Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Threat Of Hell

I want to expand a little more on one of the concepts I touched on in effective proselytism, and that is using the threat of hell in order to convert an atheist. As I explained in that post, the threat of hell doesn't feel like a threat because there's no indication that the threat is a valid one. To see that from the atheist perspective, one must understand why they would not see the afterlife implications of another religion as a threat. At the very least, understand what feels like an empty threat - say for instance someone claiming they have a nuclear warhead targeted at your house. It's a grand threat, but the sheer absurdity of the claim should negate any such concern.

Assessing a threat
Being able to properly assess a threat was in the past essential to the survival of our ancestors. Beyond the safe confines of modern suburbia, there exists a world where inadequately assessing the risk of a given situation could easily lead to termination. Yet there exists basic necessities in life that require risk-taking in order to survive. Foraging for food required the right knowledge of what fruits are poisonous, while going for water risks being attacked by predator species who also share that same mammalian need for a water source. So assessing threats and changing our behaviour to cope with them is part of our nature. And if one can see that a threat is sufficient enough, it will change their actions.

While in our modern society the imminent threat of death is not so common, but it still exists. For instance if someone is robbing you at gunpoint. Non-immediate threats are difficult to gauge, for instance the threat of lung cancer as a result of smoking. Getting cancer is a concern so taking preventative measures by altering diet and behaviour is a way to minimise the risk. Yet even with the knowledge of the link between smoking and lung cancer, many people still choose to smoke regardless. Even having non-fatal consequences are still threatening, such as avoiding the sickly helps mitigate the rick of falling ill or investing assets into a company. The relationship between environment and risk should be well established.

I have no doubt that theists who threaten hell on children and non-believers are doing so out of the genuine belief that hell is a real place, and that given the severe risk such a place poses to the well being of themselves and others it makes sense to try and warn others about the threat. To a non-believer the threat will not feel credible at all. For someone to worry about the threat of hell, they must first be convinced that hell is a real place. Otherwise threatening an atheist with hell is like threatening a Christian with suffering in the next life through not breaking The Cycle Of Samsara. If a Christian won't give up their desire to be with Jesus on the account of the suffering it could bring them in the next life if the Karmic Wheel is true, then why would they expect an atheist to do the same without first making the case that hell is real?

Why hell?
On its own, the threat is absurd. To ignore the threat of hell for not believing in Jesus is as much of a threat as hell for crimes committed against Allah. Most religions have their own version of hell and each their own way of avoiding it. There's even plenty of Christians who feel that hell is nothing more than the absence of God and as such it's not the torturous place that some make it out to be. Yet through either implicit or explicit rejection, a theist who argues for the threat of hell under their conditions is rejecting the notion that any other path to hell exists. Why shouldn't the bible bashing Baptist not be worried about missing out on the afterlife because he did not follow the ancient Egyptian belief that the only way there was through mummification? Perhaps upon burial the Book of the Dead should be put in the coffin alongside a crucifix, you know, just in case...

The threat can never be shown to an individual, only inferred. The limitation of our observation point means that the threat can never be properly assessed. So testimony near death experiences, divine revelation, and prophetic visions are the only possible ways to know that the threat exists. Not many experience these first-hand, rather they are transmitted through personal accounts and handed down through the generations. One way to test the validity of such claims is to see how often these transcend culture, judging what similarities are there through experience. Why aren't the prophetic visions of shaman in India the same as those in Bible Belt USA? Why don't the Near Death Experiences of Christians line up with those who delve into New Age spiritualism? Why is it that similar experiences can be induced through drugs or even dreaming?

Again, I don't doubt people have those kinds of experiences and that they seem very real to whoever goes through it. But given the inconsistency of experiences, the conflicts between testimony from those experiences and there being rational explanations, those testimonies are not enough to convince me that hell is a real place any more than one who tells of a personal abduction by aliens as being proof of extra-terrestrial beings. Eyewitness accounts are the worst form of evidence, and when it comes to speculative areas where the mind is not trained to understand, any testimony becomes extremely shaky. How can we tell fantasy from fact when the mind is so good at creating the former?

What is beyond this life is not known, and by all accounts it cannot be known. It's a matter of faith to believe something is there, even if a holy book attests to their existence. So in the face of the unknown, perhaps a little humility should be given. That if these questions are beyond human understanding and comprehension as many theists will attest to, then to say otherwise is to presume to speak for God. It's making statements about the nature of God and the will of God, yet doing so through the fallible mind that every human has. We don't know, we can't know, believing it to be true does not make it so. There may be an afterlife, there may be a hell, but really what makes any person's vision of hell any more or less accurate than anyone else? That needs to be answered before the threat will hold weight.


Jared said...

To be fair, if they actually followed the Egyptian rules to enter Aaru, they would have to be mummified, not just have a book of the dead. Their hears would have to weigh less than a feather, too (a heavy feather, perhaps).

Another point which you seem to have left off is that due to a lack of any sufficient argument for its existence is reminiscent of a charlatan saying he had all these golden plates with magic writing, but lost them.

Oh, wait, that has happened, too!

Jared said...

That should be "hearts"

Danny said...

You have a lot of good points.
If hell exists, it would be my responsibility more than anyone elses, to figure out if it was a threat or not. Then, if it was, to also figure out how to avoid it. Same thing for heaven. It would be my responsibility to figure out how to get there if I wanted to.
Even if it was someone's job to inform me, it's my job to decide if I accept the decide if it is valid enough for further inspection...etc..
It may be my job to inform people that God aint mad at them and Jesus took their place, but it aint my job to convince them. I may or may not decide to excel in my job and do extra, but that's my business.
Point being..
I think you concentrate too much on other peoples intellegence or lack thereof. Regardless of whether a person can argue their way out of a wet paper bag or not has nothing to do with them being right or wrong.
I do appreciate your point of view though and also enjoy reading your site when I get a chance. As a disclaimer I would like to write that I have no desire to get in a HEATED argument with anyone.

Kel said...

I would disagree with the charge that I focus on people's intelligence, rather that I focus on the arguments and the intelligence of those giving the arguments has little to do with it. In this, I laid out just why hell wasn't an effective threat - it had nothing to do with anyone's intelligence at all.

There's a difference between saying an argument is stupid and the person who is espousing the argument is stupid. It's just irrelevant of the intelligence of whoever is carrying the message. When someone argues from ignorance, that may be a sign of a lack of intelligence (or at the very least the Dunning-Kruger effect) but this is not about that at all. I'm taking down the argument in the way I see best explains it, and I could be wrong in what I said.

I agree with you that whether something is right or wrong regardless of the ability to argue it. But I would contend that being able to communicate an idea is vital for the social species that we are. What good is a great product without good marketing?

Danny said...

I stand corrected on you focusing on peoples intellegence.