The Necessity of Hell

After my earlier post on this subject, Slacktivist has written several follow-up posts about the evangelical freak-out over the news that one of their own may not believe in Hell:

For Mohler, as for most of Team Hell, we can see that there are two distinct categories. On the one hand there is what is "clearly revealed in the Bible... teachings... doctrine." And on the other hand there's this evasive, fuzzy-wuzzy, extra-biblical, anti-biblical notion of "the character of God."

...this is not how Team Hell reads the Bible. They regard the idea of reading the entire Bible as "driving toward" any one point as a dangerous approach that prioritizes some passages over others. That opens the door to all sorts of "evasions" and "revisions." For them every word in the Bible is sacred. And thus every word in the Bible is equally sacred. To allow for some grand theme or interpretive scheme or some larger picture of the character of God would be to challenge that equal sacredness of every single word.

I won't repeat my previous post, but I want to point out that what neither Slacktivist nor his pro-eternal-torture adversaries see is that they're not using different interpretive schemes. They're both basing their beliefs on their respective interpretations of how the Bible describes God's character. The only difference is that one side emphasizes the wrathful and warlike verses while ignoring those that focus on love and forgiveness, while the other does the opposite. The Bible is such a vast book, and contains so many different and conflicting passages, that you can find support for essentially any viewpoint you care to take about the nature of God.

I want to talk, instead, about why this is so important for Team Hell - why they're so emphatic about the requirement that Christians believe in eternal, conscious torture without relief or hope for the majority of humankind. And I think there's an important hint in the story of Carlton Pearson's deconversion. When Pearson was struck by a crisis of conscience and ceased believing in damnation, the congregation of his megachurch dwindled from 5,000 to 200. As I wrote at the time:

Had he preached that some other church was not strict enough - that God was withholding salvation from some group formerly believed to be saved - I doubt anyone would have batted an eye. But to widen the circle of the saved was, for his brethren, an intolerable heresy. Theirs is a theology that elevates wrath over mercy, punishment over grace, and judgment over love. One of Pearson's associate pastors admits as much, candidly saying that teachings about eternal torment and the Rapture did far more to fill the pews than teaching about love and forgiveness ever will.

Leah of Unequally Yoked quipped that Mormonism, because of its belief in posthumous conversion, is "the only losing choice in Pascal's wager", and I think the pro-eternal-torture crowd sees itself facing a similar dilemma. Their strategy to fill the pews relies on terrifying people with lurid images of hellfire, offering them an easy way out, and then promising that by making the right choice, they'll become God's elect and enjoy his divine favor eternally. But universalism threatens that simple equation. If people don't have to go to church to be saved from Hell, then what do they need church for at all? Even worse, if those other people - the ones over there in that other tribe, the ones we don't like - are going to Heaven too, then how can we be sure we're better than them? Intolerable thought!

This is the old advertiser's tactic: invent a problem, convince people that they have it, then offer to sell them the cure, promising that it will make them cooler, sexier, better-smelling than the teeming masses. Whether it's tooth-whitening strips or eternal salvation, the selling points are the same. And just like the corporations that rake in the bucks from exploiting consumers' insecurities, the evangelical pitchmen have built an empire of wealth and political influence on belief in Hell. It serves the dual purpose of coercing people to stay in line through fear, then rewarding them for their obedience by flattering them that they're the savvy ones who know how to escape what the rest of the world has got coming.

A faith that made no demands for everyone to join, unlike the evangelical theology of exclusivity and judgment, might be superior in the moral sense. But in the memetic competition, it's probably doomed. It just wouldn't be able to outcompete religions which demand allegiance and obedience and threaten those who won't go along. Whatever else you can say about the evangelicals, they know their target market. I'd be glad to see Rob Bell and those of like mind make progress towards reforming Christianity, but ultimately, I don't think belief in Hell or any other religious derangement will ever be defeated from within. It will only be overcome when people become rational and skeptical enough to question any belief for which there's no good evidence.

March 28, 2011, 5:54 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink24 comments
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Movie Review: The Nature of Existence

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: The documentary equivalent of World Religions 101. Not much new ground is broken in this broad survey of the world's major belief systems - although there are a few interesting surprises - but what made me happier was the fair hearing given to the atheist and scientific viewpoint in areas that have traditionally been considered the exclusive property of faith.

In The Nature of Existence, filmmaker Roger Nygard embarks on a quest to ask everyone he comes across a set of profound questions about the meaning of life, the nature of morality, the existence of a soul or an afterlife, and so on. Starting in California, he crosses the country from Texas and Alabama to New York and Boston, stopping to speak with the people he meets along the way. These interviews tend to have more of a rambling, spontaneous character. The second half of the film, where he embarks on a globe-trotting trip to England, Vatican City, Israel, China and India with the intent of meeting representatives of some of the world's major religions, is more structured and, I thought, tighter and more interesting.

There are a few instances where a hint of skepticism comes through, like the segment where Nygard tries to set up a meeting with the Pope, and is told that His Holiness will be happy to talk with him for 20 or 30 minutes... in exchange for a donation of $20,000. But for the most part, the interviews are friendly and non-confrontational; Nygard asks his subject a question and lets them say whatever they want, generally without commenting on their answer, before moving on to the next segment. For the most part, these interviews don't break new ground. Anyone who's familiar with the religions his interviewees represent will probably know in advance what they're going to say, although there are a few surprises.

There were a few things about his choice of subjects that annoyed me. As PZ points out, the vast majority of religious interviewees are men - a phenomenon that Nygard doesn't seem to notice, much less speculate on the reasons for. (The two notable exceptions, a pastor's wife and a lesbian minister at a GBLT-friendly church in Texas, are the kind that prove the rule.) And although no one interview monopolizes the film, he gives a comparatively large amount of screen time to some of his least interesting and most odious subjects, like a belligerent, sex-obsessed preacher named Brother Jed or the raving homophobe and anti-atheist bigot Orson Scott Card. There are Christians whose views are genuinely interesting, some of whom are also present in the film, but these two aren't among them.

However, there's more to the film than just training a camera on bigots and crazies and letting them talk. I was happy to see, unusual for a documentary of this nature, that the scientific perspective is treated fairly and respectfully and presented on equal footing with religious beliefs. Freethought stalwarts like Julia Sweeney, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins and Ann Druyan are prominent among Nygard's subjects, and the film benefits greatly from their presence. When he asks Ann Druyan how she finds happiness, she gives a hilarious, and no doubt destined to be legendary, answer that I won't spoil here (but I'll discuss it in the comment thread if anyone really wants to know). Another of my favorites was the Oxford scientist who said that if he wanted to be rich, he'd write a book with a title like "How Particle Physics Proves the Existence of God" that would be total scientific nonsense, but would sell a million copies and enable him to retire in comfort.

But I think my favorite interview, hands down, was Nygard's talk with his neighbor's 12-year-old daughter. She's bluntly honest, smart as a whip, and an unapologetic atheist! Hearing her discuss her views was worth the price of admission all by itself, and was more intrinsically interesting than any number of shots of the filmmaker climbing the steps of yet another ancient temple.

There was one question that Nygard didn't ask, and that I found conspicuous by its absence: "How do you know that?" He doesn't inquire into how his subjects acquired the knowledge they claim to possess, and all the clergy, all the gurus and monks and hermits and shamans and so on, are permitted to pontificate about God, souls, the afterlife, and so on without challenge. I can see the point that this is giving them enough rope to hang themselves, that the more you know about all the world's enormous diversity of religious traditions, the more difficult it is to believe that any one of them is true to the exclusion of all the rest. But still, it would have been beneficial to contrast the claimed sources of religious knowledge with the tested methods of science and reason. It would have been a most helpful comparison in assisting the film's audience to make up their own minds about who's most credible.

February 18, 2011, 6:44 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink7 comments
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Will the Real Deity Please Retweet This?

My friends, I have to confess: I'm having a crisis of faith.

You see, as an atheist, I've always maintained that if God were real, he would communicate with us clearly and directly and wouldn't leave human beings to guess blindly at his wishes. Well, honesty leaves me no choice but to admit it: my prayers have been answered. Just the other day on Facebook, I saw a link to this Twitter account, The Tweet of God. Perusing it, it was inescapable that God Himself was reaching down to humanity, in the form of 140-character text messages, to make his almighty will plain. My eyes have seen the light! Amen and hallelujah!

But as I read on, basking in the glorious divine wisdom revealed therein, I felt a horrible worm of doubt insinuate itself into my heart. It was probably some lingering remnant of my fast-fading skepticism, but I couldn't help feeling it was just remotely possible that this wasn't the Twitter account of the true Lord and Savior. Blasphemous though my doubt was, I had to have proof.

I did a Google search, hoping to turn up some evidence, and got a horrible shock. On the very first page of my search results was not one, not two, but three other Twitter accounts, all claiming to be the sacred tweets of the Creator - just like the one I'd initially found!

My head awhirl in confusion, I sought desperately for an anchor in the chaos, something solid and dependable that I could believe in. Then it hit me: Jesus! As we atheists all secretly know (though we deny it in public), Jesus Christ is the only Son of God, the risen messiah and the one true light of the world. It was so simple - I could put my faith in Jesus! Surely he wouldn't lead me astray.

But what happened next, I'm afraid you can already guess. Confidently, like the pilgrims of old, I set out to search for Jesus' Twitter account - and once again, I found a a myriad of contenders, each one claiming to be the way, the truth and the light. (I also found the Twitter account of Odin, but I suspect that one might be a hoax.) I was hopelessly confused.

And here I am still, spiritually adrift without an anchor. I've got to say, telling the one true deity apart from his Twittering imitators is a nightmarishly difficult, near-impossible task. I'm certainly glad we don't have to face any such dilemmas in the real world!

February 12, 2011, 8:56 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink29 comments
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A Religion Not Made for Success

Were I inclined to believe in them, I would say that the New Testament gospels were a set of maddeningly strange and frustrating documents. Although they contain some beautiful ideas, they always stop just short of bringing them to their logical conclusions. They contain moving admonitions of universal love, but never go so far as to extend that compassion to women or the enslaved. Although Jesus is said to have had pity on the sick and the infirm who came to him and cured them of their ailments, he never did anything to help the millions more who were too sick or too distant even to seek him out, although if he was truly omnipotent that would have been within his power. Though they repeatedly promise that the kingdom of God is just around the corner, that promise remains unfulfilled to this day.

In these ways and others, one could say that Christianity is a religion not made for success. It began as a small, fringe apocalyptic sect, and its originators apparently expected it would always remain so. To judge by what they wrote, the authors of the gospels expected Christianity to persist in its original state - its members penniless vagrant proselytizers, traveling from town to town to preach, sleeping on the ground and subsisting on alms - until Jesus' return and the end of the world, which the first generation of Christians clearly expected to happen within their own lifetimes.

As proof of this, consider that the gospels lack the sort of rules concerning organization and hierarchy that are ultimately needed for a church to survive in the long term. Other than a few vague references, Jesus never gives advice on how to ordain priests and bishops, how to establish a church hierarchy, or how to select new apostles. He never even defines a formal creed!

This lack of formalization has caused the fragmentation of Christianity into so many different sects and denominations, a degree of variation virtually unparalleled in any other major world religion. For example, Judaism is mainly divided into Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, while Islam is mainly divided into Sunni and Shiite. Christianity, by contrast, has literally dozens of major denominations, often separated by fierce and even violent disputes over the most trifling points of doctrine, such as whether the bread and wine used in communion "literally" (but not literally) become the body and blood of Jesus, or whether they only do so figuratively; or whether children should be baptized or only adults, and whether it is necessary to enter Heaven in any case. Given the grab-bag nature of the gospels, and the highly ambiguous and cryptic nature of many of their teachings, it is hardly surprising that such a diversity of interpretation has arisen.

Furthermore, much of the advice given in the gospels clearly assumes that Christianity will always consist of rootless bands of evangelists, such as Jesus' teachings that one must sell everything one owns and forsake one's family to be a Christian, or that people who follow him will always be rejected and reviled. Such teachings make perfect sense in the context of the outcast cult which Christianity started off as. Nowadays, of course, it is largely composed of the very kind of wealthy, settled, comfortable people that Jesus preached against, which is why these teachings are widely ignored by today's Christians. Some Christians even flatly contradict them, such as the teachers of the "prosperity gospel" who claim that that God wants all his followers to be rich. One need only consider the vast wealth and tremendous luxury enjoyed by Christian leaders, such as the pope or the powerful preachers of the Protestant right, to see how far the religion has diverged from its original teachings.

Finally, take Jesus' teachings that the end is imminent. These perpetually unfulfilled promises have led to the bizarre phenomenon of feverish apocalyptic speculation that has consumed every single generation of Christians, died away as that generation grew old and gray, and then was taken up just as eagerly by the next generation. Where other religions are more sensitive to history and continuity, the urgent and immediate nature of the gospels' end-time claims have made many Christian sects all but deaf to it.

In all these ways, Christianity has "stretched its boundaries" as it tries to build a large, mainstream religion on the precepts of a small, isolated cult. Its original infrastructure was not designed for future growth and success. Although later New Testament documents, such as the Pastoral epistles, attempt to provide some framework for this, for the most part Christianity did not become formalized in this way until long after the canon was closed. Much of its formal ideas are little more than the interpretations, and in some cases the outright inventions, of church figures who for the most part were making it up as they went along.

If this religion had been founded by an all-knowing god, it is more likely than not that he would have been aware of its future growth potential and set up its institutions accordingly. The ad hoc and arbitrary nature of the way Christianity has grown, however, points instead to the conclusion that it was invented by human beings who, regardless of their theological creativity, could not foresee the future.

January 23, 2007, 11:14 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink8 comments
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True Colors

The holidays are traditionally a time for reconciliation, but the Anglican church isn't taking the lesson of their own religion to heart. As reported in Beliefnet and elsewhere, it is now official: the 77-million-member church is in the process of breaking apart over the issue of how to treat gay congregants.

Last week, two large, wealthy, historic Episcopal parishes in the state of Virginia - Truro Church and the Falls Church, which date back to colonial times and together have more than 4,000 members - voted overwhelmingly in favor of seceding from the American convocation and aligning themselves with a branch of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, led by ultra-conservative archbishop Peter Akinola. These defections, along with nine other Virginia congregations that also voted to secede, bring to about 250 the number of Anglican congregations that have broken with the American convocation and chosen instead to ally with more conservative convocations, usually from Africa. About 1,000 other American congregations have joined the Anglican Communion Network, a conservative organization that rejects church teachings on the treatment and ordination of gays (source). However, these new defections are among the most significant yet. The Episcopal diocese of Virginia has so far lost about 20% of its congregants, and the Beliefnet article notes that George Washington himself was once on the governing board of one of the two breakaways, the Falls Church.

The ongoing Anglican schism stems mainly from disagreement over the treatment of homosexual congregants. The church has been wracked with internal debate since 2003, when V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire became the first openly gay Anglican bishop, spurring a fierce argument between liberal and conservative congregations over whether out-of-the-closet and non-celibate gays can be fully equal and participating church members or even clergy, and whether the church should bless same-sex marriages. A lesser, though still divisive, issue concerns whether women should be permitted to become bishops, a debate inspired by Katharine Jefferts Schori's recently becoming the first-ever female head of the American Episcopal convocation. So far, seven of the 111 U.S. dioceses have rejected her authority.

The spilling over of this schism into the public sphere highlights, once again, the way religious conservatives consistently oppose granting basic human rights to disapproved minorities such as women and gays. But this statement does not do justice to the sick and outrageous depths of their prejudice. Consider the man under whose authority the breakaway churches have placed themselves, Peter Akinola. He is the presiding archbishop of one of the most populous branches of the Anglican Communion, the Anglican Church of Nigeria. Among Anglican convocations, the Nigerian branch has about 17 million members, which makes it the second-largest (second only to the Church of England). This means that Akinola is the direct head of about a quarter of the Anglican church. And while the religious right in general is not known for their friendliness toward gays, Akinola's vicious, searing hatred makes him stand out even among them.

Lest I be accused of hyperbole, consider that Akinola has personally spoken out in favor of a draconian piece of legislation proposed in Nigeria that would criminalize the "registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public showing of same sex amorous relationships directly or indirectly in public and in private" with up to five years' imprisonment. Not only does this horrible law forbid essentially all political speech, activism and organization by gay men and women, it would make it illegal for a gay couple to eat out together in a restaurant or even to meet in their own home. Akinola has said that he "encourages the National Assembly to ratify the Bill prohibiting the legality of homosexuality since it is incongruent with the teachings of the Bible" (source).

Not even Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, as far as I am aware, have advocated that gay men and women be sent to prison for holding hands in public. And yet two of America's largest and most influential Anglican churches have just voted - overwhelmingly, by margins of over 90% - to align themselves with a man who believes and advocates exactly this. And Akinola is not a lone wolf unrepresentative of Christianity in general. He is the spiritual head and leader of over 15 million Christians, plus a few thousand more now, and if not all of those people agree with his beliefs, they are evidently not bothered enough by them to reject his authority either.

The legal battle over who owns the property of the breakaway churches has only just begun, and will likely continue for a long time. But the moral issue has already been decided for all to see. Whatever superficial noises these groups may make about tolerance and loving one's neighbor, their mask has been removed, and the ugliness beneath shows plainly. Apologists very often plead with outsiders not to judge the church itself by the hateful words of a few, but the defense cannot be made that this is some isolated fluke. If a person this radically anti-gay could become the head of this many believers, there must be a very substantial number who share his beliefs. In short, the hatred is not an aberration; it is pervasive. Unless Christians take a hard look at their own belief system and ask why it is so conducive to hating people who are different, the Anglican split may only be the first of many to come.

December 28, 2006, 1:38 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink5 comments
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Christian? Jewish? Who Cares?

Michael Luo. "Reform Jews Hope to Unmix Mixed Marriages." The New York Times, February 12, 2006.

In this age of potpourri spirituality, Anique Olivier-Mason, 25, classifies herself generally as a Christian: she grew up Catholic and often attends a Presbyterian church near her home. But on a recent Friday night, she was attending Sabbath services at Larchmont Temple.

This article from the New York Times concerns the efforts of some Reform Judaism congregations to convert the non-Jewish spouses of congregation members, stemming from a fear that the religion is dying out due to extensive intermarriage. The principal targets of these efforts are people like the woman described above, who regularly attends synagogue with her Jewish husband.

However, it was not the shift toward proselytizing I found noteworthy - every religion must eventually drift into evangelism, or else die out. Rather, what drew my attention was the apparent indifference with which the targets of these efforts responded to them:

"We intend to instill in our children a feeling of spirituality in the sense that they can feel comfortable both in a Christian church and in a Jewish synagogue," Mrs. Olivier-Mason said.

...When I go to a Jewish service, I feel like, "This is really great; this is a very entertaining and spiritual experience," she said. "But do I feel comfortable enough to call it my own? I don't."

If making your children comfortable with Christianity and Judaism means that they will be tolerant of both, that is fine, and I have no objection. But this couple seems to have something more fundamental in mind; as the article put it, they intend to raise their future children "steeped in both religions". Does this mean that they intend to teach their children that both Christianity and Judaism are equally true in some way, or that they should identify equally with both groups?

The core absurdity of this is that at least one of these faiths must be wrong about the fundamental tenets of its belief. If Christianity is true and Jesus was divine, this conflicts with the Jewish beliefs that God is one and not a human being, and if Judaism is true, this implies that Jesus was not the messiah as Christians believe he was. The notion of being equally comfortable with both faiths implies that one is also equally comfortable with truth and falsehood, or at least that one does not care which is which. This mushy relativism is naive at best, and dangerous at worst.

If one end of the religious spectrum is fundamentalism, the stance that each and every statement in the individual believer's scripture or tradition is literally true, then the other end must be this attitude of cafeteria spirituality, where beliefs and traditions from many religions are freely mixed based on what the individual finds appealing. I realize that this approach has certain things to recommend it - for instance, it does not share the militant intolerance of fundamentalism - but it owes little to common sense. This is all the more true when the mingled beliefs directly contradict each other, as in this case.

I have said elsewhere that one of the reasons I oppose religion is that it drives apart people who could otherwise be happy together. In that sense, I think it is a good thing that these interfaith couples are able to live together peacefully. But they are doing it in a very strained and convoluted way - by adopting beliefs that are fundamentally at odds and then disregarding the implications of those beliefs. Would it not be far simpler and more rational to simply discard these beliefs altogether and live as happily married human beings, with no invisible supernatural wedges between you and your partner?

Of course, this does assume that people choose their religious beliefs based on the facts, and I am well aware that this assumption is largely false. Indeed, I have never met a religious person who carefully investigated several faiths and then made their choice based on which one they believed most likely to be true. Instead, people almost always choose their religion based on which one they grew up with, or which one is most prevalent in the area where they live, or which congregation makes them feel most welcomed. Evidence is rarely more than an afterthought, if it is presented at all. In such an atmosphere, when decisions are made primarily for emotional rather than rational reasons, the occurrence of syncretism should be expected - even syncretism among blatantly incompatible faiths.

Both fundamentalism and cafeteria theism thrive because most people elevate faith over reason as a basis for decision-making. If this method leads us to the truth, it can only do so by accident. And when it freely combines elements of incompatible belief systems, it cannot hope to do even that. Our society is searching for emotional comfort and belonging at the expense of the truth; but we have largely forgotten that the truth is itself valuable, and deserves to be sought, both for its own sake and for the more enduring comfort it brings us. Until our society stops choosing its religions based on whether they make us feel good, and regains the Enlightenment focus on what is true and real, we can never hope to find a solid and lasting happiness that is not the happiness of illusion.

February 21, 2006, 12:02 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink20 comments
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