2009-07-11

Uncertainty about the Afterlife

In response to the problem of evil, believers typically claim that God must have a perfectly valid reason for allowing great evil in the world even if we cannot discover or understand it and that the proper response is to trust him without questioning. I recently encountered an interesting idea from Robert M. Price which addresses this response in a new way. He rhetorically asks how Christians would react if, upon death, God canceled their ticket to heaven (faith in Jesus, life of good works, state of grace at death, etc.) and sent them to hell without any explanation whatsoever. Applying their argument to this situation, they couldn't complain at all, for God must have a perfectly valid reason for sending them to hell even if they cannot discover or understand it. No Christian could honestly counter that it's an absolute impossibility; this is the same deity who slaughtered multitudes of Egyptian babies in their sleep and who they acknowledge threatens to send billions of souls to hell for mere disbelief. It's a perfectly valid rhetorical question without any clear answer.

Dr. Price's idea reminds me of the major issues I had with scrupulosity and fear of hell before I deconverted. For years, I had regular, persistent doubts about whether my confessions were valid, whether I was forgiven, and whether I would be damned to hell if I died at that moment. Priests regularly told me to trust in God's love and that God wouldn't condemn me if I honestly did my best to obey him, but their assurances never helped me because I also believed this was a deity who didn't hesitate to send souls to hell for all eternity for something as absolutely ridiculous as masturbating or missing mass one Sunday; I had no trouble imagining him on judgment day telling me that I sinned by listening to my confessor instead of my own conscience and casting me into a lake of fire to burn forever. It was mental agony to believe one is constantly being watched by a despicable, malevolent being who demands blind love, blind faith, and blind obedience and who will probably eventually capture and torture you. It's a lot like being Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but with infinite consequences. This is why the day I deconverted was the best day of my entire life.

While I'm on the topic of the afterlife, I want to say that sometimes I rather wish there were a way for arrogant religionists who claim certainty in their beliefs to learn they're wrong before they die. If my belief is correct that our consciousness is forever extinguished upon death, it's really a pity they can all pass out of existence without ever being forced to admit the magnitude of their stupidity.

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11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Quite an insightful view. It's hard to constantly feel we need to refute religious ideas when they have more basis for fact than the tooth fairy. Every religion belives the others are wrong. It is clear that they all can't be right but they all can and certainly are all wrong.

Anonymous said...

Why do you care so much if someone believes what they want into their death?

Atheist compassion... your faith in their being no afterlife is grounded in its own tenets of faith.. are you too basic to understand that?

Anonymous said...

Your problem was not with your confessors. Your problem was with scrupulosity. You were afraid for absolutely nothing.

Scrupulosity is a terrible problem for Catholics. It causes untold suffering.

Many Catholics believe they are going to Hell because they don't pray enough. Many think they don't do enough good works or fast enough. Many think that their sins are unforgivable, no matter how sincerely they confess.

These fears are ridiculous. They are usually the result of a lack of education about what the Catholic Church actually teaches.

At its most basic, NO ONE needs good works to go to Heaven. I am astounded how few Catholics actually know this. It is seldom addressed directly. Even the Catechism doesn't specifically address the issue.

All a person needs to enter Heaven is to remain in a state of grace. The only thing that can remove a person from this state is a mortal sin.

Mortal sins are difficult to achieve. They are very specific. If you have not fullfilled the requirements for committing a mortal sin, you don't need to worry about going to Hell.

Good works, fasting, praying. It is a shame that few priests/theologians address why people worry about these things. Good works are EXTRAS. Fasting is an EXTRA. Even prayer is not required in any specific amount. If you don't feel like praying, DON'T PRAY.

This is official Church teaching. The saints understood it. Pope John Paul II understood and wrote about it.

It astounds me how little of this knowledge has penetrated ordinary Catholic thought. The best places to obtain knowledge about Church beliefs are in official Church publications, or on the Vatican website. There is even a webpage called "Scrupulous Anonymous," that addresses fears of Catholics.

There are thousands of bad Catholic books written by bad Catholics who either do not understand their faith, or who simply want to scare people. Many Catholic teachers have a very primitive understanding of God, and often no understanding of philosophy at all.
Many present God in a harsh, uncompromising light: "God will send you to Hell for even the smallest impure thought," and so forth. I've lost count of the number of stories I've been told by people whose Catholic school teachers scared them into becoming atheists by feeding them this rubbish.

I am constantly amazed at how deeply imbedded such beliefs are in the Catholic Church. These beliefs are evil, and must be addressed.

Imagine, scaring people into feeling guilty for nothing. Ridiculous. If I actually believed half the things I've read and have been told be badly-educated Catholics, I'd probably be an atheist too.

Secular Planet said...

And you don't at all understand the source of scrupulosity. It's the doctrine of hell itself. Period. Full stop. The end. That anyone at all is tortured forever and ever shows that your god is absolutely evil. Pure evil. People have a hard time wrapping their head around that for serious, real harms (even with numbers) so let's take a lot at a clear example of non-harmful mortal sin: knowingly and willfully not attending mass on Sunday or other holy day of obligation. Your god says I DESERVE to burn forever for that. That shows the pure evil even more clearly.

If you take the threat of hell seriously, you cannot risk anything at ever. You doubt yourself, and then you doubt you doubt yourself. You doubt whether someone is telling you something good. Nothing is too radical if you're trying to avoid being damned by some malevolent being who will burn you if you knowingly and willfully touch yourself. It's sick.

Anonymous said...

You say to me: "you don't at all understand the source of scrupulosity. It's the doctrine of hell itself. Period. Full stop. The end."

On the contrary. I understand the source of scrupulosity all too well. Your next comment reads:

"That anyone at all is tortured forever and ever shows that your god is absolutely evil. Pure evil."

No one knows who is in Hell, if anyone. No one knows. The Catholic Church does not know. The Pope does not know. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.

Whoever told you that the Catholic church teaches "certainty" in its beliefs about Hell (or of anything) is being dishonest. There is no certainty. That is why these teachings are BELIEFS. Knowledge of them being provably true or untrue seems to be impossible.

I have missed Mass several Sundays. I don't worry about going to Hell. I try my best to be at Mass. But I don't sweat about it. And I happen to take the doctrine of Hell very seriously.

I know plenty of people who haven't gone to Church in years. Many of them are good people. Catholic moral philosophy tells me that many of these people will probably enter Heaven far ahead of many Catholics that I know. Your comments show you probably have not encountered the moral philosophy of the Catholic Church at all.

Why are you so afraid of Hell and I am not? Because of scrupulosity. An unbending, rigid way of thought that books no argument.

You give the example of: "knowingly and willfully not attending mass on Sunday or other holy days of obligation. Your god says I DESERVE to burn forever for that. That shows the pure evil even more clearly."

This is completely untrue. Absolutely false. Since when has the Church taught this? There are plenty of bad Catholic books that do. There are plenty of bad CATHOLICS who do. But this is not established Church teaching at all.

"If you take the threat of hell seriously, you cannot risk anything...ever."

This is simply wrong. This is scrupulous thinking. Missing Mass on Sunday is not by itself a mortal sin. Missing Mass on purpose to offend God, however, is quite different. It verges on evil.

Many times I have gone to Communion with sins I was aware I should confess. But I understand from the Church that sincerely asking God for forgiveness is enough at such times.

Sometimes I cannot reach confession. So what. It will happen when it happens. God, ultimately, is in control.

Sometimes I go months without confessing. If I see an opportunity to confess, fine. But I understand enough not to worry when I can't. The Mercy of God is infinite, after all. I understand I am forgiven even if I simply feel sorry. Just asking in the heart is enough.

Confession confers specific graces. I reach it when I feel I need to. I try hard. But I don't worry obsessively about it.

You call God a malevolent being. This is exactly the thinking of the scrupulous. Scrupulous people have enormous trouble seeing God in a good light at all. It is a very rigid way of thinking. Not philosophical or rational in any way.

I am Catholic because I long ago stopped reading so-called Catholic books about the Church. I began to study philosophy instead. Hume, Mill, Hegel, Kant, etc. Brilliant logicians. I gradually began to read official Vatican documents when I realized that such philosophy is actually at the heart of the Church. Not primitive rules that cause scrupulosity.

Moral philosophy indicates that it is a person's INTENTIONS that matter. If you trip someone by accident, this does not mean you deserve to be blamed for this. How can you be blamed for something that you didn't intend to do?

Likewise, if you sin because it is in your nature to sin, why should you be terrified of being sent to Hell? Just resolve to do better and go on. Ask forgiveness. And move on. If overall your intention is to make God happy, then you have nothing to worry about.

Everyone sins. Being rigid about applying guilt to sin never helped anyone.

Secular Planet said...

On the contrary. I understand the source of scrupulosity all too well.

In a sense, you're right. You understand that taking the Church's teachings seriously causes this problem, and you spend most of your comment talking about how you ignore the parts you don't like and claim that you understand the true "heart of the church" better than the church itself.

Why are you so afraid of Hell and I am not?

I'm not afraid of hell. I'm an atheist. I'm no more afraid of YHWH than I am of the Easter Bunny.

You give the example of: "knowingly and willfully not attending mass on Sunday or other holy days of obligation. Your god says I DESERVE to burn forever for that. That shows the pure evil even more clearly."

This is completely untrue. Absolutely false. Since when has the Church taught this? There are plenty of bad Catholic books that do. There are plenty of bad CATHOLICS who do. But this is not established Church teaching at all.


It's simple logic:

1. God will only send someone to hell who deserves it.
2. A mortal sin is one that can send you to hell.
3. Missing Mass constitutes a mortal sin, if committed with full knowledge and consent.
4. Therefore, if you miss mass, you can go to hell.
5. Therefore, if you miss mass, you deserve to go hell.

4 and 5 follow from 1-3. Which of 1-3 do you doubt? It's only the most basic theology.

Missing Mass on Sunday is not by itself a mortal sin. Missing Mass on purpose to offend God, however, is quite different. It verges on evil.

You don't have to have the purpose to offend God. It's grave matter, knowledge and consent. Only three elements. Purpose is not an element. Show me otherwise. Even if it were, not even purposefully offending God merits eternal punishment. (Plus, if purpose to offend were required, I could cheat on my wife and claim my purpose was only my own pleasure, not God's displeasure.)

You call God a malevolent being. This is exactly the thinking of the scrupulous. Scrupulous people have enormous trouble seeing God in a good light at all. It is a very rigid way of thinking. Not philosophical or rational in any way.

It's perfectly rational. God is supposedly a being who tortures at least some of his creatures forever. I really don't know how I can make it any clearer to you. If you deny that, you're not defending Catholicism. You're defending your own brand of religion.

Eric Cliff said...

Funny. I was brought up to not worry so much about Hell. Scrupulosity just strikes me aas weird.

Anonymous said...

You wrote:"God is supposedly a being who tortures at least some of his creatures forever. I really don't know how I can make it any clearer to you. If you deny that, you're not defending Catholicism. You're defending your own brand of religion."

Ridiculous. No one knows if anyone is in Hell. I am at liberty to believe there is not. And no one can conclusively show otherwise.

Certain Bible phrases have led Catholic philosophers to believe that God may, in the end, save everyone. It isn't cut and dried. No one knows the full Mercy of God, or how far it extends to sinners. No one knows. Can we agree on this idea, that no one knows the extent of God's Mercy? It doesn't get any simpler than that.

You stated: "I'm not afraid of hell. I'm an atheist. I'm no more afraid of YHWH than I am of the Easter Bunny."

Perhaps you do not fear Hell. But I think you are still scrupulous. Your journey into atheism has not altered this rigid pattern of thought at all. Rigid thinking is not enlightening. I see no difference. And the arguments are always the same.

You say: "You understand that taking the Church's teachings seriously causes this problem, and you spend most of your comment talking about how you ignore the parts you don't like and claim that you understand the true "heart of the church" better than the church itself."

What Church are we talking about here? Your scrupulous idea of the Church, or the Church that actually exists? I'm talking about the philosophy of the Church. I take that seriously. You talk about the “teachings of the Church” as if they automatically imply punishment. They do not. The Theology of Hell is trumped by the Theology of Mercy.

Saint Thomas Aquinas was tremendously scrupulous. He eventually overcame this affliction through an increased understanding of the Mercy of God. Just because you sin, this does not somehow make you beyond redemption. This is a debasement of the God’s Mercy.

God forgives quickly. Just asking privately is enough. I try to reach confession when I can. But it’s nothing to sweat about. The Church specifically recommends against worrying about Hell. There’s no point, even if you sin. If you intend to do better and to go on being a Catholic, this is enough. As Church philosophers like Aquinas and Augustine indicate, the Catholic God is a rational God. They point out that it makes no rational sense to worry about Hell if you intend to continue as a Catholic. The intention is enough.

“It was mental agony to believe one is constantly being watched by a despicable, malevolent being who demands blind love, blind faith, and blind obedience and who will probably eventually capture and torture you…This is why the day I deconverted was the best day of my entire life.”

This is a textbook statement of scrupulous thinking. The idea here is that one must somehow be perfect avoid Hell. It is absurd. Nobody is perfect. The Church acknowledges this. Perfectionist thinking is strongly discouraged. Several scrupulous saints – Theresa of Avila, St. Alphonsus, St. Aquinas – only stopped worrying about Hell when they accepted that to be perfect is impossible. The Mercy of God easily makes up for unwanted faults and sins, if one seeks such Mercy. My intent is to continue as a Catholic, and to try to do better in the future. And that is enough. With God, intention is everything. I defy you to disagree with this. If you do, it will simply show where your head is really at.

Secular Planet said...

Without specific references, you're only presenting your own understanding of what the church teaches, which is not necessarily accurate.

One quick example. You said, “You talk about the “teachings of the Church” as if they automatically imply punishment. They do not.” A one-minute search on the current catechism yields:

¶1035 — The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

¶1057 — Hell's principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

I'm done here. I have no interest in discussing this with someone who re-defines scrupulosity, who ignores my direct questions about a syllogism, and who can't even get his most basic facts straight. "Rigid thinking"? It's called logic.

Don't expect any more responses.

Anonymous said...

So you research every source that supports your point of view, and ignore the rest. That is, the lives of scrupulous saints. It should be quite easy to research these. This is black and white thinking if ever I saw it.

You are right on one point, though. You are totally convinced of your position, that you know that EVERYTHING you're saying is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT, and that there is NOTHING ELSE. Once again, absolutist thinking. And any viewpoint that disagrees with your own is blotted out.

You are right. So long as this attitude persists, there is no dialogue going on. This is a site for other atheists who share the same views, who don't WANT to change. I should have realized sooner.

-Regards.

Anonymous said...

There is only one true religion that is Islam.Other religions including the Atheists religion are fake.