who wants to go to fire lake?

I wrote this in response to this piece, entitled “If God is dead then what?” It should be noted that the writer is a dear friend of mine, and has been since junior high, so to say we go way back is putting it mildly. I have a great deal of respect for him, though it’s not terribly unusual for that to be a respectful sort of disagreement .

His answer to the question tends toward the position that god being dead would be a bad thing. And yes, I disagreed.

• • •

In the beginning there was the word. Now, I’m going to ask you to imagine a world in which there were no words in any language for the actions we know of as murder, manslaughter, rape, child abuse, robbery, slavery, torture, terrorism, human sacrifice, or hate crime. Imagine interacting with a society such as this, and trying to explain these concepts to them. If this society had a benevolent god, what would they think of ours? And if, in addition to all those terrible things they had no words for, they also lacked a term for god, what would they think of *us*? What if they didn’t even have a word for terrible? Now, look around you, listen, read. Is this the world a benevolent god would create? It is not. Should we be stressed out if he were to suddenly fail to exist?

So let’s assume that everyone in the whole world had a simultaneous, abrupt epiphany, and all the world’s religions were rendered a moot point. For atheists, the concept of “no god” is a familiar one, and the lack of belief in an afterlife causes us no particular sadness or hopelessness — so the effects of sudden worldwide atheism would very much depend on the manner in which the religious came to find themselves de-converted.

If, in the process, everyone experienced startling moments of clarity that led them to understand that since there had never been a god to obey, that they had always been responsible for their own morality, then they would presumably just carry on being good and decent people. Since we would no longer have arbitrary vice laws based in impossible standards of piety, we could focus on eliminating actual crime. The incidence of suicide bombing would be limited to the clinically insane, and rabid fundies everywhere would be standing around, looking at each other sheepishly and saying, “Now what was that all about? What were we thinking, anyway?” People who had been persecuting gays would have to come up with a logical explanation for it, and they wouldn’t be able to, because it makes no sense. People who had been clamoring for creationism to be taught in schools would suddenly be delighted by the wonders of science. Without religious differences, many of the currently quarreling countries would have no basis for their irrational hatred of others, and secular dictatorial regimes would soon fall, having lost the advantage of being just another fractious country in a world full of fractiousness. All the money and wasted lives being spent to fight religious-based wars, and all the resources needed to support various religious institutions (much of which ends up being used to campaign against the rights of others who believe different things) could be put towards the advancement of knowledge, and the benefit of all humankind.

But if this moment of clarity came without the attendant embracing of rationalist thought, science, and logic that typifies most de-conversions, well, there’s your sticky wicket right there. How many religious folk have you heard say that if it weren’t for god they’d [insert horrible things here]? So if we’re talking about a worldwide crisis of faith rather than the global advent of reasoning, then we’d be in trouble. People who were convinced that their morality came from an outside source would be rather a handful if you took away that threat of the burning, now, wouldn’t they?

However, I suspect that the majority of people who claim to be on the verge of a tri-state killing spree if not for god are merely echoing things they’ve heard repeated in the community, things used to justify the embrace of blind faith. I will stipulate that my views on this are influenced by the fact those statements make absolutely zero sense, so it’s possible that I am attributing entirely too much sanity to the people who say such things.

As to the question of how people would handle the lack of the comforting notion that their dead loved ones are “in a better place” and that they’ll all be reunited one day, I find the whole thing quite irrational. As a person who lost a child to crib death at the age of 72 days I can say that I would be appalled if anyone tried to make that claim in order to comfort me — if it’s such a better place, then we should all go there as soon as possible, yes? Religious individuals stricken with terminal disease would be bouncing around joyfully rather than fighting with every ounce of energy to find a cure, or at the very least, treatments which will extend life. People would not request that everyone pray for them to get well, nor rejoice over a remission. The bottom line is, no matter how much anyone raves about how awesome heaven’s going to be when they get there, the only people who do something to hurry along the process are *crazy*. Life is beautiful, precious, and brief, and should not under any circumstances be wasted obsessing about an afterlife, especially since no there is no direct evidence whatsoever that it exists.

And I did a little research into the biblical definitions of heaven to make sure I wasn’t completely off base with this but — from what we know (and by “know” I am not referring to anything that would fit the textbook definition of knowledge, so I suppose I should say, from what we’re told), it sounds like the only thing to recommend it is that it’s not on fire. Aside from that, the descriptions of differing levels of favoritism make it sound like it would be as political and backstabby as any mortal realm, with oppressive classism in full force. And … running around singing hymns and praising the deity portrayed in the bible — that dude? The one who was such an advocate of genocide, slavery, rape, blood sacrifice, and dismemberment by bears, to name a few? That may be better than burning, but not by a whole lot.

And lastly, the whole bit about hedging one’s bets — here’s the thing. If we’re ever having an argument, and at any point I say “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks,” my advice is … take the bet! Really, I could use the money. I don’t bet unless I am as certain as it is possible to be about something. And I can tell you this with that much certainty: no god that I would consider worthy of worshipping exists. If one does, it is not one I’m willing to accept on the unquestioning basis expected of followers of the Judeo-Christian faith. The entire concept of an all-powerful being that refused to make himself clearly known and demanded irrational and obsequious deference to the unknowable and unfathomable whims otherwise known as “his will” offends me. The concept of an omnipotent, omniscient being creating us, clearly knowing were bound to commit the sort of atrocities humans habitually do, and then sitting idly by while billions of innocents over the course of history were doomed to exist in horrifying torment and die unimaginably wretched deaths (many of them without ever being made aware of a path to salvation) offends me. If he knew there would be this much anguish, and had every ability to prevent it, then he’s infinitely more sadistic than any mortal being has ever been, or will ever be. Period.

If obedience to this theoretical entity is the only way I can be spared eternity in fire lake, then I hold with those who favor fire.

Or, if you prefer:

5 thoughts on “who wants to go to fire lake?

  1. From the linked posting: One of the things that came up was a statement posed by a guy named Ivan Dostoevsky

    Snort.

    The observation “If there is no God, everything is permitted” was made by Ivan Karamazov, a character in a novel written by “a guy named” Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Was the rest of his research equally careful? I notice also the pitiful old theistic chestnuts of Pascal and Anselm, long utterly shredded by Richard Dawkins and doubtless hundreds of others.

    You say:

    How many religious folk have you heard say that if it weren’t for god they’d [insert horrible things here]? So if we’re talking about a worldwide crisis of faith rather than the global advent of reasoning, then we’d be in trouble.

    Except that morality really is innate and not derived from religion, and that's true of god-besotted human primates just as much as of the clearer-headed ones. They would still feel inhibited about committing murder, theft, and so forth, even if the false premises ofn their surface reasoning processes told them they had no basis for such feelings.

    As for the defectives who lack any such innate inhibitions, well, the historical record seems to show that religion has done a far better job at providing people with excuses for committing atrocities than at discouraging them. We'd still be better off without it.

    As for the traditional views of Heaven and Hell, they don't stand up to a moment's serious thought. It's because the Christian Heaven is so half-baked and insipid that the Christian Hell needs to be so horrific — the carrot is stale and moldy, so the stick has to be pretty threatening to compensate.

    Tacky wings and halos aside, given that the Christians' God is “such an advocate of genocide, slavery, rape, blood sacrifice, and dismemberment by bears”, how do they know that Heaven isn't full of that kind of stuff around the clock, since it seems to be the Big Guy's idea of a good time?

    More later, these are just first reactions to the post.

    1. Ahh, now, sometimes tired old theistic chestnuts are all we have left standing between a lifetime of extremely thorough indoctrination and the increasing volume of the cognitive dissonance. I don't necessarily object to this sort of thing very strenuously unless the arguments are being used for direct evil (persecution, war, political actions against the separation of church & state, etc).

      I was thinking of asking my friend if he would take the John Loftus Debunking Christianity challenge, because that might help clarify things for himself once and for all — one way or the other. I don't begrudge people their beliefs, though I have gone past the point where I tiptoe around them. As long as there's mutual tolerance (and again, with the disclaimer that the religious beliefs at the basis of the disagreement are not being used to to further any socio-political harm), everyone's free to their own views. I treasure my freedom from belief, so I have to support freedom of belief in general, including things I don't agree with.

      1. I'm all for freedom of belief, certainly. But recognizing that someone else has a right to hold a particular belief is not inconsistent with critiquing that belief and exposing its logical flaws, even in a PZ-Myers-like fashion. And since some beliefs tend to lead to behavior which clearly does interfere with the freedom of others (whether it's trying to ban abortions or shooting doctors who perform them), I consider it almost obligatory to make such critiques when the occasion demands.

        imagine a world in which there were no words in any language for the actions we know of as murder, manslaughter, rape, child abuse, robbery, slavery, torture, terrorism, human sacrifice, or hate crime.

        My immediate reaction is that this would make it completely impossible to discuss the Catholic Church. Unfortunately a human society in which those things were unknown seems impossible, unless perhaps in a much-more-advanced future. The neurological hard-wiring inherited from our primate ancestors pre-disposes at least a minority of humans to behave in such ways. Intelligent aliens who genuinely lacked such concepts would probably find our religions and gods (and a lot of other things about us) incomprehensible.

        So let’s assume that everyone in the whole world had a simultaneous, abrupt epiphany, and all the world’s religions were rendered a moot point.

        I'm actually expecting something like this to happen around the middle of the twenty-first century, as a by-product of an enormous and relatively-sudden increase in human intelligence (this is another and rather complicated subject). I don't expect any increase in problems with amoral behavior, though. There has been a general trend toward more humane standards of behavior for centuries — even the vast majority of fundamentalists today would recoil from burning people at the stake, for example, which was common practice a few centuries ago — and this will continue.

        (Hitler was probably no more evil than Ghengis Khan, Tamerlane, or Columbus; his actions were more shocking because they occurred at a time when genocide had come to be viewed as morally objectionable.)

        I've often noticed that people who claim to believe in Heaven do not behave in the ways that one would logically expect them to if they really did believe it. I think deep down almost all of them know that it's just a comforting lie. This is speaking of the post-Enlightenment Western culture, of course. I'm quite prepared to believe that the 9/11 hijackers truly believed in the Islamic Heaven and expected to be received there as a reward for their actions. Their behavior, as Sam Harris pointed out, was fully consistent with their claimed beliefs.

        As for “hedging one's bets”, if I thought there was any real chance that a god — even a purely evil one — existed and would decide my fate in an eternal afterlife, I probably would do many things differently in an effort to get a better outcome. But there is utterly no evidence that the existence of such a deity is any more probably than the existence of unicorns or ghosts, and our growing knowledge of psychology is making it all too clear how religion would have almost inevitably arisen even in a completely godless world. So I put the existence of a judgmental god in the same catergory as the possibility that a ghost will suddenly appear my apartment and boo me to death as I type this. I can't claim it's absolutely impossible, but the probability is too low to worry about.

  2. Pingback: Baxter Tocher
  3. I'm all for freedom of belief, certainly. But recognizing that someone else has a right to hold a particular belief is not inconsistent with critiquing that belief and exposing its logical flaws, even in a PZ-Myers-like fashion. And since some beliefs tend to lead to behavior which clearly does interfere with the freedom of others (whether it's trying to ban abortions or shooting doctors who perform them), I consider it almost obligatory to make such critiques when the occasion demands.

    imagine a world in which there were no words in any language for the actions we know of as murder, manslaughter, rape, child abuse, robbery, slavery, torture, terrorism, human sacrifice, or hate crime.

    My immediate reaction is that this would make it completely impossible to discuss the Catholic Church. Unfortunately a human society in which those things were unknown seems impossible, unless perhaps in a much-more-advanced future. The neurological hard-wiring inherited from our primate ancestors pre-disposes at least a minority of humans to behave in such ways. Intelligent aliens who genuinely lacked such concepts would probably find our religions and gods (and a lot of other things about us) incomprehensible.

    So let’s assume that everyone in the whole world had a simultaneous, abrupt epiphany, and all the world’s religions were rendered a moot point.

    I'm actually expecting something like this to happen around the middle of the twenty-first century, as a by-product of an enormous and relatively-sudden increase in human intelligence (this is another and rather complicated subject). I don't expect any increase in problems with amoral behavior, though. There has been a general trend toward more humane standards of behavior for centuries — even the vast majority of fundamentalists today would recoil from burning people at the stake, for example, which was common practice a few centuries ago — and this will continue.

    (Hitler was probably no more evil than Ghengis Khan, Tamerlane, or Columbus; his actions were more shocking because they occurred at a time when genocide had come to be viewed as morally objectionable.)

    I've often noticed that people who claim to believe in Heaven do not behave in the ways that one would logically expect them to if they really did believe it. I think deep down almost all of them know that it's just a comforting lie. This is speaking of the post-Enlightenment Western culture, of course. I'm quite prepared to believe that the 9/11 hijackers truly believed in the Islamic Heaven and expected to be received there as a reward for their actions. Their behavior, as Sam Harris pointed out, was fully consistent with their claimed beliefs.

    As for “hedging one's bets”, if I thought there was any real chance that a god — even a purely evil one — existed and would decide my fate in an eternal afterlife, I probably would do many things differently in an effort to get a better outcome. But there is utterly no evidence that the existence of such a deity is any more probably than the existence of unicorns or ghosts, and our growing knowledge of psychology is making it all too clear how religion would have almost inevitably arisen even in a completely godless world. So I put the existence of a judgmental god in the same catergory as the possibility that a ghost will suddenly appear my apartment and boo me to death as I type this. I can't claim it's absolutely impossible, but the probability is too low to worry about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>