Flickers of Conscience

One year ago this month, I posted an essay titled “A Seriously Warped Moral Compass“. In it, I highlighted the disturbing tendency of religious beliefs to twist and distort a person’s conscience to the point where they accept terrible evils as just acts, and, conversely, elevate harmless actions to the height of wickedness and sin.

But I do wonder sometimes if even the most thorough and relentless religious brainwashing can ever completely succeed. Are human beings infinitely malleable, so that with sufficient indoctrination we can be made to sincerely believe anything at all? Or do we have an irreducible core of conscience, that can be repressed or overruled but never completely silenced?

It heartens me to observe that in many cases – especially when it comes to that most wicked of all religious dogmas, the dogma of Hell – the answer is the latter. As opposed to some past believers, who eagerly anticipated witnessing the torments of the damned, many modern theists hasten to assure us that they’re not happy about Hell’s existence, that they don’t want anyone to be sent there. I believe that these protests represent flickers of human conscience, damped down by the religious impulse but not wholly suppressed.

One believer I’ve seen express these flickers of conscience is C.S. Lewis. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis writes about Hell that “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power” (p.119) and that “I too detest it from the bottom of my heart” (p.120).

This is an astonishing admission, considering Lewis’ main argument for Christianity hinges on his claim that humans have an innate moral sense which tells them the difference between good and evil. If that is true, then hasn’t Lewis essentially admitted that the moral sense condemns Hell as an evil thing? Isn’t this a concession that the moral sense, which he claims leads inevitably to Christianity, actually pushes back against one of that religion’s central ideas?

A theist blogger, the Internet Monk, writes in “Wretched Urgency” about his former affiliation with a fundamentalist church that believed much the same things:

Feeling badly about things was a key part of the Christian life in my church. We called it being “burdened for the lost.” The ideal Christian lived in hours of weeping daily prayer, interceding and travailing for the lost. (Weeping was very important.)

Evidently, although the members of this church were expected to spend their every spare minute bewailing the fate of the damned, they assumed they would instantly lose all this concern once they themselves reached Heaven.

Or take this comment left by a Christian visitor in the discussion thread for “The Power of Christ Compels You“:

Imagine how it must feel for me when I walk outside and I see hundreds of people, most who either do not believe in God or do not have a relationship with him, and I know that in my beliefs they will be going to Hell to suffer for eternity. It is awful. I think of all the children that haven’t even heard of God before, and I realize that kids will be going to Hell to be tortured and punished forever because they have not accepted Jesus as their savior.

It can’t be denied that this is a correct description of traditional Christianity’s end-times plan. Jesus himself says in the gospels that most people are going to Hell (Matthew 7:13). But it’s interesting that a Christian called this state of affairs “awful”. Why does he think it’s awful?

Isn’t this the outcome of God’s wonderful and perfect plan? And since God is omniscient, he must have foreseen and intended this from the beginning of time. Shouldn’t it be praised and glorified just as Christians praise and glorify all of God’s decisions? This commenter appears to be expressing the the, dare I say, heretical thought that an all-wise, all-loving God’s grand plan might actually have a deplorable or even evil outcome…

A feedback e-mail I once received used similar language, but put it even more bluntly:

In fact after I first became a Christian I threw up for six weeks straight, not because I was arguing with God but because I realised that he exists and that being true, then the awful fact that people are indeed going to hell made me physically sick.

The terrible suffering that these believers put themselves through suggests that, at some level, they recognize the immorality of their own beliefs. Their sorrow, their weeping, their physical sickness is external evidence of an internal battle, a rebellion of conscience against the cruel dogma of eternal damnation. They frame this turmoil as compassion for the lost, but don’t seem to realize that this amounts to a condemnation of the very belief system that consigns outsiders to the status of “lost” in the first place!

Clearly, in the Christian system, God does not concern himself about these people. If he did, he could have saved them and not left them to such a fate. These believers’ actions show that they’re more ethical and moral than their own religion. They recognize this evil doctrine for what it is, even if they can’t consciously bring themselves to reject it. And this is a hopeful sign, for it means that all the religious teaching and indoctrination has not managed to erase their inner conscience. Perhaps, in due time, some of the people even now agonizing over this will grow into atheists who throw the whole sorry system of false dogma overboard.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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