being good” switches motivation to a higher and nobler, and intrinsically motivated reason:

Because being good is good, and I want to be good.

For the purposes of this article, we will call this the “just because” reason. It’s not a copout reason, not at all. It’s a reason that has to do with the intrinsic goodness and value of a choice over others, and of absorbing great moral standards into our lives.

This is “being good for the sake of being good” – because “being good” is a true principle that requires no external motivation or justification, a principle that is packaged with its own “why”. “Being good” requires no Santa Claus for noble, profound and sophisticated human beings. The extrinsic motivations have fallen away, and have given room to an intrinsic “why”, born of the love of and appreciation of the workings of a true principle.

A story of integrity

In Star Trek Voyager, in a particular episode a huge moral dilemma is presented: should you use medical knowledge, acquired by experimentation on humans at some point in the past, to heal a sick human right now?

Here’s a touching and short conversation. Paris wants to use this knowledge to save his wife.

Paris: We’re in the middle of the Delta Quadrant (very far away from other humans). Who would know??

Tuvok: We would know.

For many years I have derived immense inspiration from this simple, yet deeply profound quote of integrity: We would know.

I want to point out that this is not “God would know”. For many people in the world, the reason for “doing good” or “not lying” or “not cheating” or “not murdering” or “not stealing” is not “we would know” but “God would know”. They fear the retribution of, or the loss of reward from, a God that they believe in. I suggest even fear of the loss of the Spirit falls into this category, it is fear of the loss of a reward; a beautiful and positive feeling and influence in life, the companionship of the Holy Ghost. But what about “loving God?” (I.E “Loving your fellow man”) – surely that is a higher motive, bundled within an intrinsic motive – but it may not be comprehensive enough in scope, because there will come times or choices in life where integrity would dictate an action that is outside of the scope of loving God or man.

Personally I find God alone an inadequate reason to lead an integrity filled life, but I don’t think I’m alone in this belief, even in theist circles. I think this outsources our need for integrity to God and downplays real integrity. Integrity denotes a moral soundness, an “An undivided or unbroken completeness or totality with nothing wanting” – the real concept of integrity cannot be extrinsically motivated, true integrity always comes from within.

“Virtue originates in your innermost thoughts and desires. It is a pattern of thought and behaviour based on high moral standards.” (Preach my Gospel)

My uncle once said to my cousin and myself: “a gentlemen dining alone would still use a butter knife” – we were teenagers at the time, and we thought that was stupid. “What!? Wash two knives instead of one??” – but that statement stuck with me, it radiates an understanding of integrity. I think I’d be right in guessing that a majority of theists don’t believe using a butter knife when dining alone would have any impact at all on “salvation” – so why use a butter knife when dining alone then? If it has no impact on salvation?

I believe that when we reach a certain stage of progression and integrity in our lives, our motivations switch from being external to internal. We become intrinsically motivated, and frankly I believe this can even be to the exclusion of God being a motive for anything. In fact, even our own scriptures say (D&C 58:26-27):

“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness”

Does that sound like intrinsic motivation? “Do many things of their own free will”? Does that sound like even God Himself might expect us to become intrinsically motivated? Perhaps even independently motivated?

This probably sounds very apostate, but even the idea of doing things to please the Father still seems to be extrinsically motivated. Sure, I am happy to do things with which the Father is pleased, but that’s not my primary motive.

A thought experiment – going off the rails

Let’s do a thought experiment. This is just hypothetical.

Let’s pretend that I could produce evidence, or even solid proof, powerful enough that it would utterly convince anyone who considered it that God doesn’t exist. (There are several reasons why this is not possible; but this is hypothetical)

If I showed you that evidence: and it sunk in completely, and you realised for sure that God doesn’t exist, then what would you do with your life from then on?

I fully expect that if such a case were possible, that millions of theists around the world would completely go off the rails. “Eat, drink and be merry” comes to mind. We’d come to realise that life has no intrinsic meaning, and that drop from being “children of God” and having a divine destiny and nature to merely being human would likely crush the motivations of most people.

I fully expect that without the image of God, the judgement bar, and eternal reward / condemnation, or even the infinite love of God and His love to mankind in their minds, they’d quickly find their morals eroded and destroyed.

What a sad reality this is. Without God, society would be unlikely to have any pervasive moral standards. We’d collapse, because we are “high on the why”. We require God as a mental image, a “muse” so to say. (But who does God have as His muse? – who loves Him infinitely to motivate Him to “be good”? At some point in the regress somebody is “being good” for the sake of “being good”, or “just because”)

This is all because belief in God provides powerful mental and psychological motivation to be obedient to God’s commandments. It provides a very powerful “why” or reason within our psyche to live an upstanding life.  I fully expect without it we’d fall apart.

Indeed, hopefully one day if I become famous someone will quote me on this:

“Remove God, money and coffee from the world, and watch society rip itself apart.”

When we lose the why of God, we fall off the rails. Many doubters have done so. The prodigal son goes away and lives in “riotous living” – without the presence of his father he flaunts his inheritance. Couldn’t he have been a great steward in spite of the absence of his father? It’s definitely possible, but only if he gets off the high of the why to a more intrinsically motivated platform for life.

The fact that losing that high generally leads to “riotous living” further reinforces in the minds of the faithful “how dangerous it is to lose one’s faith”. When I recently had an interview with a church leader and shared with him some of my doubts his immediate reaction was that if I lose my faith then I will ‘most certainly’ fall away and lose my morals in life. This is just a presumption based on consistent experience; those who lose the “high of the why” cannot replace it with anything else, and land up falling away to lost roads of low morality and personal standards. Like a drug, the psychological motivation of divine belief propels us to living good moral lives, and if you remove it from a dependent then they are very likely to fall away.

Are we “high on the why”?

Is God the ultimate Santa Claus? The Santa Claus we never outgrow, indeed would psychologically be damaged if he were removed from the equation?

What is the true motivation behind your obedience to the correct principles of the Gospel? Is it faith? Or is it confidence in the goodness of the principles themselves?

I have now come to a point where I have accepted the principles and morals of the Gospel, and would be willing to follow them regardless of whether or not God exists. They are “good”, “just because”.

Indeed, one of the primary weaknesses of being “high on the why” is that it has non-infinite scope.  Why should I come on time for a high council meeting? It doesn’t affect my salvation? As soon as something falls outside of the scope of the “divine why”, we question the reasons for it. It could even seem unnecessary.

The Plan of Salvation, the Atonement, the spirit world, the celestial kingdom, premorltal life, baptism; do we really need these various explanations to get us to “be good”? Is this doctrinal superstructure really necessary for us to live a good life, be honest, diligent, virtuous, chaste, loving, benevolent, etc.?

Extreme examples of being high on the why

Up until this point I have written only of the why of being obedient to the principles of the Gospel, the why behind our good actions. Our tendency to interpret divine patterns in everyday situations is a related, but different discussion. But for the purposes of wrapping up this article, I will show some examples of being “high on the why” in terms of mundane, everyday and trivial matters.

The extreme version of being “high on the why” is a kind of paranoid schizophrenia. At that stage, everything, even the smallest movements or sounds, has some kind of deeper, significant meaning. “Somebody is out to get you”.

Recently one of my colleagues (who we suspect uses drugs) came into the boss’s office and told him something to this effect:

“Everyone is watching me. This company hired all of these people and provided them with houses just to spy on me. Whenever I get on a phone call the entire office goes quiet as everyone is listening to me. The two people sitting behind me are constantly looking at my monitors whenever I work. I can’t stay here, you guys are here to spy on my life, admit it!”

The rest of us “sane” people turn around and say “that’s crazy!” – we recognise that something weird is going on, he’s seeing patterns where there are genuinely none there. And, fascinatingly, he is at the centre of his delusions. Everything is about him, he is so special, that for some reason this company has hired all of these people for the express purpose of spying on him.

This scenario made me ponder; do we do the same thing on a smaller scale? Do we see patterns and impressions and divine intervention when there was genuinely none there?

I recently had a conversation with an ex-member friend of mine. He left the church for many reasons, one of which is because he came out as a gay and couldn’t find solutions for his attraction to men.

He told me a very poignant story. He was sitting in church one day when a woman was bearing testimony. She told of how she had lost her car keys and was frantically looking for them. She stopped, said a prayer, and kept looking. Shortly thereafter she found her car keys. She bore witness of how God loves her and she’s immensely grateful for His help in those day to day things.

On the same day my friend went to tell his bishop that he is leaving the church. In his explanation he said something like the following:

“I’ve been praying for over ten years about my life – my purpose, my feelings…” (I think this included, but was not limited to his being gay) “… I have prayed and pleaded with the Lord to understand why I am this way and what the purpose is of my life. I’ve received no answer. But this woman can pray to find her car keys and she’ll find them.”

I read a reddit post a short while back which is similarly poignant. It was also on the lines of people praying and finding their car keys or praying and finding a good parking spot at the supermarket. In this case it was about someone bleaching a shirt incorrectly but it was not damaged:

The comment said: “Meanwhile, 10,000 in children in Africa starve to death after their parents die of AIDS”.

If indeed it is God helping this lady’s shirts to not get ruined, I’m happy that he gives such tender mercies. But I, along with the others who commented on that section, sincerely wonder why God is helping me find my lost phone, lost car keys or giving me the best parking spot when there is so much suffering, war, and pain the world. Perhaps the best explanation is that the likelihood of my phone coming back to me after being lost is largely a function of the society I happen to find myself in at the time, and may actually have nothing to do with God, even if He does exist.


Mosiah 4:30 says:

“But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not.”

D&C 58:28 say:

“And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.”

All of these scriptures indicate to me that the outcome of the final judgement of God (if it ever happens) will be contingent on our thoughts, words and deeds. It says nothing of how accurate our understanding of church doctrine was. Nephi said he understood that God loves his children and didn’t understand the meaning of all things. This is significant.

I believe that we need to find a deeper, nobler motive behind our goodness. Loving others is certainly a good motivation for treating others well, but what about situations when you are alone? What about those virtuous decisions made in the silent, alone times? Ultimately, I feel it is not God, but personal integrity that shines through in those moments.

Ultimately, we need to create our own why for things, out of the intrinsic goodness of our hearts and the principles which we embrace.


  1. Derek

    Santa as the extrinsic motivator is really not much different than Pavlov’s classical conditioning. “Do good for the reward” then when you take the reward away you still do good (but with hope of a reward). It helps instill some fundamental behaviors and is often worth the cost to gain the benefit as a parent. (Costs of Santa = guilt from lying to your children, purchasing toys, having to be careful about what your children see about santa, etc).

    Are religions just the next level of classical conditioning? If so, are the costs worth the benefits?

    Also, evolutionary biology has an explanation for altruistic behavior that I think fits well with this discussion:

    1. shawn (Post author)

      I think religious belief could be selected for.

      Example, there are two tribes of some homo sapiens. The one tribe has no religious belief per se, and the other things they are divinely chosen. The belief of the one puts passion and meaning into their actions. When a war breaks out they think God is on their side and will help them win. Fanatical behaviour follows, which I think would overcome and win in a battle. And so it gets selected over the more sedate, “meaningless” behaviour.


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