Sunday, August 15, 2010

Heaven for Me, But Not for Thee

I don't get it:
If there is one thing many fundamentalist Christians are known for, it is their blatant hypocrisy. I have heard liberal Christians and even some moderates say that they believe virtually everyone will go to some sort of heaven as long as they are not terrible people who commit serious crimes.

Not so for the fundamentalists. For them, the only path to heaven is through Jesus. Like the woman in the cartoon, they are quick to condemn all other religions as false while generally refusing to critically examine their own.
This makes no sense at all, because it mixes two different complaints together incoherently. First there's the claim that fundamentalists, but not liberals, condemn the beliefs of others "while generally refusing to critically examine their own." I don't agree -- in my experience and observation, liberal and moderate Christians just draw the line in a different place than fundamentalists do. David Fergusson, for example, dislikes fundamentalists as much as Atheist Revolution does, but he sees "faith" as a phenomenon beyond question, and chides militant atheists for being so harsh and negative and disrespectful. Even among fundamentalists there are degrees of strictness; at my job I used to overhear ladies from the Church of the Nazarene saying complacently that they weren't as strict as the "Pentycosts." And it was true: Nazarenes' hemlines were an inch or two shorter than Pentecostals', they were allowed to cut their hair, they could have a TV in the house to watch Christian broadcasting. Anything more would be going too far.

The second complaint is that fundamentalists are so extreme: liberals and moderates will let almost anybody into heaven, but fundamentalists require proper credentials. There's nothing hypocritical about this. The real trouble is that nobody knows what the criteria for heaven are. Maybe the liberals are right, maybe the fundamentalists are, maybe they're all wrong, but it's not up to them to decide. If heaven and hell existed, then it would be important to know just what the entrance requirements are, not to brush the question aside with platitudes. It won't be settled by halving the difference between the extremes and sitting down in the middle.

It would also, according to the principle of critical examination, be appropriate to ask whether it can be right or just to condemn anybody, no matter how terrible his or her crimes, to eternal punishment. How many people are you allowed to kill before you deserve Hell? How much pork can you eat, how many illicit sexual partners are you allowed, how short a skirt can you wear, how many lies can you tell? Can you be a 'terrible person' in your heart even if you don't commit any serious crimes, so that being terrible is by itself enough to consign you to the flames that are not quenched? What end is served by eternal torture anyway? This is not a trivial question in a country where literal torture is used by my government to "defend" me. It works in both directions: if some people deserve to be tortured forever in the afterlife for being "terrible," then a little waterboarding and electroshock in this life is not a big deal by comparison; if there are people who deserve to be tortured (and some prominent atheists are not willing to condemn the practice absolutely), then belief in eternal damnation is not an evil belief even if, in fact, Hell doesn't exist.

Maybe the idea is that I'm supposed to feel grateful when a liberal Christian allows that I'm a good person in her eyes, so I won't go to hell? No doubt their tolerance speaks well for them, but I'm an atheist, so hell is rather low on my list of worries. I don't see them as a different breed than fundamentalists; they remind me of the Cossacks who, because they respected Leon Trotsky, denied that he was a Jew: "He's one of us!" Being assured that I am so fit to eat with the hogs does not win me over. I've noticed that a lot of people enjoy working themselves into a snit because some Bad Christian believes that they will go to hell. Not, it seems, because they think that nobody should go to hell, but because they think that they shouldn't. (Not me! Julia!) And those who say they like Christ but not Christians need to explain why Jesus, who according the gospels was pretty free with threats of damnation, is preferable to a fundamentalist in this respect.

One important question is being begged here too: the Atheist Revolutionist seems to assume that atheists, or maybe most atheists, are people who stopped believing in gods because they subjected their beliefs to critical examination, and they continue to do so. Not from what I see. We atheists have our own traditions, our exalted if not sacred writers and scriptures, which, especially on first encounter, we tend to take on trust (which is one of the meanings of "faith"). That's why so many bad arguments and misinformation circulate in atheist writings and oral lore. The advent of soundbyte atheism is not, in this light, a positive development as far as I'm concerned.

In his 1958 Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Harper & Brothers), Walter Kaufmann wrote a dialogue between Satan and a Christian, which concluded (chapter 59):
Christian: You always harp on hell.

There is no place like home. And you might as well get used to the idea: haven't you been told that I enjoy the company of those who cannot answer me any better than you?

But I don't understand at all. Only hysterics think of going to hell themselves.

: I know: good Christians consider hell a place for others. But don't you realize that if you are right about everything, you, and those like you, are undoubtedly headed for hell? Don't you see how immeasurably you stand to gain if Christianity is untenable? It is I that bring you glad tidings. Believe me and you are saved. That God exists, that is a ritual phrase, charged with emotion and a thousand connotations: some sheer superstition, some myths, some true, some false, and most of them vague. But here is the truth that shall make you free: I do not exist.

If Satan does not exist, I must have dreamed. So I can go on believing what I have always believed. But what exactly do I believe? That is the question.
See you in Hell, folks!