Extinguishing the Fear of Hell

The other week, I received an excellent suggestion from a Daylight Atheism commenter via e-mail. He suggested I write a post on the following topic: How can a former believer overcome the vestigial fear of Hell?

I suspect this is a common problem. Many religions go to great effort to inculcate in their followers an instinctive terror of breaking the rules, and this irrational fear can often linger and continue to traumatize a person even after they have consciously and rationally decided that those religious beliefs are false. No blame attaches for this; it’s just an intrinsic part of human psychology. Cold fear, unfortunately, is often a more powerful force than dispassionate reasoning.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes one victim of this psychological abuse who wrote to him seeking help:

I went to a Catholic school from the age of five, and was indoctrinated by nuns who wielded straps, sticks and canes. During my teens I read Darwin, and what he said about evolution made such a lot of sense to the logical part of my mind. However, I’ve gone through life suffering much conflict and a deep down fear of hell fire which gets triggered quite frequently. I’ve had some psychotherapy which has enabled me to work through some of my earlier problems but can’t seem to overcome this deep fear.

Dr. Dawkins suggested a therapist, Jill Mytton, who herself escaped a cult called the Exclusive Brethren and now counsels people in similar situations. Yet even she still bears the traces of her former indoctrination:

“If I think back to my childhood, it’s one dominated by fear. And it was the fear of disapproval while in the present, but also of eternal damnation. And for a child, images of hell-fire and gnashing of teeth are actually very real. They are not metaphorical at all.” I then asked her to spell out what she had actually been told about hell, as a child, and her eventual reply was as moving as her expressive face during the long hesitation before she answered: “It’s strange, isn’t it? After all this time it still has the power to… affect me… when you… when you ask me that question. Hell is a fearful place. It’s complete rejection by God. It’s complete judgement, there is real fire, there is real torment, real torture, and it goes on for ever so there is no respite from it.”

Reading about the horrible suffering that so many believers experience, anyone with a conscience would want to help. I’m well aware that there’s no quick fix for a psychological trauma like this, and not having had a cult upbringing to break away from, I don’t claim to be an expert on this. But I do have two suggestions, so I’ll give them out in the hopes that they may do some good. Anyone who has more experience than me and can improve on them is invited to do so.

First: Most religious groups, for understandable reasons, try to instill into their followers the belief that their particular teachings are the only ones that are real or worth caring about. To counteract this, I suggest it may help to put those teachings into their proper context in the pantheon of world mythology. What I’d recommend for a struggling ex-believer is to read about all the afterlives that have been proposed – Greek, Egyptian, Buddhist, Hindu, and everything else that’s out there. Once you can compare them side by side and are used to seeing them just as stories, it will be easier to do the same with the religion you were brought up in.

Second: The best way to conquer the phobia of Hell, as with any other phobia, is to induce extinction. Expose yourself to whatever idea or image triggers the fear – in small doses at first – and prove to yourself that no harmful consequences follow. Repeat this often enough, and the mental link between the stimulus and the fear is eventually broken. Of course, rationally speaking, this wouldn’t disprove a punishment that’s claimed to only arrive after death – but because we’re dealing with an irrational fear and not a reasoned belief, I think it may be effective.

So, readers, what do you say? Can anyone improve on these suggestions?