Hell: The Evilest Doctrine

The single most influential idea on my religious outlook is undoubtedly the doctrine of hell. It was hell that sparked my initial interest in religion during my teenage years, it was hell that kindled the scrupulosity which tormented me for years, it was hell that ignited my investigation and subsequent deconversion and it is hell that continues to fuel my antipathy toward Christianity. It’s difficult to envision how my life would have been if I had never believed in hell, but it certainly would have followed a markedly different course.

Every person values and seeks happiness. It’s the ultimate motivation for all our thoughts and actions, whether we pursue it directly or indirectly (by making others and then thus ourselves happy) and even paradoxically when we find it in feelings of sadness. Hell is the antithesis of happiness and is by definition the worst possible concept imaginable. It’s a place (or “state”) of eternal pain and suffering and has been symbolized as an unquenchable lake of fire. And it is, despite its simplicity, without a doubt the vilest concept ever conceived of by humanity.

No person could ever deserve to be consigned to hell, for the pain endured therein would be infinitely more than any pain inflicted by a finite being. Even the most brutal dictators caused only a limited amount of suffering and would be unjustly punished in hell, even by the most vindictive standards of justice. And I find it both laughable and depressing to hear believers argue that an omnimax deity cannot prevent people from being roasted for eternity. This claim can only result from complete ignorance or from a complete lack of imagination.

Whenever I hear Jesus referred to as loving or merciful, I wince. While the gospels do contain some benevolent teachings, these are completely overshadowed by Jesus’ recurrent threat of unending torture for anyone who fails to accept his message. One cannot expect praise for preaching love while simultaneously executing divine blackmail. An objector might arguing that hell is only a metaphor and that Jesus’ threats weren’t meant literally. To this, I respond that this isn’t the Jesus of Christianity but instead a sanitized caricature of Jesus that has been altered in response to moral progress of the past twenty centuries. To claim that the vast majority of Jesus’ followers throughout history have totally misunderstood him and that the true message of Jesus perfectly corresponds with modern western humanistic values is to engage in completely unsupportable historical revisionism.

I simply cannot imagine that the billions of people who profess to believe in hell truly do so, or at least not that they believe they themselves might actually go there. If there is truly even the slightest possibility that one could be tortured forever and ever, then no response is too radical to prevent this possibility from being realized. For many, however, hell is just a place for murderers; everyone else will be admitted to heaven upon death. With this thoroughly unbiblical perspective and because most of us aren’t emotionally close to any murderers, hell is relatively easy to ignore. I would like to stress that this is a very good thing; billions of people obsessing about would result in worldwide chaos. It was, after all, belief in hell which fanned the flames of the crusades and inquisitions. We would all do well to toss the concept of eternal punishment into the trash bin of history.

I would like to comfort my readers by reminding them of a truly glorious truth which finally ended my personal religious struggles and which I hereby resolve to reflect upon each day: Smile! There is no hell!

No Sacred Cows

Atheism, unlike religion, has no sacred cows. There is nothing that someone can do which can cause especial offense to atheists beyond the mere desire to offend. There are no gods to blaspheme, no prophets to mock, no dogmas to ridicule, no scriptures to desecrate, no temples to profane, no sacred objects to defile and no rituals to parody. This is certainly not to say that you cannot offend atheists, only that we don’t set ourselves up for offense by treating something or someone as inviolable. You never see an angry atheist mob form in response to a cartoon caricature, an obscene sculpture, an incisive documentary, or the publication of a controversial book. We might well feel upset over any of these but only because they misrepresent our position and not simply because someone had the audacity to portray it differently from ourselves. Even then, our response is far more measured than that of most believers.

Muslims in particular are known for the extreme amount of offense they claim and for their verbally and physically violent reactions thereto, but Christians aren’t immune to emotional reactions to alleged blasphemy. Although they very thankfully almost never threaten real violence, we have all probably heard believers threaten and even wish others hellfire for even questioning their faith. It’s difficult to appreciate just how violent this response is unless you realize that these people actually believe that hell exists and that they want you to suffer unspeakable torment there for all eternity! Perhaps even more remarkable is that the majority of Christians only condemn the desire to see others in hell and not the threat, which is an integral part of the gospel message. (Most people think the message is love and forgiveness when it’s actually, “Believe or fry!”) Even if an atheist dismisses all believers as fools, that doesn’t even begin to compare with what the average believer thinks about atheists. And atheists certainly don’t express the same level of emotion when someone insults their beliefs.

It’s not surprising there is no reaction when you believe that blasphemy is a victimless crime.

False Tolerance

Freedom of expression is today informally limited by a false sense of tolerance widespread in our culture. Many people are reluctant to express their thoughts critical of religion out of fear of offending someone. Self-censorship thus silences many who would otherwise contribute to the public discussion of religion and its place in our society that is so badly needed. In light of this lamentable situation, I would like to encourage my readers to assert your right to express your opinion and disregard any attempt to invoke an imaginary right not to be offended in order to prevent you from speaking your mind.

As for me, I refuse to recognize anyone’s claim to a right to be automatically respected. If you don’t want anyone to criticize your religion, then you should defend it rationally and show why the detractors are wrong. If you can’t do this, you should abandon your beliefs as indefensible or humbly accept the criticism. Demanding that someone else respect your faith and refrain from criticizing it, however, is not an acceptable response. You have the right to promote your opinions and I have the right to promote mine. You have the right to criticize my opinions and I have the right to criticize yours. Any respect in the marketplace of ideas must be earned and not arbitrarily granted. If one’s beliefs don’t hold up under scrutiny, then they simply they aren’t worthy of respect. Religion doesn’t receive any immunity from criticism merely because of its importance in some people’s lives, especially since its effects are far from uniformly benign. It’s in fact far more disrespectful to insulate others from your ideas, assuming their justifications for the beliefs or their feelings are so fragile that you must protect them from the hard truth like little children.

I want to be clear that the above applies only to public society and not to private society. The latter has a totally different set of standards regarding politeness and access. If you fail to respect the beliefs of the company you keep by attacking or mocking them, then you cannot expect that company to continue welcoming you. They have the right to exclude you from their homes for whatever reason they deem appropriate, just as you have the right to exclude them from yours. In the world of public discourse, however, no one should be excluded. Anyone should be able to express their opinions by making speeches, writing books, publishing websites, distributing pamphlets, organizing rallies, singing songs, creating paintings or sculptures, producing films or television programs, and no one should attempt to silence them by labeling them intolerant, fundamentalist or militant for simply expressing criticism of the ideas of others. Attacking an intolerant ideology is a service to, not against, tolerance.

I’m very thankful that I myself was able to find books and websites critical of my former religion when I undertook my investigation several years ago. If those authors had chosen to censor themselves, I wouldn’t have found the necessary resources to escape the mental prison of irrational faith. Think of how many more people could bask in the light of reason if only they had more opportunities to join the conversation and think for themselves.

Atheists Have Values, Too

It troubles me that people tend to interpret atheism as the repudiation of everything that religion happens to represent in their minds rather than simply the principled rejection of the core of religion, belief in the supernatural. While it’s true that someone could be diametrically opposed to absolutely anything even remotely associated with religion, it’s wrong to assume that atheists necessarily are; I certainly have never encountered one who was. As for me, I embrace a number of values which religions commonly profess to promote such as peace, justice, empathy, compassion, honesty, loyalty, responsibility, temperance, introspection and reflection.

I also, however, strongly embrace skepticism, which has led me to disbelieve the supernatural claims of upon which believers (wrongly) claim to derive their moral values, and free thought, which allows me to evaluate the worth of moral values with my own individual judgement rather than deferring to an unquestionable authority such as scripture or a religious leader. These twin values foster others which most religions don’t inherently support and which some even explicitly oppose such as liberty, equality and secularism. They have also led me to reject irrationality, superstition, fear, hatred and ignorance, which most religions support or have supported to varying degrees throughout their histories. It is my skepticism and freethinking which distinguish me from believers, not a lack of virtue.

In truth, I yearn for a community in which I can foster my personal growth through contemplation of, discussion about and action based on my values without any compromise to super naturalism. My several visits to a Unitarian Unilateralist congregation and my casual online investigation of Buddhism were part of an as-of-yet unsuccessful quest for such a community and identity. Humanism presents the greatest promise for fidelity to my beliefs, but it lacks the type of formal structure that I desire, perhaps for fear of being too similar to religion, and it’s not distinct enough from increasingly humanistic western culture to provide a unique focus and identity. All I can say is that I’m a naturalist in search of a place to call home.

Happy Groundhog Day!

“It’s Groundhog Day…again.” – Phil Connors

According to tradition, the groundhog awakes from hibernation and emerges from his hole today, in the exact middle of winter, in order to check on the weather. If it’s sunny, he will see his shadow, get scared and return underground, giving us six more weeks of winter. If it’s cloudy, he won’t see his shadow and will remain aboveground, giving us an early spring.

Groundhog Day is my favorite holiday of the entire year. I love it because it has the perfect balance between popularity and obscurity, it’s a uniquely North American observance, it has some history behind it, it requires no shopping or decoration, and it’s just silly and fun. The 1993 Bill Murray film that shares the same name as the holiday is my favorite movie of all time. I have watched it more often than any other film and I can recite large portions of the script. I have already watched it twice this year and I might watch it again later today. It’s of course rather ironic that I’ve watched that particular movie so many times!

In case you’re wondering, the most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, saw his shadow this morning. Don’t put away your jackets just yet.

Obama for President

In my initial entry almost two years ago I stated an intention to discuss a variety of topics in addition to religion and irreligion, but until now I had never done so. Today I would like to talk politics and announce my endorsement of Barack Obama for president of the United States. I already cast my vote for Obama in the Florida primary earlier this week and I would like to publicly discuss my support.

My favorite candidate entering the primaries was in fact Dennis Kucinich because of his thoroughly progressive stances on the issues, but he never had a chance to win the nomination and he had even withdrawn his name before election day in Florida. I liked John Edwards about the same as I like Obama, but the latter’s viability made it an easy choice to support him. I don’t like Hillary Clinton because she voted to initiate the Iraq, because she seems to be little more than a political opportunist, and because the Republicans would be able to easily incite their voter base into a frenzy against her. Obama, on the other hand, can excite the Democratic base and bring people to the polls who had never voted previously. I think he has a much better chance of winning a general election, especially by electrifying the black vote in the otherwise deep red south.

Obama is the most progressive of the remaining candidates and in particular I believe that he is the best choice to preserve the separation of church and state in this country. When I read his book The Audacity of Hope, I noted that whenever he discussed the issue of religious freedom, he always explicitly mentioned the rights of nonbelievers along with everyone else. He is a committed Christian and his faith has certainly influenced his life, but he appears to appreciate the importance of secular government and the necessity of justifying government policy without any reference to religion. Perhaps his diverse familial and personal religious background helps him understand the necessity of building coalitions based on principles which appeal to citizens of various beliefs. In the United States we need someone to bring us together and I think Barack Obama is the best choice for our nation and the world.

Thought Control

Although I have previously written about my past experiences with a condition known as scrupulosity when I was a devout Catholic, I would like to go into more detail regarding a particularly torturous element thereof which I endured for a few years, in order to illustrate the absurdity of certain religious prohibitions. As I have discussed in a separate earlier entry, the Catholic Church teaches an especially strict sexual morality which condemns every sexual act except that between a husband and wife without contraception and, per clear scriptural authority, condemns even willful indulgence of sexual thoughts. While the prohibition against actions is severe, it’s not impossible to obey it if one is truly careful to avoid opportunities to succumb to temptation. The prohibition against thoughts, however, proves practically impossible to obey if one takes both it and the threat of eternal damnation seriously. I struggled mightily for years to control my thoughts and, despite my most strenuous efforts, I failed to achieve anything except an unhealthy suppression of my natural desires and the development of violent compulsions against myself.

The most relevant fact about the condemnation of consenting to impure thoughts is that it’s simply impossible to control one’s mental activity, most especially with respect to such a basic animal instinct as sex. It’s almost always on our minds, subconsciously if not consciously. Most people realize this, especially psychologists and advertisers. Healthy adults automatically respond to the sight, sound or smell of attractive individuals by becoming sexually aroused. Now while the church teaches that mere instinctive thoughts aren’t willful and thus aren’t at all sinful, it does teach that to consciously entertain and indulge these thoughts constitutes such a serious offense that you could burn in hell forever if you commit it and die without repenting and confessing it to a priest. That idea in itself is absurdly evil, but notice that there’s nothing even resembling a clear boundary between an event that happens automatically and an action that can condemn one to eternal damnation. That’s just an open invitation for obsession.

Let’s say that a sexual thought enters one’s mind as it does innumerable times each day. If one dwells on it for even a moment, then one risks sinning by “entertaining” or “consenting” to it. If one attempts to banish it from one’s mind, the thought only becomes stronger and more persistent. I found it impossible to simply “let it pass” as I was repeatedly advised by confessors because I was afraid that I had not done enough to avoid sin and had thereby sinned already. My response to this fear was to work harder and harder to banish any sexual thought as soon as it entered my mind. I shouldn’t reveal much detail, but I will say that my attempts to immediately distract my mind from unwanted images became more and more manic over time and that it was simply impossible for me to function properly until my deconversion.

If I saw an attractive woman who aroused any sexual feelings in me, I forced myself to avert my eyes and drive out with a physical response against myself any sexual thoughts that the sight of her generated in my mind. I then thought about whether I was thinking about it and then about whether I had sinned by thinking something lustful about her, often subtly appearing like I suffered from a mental condition, which in retrospect was not entirely inaccurate. This rumination could last from a few seconds to several minutes to the rest of the day and all I had actually done was happen to a see a woman in completely normal and acceptable attire. My mind even seemed to revolt at the suppression of its thoughts. The more I struggled not to think something, the stronger the urge I felt to think it out of frustration and anger. This tendency, by the way, extended to violent and blasphemous thoughts as well, though these caused much less trouble due to far weaker instincts to think them. It’s notable that I came to believe that the vast majority of women dressed immodestly and that I noticed every single inch of cleavage on every woman, perhaps similar to how a Saudi man might feel in a western society.

Contrast that to how simple life has become with respect to sexual thoughts since my belief in God and hell disintegrated. Now when I see an attractive woman, the exact same sexual thoughts arise, but they present no trouble whatsoever. If I want to and have the time, I can indulge in a sexual fantasy for a short time and move on. If I’m busy or focused on something else, I can let it pass because there’s absolutely no fear that I have done anything which might result in never ending torment. Either way it lasts for a few moments at most and I can concentrate on actually living my life, all without any guilt or fear. There’s no obsession; it’s natural and normal. And I’m sure there’s just as much cleavage and as many pairs of tight pants as there were a few years ago, but I hardly notice except in the most exceptional cases, when such a sight most likely presents far more potential pleasure than anguish. It feels so good to be normal again.

Intelligent Design is Myth-information

Outside of the prayer in public venues fiasco in October, it has been many months since I have commented on an editorial piece or letter to the editor appearing in the Florida Times-Union. It’s time to start the new year with a fresh letter on an old debate. This letter by Tom Brady was published today under the heading, “Science standards: Prohibit myths.”

I was somewhat dismayed to see in a recent story that people were challenging Florida’s current attempt to bring our education standards concerning science out of the realm of theology and into that of rational thought. Trying to equate “creationism” or “intelligent design” with the scientific approach to the evolution of the species is tantamount to comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. The first two are manifestations of a belief system; the third is a demonstration of the scientific method. If we are going to teach creation myths in our schools, then we should not limit those teachings to Judeo/Christian myths only. The Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, Animists and even many American Indians have their own creation stories. If the school systems choose one myth over the others, they are making a choice to advance one religion over another, which violates the Constitution. For those who claim that the theory of evolution is not proved and is “just a theory,” they obviously don’t understand the definition of the scientific term. Since none of us knows, or can know, from whence the universe ultimately came, a discussion involving the possibility of an intelligent designer is perfectly appropriate. But this should be in a philosophy or theology class, not in a science classroom.

Since I don’t read the entire paper, the article referenced in the letter had escaped my notice until today when I did a search. The original story was about a public hearing about a new public school curriculum which explicitly teaches evolution and the debate which took place over whether also to include material on intelligent design. I agree with everything that the author of the letter wrote, but there really isn’t much new to say about this debate. Intelligent design simply isn’t science and shouldn’t be taught in a science classroom.

What I find remarkable is that the most valuable player of the National Football League has time to write letters to the editor in Jacksonville when one would expect him to be preparing to play the Jaguars this Saturday evening in Foxboro!

The Concept of Neutrality

Many people fail to understand the concept of neutrality in church-state relations and I suspect most of these have never given any thought to comparing the various theoretical possibilities which clearly demonstrate it. They seem to believe that anything that fails to support their opinion automatically supports someone else’s opinion and I think this is at least partially because they never stop to ponder the situation if the roles were reversed.

Let’s examine the case of the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency and coinage. When the issue of removing it arises, they see only two options:

(1) Keep the religious motto
(2) Remove the religious motto (and possibly replace it with a secular one)

They view the first option as favoring belief and the second as favoring disbelief. They don’t see a neutral option and since there are more believers than non-believers, they argue that the majority should win. The problem is that they don’t realize there’s a third major option because it receives no support:

(3) Use an anti-religious motto such as “There are no gods”

With the full spectrum under consideration, they can see that the first option favors belief, the third option favors disbelief, but that the second option is truly neutral. It neither supports nor opposes any religious position. That the third option is never presented as a viable possibility doesn’t negate its usefulness in demonstrating government neutrality.

The same principle can be shown with the issue of public prayer such as that at football games and city council meetings. The third option in this case would be to open or close the events by saying something like, “Since there are no gods, we have to rely on ourselves.” While I wholeheartedly agree with it, I don’t think it would be appropriate to make this kind of statement in an official capacity at a public gathering.

Of course, many people who support government promotion of their religion have no interest in neutrality, but I honestly believe that at least some people who oppose removing religious mottos and public prayers simply need to be educated about the concept of neutrality.

Telling Others about Hell

Believers and nonbelievers tend to disagree about whether telling someone that they will be sent to hell constitutes a warning or a threat. Believers, convinced of the truth of their religion, feel that they must share this truth and attempt to save others from an eternity of suffering by warning them of the danger. Nonbelievers, unconvinced of the truth of the believer’s claims, sometimes feel threatened, viewing the believers as the ones making the threats, using God as a proxy to express their anger and hatred toward nonbelievers.

Having been on both sides of this issue, I can sympathize with both groups. I know what it’s like to be told that I’m going to hell, but I also remember what it’s like to honestly believe that others would be damned and that I should at least make some effort to help them avoid that fate. I feel uncomfortable both with simply letting religious fanatics attack all of those who disagree with them while hiding under the veil of piety and with restricting the ability of people to express what they sincerely believe to be true. In the end, I prefer to support full freedom of speech as the law should never enshrine a particular viewpoint by prohibiting others from being expressed and discussed. Cultural conventions generally address issues such as this more effectively than the law, though I must admit that I’m concerned about the sustainability of informal norms in a socially fragmented and ideologically diverse modern society. We cannot, however, let fights over something as absurd as mythical torture chambers erode one of our most treasured freedoms by limiting what those who disagree with us can say.