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Is Judgement Always about Punishment?

Is Judgement Always about Punishment? December 4, 2012

Chris Hallquist has uploaded another chapter of his book for comment/questions.  I don’t have anything very helpful to say, since I mostly agree with him and Dennett.  “I feel strongly about this, and your questions make me sad” is a really bad approach to an argument about truth claims.  I disagree with some of the stuff about the use of mockery , but that’s more a content disagreement than a “I think religious readers will misunderstand X as currently outlined.”  (Plus I’ve written on this before).

But I did have another content argument that caught me back in Chapter 2.  Hallquist wrote:

The problem is not that Christians have offended me by telling me I’m going to Hell. The problem is that the idea that I and countless other non-Christians (a category which includes a great many friends of mine) deserve to go to Hell for eternity is the height of moral insanity.

This is why talk of “atheist fundamentalism” is ridiculous. Atheists do not have any holy book we consider infallible. We have no traditional dogmas to defend. We certainly do not reject central discoveries of science for the sake of any holy book or dogma. We do not think anyone should be eternally damned merely for disagreeing with us, or declare anyone’s private behavior to be an “abomination” just because a book written thousands of years ago says so.

There definitely are Christians and sects of Christians that seem pleased and vengeful whenever they talk about Hell.  But I want to take a bit of an issue with Hallquist’s second paragraph.  He’s conflating two problems he has with religion: the appeal to an authority that’s outside the scope of empiricism and the idea that people can be “eternally damned merely for disagreeing with us.”

‘Damned’ isn’t a category that exists in atheism.  But ‘unfixably broken‘ might be.  And then it’s not so much a consequence of thumbing your nose at a particular tradition, but about standing athwart Reality, yelling “Stop!”    No matter what you believe subjectively, you live in the world that actually exists.  So, even if you deny the existence of material things, you’ll still stub your toe on the rock you kick.  If you keep playing around with that bb gun you’ll shoot your eye out. If you stay in that relationship, it’s bad for you. If that cancer keeps growing, it’ll kill you.  These aren’t moral claims, they’re causal ones.  And they’re ones plenty of atheists might endorse.

Hell/sin/separation from God doesn’t need to be framed exclusively as retribution.  It can also be described as logical necessity.  When I say that if you step out of your window, you will fall, I’m not saying that because gravity decided you deserved to break your leg.  When you take actions that coarsen your moral sense, you’re wounded.  It may not be your fault.  You may have been a tough situation (you might have been pushed out the window), but the consequences of natural law follow from the action.

So, if you’re an atheist who believes in objective moral laws, then you do believe that you’re harmed by transgressing them.  You disagree with the Christian only in that you think the wounds you inflict on yourself fade out into non-existence, along with you at death.  But you don’t disagree with making causal claims about the consequences of immoral acts.

If you want exemptions, mercy, and grace, you need a Person, not a Law.


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