Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Honorable mention: William Napp: The punishment of belief

Vol. 35 No. 8 October 2018
William Napp                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

By William Napp

Advancing Pascal’s wager almost seems to be an involuntary response by most believers upon hearing that I’m an atheist. Superficially, the wager seems reasonable enough. What if I’m wrong? Why not hedge my bets? Am I really so sure there’s no god that I’m willing to bet an eternity of suffering on it?

The first problem is that I can’t just choose to believe in God any more than I can choose to believe the Earth has 17 moons. There are many other problems with Pascal’s wager: Being religious isn’t cost-free; heaven would be no reward to me; God would probably not accept inauthentic belief; the wager can be posed for any religion; the likelihood of the belief in question is not increased by imagined intensity of the consequences of being wrong.

But going beyond the wager, are there any problems with hell itself?

Just as humans bear “the indelible stamp of [our] lowly origin,” the concept of hell bears its own stamp. Because hell originated in the minds of our ancestors, it’s vulnerable to many conceptual difficulties.

Why does hell exist at all? It’s conceivable that those who rejected God could simply cease to exist, rather than be tormented. And if we must remain conscious for all eternity, why are there only two places to go in the afterlife, rather than many? In what sense is one place for all sinners preferable or remotely accommodating of moral complexity? Moreover, in what sense is an eternal punishment proportionate, since no finite crime merits infinite punishment?

Apologists claim that hell must exist for the sake of justice, but the rules determining entry are not just. One does not arrive in hell because of the suffering one caused, or even how much sin one committed. You don’t need to be a good person to avoid hell by any moral metric that’s ever been devised; you just need to believe an improbable story about how the universe works. This is potentially hell’s most absurd feature: the terms and conditions for entry. Failing to sincerely believe the right set of propositions is how a sinner finds himself in the hands of an angry god. Even if I could choose my beliefs at will, coercion is still coercion. If we reject God’s generous offer to worship him for eternity, we’re warned that we will burn alive. We’re unable to make a “free choice” in any meaningful sense if we’re under threat of torture.

I’m not afraid of burning in hell because hell is a transparently human-made concept. The fingerprints of our ancestors are all over it. The afterlife fantasy indulges our desire to escape death, grants religious authorities power in the real world, and appeals to our just-world belief. Hell withers under a minimally skeptical gaze. A benevolent god supposedly created hell, did not create any

gradient realms, made our souls eternal, created the terms for exile to hell, did not make those rules obvious, made hell invisible, and doesn’t allow us to convert after arriving in hell. Yet Christians will still blame the victim and deny God’s irrational and shamelessly coercive behavior. Even if I believed in the Christian god, I would aspire to have the integrity of Ivan Karamazov, who returned his ticket to heaven on principle. The Christian god is unambiguously sadistic; only a lunatic would create the Christian system. Fortunately, there’s absolutely no evidence to support it.

William, 23, is from Kentwood, Mich., and attends Grand Valley State University. He enjoys music, especially playing the guitar and drums, and reading.