Whenever writing a blog entry, I listen to quiet music to soothe my mind and I've found that my most frequent selection is my collection of Gregorian chant on my computer. It's rather ironic that I compose my thoughts against religion to the sounds of the sacred liturgy, but it's simply the best choice for the purpose. Chant is both very beautiful and completely calm. It's also performed in Latin, a language which I've studied but which I can tune out without any effort. If I automatically understood what the performers were singing like I would if they sang in English, I think that I would be annoyed by the words themselves and most especially by what they signify and that I would be unable to concentrate. As it is, however, I can enjoy chant for what its actual sound conveys to me: peace and meditation.
The single most influential idea on my religious outlook is undoubtedly the doctrine of hell. It was hell that sparked my initial interest in religion during my teenage years, it was hell that kindled the scrupulosity which tormented me for years, it was hell that ignited my investigation and subsequent deconversion and it is hell that continues to fuel my antipathy toward Christianity. It's difficult to envision how my life would have been if I had never believed in hell, but it certainly would have followed a markedly different course.
Every person values and seeks happiness. It's the ultimate motivation for all our thoughts and actions, whether we pursue it directly or indirectly (by making others and then thus ourselves happy) and even paradoxically when we find it in feelings of sadness. Hell is the antithesis of happiness and is by definition the worst possible concept imaginable. It's a place (or “state”) of eternal pain and suffering and has been symbolized as an unquenchable lake of fire. And it is, despite its simplicity, without a doubt the vilest concept ever conceived of by humanity.
No person could ever deserve to be consigned to hell, for the pain endured therein would be infinitely more than any pain inflicted by a finite being. Even the most brutal dictators caused only a limited amount of suffering and would be unjustly punished in hell, even by the most vindictive standards of justice. And I find it both laughable and depressing to hear believers argue that an omnimax deity cannot prevent people from being roasted for eternity. This claim can only result from complete ignorance or from a complete lack of imagination.
Whenever I hear Jesus referred to as loving or merciful, I wince. While the gospels do contain some benevolent teachings, these are completely overshadowed by Jesus' recurrent threat of unending torture for anyone who fails to accept his message. One cannot expect praise for preaching love while simultaneously executing divine blackmail. An objector might arguing that hell is only a metaphor and that Jesus' threats weren't meant literally. To this, I respond that this isn't the Jesus of Christianity but instead a sanitized caricature of Jesus that has been altered in response to moral progress of the past twenty centuries. To claim that the vast majority of Jesus' followers throughout history have totally misunderstood him and that the true message of Jesus perfectly corresponds with modern western humanistic values is to engage in completely unsupportable historical revisionism.
I simply cannot imagine that the billions of people who profess to believe in hell truly do so, or at least not that they believe they themselves might actually go there. If there is truly even the slightest possibility that one could be tortured forever and ever, then no response is too radical to prevent this possibility from being realized. For many, however, hell is just a place for murderers; everyone else will be admitted to heaven upon death. With this thoroughly unbiblical perspective and because most of us aren't emotionally close to any murderers, hell is relatively easy to ignore. I would like to stress that this is a very good thing; billions of people obsessing about it would result in worldwide chaos. It was, after all, belief in hell which fanned the flames of the crusades and inquisitions. We would all do well to toss the concept of eternal punishment into the trash bin of history.
I would like to comfort my readers by reminding them of a truly glorious truth which finally ended my personal religious struggles and which I hereby resolve to reflect upon each day: Smile! There is no hell!
Posted at 10:00 PM
Atheism, unlike religion, has no sacred cows. There is nothing that someone can do which can cause especial offense to atheists beyond the mere desire to offend. There are no gods to blaspheme, no prophets to mock, no dogmas to ridicule, no scriptures to desecrate, no temples to profane, no sacred objects to defile and no rituals to parody. This is certainly not to say that you cannot offend atheists, only that we don't set ourselves up for offense by treating something or someone as inviolable. You never see an angry atheist mob form in response to a cartoon caricature, an obscene sculpture, an incisive documentary, or the publication of a controversial book. We might well feel upset over any of these but only because they misrepresent our position and not simply because someone had the audacity to portray it differently from ourselves. Even then, our response is far more measured than that of most believers.
Muslims in particular are known for the extreme amount of offense they claim and for their verbally and physically violent reactions thereto, but Christians aren't immune to emotional reactions to alleged blasphemy. Although they very thankfully almost never threaten real violence, we have all probably heard believers threaten and even wish others hellfire for even questioning their faith. It's difficult to appreciate just how violent this response is unless you realize that these people actually believe that hell exists and that they want you to suffer unspeakable torment there for all eternity! Perhaps even more remarkable is that the majority of Christians only condemn the desire to see others in hell and not the threat itself, which is an integral part of the gospel message. (Most people think the message is love and forgiveness whereas it's actually, “Believe or fry!”) Even if an atheist dismisses all believers as fools, that doesn't even begin to compare with what the average believer thinks about atheists. And atheists certainly don't express the same level of emotion when someone insults their beliefs.
It's not surprising there is no reaction when you believe that blasphemy is a victimless crime.
Posted at 11:00 PM