Friday, October 7, 2011

What the Hell?

As a former Christian who lives in a country in which that faith dominates—and as an ex-believer who is now a lonely atheist in a large extended family teeming with (admittedly Catholic-flavored) Christians—it can be difficult to step entirely out of Christian thought, even when, intellectually, I remain wholly unpersuaded by the supposed evidence meant to support Jesus as savior. I have had family members tell me that they pray for me, imploring god, I suppose, to show me the light and guide me from my infidelic ways; others have told me that, from their perspective, my life must be in some way bankrupt, what with the lack of something in which to believe, such as a benevolent divinity or the mythology of the United States as John Wayne-esque hero nation. To them, awe of science is a poor substitute for spiritual fulfillment, which it, perhaps, is, although I have little appetite for superficially palatable falsehood. And, to them, one’s satisfaction with his supposed acquisition of knowledge seems rather hollow when compared to an eternity of damnation.

I departed from the Christian faith about a decade ago, right around the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, although my apostasy had tremendously more to do with my studies during that period at Hofstra University than with any moral outrage at the acts religion can inspire. As I took courses in anthropology, biology, philosophy and even literature, I came to realize that the compartmentalization of my mind, which I had already begun to implement, was untenable: I could not be a believing Christian, who accepted the bible as basically true, in one compartment while amassing my knowledge of the species and the cosmos in another one. With surprising haste, the soul was exorcised from the corpus, god was removed from human evolution, fine-tuning slinked away into the dustbin of bad ideas and I, in a real sense, was liberated from nearly two decades of carefully inculcated delusion.

Still, though, being an ex-Christian is not the same as never having been Christian in the first place. My feelings toward Christianity and, indeed, my susceptibility to Christian ideas are qualitatively different from those feelings and that susceptibility with respect to Islam, Hinduism, Judaism or any other faith among the countless multitudes. I recall Christopher Hitchens, writing in Vanity Fair last October while in the midst of battling cancer, admitting, “As a terrified, half-aware imbecile, I might even scream for a priest at the close of business,” although he quickly added, “though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be ‘me.’” And that is the thing: Even a staunch atheist such as me—one who, as an evidentialist, has tried to look at the evidence objectively and, in so doing, has had his non-belief repeatedly reaffirmed—is not immune to occasional frightful thoughts of being consigned to an eternity of agonizing punishment in hellfire.

Christian writers of decades and centuries past have seemed to take an almost perversely sadistic glee in describing the various tortures, torments, agonies and excruciations of hell; gospel descriptions about weeping and gnashing of teeth seem the very picture of restraint compared to, say, the fetishistic torture-porn that is Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” When one was formerly a Christian believer—and, again, remains ensnared in a Jesus-saturated culture and possesses a family that regularly discusses dead loved ones’ reunion with other deceased relatives in heaven—this has power. When others warn one about the dark fate sure to befall his sinful soul, it is hard not to harbor a bit of fright and even, in those most pathetic moments, fear that can be quite acute.

In earthly life, it is perfectly natural to fear having a cavity filled by the dentist due to the few moments of pain it might involve. And, it is standard practice to avoid relatively minor pains by taking protective action, such as by wearing oven mitts so as not to burn one’s fingertips. I know that, speaking personally, I avoid pain at all costs, sometimes depriving myself of things that might be enjoyable or exciting simply because the cost-benefit analysis contains too high a risk of pain occurring. This is to say, I anticipate the possibility (not even necessarily the probability) of pain and, as a result, modify my behavior to bring that possibility down to effectively zero. But, were hell actually to exist, and were it, in the slightest, to resemble Jonathan Edwards’ horrific imaginings, the pain in store for the sinning hordes would shrink every torment with which we are familiar to nothingness. Surely, then, it would make sense for me—if not now, then before I expire—to return to Christianity and repent my atheistic agitation, yes?

No, no, a thousand times no. I am an evidentialist not because I idolize this scientist or that philosopher…not because others easily lead me and I fall under influence…but, rather, because I truly believe the evidentialist principle is the best way to approximate truth. And, no matter what my relatives believe or what a large majority of Americans hold as true, I do not believe the Christian revelation; the evidence, where sought, is often nonexistent and, where actually found, is ultimately insufficient. I do not believe the Old Testament recounts actual events, nor do I believe in Jesus’ miraculous resurrection, nor do I believe that humans have souls, much less that these immaterial souls go to an immaterial place following corporeal death. This leaves me, then, with but a single motivating factor to reconvert to Christianity: fear of terrible punishment for failing to have done so.

I do not believe in any gods, but I especially do not believe—indeed, would consider it insulting to believe—in a god who looks favorably upon a person whose sole motivating factor in following the deity is craven, pathetic, self-serving fear of punishment. I find it inconceivable that a supposed glorified creator of the universe—a being who, if existent, would be the author of all creation and separator of the righteous from the wicked—would be pleased with a throng of followers who do not love him or revere him or, indeed, even really believe in him, but only choose to prostrate themselves before him because of their pusillanimous terror. I cannot guarantee that, moments before my death, I will not repent of my atheism and turn skyward desperately, but, as Hitchens observed, such would be a humiliation: both for me and for any supposed god.