Telling Others about Hell

Believers and nonbelievers tend to disagree about whether telling someone that they will be sent to hell constitutes a warning or a threat. Believers, convinced of the truth of their religion, feel that they must share this truth and attempt to save others from an eternity of suffering by warning them of the danger. Nonbelievers, unconvinced of the truth of the believer's claims, sometimes feel threatened, viewing the believers as the ones making the threats, using God as a proxy to express their anger and hatred toward nonbelievers.

Having been on both sides of this issue, I can sympathize with both groups. I know what it's like to be told that I'm going to hell, but I also remember what it's like to honestly believe that others would be damned and that I should at least make some effort to help them avoid that fate. I feel uncomfortable both with simply letting religious fanatics attack all of those who disagree with them while hiding under the veil of piety and with restricting the ability of people to express what they sincerely believe to be true. In the end, I prefer to support full freedom of speech as the law should never enshrine a particular viewpoint by prohibiting others from being expressed and discussed. Cultural conventions generally address issues such as this more effectively than the law, though I must admit that I'm concerned about the sustainability of informal norms in a socially fragmented and ideologically diverse modern society. We cannot, however, let fights over something as absurd as mythical torture chambers erode one of our most treasured freedoms by limiting what those who disagree with us can say.



Religion in the Business Section

Last week I noticed my local newspaper, The Florida Times-Union, had moved the weekly religion subsection to the business section of the paper. Since the publishers are rather religious, I'm sure the irony of such a move was purely unintentional. I open up this special section every Friday and I frequently close it in disgust. Of particular interest is a regular column in which they profile a local religious figure with their responses to a standard set of questions, including one which asks whether they have ever doubted their faith and another how they have resolved them. Their answers are almost as standard as the questions themselves. None has ever even remotely acknowledged that to doubt one's faith is merely to recognize that one is fallible. They have all demonstrated that they desire orthodoxy, not truth.



Naturalist as a Label

Although I've never actually disliked the term atheist as a personal label, I've come to appreciate a reason to prefer an alternate label: it's just too specific. Referring to someone as an atheist says that they don't believe in any deities, but it doesn't say anything about their beliefs regarding other supernatural concepts. Although they generally don't, an atheist could believe in life after death, ghosts, spirits, auras, astrology, numerology, karma, fate or any other number of supernatural entities or forces. In light of this, I have a theoretical preference for the term naturalist, but I have concerns regarding its practical usage. If I tell someone I'm a naturalist and they then ask what that means, I can explain that I don't believe in anything supernatural. If they don't ask, however, I'm afraid they will either think that I'm just interested in the outdoors, think that I'm a nudist, or simply not understand. I've identified as a Humanist in certain circumstances, but I feel this term simultaneously says too much and too little about what I think. I would really rather err on the side of saying too little and avoid mischaracterizing my beliefs, which are constantly being refined and reanalyzed in the light of new experience. I suppose that I'll adopt naturalist as my preferred label for now and see how it goes.



Truth vs. Orthodoxy

Although I have written much criticism about religious faith, there is one particular aspect of it which I would like to address today: Faith isn't interested in truth, only in orthodoxy. Believers are almost never encouraged to pursue their doubts, rather they are encouraged to overcome them, to ignore them, to banish them, to squelch them. They are encouraged to cultivate their faith and to pray for its continual increase. All of this says they are not really interested in truth, only in maintaining what they already hold as true. A believer may argue that they know their religion to be true and they are attempting to avoid error by fighting against their doubts, but they fail to recognize that the very fact that they have doubts is clear indication that they don't really know it's true! They work to unwaveringly retain a view which is uncertain in their eyes. If they were actually seeking the truth, they would examine all of the evidence, no matter how blasphemous it may seem in light of their current opinions, and make the best possible conclusion based on what they have learned. It's impossible to respect anyone's claim to truth who has not only refused to investigate alternate views but actively suppressed feelings that they just might be right.



Prayer & Miracles

Although I discussed the absurdity of petitionary prayer in my original essay against the Catholic faith, I have never written nor read anything about one particular aspect of this type of prayer:

Almost every petitionary prayer is a prayer for a literal miracle.
Petitionary prayer is prayer in which a person asks something of a deity, as distinguished from prayers of thanksgiving and meditative prayers. And it almost always asks for a supernatural, physical miracle. Sometimes this is obvious, such as when someone prays for a miracle cure from an illness, but believers never seem to realize they are always asking the laws of nature to be broken on their behalf. Let's examine a simple example, perhaps the most common type of petitionary prayer: a person asks God to bless them or someone else and keep them healthy. All diseases and injuries have physical causes whether it be bacteria, viruses, genetic defects, radiation, etc. When someone prays for health, they are asking that these physical causes not have the negative effect they would have had, or for their medical treatments to have a positive effect they wouldn't have had, if the prayer had not been said. For a deity to answer this prayer, it must somehow intervene on a physical level and alter the laws of nature. Even to inspire the person to healthier lifestyle, it must alter the neurons inside the person's head, again necessitating a literal miracle. Citing “spiritual” or “mystical” effects is absolutely meaningless because they can't effect physical substances without having a miraculous physical effect. If someone prays for a safe road trip, they are asking for the weather to miraculously change or for their equipment to miraculously function properly or for drivers to miraculously pay better attention. Even deities cannot give you a safe trip without doing anything.

The only type of petitionary prayer that doesn't seek a miracle is one that asks for something spiritual. If one asks a deity for forgiveness, the granting of mercy wouldn't entail any physical miracle. Even in this case, however, a miracle would be necessary to know that the mercy was granted, so even asking to feel forgiven is asking for a physical miracle, too.

I would like to end with a paraphrased quote by another user at an online forum which doesn't fit my theme perfectly but which is topical enough and which I found hilarious: “If prayer were sent by e-mail, you'd get a message back from your mailer daemon!”