Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fear of Hell

The first thing one needs to understand about the concept of hell is that the absolute horror of it--the experience of being burned at the stake forever--is nothing less than evidence that the entire concept is a ploy to control the behavior of the flock.

For the threat of punishment to be effective, it must be sufficiently adverse to affect the intended subject's thinking and behavior.  For a punishment to work it must have a sufficient combination of immediacy, certainty, and severity for the subject to be afraid of it enough to modify his behavior.

For example, if a person were tempted to steal a large amount of money and the punishment for stealing it would be a slap on the back of the hand 30 years later, then that punishment would play little or no role in his thinking regarding the temptation.  On the other hand, if the punishment would be a prison sentence of ten years beginning the very next day, then the punishment would loom very large in the person's mind and have a decided effect on his thinking regarding the temptation.

Now, let's say the punishment were a ten year prison sentence, but the person wouldn't have to go to prison until ten years after stealing the money.  This delay causes the deterrent effect of the punishment to be reduced.

If the certainty of the punishment were also reduced, then the deterrent effect would be further reduced as well.  For instance, if the threat of punishment for stealing a large amount of money was a 5% chance of serving ten years in prison starting ten years after the theft, then the threat of punishment would be much less important in the person's thinking than if the punishment were a certainty.

For most believers the majority of their lives are spent happy in the knowledge that their deaths are in the far distant future.  Thus, even if a believer thinks he is going to hell, he is not very deterred from evil deeds because the punishment is in the far distant future.  This is why one sees an increase in religiosity amongst elderly believers and believers in dangerous situations.  In those cases, the threat is no longer a distant one.

Furthermore, as I have explained before, the threat of being condemned to hell is really not much of a deterrent because the likelihood is so small.  Most religious people believe that god will forgive them if they ask him to and only the remote possibility of sudden death without an opportunity to ask for this forgiveness could ever actually cause them to be seriously subject to this threat.

Thus, the threat of punishment in hell is, for most believers most of the time, a very unlikely prospect in the far distant future.  For it to have any deterrent effect at all, it must be a truly horrible threat.  That is, the severity of the punishment needs to be increased to offset the extreme lack of immediacy and certainty.

This is why I say the description of hell is evidence that the very concept is a man-made construct designed to control the behavior of others.  The severity of the punishment was obviously ratcheted up to the most extreme imaginable in order to offset the weakening of the deterrent effect caused by the fact that the punishment is both remote in time and probability.

As is so often the case with the tactic of increasing the severity of punishment to offset uncertainty, the tactic can backfire.  The punishment is made so severe that many people come to see it as a gross injustice--especially since so many other guilty parties will obviously escape punishment altogether.  This causes many people to conclude that this particular god is NOT a just god.  Sometimes the injustice strikes an individual as so gross that the individual begins to question the existence of the god altogether.  Generally, in such cases, agnosticism or atheism will result because the entire god construct is so ridiculous that only a complete lack of objectivity keeps believers in the fold.  Once that lack of objectivity is diluted by doubt, it is often difficult to stop the process of questioning and realization.

Also, like so many other religious concepts and thought, the threat of hell is an example of circular reasoning.  The threat can only have meaning if one actually believes in god.  To then reason that one needs to believe in god in order to avoid being sent to hell is to make an argument that implicitly assumes at the outset that the conclusion asserted is true.

If one debates a believer or discusses this notion with a believer, then it is useful as a first step to point that out by saying something like:

"You realize that to believe in hell a person has to believe in god first?"

If they don't get what you mean (and they probably won't), point out what this means with regard to you:

"I don't believe in god, thus I don't believe in hell and that threat is meaningless to me."

The threat of hell also has to be horrendous, because, contrary to the false premise in Pascal's wager, believing in god costs an individual a great deal.  Belief in god is a worldview, in fact a view of the universe, and affects the way a believer sees everything in his life.  Believers spend huge amounts of time and money on their belief and make all their most important life decisions in light of their belief.  Some believers literally dedicate their whole lives to their religion--or, worse, even give up their lives for their religion.  They would not do these things were they not convinced that there is life after death and that this life dramatically outweighs their current lives in importance.

They continually ask us non-believers to contemplate the possibility that we are wrong and what that will mean concerning our fate in the "afterlife".  One response is to point out that this thinking cuts both ways.  They, too, need to contemplate the possibility that they are wrong and that this is the only life any of us will ever have.  To waste it or throw it away on a fantasy would be a huge tragedy.  And, there is not a shred of evidence that the "afterlife" is anything other than a delusional fantasy.

(Believers will point to so-called near death experiences as proof of an afterlife.   The best response to that is to point out that those are only near death experiences, just as they are called.  The people involved didn't actually die.  Death is a process that takes quite a while.  Only when the individual cells in the body are dead and the person cannot be revived can he or she be said to be dead.  When such a person somehow lets us know what that experience is like, then we can start to take the notion of an "afterlife" seriously.  But not before.)

Believers need to understand that they do, in fact, have a lot to lose from believing.  They are, in all likelihood, throwing away the only life they will ever have.  Worse, they are throwing it away on a scam, turning their whole lives over to con men and charlatans.

It is that threat that they should be afraid of more than they are of some imaginary and distant lake of fire.   (Notice also that the very imagery used to flesh out the details of hell indicate its man-made origins.  Hell is said to be a "lake of fire" or a "pit of fire" in the "underworld below" and one might be "cast down" into it.  What this imagery obviously brings to mind is volcanic activity.  Obviously, the notion of hell is simply an outgrowth of primitive man's observations of volcanic activity.)

To get past believers' fear of hell, try to substitute the fear of wasting this life worrying about the fantasies con men use to control them.  Use anger to get them to see that religions are giant con games and they have been taken in.  Religion thrives on pride; use pride to destroy it.

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