Saturday, February 13, 2010

What effect on children?

This is a letter I wrote, intending to deliver it to local churches. I'm having some sort of delusions like I'm Martin Luther or something. I ended up emailing it to a couple of churches and posting it to Christian message boards, but of course no one ever responded.

To Whom It May Concern:

I address myself to everyone who believes in the literal interpretations of eternal torment in hell, or even the more politically correct but fundamentally identical "separation from God"—anyone who believes that in principle, I could spend eternity literally experiencing some sort of less-than-desirable state (this legalese is courtesy of all the Christians whom I could never pin down as to what hell is).

This is not just an academic exercise or an attempt to bait religious people. At age 13 I learned that I would burn in hell for all eternity. If that doesn't move you, then please take a moment to look around at your 7th-grade children and imagine them being convinced of that thought by a trusted authority figure, yourself for example. Imagine how their psyches would be scarred, what sort of dark place they’d spend their lives in, not just having that knowledge but having received it from someone who has defined for them their most basic notions of love and compassion. Knowing that somehow, “eternal torment” is included in the definition of infinite love (note that it’s part of infinite love, but not finite love—no rational human could possibly look on with approval while another human burns in deathless agony).

On hearing the news, I plunged into that darkness and spent the next 15 or so years in absolute terror, wondering how the hell people can even get through their day-to-day life with that hanging over their heads (I assumed at first that everyone else also knew that they were going to hell, but eventually no one else seemed to be going). Some time around age 30 I started studying science, and in the intervening 13 years I have almost convinced myself that when I die I will most gratefully cease to exist. But I know that I will die in terror, because 13 years of science have not enabled me to shake the feeling that my childhood fears are true. At this point I really want to protest: I care a lot about being a good person, and I've tried very hard to be good. Please, God, Jesus, anyone, don’t put me in hell! But as we all know, God doesn't care about our personal virtue.

(And while I’m reliving this terrible experience for the millionth time, I hope that you’ll join me for just a moment and imagine yourself there observing the judgment, hearing all of us billions begging for mercy as we’re thrown in, not because we were bad people, mind you, but because we didn’t, or more likely couldn’t, love Jesus—can you really watch? Can you listen to our screams? Can you really stand there and not find yourself begging God to be merciful on us and let us die? Were you disturbed at all by the thousand or so people dying in the cold water in the movie Titanic? Somehow I think you’ll need to steel yourself for the judgment.)

For some time after learning my doom I was stuck with some impossible-sounding questions: was I such an excruciatingly bad child that hell itself isn't enough, but God felt that the extra punishment of seeing it looming ahead for an extra 70-80 years was necessary? I mean, sure, I touched myself a lot, but I thought that everyone else did too. What did I do to make God so angry with me in particular? I assume that it was something I did at around age 13, because that’s when the punishment started. But maybe it’s something I have yet to do that required some pre-emptive punishment?

After a while of having thoughts like that pummeling me, I finally did understand that those were the thoughts of a very broken child. Which brings me to my ultimate point. I have to assume that it is very clear to most parents and clergy that teaching a child that he will burn eternally in hell is psychologically damaging to the child. I assume that it is not the policy of any church to teach it, and that even those of you who believe in hell and believe that I should go would still agree that it was not a good idea for me to be taught so as a child. Fine. People are fallible, and sometimes other people suffer eternally for it. I suppose that there are acceptable levels of collateral damage in the war of good and evil.

However, although I’m hopefully just an extreme case, it seems to me that there are types of psychological damage that society should avoid even if the damage is not as extreme as mine. Specifically, is it really a good idea to teach children that they might go to hell? That hell is a possibility? Look at all the violence and unpleasantness we protect our children from in society and in the media—how is literal, eternal, ceaseless agony in flames healthier than that? Something doesn’t make sense in this equation. Further, I realize that most people who believe in hell always think that it’s someone else who will go to hell, so somehow most scared children manage to convince themselves that they’re not in danger. But now those less fearful children believe that other human beings will suffer eternal agony. Again, do we want our children to believe that? Do we want to implant the idea that there are cases in which it’s acceptable to so degrade human dignity?

You may scoff at my notions of human dignity, but consider. People often bring up Hitler when they talk about hell. It seems to be generally assumed that he’s on that guest list. But think about it, just for half a minute. Eternity? Really? Come on. How many were killed? Six million? How many survivors’ lives were ruined? 30 million? Lots and lots and lots. Yes. Infinite numbers? No. Does he really, really deserve all eternity? Why not just take the durations of all the lives he damaged and destroyed and add all that up. Agony and torment for, say, 3.6 billion years? About how long science tells us that life on Earth has existed. But I realize that most people seem to hate science and especially large numbers, and probably don’t even have an idea of how large a number that is. It’s the entire population of California, each person living a hundred years, but one at a time, one after the other. Sounds like an awfully long time, but let’s go with it. Just to make sure that all the suffering he caused is visited right back on him in the fullest measure. Be generous to his victims and multiply it by a hundred. Let every last victim look on with glee and get every last shred of savage closure he or she needs. But after that, why? Why continue the agony? It may offend you to hear Hitler defended, but I think you’ll understand why I of all people might have a measure of sympathy for him.

My point is that even Hitler’s humanity is degraded by eternal punishment; we think of him as something fundamentally other, not deserving of the compassion we would afford even the smallest bug capable of suffering. I hope that you’ll see the hyperbole: I mean absolutely no offense to his victims, but I have to say that it doesn’t take 26 times the scientifically accepted age of the universe being tormented to bend the mind of even most staunch Hitler hater. It just can’t be good for children to be taught that any moral being is undeserving of at least some measure of recognition from all other moral beings, even God. And forget for a moment that this punishment is eternal—what about the hideousness of the punishment itself: burning alive? Do you really, really want your child conjuring that sort of thing into his or her mind? Would you allow your child to see someone burn to death on television, even if it were just a TV show and not even real? The nice unbelievers next door who sit your dog when you go on vacation, for example. Your atheist friend (you tell your kids to call him Uncle so-and-so) who comes weekly to hang out with you, tickle the kids, and watch Star Trek with you. Your children will put it together—they’ll envision these family friends and acquaintances in hell. Do you want that?

I’m not proposing a change in church doctrine, that we should abolish teaching about hell altogether. I mean, if it’s there, then people need to know so they’ll avoid it. But children don’t need to know, any more than they need to know about all the evil that humans visit upon each other. There’s a reason we shelter our children.

To those of you who don't believe in hell and other well-wishers, thanks for any advice that you may be thinking of, but trust me, there's nothing you can tell me that I haven't already considered in 30 long years of desperate attempts to be free of these haunting and ghastly images. You might be having any one of these thoughts, as these are the arguments I hear most:

• Your parents were kooks, “just” realize that they lied to you
• Go to therapy (been in therapy for 20 years)
• Come to my church, i.e., discard your reality and accept mine, the insulting but ever-present refrain of the evangelist
• Pray about it (you have got to be kidding me)
• Whitewash hell by calling it "separation from God"; you know, I don’t care if going to hell is just having a grain of sand in your shoe. After a while (and eternity is a while) it will become agony
• Let Jesus save you from hell (can you say Winston Smith? If you don't understand why I can only fear but never love Jesus then you haven't been paying attention)

So while the spirit behind any advice you may have for me is most appreciated, I can guarantee you that I've already tried everything you might suggest, other than suicide (which, now that I think of it, would reduce my suffering by shortening the amount of time I have to think about it—a rather macabre economics but a perfectly rational result). Anyway, I just mean that I'd rather you didn't try to help me—I've already tried whatever you're thinking of.

You may think that this is a fiction of some kind, but I assure you it's not. I have literally experienced this terror for decades. You have no idea how lucky you are, you people who believe that hell exists but always believe that hell is for someone else, not yourselves. Forgive me if I sound venomous; 30 years is a long time.

No comments:

Post a Comment