The Search for Truth and its Worst Obstacle

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 3, 2010 in General Atheism

hellfire

Our common search for truth is difficult, and faces many obstacles, including:

  1. lack of general knowledge and training
  2. lack of funding for necessary research
  3. our tendency to feel that personal experiences are among our best evidence, when in fact they may be among our worst
  4. cognitive biases, for example our tendency to see only data that confirms our preconceived ideas

The methods of science are designed to minimize our cognitive biases, for example with peer-review and double-blind studies and the need for repeatable results. But even in science, our search for truth is fraught with obstacles.

I’d like us to try to imagine the worst possible obstacle to the search for truth. What phenomenon would corrupt the search for truth most surely?

Let us imagine there was a dogma, drilled into our heads from childhood, that if you did not believe proposition P, then you would be tortured. Now that would badly corrupt our search for truth. We might even try to force ourselves to believe P, even if there were no evidence for it at all. We would probably seek out only things that would confirm P, and avoid anything that would cast doubt on P. This threat of torture would seriously corrupt anyone’s ability to objectively evaluate the truth of P.

Now let us imagine that this dogma drilled into our heads from childhood is not just that if we don’t believe P we will be tortured, but that if we don’t believe P then we will be tortured forever. There will be some way of keeping us alive forever, just so that we can be tortured forever and ever and ever.

Things just got infinitely worse for our truth-seeking process. One might think it is altogether doomed now.

But let us try to imagine a way to make the situation worse.

Let us say the dogma is not just that people who don’t believe P will be tortured for all eternity, but that people who do believe P will be given something of great value.

So now our hypothetical selves are faced not just with the worst punishment imaginable for not believing P, but also we are being offered a bribe to believe P. This corrupts our truth-seeking process even further, as if it wasn’t hopeless already.

But we are not done yet. Let us say that this reward for believing P, like the punishment for not believing P, is infinite. Let us say the dogma is that we will be tortured for all eternity if we don’t believe P, but that we will be delivered into eternal bliss if we do believe P.

Well, I think that’s it. I can’t do much better. If I wanted to corrupt the search for truth, and prohibit objective inquiry, I could do little more effective than to preach such a dogma to children.

I wonder if there is some obscure primitive tribe that ever corrupted truth-seeking with such extreme measures. Does anyone know if anything so horrifying has ever been implemented in a society?

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Ajay August 3, 2010 at 4:33 am

Heh.

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Polymeron August 3, 2010 at 5:07 am

This rings familiar, somehow… Can’t put my finger on it.

Maybe you could make it worse by having the dogma claim that even listening to an argument regarding P would put one in danger of losing the eternal reward and get the eternal punishment, and therefore such arguments should be silenced?

Of course, people would need to be completely insane to go to such extremes. Nice thought experiment, though.

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lukeprog August 3, 2010 at 5:08 am

Lays it on a bit thick, perhaps? :)

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JS Allen August 3, 2010 at 6:39 am

The empirical evidence refutes your speculation. When people are faced with the uncertain possibility of eternal torment, they become highly motivated to find reasons to disbelieve.

Outrage over the injustice of hell is one of the more common reasons for people to abandon Christianity. I’m sure you know several people who say things like, “When I thought of my grandmother/boyfriend/friend burning in hell, I couldn’t believe in a God who would do that”.

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Larry Spencer August 3, 2010 at 6:52 am

>> Well, I think that’s it. I can’t do much better.

Believe it or not, you can. Suppose that once you do believe P, you are told that if you ever stop believing it, you will be utterly and forever unable to return to your belief (Hebrews 6:4-6), and will therefore suffer the eternal torture with no possibility for any other outcome.

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G'DIsraeli August 3, 2010 at 6:56 am

Just got in the post: “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)”.
@JS Allen
Where are the empirical grounds?
It seems people still have more emotional bias towards believing then not believing. Over-wise there is an easy solution to reduce the dissonance – god is mercyful.

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JS Allen August 3, 2010 at 7:04 am

Over-wise there is an easy solution to reduce the dissonance – god is mercyful.

Doesn’t that prove the point? People who are worried about their Grannie burning in hell either convince themselves that nobody they love will ever go to hell, or else abandon Christianity altogether. It happens all the time.

In addition to the scads of atheists who abandoned Christianity over the doctrine of hell, nearly all Christians have some rationalization about why this or that unbelieving loved one will go to heaven anyway. This kind of puts the lie to Luke’s theory.

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Polymeron August 3, 2010 at 7:17 am

JS Allen,
It’s a good point in that it does turn away people from religion; but it doesn’t necessarily motivate them to seek out truth, which was Luke’s point (or so it seems to me). If anything, I’d think it motivates them to seek a different, more comforting dogma (theistic or otherwise). This is doubly true if the psychological restraints against close examination of established dogma has become ingrained in them (remember, we’re discussing teaching this stuff to children).

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Hendy August 3, 2010 at 7:27 am

Throw in a healthily nurtured in-group of family, friends, clergy, and fellow church-inhabitants who forbid the possibility of even exploring ~P. I’m encountering this with how to raise my 2 year old. I don’t think most people have any idea how hard it is for someone to shake a belief that is drilled into them via their parental surroundings for at least 7 years (if not far more!) before they even have the cognizance to doubt.

Given that, my current stance is that the far better method is to give my daughter tools that are proven and reliable — science, logic, healthy skepticism, critical thinking, an appetite for reading, and open mind, etc. When she’s old enough, she can explore and choose for herself.

I desire that no one go through 25 years of life and suddenly discover that Christianity might not be true. How horrid of an experience this has been for me. Though I don’t believe… it would be rather ironic to raise a daughter with a dogmatic subscription to atheism. I want that no more than I want her to be raised Christian. What I do want is for her to know why she believes what she believes. I will support her in whatever path upon which she embarks.

Lastly, in taking the “why not just raise her Christian?” approach… run through the thought experiment of raising someone Catholic. They’re baptized in early life (my daughter is), received first communion at age 7 and then are to be confirmed at age 16 or so. Who has the intellectual tools necessary to make a lifelong decision affecting their eternal soul (if it exists) at age 16? We don’t even let people vote, smoke, or drink at 16. You can drive a car… but you can’t rent one. So, ideally one would handle any doubts before confirmation. But what if one wants to explore? No way, Jose. To stop going to Mass is a mortal sin. How is one to seek the truth when it is literally forbidden? I have been criticized to no end for suspending belief to test Christianity against alternative hypotheses. One is only supposed to question from within the bubble and receive answers from hand-picked apologists and books.

I love the post. I do think the “in-group” component is an extremely important factor above the simple teaching of P/~P and their effects. I think dogma needs an incubating medium to thrive.

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Hendy August 3, 2010 at 7:36 am

@JS Allen:

If they turn away because of hell, they were probably just not dogmatized well enough. I have strong suspicions that most people who disbelieve “because of” hell probably have a host of other reasons as well.

On another note, do you consider the “empirical evidence” significant compared to those who do find an incentive not to question in the prospects of infinite bliss/eternal damnation? I think this is fairly alleviated today in more “tolerant” teachings about heaven/hell. There’s no hard and fast rules about what gets you into hell so you never have to believe any particular person is actually going. The Catholic church will proclaim saints but never that anyone is in hell. In this sense, I agree with Polymeron. People still accept god but just don’t think he’d really send that person to hell or simply adjusts belief to support that while some do go to hell, it’s in “god’s hands” and we’ll just pray for their soul and hope for the best.

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Chris August 3, 2010 at 7:49 am

JS Allen,

Even if you’re right, that still means that the doctrine of eternal torture severely inhibits the search for truth. That, I think, is Luke’s point.

Also, it seems pretty stupid for a God to create some people with personalities that are so repulsed by hell that they want to reject him. But I see from your blog that you’re a Calvinist, so I guess that doesn’t bother you.

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JS Allen August 3, 2010 at 8:16 am

@Polymeron, Hendy, Chris — I assumed an atheist would conclude exactly the opposite. The doctrine of hell is one of the more effective catalysts for people to shed their religious superstitions, and is a highly motivating factor for people to look for alternative beliefs. In my experience, it’s the people who left Christianity over the doctrine of hell who are most aggressive about seeking truth in atheism.

If the Church has to “water down” the doctrine of hell in order to keep people in the fold, it seems atheists would want to promote a clearer doctrine of hell. If the Church succeeds in keeping people by obfuscating hell, that seems to be an impediment to those people seeking truth outside of religion.

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Zeb August 3, 2010 at 8:46 am

Luke has a point, but I think there are many stronger inhibitions to truth seeking than subscription to abstract beliefs about distant consequences. Hendy is right about the in-group motivation, and it cuts both ways. If I wanted to suppress truth seeking, I would get everyone to ridicule and condemn opposing views. Call them “foolish,” “stupid,” “immoral,” and “wicked,” and refer to ourselves as “saints” or “righteous,” or “brights,” or “free-thinkers.” The fact that it is so common to be raised religious, become atheist during high school or college, and then become religious again as an adult (especially with marriage or parenthood) suggests to me that the ideas themselves are not very powerful compared to the social pressures behind them.

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Jon Hanson August 3, 2010 at 8:51 am

I completely agree with you Luke, and JS Allen, humans are complicated enough that both can be true. I know when I was a Christian the doctrine of hell paralyzed me with fear like Luke described, but like JS said it got so bad that it drove me away from Christianity.

JS, it is interesting that atheists are so intent on Bible based Christianity, I think it’s because the serious atheists I know used to be serious Christians, so really people who say they follow the Bible but feel free to pick and choose offend both atheist reason and the old fundamentalist impulse.

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Dan Brown August 3, 2010 at 8:53 am

Heaven, hell, limbo, purgatory… what TF ever. What a bunch of made up rubbish. Limbo has even been revised out! Social engineering is so painfully obvious. As long as people make fundamental philosophical decisions out of their easily cultivated fear and ignorance there will alway be opportunistic institutions and individuals to gleefully harvest their faith. It’s inescapably Darwinian. Herds are intended to feed the more cunning creatures. The problem is that this ideological human prey is not killed and consumed thereby strengthening the remaining herd. They are kept alive and continuously bilked thereby extending their existence so they can indoctrinate another generation of feed stock. It’s a perversion of nature, selecting for gullibility.

Institutionalized faith is nothing more than a form of animal agriculture to which the credulous blissfully submit.

Follow the herd, walk in feces.

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Matthew D. Johnston August 3, 2010 at 9:27 am

If the Church has to “water down” the doctrine of hell in order to keep people in the fold, it seems atheists would want to promote a clearer doctrine of hell. If the Church succeeds in keeping people by obfuscating hell, that seems to be an impediment to those people seeking truth outside of religion.

Contrary to common opinion (and the musings of Harris/Dawkins/etc.), I don’t think most atheists have much of a beef with liberal Christianity. Moreso than winning people to the fold, most are just interested in trying to live their life in peace; liberal Christianity presents little impediment to that, so why bother pressing the hell issue?

The problem really is the doctrine itself. I’m reminded of an Answers in Genesis cartoon that was thrown around a few years ago which depicted two castles, one labeled with things like evolution, abortion, immorality, eternal damnation, etc., and the other labeled with things like creation, love, virtue, etc., and the “evolution” castle laying a siege on the “creation” castle. It was often pointed out (most notably by Ken Miller) that anybody who thinks that the debate is over the science of evolution – that there must be some scientific fact that could be persuasive to their opponents – is kidding themselves. The psychological threat of leaving their position is too great for any normal scientific reasoning to make an impact.

You quite rightly point out that the people who are raised in that sort of environment and leave the faith often become the most rabid (and somewhat irrational) of non-believers (Dan Barker comes to mind). If we wanted to press it, I would say that people who are raised in a more liberal environment and leave the faith are generally more conciliatory. There’s probably a proportionality here across the spectrum, but how does that present a problem for the thesis that the doctrines of eternal punishment/bliss severely impede rational decision-making?

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G'DIsraeli August 3, 2010 at 9:41 am

@JS Allen

I have not known 1 atheist leaving Christianity or any religion because of HELL. Contrarily, people love the idea since always people get punished for there sins.
In Judaism they teach us believers never go to hell forever. They suffer a little, and then straight to heaven.
And where’s your empirical evidence? or are you full of it?

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JS Allen August 3, 2010 at 9:56 am

@G’DIsraeli – See Sabio Lantz’s deconversion story.

Contrarily, people love the idea since always people get punished for there sins.

This is the stupidest thing I’ve read all day. Can you cite some ex-Christians who claim that the doctrine of hell was hard for them to give up, since they loved it so much?

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Mark August 3, 2010 at 10:11 am

I can imagine that the doctrine of hell tends to bring about deconversion in Christians who have some doubts. But I can also imagine it operates to prevent most Christians from being willing to entertain doubts in the first place.

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Hendy August 3, 2010 at 10:17 am

@JS Allen, Zeb (and others):

I think the key lack here is in evidence. I’m posting purely speculation in response, as I’m not sure that I buy the hypothesis outright. My issue is that I don’t think that hell is necessarily the instigator of doubt but rather something that simply adds to the pile of doubts once skepticism begins.

—-

So,
JS Allen: it would be great to have a larger sample size than one testimony to validate the theory that hell is an initiator of religious rejection.

Zeb: it would be helpful to have more than your testimony to validate that it is “so common” for religious to become atheist in high school and college and the re-convert afterward.

What we truly lack is a large sample size of individuals raised in no religion in which we can track both their final state (belief in creed x or continued non-belief) as well as why they chose belief.

Zeb, I do think you hit on some correct points with respect to the “in-group” effect cutting both ways. My point about my daughter, however, was that anyone who believes either despite in-group raising or because of a pursuit of truth unaffected by heavy parental indoctrination is miles ahead in terms of having a solid basis for belief than someone who has simply “believed because he/she was told” and never has considered seriously outside opinions. Hence my statement that I find a dogmatic atheism just as unappealing in my children as a dogmatic/programed religious belief.

Contrarily, people love the idea since always people get punished for there sins.

I’m thinking that G’Disraeli meant this as applying during belief rather than after deconversion. In other words, those in a religion may find it appealing to believe that they have the “true”(TM) faith and that they have the greatest chance of being saved (which could be extended to a sense of superiority in some cases). I don’ think he meant that doubters with no reason left to believe cling to the doctrine of hell because they love it so much.

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Hermes August 3, 2010 at 11:27 am

JS Allen: In addition to the scads of atheists who abandoned Christianity over the doctrine of hell, nearly all Christians have some rationalization about why this or that unbelieving loved one will go to heaven anyway.

Hendy: If they turn away because of hell, they were probably just not dogmatized well enough. I have strong suspicions that most people who disbelieve “because of” hell probably have a host of other reasons as well.

I agree with Hendy, though facts are facts.

While some people probably did abandon Christianity because of the doctrine of Hell, I would bet that the percentage of former-Christians-now-atheists who considered it seriously as a reason that Christianity was wrong is in the teens if not lower. I could be entirely wrong, though, and it might just be the people I talk with.

Maybe an impromptu poll would be in order?

Luke? Is this of any interest to you?

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Ralph August 3, 2010 at 11:32 am

I’m speaking about my experience and I don’t know how typical it is. I had early doubts about the justice of heaven and hell but buried it fairly quickly. What motivated me to search for something better was the problem of evil – I think a majority of atheists turn because of this. As anecdotal support for luke’s thesis, my transition from devout Roman Catholic to emanational pantheist was hindered primarily, albeit indirectly, by the fear of hell. It’s more of a subconscious thing rather than an actual fear. Somehow, the entire concept blocked a lot of very good arguments in favor of pantheism. But once I got over the concept of hell, it is precisely that concept that made me sure I was correct in changing my beliefs. Now, from pantheism to atheism, the thing that hindered me was plain old cognitive bias, particularly my attachment to “meaning”.

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Hermes August 3, 2010 at 11:36 am

Dan Brown: Social engineering is so painfully obvious.

Yep. The use of family titles such as father or mother or brother for religious clerics and spiritual entities is also quite amazing.

Along the line of sins, the word taboo comes from Hawaii where instead of sex and disobeying Christian leaders the sins/taboos were mainly food based. Eat the wrong food on the wrong day, or if the right person does not eat the right food on the right day, or if the wrong person ate a food that is for someone else in a different social position — and there would be problems. Have sex with your sister-in-law, and it’s not a big deal. Different cultures, same manipulation.

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al friedlander August 3, 2010 at 11:43 am

“I can imagine that the doctrine of hell tends to bring about deconversion in Christians who have some doubts. But I can also imagine it operates to prevent most Christians from being willing to entertain doubts in the first place.”

I kind of agree. From my own personal experience, the threat of hell and the fear of -losing- heaven, both kept believers in a cycle of fear. It seems kind of contradictory (ex: if there’s no heaven, you can’t suffer in hell anyway), but honestly. For some reason, it totally worked that way psychologically.

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Hermes August 3, 2010 at 11:44 am

JS Allen: This is the stupidest thing I’ve read all day. Can you cite some ex-Christians who claim that the doctrine of hell was hard for them to give up, since they loved it so much?

Hard to give up? No. It’s a side issue at best. Unfortunate? Yes. When you realize that there are real SOBs that are not getting some kind of on-the-rack treatment after death, it is really just too bad.

While I would not want anyone to be tortured for an eternity, I used to think that some limited period for the worst of the worst would seem somewhat fitting. Now, I consider it to be a silly idea and it doesn’t come up except in rare conversations such as this one.

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lukeprog August 3, 2010 at 11:54 am

Hermes,

Eh… I don’t really like polls on my site.

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Hermes August 3, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Luke, that’s the thing about having your own site. You can do what you want. As long as it doesn’t include sexy pictures. :-P

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JS Allen August 3, 2010 at 12:30 pm

In the 1800s, Edwin Starbuck did a survey showing that fear was a significant motivating factor for people who convert to Christianity. This was not specifically fear of hell, but undoubtedly fear of hell was a factor. So I wouldn’t discount the efficacy of hell for conversion.

If they turn away because of hell, they were probably just not dogmatized well enough. I have strong suspicions that most people who disbelieve “because of” hell probably have a host of other reasons as well.

Both points are correct, in my experience. The outrage over hell is a motivator for people to seek reasons for disbelief — it is never the source of disbelief on its own.

And it’s true that the people who seek to overturn Christianity based on the doctrine of hell are the people who were not dogmatized enough. The people who are dogmatized enough are not afraid of hell, since they think they are going to heaven.

This would tend to agree with Edwin Starbuck’s results, and would suggest that fear of hell can be both a catalyst for conversion and a catalyst for deconversion, but not much of a factor for people who actually believe it.

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Hendy August 3, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Luke, I heard that if you do polls you increase your chances of eternal bliss, but if you don’t… well let me just say that there’s a place where the freaking worm doesn’t die.

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Mark August 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm

And it’s true that the people who seek to overturn Christianity based on the doctrine of hell are the people who were not dogmatized enough. The people who are dogmatized enough are not afraid of hell, since they think they are going to heaven.

Maybe they’re not afraid of hell, but there are reasons to be highly disturbed by it besides the threat of ending up there, oneself.

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Hermes August 3, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Mark, well, it is a glaring example of the contract not matching the sales brochure. Yet, there are so many disconnects in Christianity that I just consider it one more of many.

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JS Allen August 3, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Maybe they’re not afraid of hell, but there are reasons to be highly disturbed by it besides the threat of ending up there, oneself.

Exactly. The people who are highly motivated to disprove hell are usually motivated on behalf of someone else. “I believed I was going to heaven, but I couldn’t worship a God who would send my boyfriend to hell!”.

There may be people who are motivated to prove hell, in order to convince themselves that their enemies are going to burn, but those people aren’t prone to admit it publicly. So the anecdotal evidence will always heavily tilt towards people who reject hell because they don’t want their boyfriends going to hell.

Hell isn’t a doctrine that silences inquiry. To the contrary, hell is one hell of a motivation to get to the bottom of things and decide what you believe. It lights a fire under agnosticism.

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Hermes August 3, 2010 at 5:29 pm

JS Allen: Hell isn’t a doctrine that silences inquiry. To the contrary, hell is one hell of a motivation to get to the bottom of things and decide what you believe. It lights a fire under agnosticism.

Any time that is spent dealing with it takes away from other efforts.

Besides, what’s the end point in investigating Hell? Besides that it’s a fiction, I mean. If there was an end point, shouldn’t the pamphlet already be available? Is it so obscure that it requires additional thought at this point?

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JS Allen August 3, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Besides, what’s the end point in investigating Hell? Besides that it’s a fiction, I mean. If there was an end point, shouldn’t the pamphlet already be available? Is it so obscure that it requires additional thought at this point?

Yes, precisely. People who encounter the doctrine of hell have one hell of a motivation to seek proof that hell is a fiction. Virtually nobody has motivation to seek proof that hell is real.

Perhaps all of the arguments against hell have already been made. But there will always be a steady supply of fresh victims who haven’t seen those arguments against hell, and who will desperately want to be convinced by them.

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Hermes August 3, 2010 at 5:54 pm

I don’t think there are that many. At most, it’s a logical defect in the story, though there are so many more problems that it doesn’t stand out as an exception.

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Matthew D. Johnston August 3, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Hell isn’t a doctrine that silences inquiry. To the contrary, hell is one hell of a motivation to get to the bottom of things and decide what you believe. It lights a fire under agnosticism.

Are you actually suggesting that, for somebody who grows up believing / being taught that all those who do not hold their own religious beliefs will end up in hell, this threat actual provides incentive to objectively question the belief itself?

This doesn’t light a fight under agnosticism – it makes it an intolerable psychological hell. And yet agnosticism (in the general sense) is the proper baseline position for everything. It is the natural human state to not know. How does imposing incomprehensibly large stakes to holding proper belief, regardless of how one attains said belief, encourage anybody to give alternative ideas a sober second thought?

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JS Allen August 3, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Are you actually suggesting that, for somebody who grows up believing / being taught that all those who do not hold their own religious beliefs will end up in hell, this threat actual provides incentive to objectively question the belief itself?

Totally. The moment you love someone who refuses to believe what you believe, the doctrine of hell forces the issue. As Sabio described, as soon as he realized that many Hindus were good people with good hearts, he was repulsed by the doctrine of hell. We see this all the time.

People who gladly accept the doctrine of hell, believing happily that their closest friends will perish, are rightly considered to be inhuman sociopaths.

This doesn’t light a fire under agnosticism – it makes it an intolerable psychological hell. And yet agnosticism (in the general sense) is the proper baseline position for everything. It is the natural human state to not know.

This is a fascinating point. I’m convinced that you’re right; the doctrine of hell is intolerably hostile to agnosticism, and creates incomprehensibly large stakes on either side.

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Jon Hanson August 3, 2010 at 10:51 pm

I’m an atheist who agrees with JS a lot here, when I let go of my Christianity I felt like I was freeing all my friends from Hell, even though I knew it was a totally irrational emotional reaction.

Hell still has an emotional impact on me, if someone could prove Christianity was true I still couldn’t worship the God of the Bible because I see no honest way of getting around the idea that it is an evil doctrine.

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Matthew D. Johnston August 4, 2010 at 4:01 am

I’m an atheist who agrees with JS a lot here, when I let go of my Christianity I felt like I was freeing all my friends from Hell, even though I knew it was a totally irrational emotional reaction.

I had somewhat of the opposite reaction. The first few funerals after losing my faith were difficult. What do you say? I’d spent my life up to that point believing people went into a holy realm after death, where God would take care of them and commend them on a life well-lived. Now I just believed they were gone.

Hell still has an emotional impact on me, if someone could prove Christianity was true I still couldn’t worship the God of the Bible because I see no honest way of getting around the idea that it is an evil doctrine.

Some religious depictions of God do make you wonder why anybody would freely choose to worship such a being in the first place, don’t they?

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Hendy August 4, 2010 at 7:45 am

@Jon Hanson: did you begin to doubt because of hell or were there other factors already in place?

@JS et al.: I still think we’re approaching this far after the dogmatic shell has already been cracked. In my circle of believers, they fear for me and pray for me… but it does not ever seem to occur to them that they should toss out hell or re-evaluate. Perhaps that’s because in many traditions (or maybe not in the tradition itself but in the colloquial expression of the body), hell is not de facto and no one is required to assume that someone is certainly going to hell for anything. Perhaps in other Christian variants this belief is much stronger: Jimmy does not believe; therefore, Jimmy is going to hell.

This is not the level at which my believing fellows deal with the issues. They would proclaim to simply not know, and thus I think the possibility never “lights the fire” under them about it.

Anyway, maybe there’s a deeper issue here. We’ve mainly been focusing on whether the reward/punishments of P/~P are sufficient to prevent critical analysis. I think that far above and beyond the reward/punishment factor lies the childhood factor. I don’t think it would really matter what was ingrained from childhood; it would have a far more likely tendency to “stick.” Google “intergenerational transmission” and check out all the results that pop up about tendencies for transmitting violent behavior, divorce, trust issues, racism, and all kinds of stuff from parent(s) -> child.

My theory is that this has far more to do with being an obstacle for truth than fear of hell, but I’m open to being wrong!

The indoctrination effect is the dogmatic shell to which I refer. Under the right circumstances (high-faith parents and believer-saturated environments), many are dogmatized to the level that they just can’t seem to doubt.

When telling some older believing role models that I had begun to doubt my faith and presenting my reasons, I was met with all kinds of responses:

- “I just can’t believe that god doesn’t exist. I just can’t do it”

- “You telling that god doesn’t exist is like you telling me that you don’t exist because I know him as surely as I know you’re sitting in the seat across from me.”

- “If does doesn’t exist, we might as well kill ourselves. What’s the point?”

This is the “shell” I’m talking about that must have some fracture or weakness in it before anyone even begins to consider that hell proposes some issues. With the shell in tact, I really don’t think it matters. It’s part of the package so the believer accepts it. Surely it tends to stay at the bottom of the bag, but it’s still lumped in as part of the package nonetheless.

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Hermes August 4, 2010 at 8:31 am

Along those lines, the video Why does every intelligent Christian disobey Jesus? raises parallel questions.

The video starts out well but a bit pushy, then, about 2/3rds of the way in, it makes some comments and conclusions that I bet most people have never considered but they are hard pressed to disagree with.

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Jon Hanson August 4, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Matthew D. Johnston,
I was a Paul Washer Calvanist, I believed that something like 80% of of the people who said they were Christians were going to Hell. I haven’t been to any funerals since I de-converted, so I can’t compare there, but the funerals I’d gone to as a Christian were sad because I could never say I fully believed they were in a better place.

Hendy,
I had doubts, but I think it’s like JS said, in a major way Hell gave me a REASON to doubt. If I thought everyone was going to Heaven in the end I think I could have put up with a lot of other doubts. H ell was sort of a magnifier, the problem of evil was a big source of doubt, but add in Hell and now we have this life being a living hell for so many that only leads into an eternal perfection of their suffering and how can you worship the God behind that? I don’t think I could list the others, but you could probably guess, there was nothing all that unique. If my only problem was Hell I’d still be a believer and not an atheist, just a rebellious believer, and I think I might have been just that for a while.

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Hendy August 4, 2010 at 1:44 pm

@Jon:

Thanks for clarifying. The phenomenon of “belief” vs. “unbelief” is absolutely fascinating. My experience thus far has led me to express what I have written thus far in this post: that there must come a time when it even occurs to us to question the belief itself.

I’m quite sure that most posting here have wrestled in at least some degree with which side of the theistic aisle is true.

My contention is that the majority of believers (maybe even nonbelievers who were raised as such) never even enter the realm of doubt in the first place.

I could be dead wrong, but I think something has to “go off” in the mind to even allow doubt. I don’t think it’s necessarily even at the level of conscious thought. I went down to FL for Christmas a completely orthodox (fully subscribed) Catholic. My Bible was with my on the plane and were it not for a daughter I probably would have taken daily prayer time with scripture on the flight (I might have even done so), I prayed a decade or more of the rosary when we took off, my wife and I went to Mass several times for the various festive celebrations, etc.

Then “it happened.” I questioned. Seriously. Common objections had occurred to me before, but not in a personally relevant way. I never met them, I just assumed they weren’t true and were based on a mis-understanding of the faith. Even that level of contra-faith encounter was a rarity, however. Most of the time my in-group saturated environment was completely devoid of anything even remotely doubt producing.

Why did a doubt occur this past Christmas which as spawned a Quest of high intensity over the past 7mos of my life? No idea.

And that fact is extremely fascinating. I am not so sure we have all that much say in our beliefs. At some level I think many really are, at the present moment, literally unable to break through the dogmatic shell to even meet arguments as possibly being legitimate and thus it doesn’t matter if it’s hell, the PoE, scriptural issues, or anything else… it just beads up on a thick coat of car wax and rolls off.

This area is also half-scary as I can’t say I had much to do with my “awakening.” I wish I had but it actually frightens me a bit that I went on for so long without ever thinking about the stuff I think about now!!

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