Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why belief in Hell really isn't very nice at all

There has been some discussion about the topic of Hell over at Psychology Today recently. You might even  say it's a hot topic! (Sorry.) Psychologist Nathan Heflick wrote about the psychological aspects of the subject and invited readers to share why they personally believe in Hell. Humanistic blogger Greg Henriques, took a more controversial line, and wrote an article stating that he finds it  rather objectionable when religious people go on about how people who don't believe in God are going to be sent to Hell for their impiety. He was even bold enough to say that if there actually is a loving God then he would never do such a cruel thing; either that or this God person is not a morally just being. Either way, telling people they are going to Hell is just plain not nice.

Image of Hell in the style of Bosch 

This article prompted a response from Christian blogger Michael Austin. He acknowledges that the idea that God sends people to Hell (or lets people go there, depending on your interpretation) does not seem all that nice. In fact, many Christians are "deeply troubled by the thought of people spending eternity in Hell." And as well they might be. If this doctrine were true, then most people who have ever lived will end up in this dreadful place. Even worse, if you are Christian, then you face the prospect that people you care deeply about - family members, friends, one's spouse - might share this dire fate. Honestly, how do they sleep at night?

Detail of "The Last Judgment" by Luca Signorelli

But I digress. Austin's particular concern is with how the doctrine of Hell can be reconciled with the goodness of God. Many critics of the doctrine, just like Greg Henriques mentioned earlier, have argued that it can't be. And jettisoning the doctrine apparently is not an option for good Christians. (Although, as Austin notes, some Christians have done exactly that.) Austin quotes C.S. Lewis on this point:
There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it (1) has the full support of Scripture, and, (2) especially, of our Lord's own words; (3) it has always been held by Christendom [thus three arguments from authority]; and (4) it has the support of reason (sic!). 
 Christians don't get to pick and choose what they believe you know! Or do they? Austin finds some wiggle room. Enough room for considerable theological gymnastics in fact. His argument is that God does not actually send people to Hell. He simply honours their choice to be separate from him. What a nice guy God is, allowing people their choice of how to spend eternity. Hell is "not some sort of medieval torture chamber" but simply "separation from the ultimate source of joy, love, peace, and light." So Hell is actually a favour done by God in his goodness for those who actually want to spend eternity in the absence of joy, love, peace, and light. Because some people just don't want those things I suppose.

Well there are a few problems with this. The most obvious one concerns inconsistency. Austin quotes Lewis to the effect that belief in Hell is required by scripture, especially by the words of Jesus himself. Jesus apparently had a great deal to say about Hell and there are over 70 references to Hell attributed to him. Hell is most definitely referred to as a place of punishment, such as Matthew 25: 46:
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.
There are lurid descriptions in the New Testament of the horrors awaiting the damned. The place is described as a "lake which burneth with fire and brimstone"  and there are repeated references to a "worm that dieth not" that presumably gnaws on the flesh of the damned. No, not a medieval torture chamber, medieval technology did not have the capacity to create lakes of molten sulphur or immortal worms.

Furthermore, according to the words of Jesus, sinners are cast into this place. Matthew 25: 30 for example is one of several references to people being thrown into Hell:
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness...
According to Austin, God allows people to go into Hell voluntarily, but according to Jesus they are thrown there like prisoners. But Hell is somehow compatible with a loving God because in spite of all these scriptural references to punishment, torment, and being cast into fire like garbage, God has simply created this place so that unbelievers have somewhere to go after they die. This is like saying, "It's up to you really, if you don't want to spend eternity with me, you have everlasting punishment as an alternative. Just saying, don't want you to feel pressured at all."

What strikes me as odd about all this is that unbelievers do actually manage to experience a measure of joy, peace, love and so on while they are still alive in spite of not believing that these things come from God. So it is possible for people to be happy without God playing a role in their lives. So if God's wish is actually to accommodate people who don't believe in him because of his infinite goodness, then why not create a paradise world for unbelievers where they can be left in peace after they die? Like a nice planet somewhere, with green fields, sandy beaches and tropical islands in the sun where no-one has to do any work? Only thing is,  God won't be joining you, that's all. Surely being omnipotent that would be in his power? Why tell people that Hell is a horrible place of everlasting punishment full of immortal worms and lakes of fire when the intention is simply to provide people with an opt out from Heaven? Believers might counter-argue that even though unbelievers think they are happy without God, his presence is still somehow essential to their happiness, for reasons that are not at all clear. But if God really is omnipotent why can He not make it possible for people to be happy in his absence?

Consider an analogy. A loving father is preparing his will in order to provide for his children after he is gone. He knows that after he dies he will be absent from their lives but he wants them to be happy and prosperous anyway. Therefore, he makes preparations so that they will benefit from his legacy. According to believers, God knows that he will be absent from the lives of certain people after they die. Why cannot he make arrangements for them to benefit in his absence? Surely, if he is loving and good, he would do this.

A final point I find particularly irksome is the idea that people who do not believe simply do not want to be with God and are making a final choice not to be with him. What this assumes is that deep down unbelievers really do believe God is real, but are rejecting him for some unknown reason. I'm not just making this up, there are Christians who actually believe this. For example, creepy William Lane Craig (whom I have dealt with elsewhere) actually has this to say:
No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.

Ah, no. Christians seem to have a hard time grasping this, but when someone says that they do not believe in God, they mean they genuinely do not think God is real. Yet Christians seem to think that someone who chose not to believe in God while they were alive because they saw no reason to do so, will one day wake up in the afterlife, be confronted by God and go, "Oops there really is a God after all, but I love darkness so much I would rather spend an eternity in Hell than admit I made a mistake."

In summary, Christians justify believing in Hell based on scripture. Some, such as Michael Austin, want to argue that Hell is compatible with a good God who honours one's choices. But according to these same scriptures, God does not honour choices, he punishes people for making a choice he does not approve of. Furthermore, people who go on about how unbelievers are choosing to be separated from God really ought to make an effort to grasp what the concept of unbelief actually means. Therefore, no matter how Christian theologians bend over backwards to whitewash the concept, the doctrine of Hell remains as inhumane and illogical as ever. Really not nice at all.

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Further reading:

Interesting article on why even Heaven may not be so nice after all:

The Problem with Heaven - The A-Unicornist

Great video by QualiaSoup critiquing the concept: Hell: an excessive punishment 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bigfoot is your cousin! Or how to make "news" out of nothing

I generally enjoy reading Time magazine because they usually provide thoughtful commentary on serious news. That's why I was rather taken aback when I read a recent article with the sensationalistic title of "Bigfoot Is Part Human, and Here Are the DNA Tests to Prove It, Claims Researcher". The "researcher" in question claims that she somehow obtained DNA from an honest-to-god Sasquatch, ran some fancy tests and came up with the amazing conclusion that Bigfoot is one of our long lost relatives, part-human and part some never before heard of hominid. Oh they do eventually get around to explaining that the so-called researcher is basically a crackpot who cannot back up her claims and then go on to say why no-one is taking her seriously. But that is after spending two paragraphs treating her claims as if they deserve some sort of serious consideration. 

Let's take stock of what this piece of "news" actually contains. Melba Ketchum, a veterinarian, claims that she has unambiguous "proof" that not only does Bigfoot exist, but has modern human ancestry. But the thing is Ketchum refuses to share this "proof" with anyone - she will not share her data, will not explain her methods, and, critically, refuses to explain how she obtained these supposed DNA samples belonging to a creature that no-one has ever been able to even photograph, let alone prove exists.

So, in other words, Ketchum has proved nothing at all. 

The Time article then goes on to explain why respectable scientists do not believe her. Funny that. But does one really need a Ph.D. to realise that when someone makes far-fetched and outlandish claims without providing any reason to believe a word she says, that one should not take her seriously? 

Is this what passes for news now? "Crackpot announces amazing discovery she can't prove, scientists go 'Meh.'" 

Perhaps more concerning than the lack of newsworthiness of this folderol, is the potential for spreading misinformation. There is research evidence that misinformation tends to be "sticky", that is, it remains in memory and tends to influence what people believe. This may be because believing information, even stupid information, is easy, whereas evaluating its credibility and rejecting it takes more effort. What the Time article has done is to present a bold headline that implies that Ketchum's claims are somehow credible. A "researcher" has "proof" - this is what stands out and is easy to remember. The fact that she expects people to take her on her word that her "proof" is real and that she has not allowed anyone to even examine it, is buried in the middle of the article and easily overlooked, especially by busy readers. 

An even more egregious example of Time presenting misinformation as having credibility it does not deserve is a link on the same page as the Ketchum article to a story with the ludicrous title "Scientists ‘95% Sure’ Bigfoot Lives in Russian Tundra". Ooh, now we have "scientists" who are quite positive they have found Bigfoot/the Yeti, how amazing! This tall tale is over a year old, yet there is no mention at all of the rather important detail that one of the scientists on this particular expedition has publicly expressed the opinion that this whole event was carefully staged for publicity and that there was no corroborating evidence they had found anything. The interesting thing here is that this particular scientist, Jeffrey Meldrum, is not even a Bigfoot sceptic  but someone who has seriously searched for evidence of the existence of this elusive creature. Yet anyone reading the Time article only would go away with the impression that there was in fact virtual "proof" that Bigfoot is real when even a Bigfoot enthusiast thinks it was a hoax. 

There are plenty of important real discoveries going on in the world. Stories like this just lend undeserved credibility to pseudoscience and foolishness in my opinion. 

Further reading
Here is an amusing article that provides much more detail about the publicity surrounding Ketchum's claims. 

Update, July 2013: Apparently an independent geneticist has been allowed to analyse the "Bigfoot" sample and guess what? Melba Ketchum's claims turn out to be complete nonsense!
“Bigfoot” Samples Yield Opossum DNA
Funnily enough, the Time article still contains no mention of this important information...