Yesterday I was rather surprised that one of my very most politically progressive, most liberally theist, and most pro-atheist friends asked me why atheists sometimes get upset (even apoplectic) about being told we’re going to hell. This friend asked why this should bother us if we thought the idea that we were going to hell was complete nonsense anyway. Did this signify that the offended atheists held some residual fear that there may be a hell after all?
I cannot speak for all atheists of course. But let me speak for myself and other possible atheist mindsets.
First of all, I don’t have any residual fear of hell whatsoever. I think the idea of hell is epically preposterous and implausible. Once or twice in 13 years of being an atheist, the irrational fear based side of my brain has asked my reason to reassess the idea just to make sure–and promptly that fear has been laughed at by my reason.
Second of all, telling us we are going to hell is formally a threat and threats are inherently vicious and disturbing things—even if one does not believe they will be (or could be) carried out. And even if a given believer does not like the prospect of our going to hell and is desperately trying to warn us, they’re almost always quite happily on the side of the person they imagine is ultimately behind the threat.
Now there are many different ways that believers tell us we’re going to hell or, at least, that we deserve to, if we don’t convert to their religion. The nastiest believers tell us we’re going to hell with a lot of relish and with little provocation. Just being an atheist is enough to get a contemptuous, hateful attitude from them.
Other believers tell us we’re going to hell out of passive aggressive vindictiveness when we have irritated them. Sometimes an atheist may have merited anger by being obnoxious in an actual out of bounds way–but even in those cases that is no cause or justification for threats. And many times atheists have not rightly merited any such anger. All we have done is express our genuine opinions. Often we have even given rational philosophical or scientific arguments. Sometimes all we have done is mention that we’re atheists!
To have people respond to one’s identity statements with a threat is upsetting. To have someone respond to a philosophical or scientific discussion with a threat is upsetting. Such threats send the message that this person really does not believe in freedom of thought or humility about one’s opinions. They send the message that not only should you change what you think–which would be an okay thing to argue for–but that you must both change what you are and surrender your right to think freely or you will be tortured. Such believers convey that they are so certain of their views that they want to emotionally manipulate those who disagree by terrifying them into submission whenever they have not been convinced by arguments. (And, just to be clear, I don’t like or tolerate it when atheists resort to bullying behavior any more than I like it when theists do.)
In their decision to threaten hell sometimes believers also indicate that they are simultaneously closing their minds and smugly and happily assuring themselves that their god will get back at you for upsetting them. In those moments, atheists might think that believers want us to suffer in hell because we have pissed them off. It is bad enough that they choose to worship a being they believe sends people to disproportionately cruel, unusual, unjust, and everlasting punishment. But it is disgusting when they start identifying with, approving of, and vicariously imagining that god’s supposed plan to torture you. And it is even more insidious when their approval is motivated by their own vindictive, wounded ego because they have lost an argument or by their bigoted subconscious tribalism because you are simply not a member of their group.
Wanting anyone else to be eternally tortured is pretty creepy. Sometimes in anger, any of us may have thoughts that we’d like someone to die flash through our minds. If you’re like me, you’re horrified and repulsed in those moments. If you’re a violent and hateful person you may start making scary death threats. If you’re a Christian you may just baptize your hateful thought as “concern” for your irritant’s soul before it even becomes fully conscious. You call your resentful defensiveness “love” and by telling the atheist they’re going to hell you do several satisfying things at once. You signal to the outsider that not being a member of your tribe has penalties. You reaffirm your own good standing in your tribe and with your God as someone who is an obedient and appreciative recipient of your God’s gracious offer of salvation. You get to both tell someone off and call it love. You get to count yourself one of the special insiders while feeling yourself a properly humble worshipper.
But worst of all you do all this in lieu of thinking. You do this as a preemptive mental clampdown that protects you from having to reassess your views or, even scarier, reconsider your identity. Now this tendency to defensively clamp down is something that all people should be able to empathize with to an extent. We are all prone to feeling threatened and reacting defensively, on an automatic brain processing level, to cognitive dissonance. But even so there are still reasons that atheists find Christians’ and Muslims’ beliefs in hell, and mentions of it, so upsetting.
For one thing, while we can all understand being protective of one’s beliefs, it is upsetting to atheists that some Christians and Muslims want to believe in hell. Of all the beliefs to want so passionately to hold onto, this is among the very worst. This is about the least compassionate and most vile of doctrines and so why would anyone be agitated to rationalize it and insist it’s real? This is a doctrine that a being totally undetectable by the senses has the right to torture people for the crime of not seeing any reason to think it exists. It is a doctrine that finite wrongdoing deserves infinite punishment. It is a doctrine that a being who is perfect love punishes those who don’t love him as though he were a psychotically violently stalker and domestic abuser. And it’s so incredibly unrealistic as to be a childish and cartoonish threat that insults the intelligence as much as the conscience. So why defend the belief so adamantly?
I am sure many believers in hell vigorously defend it because they see it as of apiece with other beliefs they are more invested in—like the belief in heaven or in their sacred scriptures’ literal truth, etc. It may be that cognitively just accepting the wishful thinking parts of their religions without the uglier parts would involve facing up to the self-serving, too-good-to-be-true character of their implausible beliefs. They can tell that there are dimensions of their beliefs that are, at least to modern understanding, bizarre and fantastic. Part of making them feel real may be committing themselves to the parts that they don’t like as much as the ones they do. That makes it seem more compellingly like reality–which notoriously has both good parts and upsetting parts.
If they catch themselves denying the upsetting parts they may feel they are arbitrarily picking and choosing and the whole thing will unravel. Of course, they pick and choose what to believe anyway (and some believers are happy to throw away hell in the process), but it’s hard for them to do that as a self-aware emotional reaction based on their dislike of the concept of hell. Such would make too conscious for comfort the reality that their emotions are driving what they believe in ways that are arbitrary and not rationally defensible.
But what they seem blind to, even in that case, is that even if God was real and hell was just a harsh reality to accept, it is wrong emotionally to love such a being. Many of us atheists are clear on this. Were we to be convinced that the Abrahamic God was real and was like He is in the Bible and in traditional Christian and Islamic theologies, we still wouldn’t worship or be capable of sincerely loving Him any more than we would worship or love Josef Stalin or Ghadafi or Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler or any other sadistic tyrant who enforced obedience by torturing and murdering dissidents. Morally such a being is a monster.
Why does a Christian not only want to believe in such a being (and want this so much so that they are outright hostile to atheists simply for making counter-arguments and for existing as examples of people who do not believe) but also to love that being? Because that being is offering a blissful everlasting life? A lot of atheists find this to be a troublingly selfish motivation!
Imagine being offered that you can live forever if you go to the mansion of a sadistic torturer. He will provide you with endless amusements and happiness. He will also be endlessly torturing in the basement people who refuse his request. Would you go? Would you do so willingly? Would you go happily? Would you suck up to him and tell him he’s awesome and work yourself up into loving him? Would you make excuses for him and tell yourself he just must have his reasons? Would you get defensive on his behalf? Would you convince yourself he is the epitome of justice itself? Would you blame the people he tortures for using their free will to refuse him when they could have just loved him? To a lot of atheists the fervent desire of Christians and Muslims not only to accept such an invitation to such a mansion but also to believe in such a mansion and to eagerly defend the morality of such an arrangement is twisted.
Other believers in hell are very squeamish about the concept. They hope God will find a way to save everyone. They stress, and take hope in, their own ignorance about what God will ultimately do. They do not really know who he will or won’t save or by what criteria in the final analysis. They do not know others’ hearts well enough to judge anyone. They don’t want to be judgmental. Etc., etc. But a lot of us atheists would wish they went even further. We wish they would reconsider calling a being who even made the threat part of his holy books and religions moral in the first place. I for one wish they would decide that even if they believe in him they’ll refuse to worship him if it turns out that he sends people to hell. Again: why are these people so desperate to believe in a being who is, at best, morally “uncertain” in this regard? Why do they want heaven if they know many people they would never want tortured will be tortured by him?
Some believers are anguished because of their belief in hell, precisely because they believe their loved one will suffer. Yet, even these believers choose to slavishly and worshipfully side with the cosmic dictator who threatens to inflict eternal torment on their beloved children, friends, parents, or spouse! What abdication of loyalty and conscience! They blame the future victim of this tyranny rather than the tyrant, rather than question for a legitimate second the actual justice of the arrangement.
When God told Abraham he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham desperately pleaded and bargained with him not to do it. He wasn’t the happy yes-man siding with his frightening god that so many contemporary Christians are. My recommendation to Christians, if it was good enough for Abraham to try to convince God to change his mind about Sodom and Gomorrah why don’t you put your energies into praying there is no hell instead of trying to rationalize why one would be fair for us non-believers?
Instead you make excuses: “God is powerful and that makes God just no matter what he does” and “People who go to hell freely choose that fate”. Such go the rationalizations which abuse morality and language in a fell swoop.
But at least you are sincere! Right? You believe to the point of great sorrow to yourselves. And can’t we at least approve of your conscientious consistency by which you believe terrible things if you follow logically from your other beliefs? And if you proselytize us and desperately warn people to try to spare us hell—well, given your beliefs is that not more loving than letting your loved ones go to hell for fear of upsetting them on Earth? Aren’t those others who also believe in hell and yet don’t have the courage to do everything it takes to get their friends saved the truly poor friends? How could a true friend indifferently neglect their friend’s salvation for fear of upsetting them with the message they need to be saved?
To an extent, I appreciate that you are operating conscientiously and consistently within their beliefs. But I do not have to confuse this for a generally admirable conscientiousness. If you really are so damned worry about your friends you should be multiple times more scrupulous in figuring out the facts. You should research much more vigorously the arguments for evolution before calling it a lie and you would discover that the Bible’s ability to provide literal, special, divinely accurate truth is not only not at the level of infallibility–it’s at the level of colossal failure. You would also learn this if you showed as much conscientiousness about studying history or philosophy or other religions, etc. Sure, some of you might still believe in that case. But you would be far less likely to believe in the fantastic supernatural hell and far less likely to blithely adopt the crude morality of hellfire preachers.
You make choices about what to be conscientious about and what not to put any admirable effort into at all. I really can’t fault you for wanting what you really believe is best for me and trying to save me. But I really can fault you for being so lazy and shitty about figuring out what I really need.
I was once one of you. But I conscientiously did seek out the truth about what was true and what people really need. I found out I was wrong. I expect you to do the same if you’re honest, as I was. I fault you, intellectually or morally as the case may be, when you fail to do so.
But don’t worry. I don’t think you or any one else deserves (or will receive) everlasting torture for such culpable wrongness.
For more on why the doctrine of hell is flat out unconvincing, even in its more sophisticated and positively genteel sounding forms, read my post on hell as the absence of God.