For a few months I’ve been reading the religion-related articles on news24 with interest. Only recently have I started commenting, never thinking that I would end up writing an article (had to join Facebook, which I have stoically resisted up to now, -thus the pseudonym). I am writing on an issue that I wrestled with before I decided to leave religion behind.
The main issue I want to address is the psychological influence the hell-concept has on believers. I am not addressing in detail how the concept of a hell (or eternal punishment) came to be. This can be easily found in books and on the Internet (Search on google or wiki: Hell, Sheol, Hades etc). I will only comment that it seems to stem from various myths and was most likely woven into the Abrahamic religions to serve as “the ultimate punishment” and threat to ensure total obedience and loyalty. The original founders of the Abrahamic religions probably never in their wildest dreams realised the enduring and pervasive effect the notion of everlasting punishment would have (right up till now in the “enlightened” era of human existence).
Neither will I dwell on the moral depravity of the idea of everlasting punishment. I don’t think we really grasp what everlasting really means… In short, punishment should fit the crime. I think most reasonable people will (or should) agree on that. To make it worse, according to some religions, many are condemned to eternal punishment for the most trivial of “transgressions”, - Yes, even if you did not enjoy the “privilege” to meet the said savior.
I also won’t dwell on how the concept of hell has changed as we as humans got more civilized and educated. I’ve been told for example that hell does not mean literal “burning”, gnashing of teeth etc. -it supposedly merely means being “not in the presence of God”. A lot of these euphemisms require some extraordinary mental gymnastics and probably only serve to soothe many believers’ consciences.
My main gripe is the hold that hell has on the mind. It is fair to state that many believers are born into their respective religions. Hearing about hell at an impressionable age, leaves some deep-seated fears that are extremely hard to get rid of. The more fear-invoking the concept, the more permanent the imprinting, -especially if this comes from a person of authority (parents, minister, Sunday school teacher etc). This has been corroborated in the literature and in psychology. This survives through to adulthood and causes a lot of unnecessary mental anguish. Just a few examples: Imagine an elderly person nearing the end of his/her life quietly wondering whether they have done enough to get to heaven and avoid hell. After all, the God of the Old Testament was quite a hard taskmaster and the “salvation through Christ” does not always attenuate these deep-seated fears. Some variations of religion only see 144 000 privileged enter the presence of their “Just Lord”. Something I think that gets neglected is to consider the unnecessary anguish of believers whose loved ones have passed away as non-believers… “Will our prayers be enough to save him/her from eternal suffering??”…
I also suspect that many liberal believers who have outwardly discarded the notion of hell, still struggle with it subconsciously… If they truly and honestly can say that there is no hell and still believe in God, is it perhaps that they believe in a very personal and private god?
I grew up in a typical Afrikaans church where we were told in no uncertain terms of a literal hell on a fairly regular basis. The last few years before I left it all behind, I attended a fairly charismatic Baptist church. The focus was mainly the “feel good factor” and “gentle Jesus” etc. Hell and eternal damnation hardly featured, but subtly it was always there by way of innuendo and comments like “praying for someone’s soul”. Believe me, when I left, there was a lot of praying for my soul. I realise a lot of it is was done with great sincerity, but it should underscore the point I’m trying to make… Even today, after 5 years of being an agnostic atheist (shock-horror!), it still raises my hackles if someone prays for my soul. It shouldn’t bother me that much because I know that prayers are just words and does not go anywhere, but it is usually done unsolicited and I do perceive it as a bit patronising… They should take a moment and think how it would feel if someone from a competing religion prays for them (unasked).
Furthermore, I sincerely believe that if the notion of a hell gets totally discarded in no uncertain terms by all religions, a lot of the fervent hatred and killing between mutually exclusive religions might slowly cease to exist. Why would there then be the urgent need to convert and “save” everybody else that does not hold your particular belief. This should apply to both intra- as well as interreligious hatred. Maybe I’m too simplistic about this.
Finally, getting rid of the concept of a hell can be extremely difficult as I already mentioned. Even if your common sense and sense of morality move you to discard it, subconsciously it might still linger on. I sincerely believe that the best and most effective way of totally “disinfect” yourself, is to come to grips with and accept your own mortality. The film “Dead Poet’s Society”, which I saw as a teenager, left a lasting impression on me with respect to our mortality. Realising that this life is it has some other beneficial effects. You’ll come to appreciate how lucky you are to be here in the first place. Roux de Boy has dealt with this very elegantly recently (see: http://www.news24.com/MyNews24/The-Randomness-of-it-all-20121012). It will help you to embrace Life and treat Life as precious. Criticism that this might lead to a life without meaning and hope, do not hold any water in my opinion. It should be crystal clear from reading these forums and the literature that life can be full of meaning, - without believing in promises of immortality (and worse, - eternal punishment). It is now the 28th of October 2012 and as far as I know there is still no verifiable evidence for anything supernatural. We cannot change our historical past. We need to appreciate religion(s) for what they are: Man’s early and best attempts to console, explain the unexplainable, to mark significant events, to help make the unbearable things in life bearable, -to name a few. It is time we leave myths form the bronze age behind us and live in the real world.
I would lastly like to thank some regular contributors for re-affirming my decision to leave “The Fold”. Too many to name, but especially Roux de Boy, Marcus Steenberg, Hanjo, MemeMan, Delusion Buster, Shaun Stanley, Rodins Thinker, Hugh Influence, Bruning, Orbiting Teapot, Eddy Deepfield. Thanks to MerryMartin as well for her reasoned debates.
Besides many popular atheistic texts quoted numerous times in this forum, I can recommend the following two books that give a lot of insight into the issues I touched upon in above essay: “The religion virus” by Craig James (a computer scientist and evolutionist) and “The God virus” by Darrel Ray (a psychologist). Despite the titles, both books are written with a lot of empathy and insight. Also have a quick look at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaL7CkQaQpU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zn4DT5sHNWs
Notes: Imprinting in the young: The God virus (302); Lorenz + Tinbergen: 1973 www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicines/laureates/1973/index.html
Authority and effect: The invention of religion: (357) Milgram: 1974: Obedience to authority; An experimental view