Previously I’ve written about the story religion offers and what we, as atheists, can think about offering in contrast. What I touched upon were the carrots offered by religion, such as love, redemption, hope, and community. What I didn’t cover was the stick. A recent discussion at Daylight Atheism delved into the idea that the jealousy attribute of God was a result of the creation of God by humans in their own image. Jealousy may have conferred some evolutionary advantage to humans and to the whole one God meme. Likewise, sprinkle in some punishment for those who don’t follow a particular dogma, and you’ve got some added motivation to toe the line and continue the meme. Make it the ultimate and completely unverifiable punishment just to seal the deal. Thus, hell is born.
In the moderate church where I grew up, hell and punishment were not stressed very much. But you knew it was there for you if you didn’t accept Christ. I’ve heard various moderate speakers refer to it as the absence of God. There was a sort of vague (as I recall) feeling that being separated from God was the worst and most frightening sort of feeling one could have and it would last for eternity, even though that’s not what the most omnipotent being in the universe wants. At the other and much louder end of the spectrum are the fire and brimstone fundamentalists. Sharing their space are the Islamic fundamentalists. In some earlier postings Kafir Girl described how Mohammed seemed to put a lot of imagination and effort into hell, whereas heaven seemed to be more of a slightly pleasant afternoon (see here for that story) for some people. To keep people in your religion, frighten them with the consequences of leaving it. I’ll have to keep that in mind if I ever get around to creating my own religion.
In the impressionable mind of a child, the idea of hell is truly frightening. It raises the threshold barrier of ever critically examining the religion in which they were brought up, let alone leaving it. By indoctrinating children (including the concept of hell), one shackles them to the religion with bonds of fear. This hinders, not helps their growth as individuals and in learning to develop critical thinking skills. It is a high barrier to surmount, and it is often painful to do so, as can be verified in many deconversion stories. In an extreme example, check out the story of Nathan Phelps, son of the infamous Fred Phelps of that loathsome Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. In his story, he writes about when he was trying to teach his own children about God,
The turning point was one Christmas, when Nate decided to teach his children about God. In the end, his son Tyler began crying in the backseat of the car, saying that he didn’t want to go to hell.
“He wanted to believe because he didn’t want to go to hell,” Nate said. “I was just stunned because I didn’t know what I had said or how I had left him with that fear. I thought I was doing a good job of presenting it without the fear.
“Thinking about it after the fact, I realized you can’t do that. With a young mind it doesn’t matter. You can try as much as you want to talk about how good God is, but the bottom line is there’s this intolerably frightening punishment if you don’t accept it. And how does a young mind deal with that?”
Nate agrees with prominent atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins, who has said that religion can be “real child abuse.”
Now, I must admit, when I first read Dawkin’s suggestion that religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse in “The God Delusion”, I was taken aback. After all, I certainly did not feel as if I was abused in my own moderate church. But after more thought, I would have to agree with him. Those were chains I had to break as well. Even now, there exists a pure emotional sliver of doubt in my mind, if I really pay attention. After so many years and countless debates on the subject, it is something I easily dismiss. But yet it persists as a kind of neural scarring, a shadow of hell lingering. If we ever have kids, this is not the sort of thing I want for them. I want any kids we have to make informed decisions based on rational thinking, not fear mongering that will linger a lifetime. If Christianity is a choice made as an adult, that’s fine.
Now, I don’t think religious teaching to children should be legislated away. We are not going to get rid of it and, up to a point, people have the right to raise their children as they see fit. But I do think we should make more people aware of the problems. We need to shine a light bright enough to dissolve the shadows of hell.
That may be another part of the story we atheists can offer. We may not have an afterlife of heaven, but we’ve gotten the hell out of it. So instead of wasting precious time and energy worrying about a nonexistent afterlife, let’s focus on making a better society here and now.