I know this is kind of absurd right now. With half the world gearing up for Christmas, why am I puzzling away at hellfire? To which I can only say, blame Al. (He dubbed himself Not Buying on the comments thread of the TEDx video talk I gave, then Fred in a subsequent email exchange, but since the Paul Simon song You Can Call Me Al runs through my head at regular intervals, I’ll do as Paul advises and do just that.)
The discussion was about what Al calls “the hellfire penalty” in both Christianity and Islam – “the notion that it is good and right to destroy/burn the souls of people for mere disbelief, and that disbelief itself is a kind of sin-crime, making disbelievers sinners/criminals.” (Judaism doesn’t go for hellfire – we just get thrown off a rock as scapegoats, which is what ‘go to hell’ means in Hebrew.)
Now, you could say (as I did) that it makes no sense for an atheist (Al) and an agnostic (me) to be arguing about something neither of us believes in. But this belief, as Al pointed out, does have very real effects. It “demonizes nonbelievers,” he wrote, and can be used to see them as a threat to the security of the souls of the believers. Violence against them can then be rationalized as a way of helping to save souls.
(If that sounds obscene, consider an argument that has been used by Islamic extremists to excuse killing fellow Muslims in suicide attacks, including those killed on 9/11: they are doing them a favor by ensuring that their souls go to heaven as martyrs. Someone as cold-blooded as Carl Rove couldn’t have come up with a better rationale for “collateral damage.” But then we’re all merely collateral damage to the fanatics, whose rationalizations for violence are both endlessly inventive and endlessly repetitive. Remember the twisted logic of torturing witches? If they survived, that meant they were really witches and so should be killed; if they didn’t, that meant they were innocent and so had gone to heaven. A nice Rove-ian way of shrugging it off.)
What depresses me most about the literal belief in hellfire, though, is what seems to me a terrible nihilism. It implies that this life – this world we live in — is of no importance. What is important is eternity – your soul in the afterlife. Religious faith then becomes not a matter of being a better person in the here and now, but instead, a kind of long-term Investment Retirement Account. And one based entirely on fear.
Worse still, life itself becomes the enemy. If to live is to place one’s soul in jeopardy by risking eternal hellfire, then better by far to die while you’re still “safe.” This world becomes the enemy of the next, which is indeed a terrible, and terrifying, way to live.
In the past, I’ve had letters and emails from fundamentalist Christians assuring me that I will burn in hell and that they will pray for my soul (this, for saying that Mary’s virginity is a wonderful metaphor instead of a physical description). Though tempted to say that I would meet them in hell, I replied simply that I appreciated their concern and welcomed any prayers I could get. The response was inevitably along these lines: “Oh my God, you actually read what I wrote, I’m so sorry, I was just letting off steam, I wasn’t really thinking of you as a real person…”
So how do we all become real persons for each other? Not abstractions, not just another of the billions of souls wandering through eternity, whether heaven or hell or somewhere in between, but real, live, thinking, feeling people here and now, on this earth. How do we bridge the awful gap between religion at its worst — blinding us to our own and each other’s humanity – and at its best: opening our eyes to precisely that?
I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m with Al on this: I hate the idea of hellfire. Not because I’m afraid of experiencing it, but because I’m afraid of what it does to people who take it literally.
I don’t think of the hellfire penalty as one of unbearable heat. I think of it as utterly, immeasurably cold: hearts turned to stone, human warmth to icy indifference. So I leave the cold, inhuman reaches of infinity to the physicists and the astronomers – and to those who claim to be so loyal to their idea of God that they presume to be God. Unwilling to wait for the Day of Judgment in which they so fervently proclaim their belief, they imagine that they can be both judge and executioner.
In religious terms, I believe that is called heresy. There’s also a more everyday word for it: evil.