The Immorality of Heaven

Paradiso dore
So let’s say atheists are wrong. Let’s say there is a God, and there are places of permanent perfect bliss/ permanent absolute torture waiting for us after we die, and if God decides we’re good enough we’ll get to go to the former.

Is that something we would even want?

I’m not talking about the question of whether Heaven would get tedious; whether human nature is even capable of experiencing conflict-free, obstacle-free bliss into infinity. (Although I do think that’s a valid question.) I’m talking about something else. I’m asking: Could Heaven really be Heaven if we knew that Hell existed, and that people were suffering in it?

Especially if some of those people were people we loved?

William lane craig
This came up in a post on Ebonmuse’s Daylight Atheism blog. Ebon was talking about Christian theologian and apologist William Lane Craig, and a question that was directed to him about this very topic. The querant asked whether God shielded people in Heaven from knowledge of their loved ones who are burning in eternal damnation… and if so, by taking away that knowledge, how was that not taking away our free will? But, the question continued, if we did have knowledge of our loved ones who were being permanently tortured in Hell, how could we be happy in heaven? He said — entirely reasonably, in my opinion:

I would never forget that I had a child and wish to be with them in the afterlife unless God specifically altered my mind… I also find it hard to come to terms with your later assertion that my love and joy in being in the presence of the Lord would make me not care about my loved ones burning in hell… I am just having trouble imagining myself so happy that I just don’t think about my child who is burning in eternal damnation.

The writing of Craig that prompted this question:

It is possible that the very experience itself of being in the immediate presence of Christ (cf. the beatific vision) will simply drive from the minds of His redeemed any awareness of the lost in hell. So overwhelming will be His presence and the love and joy which it inspires that the knowledge of the damned will be banished from the consciousness of God’s people. In such a case, the redeemed would still have such knowledge, but they would never be conscious of it and so never pained by it.

His response to this letter begins (after a little opening background):

My first option suggests that it is possible that God removes from the minds of the redeemed any knowledge of the damned. It seems to me that so doing is merciful and involves no wrong-doing on God’s part. You object, Eric, that God would violate the free will of redeemed persons were He to take such action. I don’t see that this implication follows. God’s respecting human free will has to do with moral decision-making. God will not cause you to take one morally significant choice rather than another. He leaves it up to you. But obviously God limits our freedom in many morally neutral ways. He has so situated me that I cannot, for example, choose to begin speaking Vietnamese or to fly about by flapping my arms. My freedom is circumscribed in innumerable such ways. None of this violates my integrity as a moral agent. My morally significant decisions are still up to me. Similarly, if God removes from the redeemed knowledge of the damned, including knowledge of loved ones that are damned, He does not violate the moral integrity or free will of the persons involved, any more than if He had removed their knowledge of calculus. At least I’ve yet to see any argument that removing such knowledge violates free will in the morally significant way which is at issue.

And then he continues:

The second option I find even more appealing: the redeemed do retain knowledge of the fate of the damned but they are not conscious of it. When you think about it, we’re not conscious of most of what we know. This alternative suggests that the experience of being in Christ’s immediate presence will be so overwhelming for the redeemed that they will not think of the damned in hell. You reply that you can’t imagine yourself being so happy that you don’t think of your child who is damned. Well, to help stretch your imagination a bit, imagine an experience of pain — say, having your leg amputated on the battlefield without anesthetic — which is so intense that it drives out awareness of anything else. In such a condition you wouldn’t be thinking of your child at all. Now substitute for that pain-awareness a feeling of joy and elation, but immeasurably more intense and enthralling. That’s the beatific vision of the redeemed in heaven! It’s not at all implausible, it seems to me, that such an experience would preclude your bringing the painful knowledge of your child’s fate to mind.

And I was so appalled, I could barely find words.

Ascension
Let’s recap Craig’s hypothesis. The experience of Christ’s presence will be so overwhelming that we won’t care about the people we love. We either won’t remember them, or we’ll be too blissed-out on the presence of Jesus to devote even a corner of our consciousness to thinking about them.

And how exactly will we be ourselves, then?

My thoughts and feelings about the people I love are a central, crucial part of what makes me who I am. The best part, arguably. It is impossible to imagine me being me without the part of me that loves people and cares about what happens to them. And that doesn’t just include my friends and family. I have love for people I don’t know: compassion and empathy for people I will never meet, but whose suffering I nevertheless feel, and whose lives I want to make better even if they’ll never know about it. It is a central part of who I am, and it is one of the best parts.

And Craig thinks that in heaven, this part of me will just disappear?

He thinks that if I’m a good person in God’s eyes, God will reward me by eradicating the best and most central part of who I am?

And he thinks that’s a good thing?

But in some ways, it gets even worse.

Let’s talk about the supposed “moral neutrality” of this conception of Heaven. Let’s talk about the notion that denying us the knowledge of the people we love, so we don’t have to be troubled by their suffering, is somehow the moral equivalent of denying us the knowledge of how to speak Vietnamese.

How quickly can I shoot this slow, stupid fish in this very small barrel?

Clasped hands
Compassion for others is supposedly a central part of Christianity and Christian morality. (It’s a central part of every other system of morality, too; but let’s set that aside for the moment.) To know that other people are suffering, and to feel moved to do something about it by our sense of connection and brotherhood with them, is supposedly the essence of Christian love.

And yet somehow, our heavenly reward for living this caring life of Christian love and brotherhood is that we get to have that experience permanently stripped from us after we die. Our reward for our magnificent Christian compassion is that we don’t have to be burdened with it anymore.

And this is somehow morally neutral? Destroying the lynchpin of human morality — our compassion for others, based on our knowledge of their suffering and our desire to alleviate it — has no more moral impact than destroying our knowledge of how to do calculus?

How does that work, exactly?

Brave new world
If anyone else dealt with someone’s anguish over the suffering of their loved ones by permanently drugging them into a blissed-out state of ignorant catatonia, we’d be morally repulsed. In the novel Brave New World, the government that does it is considered an archetype of inhuman, soul-crushing evil. Why is it any different when God does it?

What is wrong with these people, anyway? Do they even hear themselves? Do they know what they sound like?

*

Now obviously, this isn’t an argument for why religion is mistaken and atheism is correct. As I’ve pointed out many times: We can’t decide what is and isn’t true based on what we want to be true. There are excellent arguments against the plausibility of the afterlife — and indeed, if any given afterlife is logically contradictory (as this one certainly seems to be), that’s one of the stronger arguments against it. But if Heaven and Hell were real, my not liking how they’re set up would not be an argument against them.

That’s not my point.

My point is this:

One of the most common defenses of religion is that it’s comforting. It’s emotionally and psychologically useful. It helps get people through the day. So who cares if it’s not real? If the belief that they’ll see their dead loved ones in Heaven helps people endure the grief of their loss… then what difference does it make if it isn’t, you know, true?

HansMemlingHell
But it turns out that this belief isn’t so comforting after all. For many believers — such as the person asking this heart-rending and completely valid question — the idea of Heaven and Hell provide not consolation, but distress. If they know their loved ones are suffering — and not just suffering a stubbed toe, but suffering the most hideous tortures imaginable, into infinity, with no hope of relief — then how can they be happy in Heaven? But if they’re somehow made to forget about their loved ones and just bliss out on Jesus, then how will they be themselves… and if they’re not themselves, then again, how can that be Heaven?

It’s something Ingrid has talked about often. (In fact, she brought it up in the comment thread on Ebon’s piece.) Her fundamentalist relatives were deeply anguished by the fact that their children and grandchildren had left the faith, and even though they believed that they themselves were going to Heaven, they had no such certainty about their families… and they kept wondering, “How can it be Heaven if our families aren’t there?” It was even worse because they felt that the probable damnation of their family was their own personal failure. In their minds, their one most crucial task was to keep their progeny in the faith, so they’d get to Heaven too — and they’d somehow failed.

So their religion, which if it did nothing else should at the very least have been a comfort to them in their old age, was instead a source of grief and despair.

If Heaven and Hell aren’t real, and the only purpose of believing in them is to provide comfort in the face of death… well, it seems to be pretty cold comfort. Atheism may seem like a second-rate solace when compared to the idea that death isn’t real and we’ll get to live forever and be perfectly happy after we die — but at least it doesn’t teach that forgetting about the people we love is a nifty idea.

And if Heaven and Hell are real? If Craig is right, and being in Heaven means that God obliterates not only the lynchpin of our morality and decency, but the central part of our selves and souls, just so we don’t have to look at the torture he’s inflicting on the people we dearly love?

Then screw that.

God can go straight to Hell.

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The Immorality of Heaven
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42 thoughts on “The Immorality of Heaven

  1. 2

    Our reward for our magnificent Christian compassion is that we don’t have to be burdened with it anymore.

    In other words, we’ll become like the biblical God himself.
    I don’t see how this can be called consistent with free will when it amounts to moral lobotomization.
    ~David D.G.

  2. 3

    When it comes to arguing that religion is comforting – and therefore has value regardless of if it’s true or not, this idea of heaven is one of the more disturbing, I agree. And no I don’t think these people actually know what they sound like, or I can’t imagine they would say such things… or I hope they wouldn’t.
    But I have trouble seeing how any aspects of religion can seem comforting to people. Almost all aspects of religion that are meant to be comforting turns weird, confusing and contradictory at best, and horrible and disturbing at worst if you really think about what it actually says. It seems to me like brainwashing in itself to make people see these things as comforting if they really do see it as that. In many cases it seems they don’t even find it comforting.

  3. 4

    I’ve got it! Avatars! God will create Avatars!
    See … you just can’t argue with theists. There’s a hypothetically correct, remotely plausible answer for every real objection. They have thousands of them.

  4. 6

    It sent chills up my spine when I read that this version of heaven was the one Craig endorses. It is abhorrent to me to think that someone believes the best that the Christian heaven can offer someone is essentially god-strength heroin that will turn us into such druggies that we won’t even care about our loved ones any longer. Though, in offering such a depiction of what heaven is like, Craig gives us yet another reason why the Bible was certainly not inspired by an omnibenevolent God.

  5. tkd
    7

    Excellent post. I love the way you write/talk so that it’s clear and concise. Like atheism in layman’s terms. Similar to the “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” sentiment, I would say I don’t know much about religion, but I know it makes no sense. This has always been a problem when dragged into debating religion with family/friends. Like some kind of christian idiot savants, they know the bible/god/jesus inside out and regurgitate scripture until I’m dizzy and don’t know what to say. Your posts are like a lighthouse, pointing out just what matters in a clear, succinct manner. Thank you!

  6. 8

    What’s obvious to me in this discussion is that Craig is, like all religous “authorities,” making shit up as he goes along. I mean, where is he getting this information? Heaven has a “Policies and Procedures” manual now?

  7. 9

    This is one of the most important arguments to keep in mind about Christianity in particular. A lot of secularists and liberal theists claim that the problem with Christianity is the Christians— Jesus himself was a very advanced moral thinker. On the contrary, as you show here, Greta, an awful lot of the problems with Christianity come directly from the teachings of its founder. Bertrand Russell famously observed that no truly humane person could believe in Hell, and that this was a major blow to Jesus’s status as a moral thinker. The morality of Heaven isn’t usually dealt with as extensively. Well done.

  8. 10

    Greta, thank you for making this argument explicit. The myriad issues concerning the “heaven” and “hell” concepts in mainstream religion are quite damning to it when one actually bothers to think about them.
    I’ve always liked to say that, while I am technically agnostic about gods and disbelieve in them solely because of the lack of evidence, even if it could be proven that a god of this sort existed I still could not be a religious person. Rather, I should consider it my duty as an ethical person to oppose such a god in whatever way I possibly could, even (or perhaps especially) if such opposition would earn me eternal torment. Such beings are not worthy of worship, or even passive admiration.

  9. 11

    As I was reading this the first thought that popped into my head was “So God’s presence is like a heroin high?” And thought of people who have let their kids die or be hurt because they were all drugged up. And then right after that thought popped into my head you referred to “permanently drugging them into a blissed-out state of ignorant catatonia.” I must be psychic. Wait, what you say? That isn’t evidence of being psychic? Just thinking the same fairly obvious thought? Oh fooie.
    More seriously, this is a criticism that works well of Christianity but isn’t even true that all Christians believe in eternal damnation. And in many other religions, eternal damnation is impossible or close to impossible. In most forms of Judaism (even in most forms of Orthodox Judaism) it is impossible to suffer eternally. Similarly, in many forms of Islam the same applies.
    A big part of the stress created by this is due to a specific Christian belief, not due to religion in general. (That said, it seems clear that in many religions that don’t have this sort of belief, people still have tremendous levels of stress when people leave the fold).

  10. 12

    What’s obvious to me in this discussion is that Craig is, like all religous “authorities,” making shit up as he goes along. I mean, where is he getting this information? Heaven has a “Policies and Procedures” manual now?

    That’s a really good point, Nurse Ingrid. (I think I’m bound by our marriage contract to say that… but I do in fact mean it. 🙂 ) Craig even admits as much, when he says at the end of the piece, “I’m not claiming, of course, to know if either of these alternatives is true.”
    The best part is that all of this morally bankrupt doctrine exists for one purpose: to contradict the doctrine that all human beings will find salvation, and that Hell either doesn’t exist or is empty. In other words, he’ll twist his mind into knots trying to make drugging people into obliterated ignorance of the people they love seem like the noble act of a loving God… but Loki forbid he should just give up on the idea of Hell altogether.
    As Ingrid points out: It’s all just made up anyway. Why on earth not give up on the idea of Hell? Why not at least go with Purgatory? Because they like it, that’s why. They like the idea of people they don’t like being tortured for infinity. And if some of those people happen to be the beloveds of some of their parishioners, and if that’s causing anguish and distress… oh, well. Them’s the breaks.

  11. 13

    Oh, Leo on Facebook made a point about this that’s so good, I’m kicking myself for not having thought of it. He sez:
    “If you retold that story after having replaced ‘god’ with the name of some alien race or some superhuman character that was doing this to humans, and eliminated the unearned presumption of benign goodness, leaving just the unvarnished actions, it would be perhaps the most purely evil story ever conceived.”
    That’s a really good way of putting it. Imagine that super-powerful space aliens came to Earth, and decided to sort all humans into two groups — one that got wonderful bliss for life, the other that got sent to the equivalent of Abu Ghraib. They didn’t give very clear reasons for how and why they did this sorting; their instructions for how to get to the good place were vague and contradictory; and they often split up entire families. But on the plus side, if you had a family member in Abu Ghraib, they’d drug you into bliss so you wouldn’t worry about them, and might even forget that they existed.
    Would we call this anything but the purest evil? And would the fact that the aliens were super-powerful in any way change our decision about whether or not this was evil?

  12. 14

    To me, heaven is about absolving religious people from responsibility in any meaningful sense. Its kind of like when you’re a kid, and you’re parents say that if you’re quiet for X minutes, then you’ll get your reward Y, and you can go back to normal.
    The idea that once you go to heaven, you don’t have to worry about anyone but yourself seems the same. You’re a child, and can’t control yourself, so you need a reward after a while. Then you can go back to being selfish and thoughtless.
    Atheism is so much more affirming of the natural good in people. We’re not good because of some eternal reward in the future. Being a good person is a reward in itself. And that means we’ll be good people for as long as we can be.

  13. 15

    Thanks Greta. Abhorrent little speculations designed to bolster faith, like this one of Craig’s have, to be challenged head-on and I’m glad you and Ebon did so. It’s one thing for Craig to flog the long-dead horse of Kalam, but to say God’s just going to pull the metaphorical blinds so you don’t have to see your loved ones suffer in the Hell he created specifically to torment them is one of the most ghastly concepts I could imagine (apart from God actually making you enjoy it, of course).
    The piece of Ebon’s inspired me as well last week, and it seems you and I are very much of the same mind: the stronger a person’s belief, the less comfort they’ll take from their faith following the loss of a loved one or, indeed, contemplating their own inevitable demise (link below).
    My mind just comes to a screeching, dumbstruck halt when I hear concepts such as this emerge from people who are allegedly the spear-point of sophisticated modern theology. This is your loving God at work – keeping you blind & ignorant of harsh realities whilst propping you up in a wondrous, rapturous fantasy land? Little wonder that’s Craig’s concept of the afterlife, given that’s how many religions tend to operate right now. Really, the only difference between them is that in Craig’s Heaven, anyone who disagrees with him now gets tormented forever later. So, basically, Craig’s big payoff is Eternal Shadenfreude, sitting at the right hand of the sick fuck from the SAW movies.
    What a complete prick.
    .M.
    Permalink to my post [http://generalsystemsvehicle.blogspot.com/2010/01/comfort.html]

  14. cag
    16

    My first thought on reading this was “what a Rube Goldberg device religion is”. The only difference is that in Rube’s devices the ball actually made it to the end, not so with religion.
    belief == gullibility

  15. 17

    The idea that Jesus comes before everyone else is the most important thing to Christians so I’m not surprised to hear WLC answer the way he did. The bible itself says to hate your family in comparison to how much you love Jesus.

  16. 18

    This kind of belief (Heaven/Hell as above) is not putting lipstick on the pig anymore… it’s like offering a light makeup to a zombie. You have to bend your brain in a way that gives ME a headache.

  17. 19

    I wonder why we’re all stumped by this. Christianity might seem like a “love thy neighbour” religion, but in the end its message of salvation is egocentric; it’s all about personal gratification.
    It’s no wonder that a Christian presented with this argument is likely to choose ignorance and bliss. Being eternally in heaven knowing that your loved ones are being eternally tortured is no heaven at all and they know it.
    Even those who believe in a heaven where the saved rejoice over the torture of the wicked, will not even consider their loved ones in hell.
    I’ll agree with Craig, as I’ve seen it happen. We’re not always conscious of what we know. I know it cos I’ve used the line of argumentation in this article with many Christian friends and, even though they’re troubled at first, after a while they behave as if they’ve never heard anything.
    Each argument we make simply does not register long enough for them to examine its consequences for the other doctrines. It’s like playing bizarro-Tetris. Each complete line vanishes into oblivion, but you get no points. *le sigh*

  18. 21

    The concepts of heaven and hell are about control–either control by religious leaders (if religion is not real) or control by a god. They are designed to eliminate free will and control behavior.
    And now for a few stories: my in-laws (and I do like them) belong to a religion that as a central belief, states that you cannot get into heaven unless you are baptized (it apparently does not have to happen at birth). In the early 60s, my wife and her twin brother were born 4-6 weeks early and not in best of health, so their survival was in doubt. Instead of spending what little time he might have had with his children and comforting his wife, my father-in-law went running off in the middle of the night, leaving his wife alone and scared, so he could find a priest to perform the baptism just in case.
    Many years later, when my brother-in-law had his own children (triplets), they were also very early and very ill and both of the grandma’s were being destroyed with the fear that their grandchildren would not be baptized in time (the parents had no intention of ever baptizing them). They survived but for many years after that, the grandmothers apparently were considering sneaking the kids away and having them baptized against the wishes of their parents.
    And finally, when my own son died during his delivery (so there was no chance to baptize him at all) I was worried my in-laws were going to die from stressing out about where his soul was going to end up. Apparently, there is a small loophole in this case—while he could not go to heaven, he wouldn’t go the hell either. He would end up in some sort of limbo for un-baptized babies that die before/during childbirth.
    In all three stories, I see religion having a chance to offer comfort and support in sad and difficult situations, but instead it supplies fear, panic and sadistic control. Arbitrary rules about the fate of your child’s soul forces you baptize and indoctrinate and the religion survives–another layer of armor.

  19. vel
    22

    The idea that it is not morally repugnant to remove one’s memories of love is disgusting and emblematic on just how selfish and horrible Christians can be. (not all, most would be horrified to think that this is what God wants). That other lovely “Christian”, C.S. Lewis also argues for the lost of love and the fellow over at Daylight Atheism/Ebon Musings does a great analysis of Lewis’ horrid book The Great Divorce: http://ebonmusings.org/atheism/books/greatdivorce.html
    I have no desire for a “heaven” that destroys me and removes all decency from me. I would prefer a thousand hells over such a place, where I would become less than nothing, the automaton to eternally worship a being bloated on sadism and vanity.

  20. 23

    As a Christian, I’d just like to say that not all of us believe crap like this. My personal belief on the topic is that “hell” is merely separation from God and one is only subjected to that if one consciously chooses it after death. I think the story in the Bible about doubting Thomas is there precisely to tell us that those who truly must see to believe will be accommodated, and those of us who can believe without seeing will be blessed with the peace that brings. I personally believe that the truth (whatever it is) is revealed to every individual after they die, and they are then given the option of accepting or rejecting.
    I also recognize that I could be totally wrong about all of it, since this is faith and not fact. I’m comfortable with that 🙂 I very much agree that heaven could not be heaven if our loved ones were being tortured somewhere, and I don’t believe any of this BS about forgetting them. Actually, if my leg was being amputated on a battlefield, my kids would be the FIRST thing I’d think about and probably what sustained me.
    Does this guy even HAVE kids?!
    What galls me is that ANY human has the audacity to think that they truly know and understand the secrets of the universe and of the Divine. We’re all floundering, holding onto whatever rings true with us, and doing our best to get along. Any person who clings maniacally to the notion that their faith is fact is just showing how weak their faith is.

  21. 24

    You know what torturers resort to when their victim is tough, and won’t break under the physical pain that is inflicted on them?
    They torture his/her loved ones.

  22. Mat
    25

    1. No one can talk with authority on what happens after we die. We can only postulate. So if WLC was asked to postulate then it seems to me that is unfair to criticize him for it.
    2. I think the issue of justice is brushed over by people arguing against God because of hell. If from a heavenly view we do realise (either by understanding or by inference) that it is perfectly just where people end up then I don’t think there will be any unhappiness in heaven no matter who is in hell.
    3. It’s like you are arguing this. Suppose my friend and I do a test and he gets 45% and I get 100%. Am I meant to be fundamentally and unconditionally unhappy because he wants me to be?

  23. 26

    Christianity might seem like a “love thy neighbour” religion, but in the end its message of salvation is egocentric; it’s all about personal gratification.
    This sums it up nicely. “Love Thy Neighbor” is the candy-coating on the nasty, bitter pill of fear and narcissism. Christianity can look good from the outside, but much of the inside is rotten.

  24. 27

    If from a heavenly view we do realise (either by understanding or by inference) that it is perfectly just where people end up then I don’t think there will be any unhappiness in heaven no matter who is in hell.
    Let’s play with this. God thinks it’s a good idea to stone disobedient children. So your daughter disobeys you, and as a result the tribal elders stone your child to death.
    Are you unhappy that your child was stoned to death? From a heavenly view, it was just. And from a heavenly perspective, perfectly just actions do not result in any unhappiness.
    If you answer no, I have no issue with calling you a monster. Answering no is required by your position, if you hope for any consistency. I do hope you change your mind — it scares me that people can hold such an authoritarian mindset, no matter how often I see it.

  25. Sue
    28

    When I was 7 years old I asked my mother about this. She told me that we would indeed know that people we had loved were burning in hell, and that not only would we not care, we would feel glad that God had given them the punishment they deserved.
    Even as a tiny child, even as a Christian, even as someone who knew no alternative belief system than the one I was being brought up with – that seemed so hideously callous to me. It took me eight more years to do it but that was certainly the beginning of my rejection of my parents’ religion.

  26. 29

    Mat: Seriously? You think that we could be happy knowing that our loved ones were being hideously tortured for infinity with no hope of relief, because we’d be comforted by the knowledge that the punishment was just?
    Let me ask you this. If your children, your brother or sister, your father or mother, committed a terrible crime and was sent to an appalling prison to suffer for the rest of their lives, you’re saying you could live a completely happy life — not just reasonably happy, but a life of perfect bliss and ease — because you knew that their punishment was just?
    You wouldn’t be sad and horrified about what happened? You wouldn’t feel terrible about the crime your loved one had committed; you wouldn’t love and miss them anyway and feel sorrow about what their life was like now; you wouldn’t feel awful about not having seen what was happening and done something to prevent it? You could move on with your life cheerfully and with unadulterated happiness… because their punishment was just?
    Is that really what you’re saying?
    Is that honestly how you feel about the people you love? Is that truly your Christian vision of love and compassion and morality?
    Oh, btw: It’s perfectly fair to criticize Craig for his speculations. He was asked to speculate on what he thinks would be a morally acceptable vision of Heaven — and his speculations reveal his ethics to be bankrupt. If I were asked to “speculate” on my vision of an ethical afterlife and said that it involved everyone who voted against same-sex marriage being tortured in Abu Ghraib and everyone who voted for it getting to be drugged on heroin into eternity, people would say I was monstrous. And they’d be right. And that’s essentially what Craig’s visions of an ethically acceptable afterlife amounts to.

  27. 30

    “It’s a central part of every other system of morality, too; but let’s set that aside for the moment.”
    Not Objectivism. (Ann Ran(sp?)’s cult thingy)
    Just reminding you that humans are really hard to make broad statements about.

  28. 32

    But is Objectivism even a system of morality? I thought it was the opposite — a rejection of morality. (If I’m mistaken, do let me know; I know a certain amount about Randianism, but what I know didn’t exactly get me all excited about learning more.)

  29. 33

    The existence of a heaven is an irrelevance to me. The rules for getting in are not clearly stated and even if I somehow fulfill the criteria I have no interest in visiting. In that regard it is like Euro Disney. I’m sure some people will find it wonderful but it isn’t for me. That and the evidence against any mechanism for an afterlife are overwhelming. Instead it is about how we act here on this shiny planet that I am concerned with.
    The whole concept of sorting people into camps and punishing one while rewarding the other is deeply flawed. Experiments such as Jane Elliott’s Blue EyesBrown Eyes exercise clearly shows how the “superior” group looks down on the “inferior” group and how the “inferior” group starts to feel and act inferior. Isn’t the heaven concept simply a way to assert Christian superiority?
    When you examine the arbitrary differences between the groups though there is little of substance that you can identify. Group A acts as morally as group B, obeys the same laws, votes in the same way, even has the same annoying relatives. The only difference is that group B claims to have been saved and is therefore superior. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law I have to ask where have we seen that before?

  30. 34

    Greta, you’ve managed to do something that hasn’t happened since the Irish Catholic church discussed their orphanages. You’ve further lowered my opinion of the Christian religion.
    As mentioned above, there are Christian sects that are “universalists” that think hell is empty, and I suppose one could just as well be a hell universalist instead, though that makes their god even more appalling.

  31. 35

    Mat is shining validation of my ongoing assertion that Christianity is best suited as a crutch for the most fragmented personalities in our culture. It really is a criminal psychosis.
    we’ll be too blissed-out on the presence of Jesus to devote even a corner of our consciousness to thinking about them.
    This is the nature of addiction, which is what Christianity is. Most of them believe that heaven will consist of them getting what they want – continuity of their own selfish egos, in an eternally drugged state.
    William Lane Craig is an execrable piece of crap – and he’s one of the best they’ve got.

  32. 36

    @ Joshua Zelinsky: In most forms of Judaism (even in most forms of Orthodox Judaism) it is impossible to suffer eternally.
    Joshua, that’s what liberal denominations believe, and what the Left Wing Modern Orthodox (as a result of their squeamishness) would have us believe. The reality is different. In recent years, I’ve come to see that many – perhaps most – Hareidim and other black hat Jews actually do believe in a Christian-style eternal hell. I suspect a lot of the Right Wing Modern Orthodox do as well. There’s certainly enough rabbinic opinion in the Talmud for them to base it upon.

  33. 37

    But is Objectivism even a system of morality? I thought it was the opposite — a rejection of morality. (If I’m mistaken, do let me know; I know a certain amount about Randianism, but what I know didn’t exactly get me all excited about learning more.)
    It is a system of morality – a pretty strident one that’s chock-full of imperatives and obligations. It’s just an upside-down one that approves acts and attitudes that any sensible person would condemn, and vice versa. It doesn’t reject morality per se; it just rejects any kind of morality that differs with Rand’s ideas.
    Interpreted charitably, Rand was someone who suffered from Communist repression and, while rejecting it consciously, was unable to stop herself from passing on the abuse. So a lot of what she does is what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton called, in his study of thought reform, ‘loading the language’ – redefining words so they acquire meanings different from, and often contradictory to, their previous meaning. Ever putting others before yourself gets classified as death-worship, for example. Selfishness is a term of approbation. And so on.
    There are some fairly roccoco explanations for all these principles – basically the idea is that demanding someone consider anyone else’s interests is attacking their right to be an individual – but it’s best understood, I think, as a kind of scream of horror from a woman who had a rough start in life and was also gifted at rationalising her own misanthropy.

  34. 38

    Fair enough, Kit. I’m still not sure I would call that morality — I think you’re right in calling it a redefinition of the word “morality” in a way that’s totally contradictory to its original meaning. But I’ll give the benefit of the doubt, and restate my original statement as “It’s a central part of virtually every other system of morality.”

  35. vel
    39

    ambyrle, many Christians have retreated to the “hell is only seperation from God” but your holy book sure doesn’t support it nor does your God by saying your version is right and all of those “other” Christians are wrong. Convenient how you don’t decide that the bible is wrong about heaven too, but of course not since you are sure you’ll get there. Since we have no evidence of God here on this world, one must think that your “hell” would be no different than here. Rather pointless.

  36. 40

    I think as atheists, agnostics and secularists, we have to just accept after a while that none of this makes sense, and very little of our pointing that out does anything to change the minds of those who believe it does. I know that’s not the purpose of this blog entry of yours, necessarily; I’m just saying this.
    My family is staunchly religious, to the fundie degree. It is…tiresome, to say the least. There is seemingly no end to the superstition, bigotry or illogicality. If it was just them, I could maybe accept it as a very terrible, familial quirk (that I’ve happily not inherited), but I know my family is just one of many. (I’d argue mine is particularly crazy, but those less so are still, well, crazy.)
    Hell, and all the issues surrounding it, was one of the main starting points in my teenage years for letting go of what my family taught me. There are so many problems with the concept of heaven and of hell, and yet these are supposed to be the carrots and sticks of God’s system. I cannot fathom punishing eternally for finite wrongs, while I’m also told that my love is inferior to God’s. I cannot fathom, as you point out here, not caring about those being tormented. In the same way that I cannot fathom a parent letting their child run into a busy street, so they can have their “free will” and “learn a lesson,” I cannot fathom God doing essentially the same thing to us, his supposed children, over and over and over again, all the way until we “send ourselves” to hell. I cannot fathom a God that is all-knowing, but created a monster, so that it could later torture the rest of us. It’s…sick and twisted.
    Though filled with some truly elegant poetry on occasion, the Bible is, for the most part, horrible. It is filled with cruelties unimaginable to those who’ve not fully read it (the majority who believe it, I think). I am most disturbed when believers, like those in my family, do read the full Bible and don’t get disturbed by it, but actually come into some sort of whacked out agreement with it. Likewise, I always shudder at the cruel meaning behind one of my relatives’ all-too-frequently said phrases of, “Well, he/she will get his. God sees all.” As in, “I’m so glad this person I don’t like will probably be sent to hell, because he/she did/said/believes XYZ.”
    Which brings me to this…
    If a believer is a true fundie, there is absolutely no issue here. I can’t think of a single fundie that would bat an eyelash at this entry, even though it’s well thought out. A true fundie believes the Bible is infallible, because it says so, and so they also believe that God comes first, even above loved ones. So if God wants to allow someone they love get tortured for all eternity…that’s okay, because God knows best.
    I learned this concept first hand when, upon learning of my agnosticism, my mother went on quite a tirade and finally blurted, “I just don’t want you to go hell!” Which, on the outset seems to suggest that even fundies have a heart over this stuff, but then I realized that I was being blamed for what was, really, her religion and God’s shortcoming. She was upset at me, not God. Because I wasn’t falling in line with what a 2,000-year-old book said, she fully believes, deep down, that the God she loves will most probably send me to eternal damnation. I love my mother dearly, and, beyond her religion, she’s actually a very good person, but there is this permanent flag on my perception of her that constantly and unfortunately reminds me that she chooses an invisible and heartless imaginary friend, above all else, above my own well-being, really.
    So, it makes me think that, at least in the case of fundamentalists, all the immorality and contradictions don’t matter to them. They still find comfort in it, even if it means you’ll die horribly. They may love you in this life, but if God sends you to the fiery pit, that’s okay, because they love and trust him more. That’s the “comfort.”
    Yes, it’s fucked up.

  37. 41

    Eternal bliss and eternal damnation are incompatible with free will, whether God obliterates the memories of our loved ones or not. No christian I know of believes that after, say, a few million years in Heaven, you can commit some sin and be sent to hell as a punishment. Rewards and punisments in the afterlife last forever, and that can only be possible if our very capacity for moral choices is destroyed, either by loss of memory or by any other way.
    In fact, I think some of the appeal of the idea of Heaven derives from the fact that the need to make moral choices will be left behind. The burdens that go with moral choices (uncertainty, fear of making the wrong choice, the effort of fighting temptation) will have to dissapear if we want our heavenly bliss to be complete. So, believers assert that our “dignity” requires the existence of Heaven and hell (because our choices are “trivial” if they donÂŽt entail serious, eternal consequences) and at the same time, they say that we will only enjoy that dignity in an infinitesimally small part of our existence.
    There is another angle to this question: what about angels? They experience the divine presence, like human souls in Heaven, but one of them, Satan, rebelled against God. This poses a lot of interesting questions. It seems being “high on God” is not such an efficient way of avoiding some bad thoughts after all.

  38. 42

    Just happened on your blog and like this post and the responses. I’m a third generation atheist on both sides and I have no need for a belief in heaven or hell. My partner is a Christian and she and most of her Christian friends have no belief in heaven or hell either, except what we make here on earth. I don’t think it’s a necessary part of Christianity.
    I do like the point somebody made about the injustice of eternal damnation for finite evil deeds. If you were god and wanted to arrange a just hell, you could set things up so each soul would suffer for as long a time as the sum of all the suffering of the people he wronged. Somebody like Hitler would suffer a very long time. It would seem like eternity. But it wouldn’t be. Maybe “eternity” is poetic license.

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