You want to hear an excuse I’m not going to accept anymore?
“You can’t blame them; they’ve been taught to believe these things since they were little.”
No. This is no longer acceptable to me, and I want to explain why.
They’re not young anymore. They’re not children anymore. When you are small, you believe what you are told. All sorts of bad things get passed down to children when they are small: racism, sexism, elitism, bigotry, substance abuse, you name it. When you’re little you are impressionable and that’s not your fault. Once you’re grown, however, it’s time to start taking responsibility for the things you do and the things you say. Once you’re grown, the onus is on you.
You are capable of thinking for yourself now. You can analyze the things you were told to believe and decide for yourself if the reasons you were given for believing them were legitimate. When you’re grown, simply holding to what your parents told you won’t cut it. You should know better than that by now. You’re an adult. You want to be treated like one, yes? Well, this comes with that territory. Once you’re a grown-up and you assume responsibility for your own decisions (and perhaps even for the lives of others who are dependent on you), it falls to you to make wise decisions and to think critically about the decisions you make.
Case in point: Do you feel it is acceptable to tell children that if they’re bad, or if they don’t believe the right things, they will be brought back from the dead just to be burned alive forever and ever? If so, please do not come near my children. That is horrendous. And who told you that? How old were you when they did? Looking back, do you feel that was acceptable behavior? Were the adults who told you that responsible for the words they were using?
I understand the impetus to empathize with people who say these kinds of things. I do. It’s always helpful to try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and remind yourself that they were raised to believe that this kind of talk is totally normal. I applaud such attempts at empathy. But in your attempt to elicit compassion you are also excusing behavior that I don’t think we should so easily condone.
How can I presume to pass judgment on them in this way? Because I’ve been through this thought process myself. I’ve gone through this. I’ve been in their shoes. I, too, was raised to tell people they’d be eternally condemned if they didn’t believe the right things. But then I got older, and I realized there comes a point at which you yourself must take responsibility for the things you say and the things you do. It took me longer than it took many other people I know. I was in my mid-30’s before it finally dawned on me that the things I was taught to believe didn’t make sense.
ON SECOND THOUGHT, THAT MAKES NO SENSE
What sorts of things do I no longer believe, and why don’t I believe them? This notion of posthumous torture serves as a great example of what I mean, both because of its absurdity and because of its atrociousness.
The idea that people will be brought back to life after they die just to be tortured forever makes no sense to me whatsoever. Leaving aside the paucity of evidence that dead things stop being dead, you can’t make any logical sense out of waiting until it’s too late just to torture people forever for things which at that point can no longer be corrected. And it won’t do to threaten them with the existence of such a state if there aren’t clear and obvious ways to demonstrate that this whole concept isn’t made up out of thin air.
Think about the logic of this for a second. For a single lifetime of non-criminal behavior, I deserve to suffer forever, for millions upon millions of years. But then for the transgressions of a billion lifetimes, some involving the most atrocious of crimes, one guy suffers for twelve hours on a Friday? Are you kidding me with this? If you had saved this idea to tell me after I had become an adult, I don’t see how I could have ever accepted it in the first place. It doesn’t add up. No wonder you told me while I was too young to know the difference.
Incidentally, it’s not that I was too dumb to get it, contrary to what many lifelong atheists seem to believe. People don’t cling to childhood beliefs because they’re dumb. On the contrary, the smarter you are, the more skillfully you can rationalize the things you were taught to believe. Many times the hardest people to teach new things are the smartest ones. They’ve already considered how to defend their beliefs against a thousand different challenges, calcifying assumptions which should have been critically analyzed long before they became emotionally invested in their belief system. In my case, I had built my entire life around my belief system. Just try changing the mind of someone that invested in his faith. It takes a lot of courage and determination to wrestle through all the questions and to deal with the social consequences of no longer holding to the things you were taught to believe.
But I did it. Because it was my responsibility to do so as a thinking adult. I’m a grown up now. When I was small, I couldn’t have been held responsible for believing the things I believed. But I’m not a little kid anymore. That excuse won’t fly now. I’m old enough now that I’m in a place of teaching other people how to think for themselves as well. That makes it all the more important that I own my own beliefs. I’m at an age now where I’m in charge of other people, so it behooves me to think critically about what I pass along to the more impressionable people in my care.
I realize not everyone will agree with me on this. Personally I find myself taking a more diplomatic approach than most atheists when it comes to sympathizing with Christians about their beliefs. I am one who should remember what it’s like to believe things that I now find unbelievable. And I do remember. But I also remember that I was able to step outside of what I was taught in order to critically evaluate it. I simply used the same analytical tools on my own beliefs that I had been taught to use on everyone else’s and guess what I found! My own tradition was no more free from bias or human invention than anyone else’s. If I could figure that out, then so can they. I don’t see why I should let them off the hook.
YOU’RE NOT BEING VERY RESPECTFUL
Inevitably someone will charge that it’s disrespectful to speak out against someone’s religious beliefs. I would say there are definitely better and worse ways of going about it, but no, I don’t buy that at all. Here’s why.
They have no qualms discrediting other people’s religions, particularly if they have a harmful effect on those who believe them.
I’ve sat through so many sermons while people cheered on Elijah as he mocked the prophets of Baal. “Perhaps your god has fallen asleep!” he shouted. “Perhaps he’s gone to the bathroom!” Christians revel in the mockery of this foreign religion and I’ve never once heard one of them stop and denigrate Elijah for being so disrespectful. Perhaps he shouldn’t have mocked the poor prophets, right? I mean, that was disrespectful to their cherished beliefs, right? (Crickets chirping)
When I point out the irrationality of posthumous torture, people tell me I shouldn’t be so hard on the people still teaching it. It’s not their fault, they say. But those very people would shudder at the notion of genital mutilation or polygamy even though those are both rooted in someone’s religion. That’s because they’re rooted in other people’s religions. And there’s the rub. It’s a double standard. It’s not that they feel religious beliefs are above correction, or deserving of special respect. It’s just that they feel certain beliefs (usually theirs) should be privileged above others.
But I don’t see why. I see harm in beliefs like this. In fact, I see direct adverse effects on people’s relationships with each other caused by an irrational belief in Hell. If you believe people will be tortured forever, you’ll stop at nothing to persuade them to capitulate to your religion. Even the sweetest people will become manipulative, and they’ll give their kids horrendous nightmares after describing flames licking the undead, screams and sores and…I’ll just stop right there. Truly we should feel shame for ever perpetuating this sadistic nonsense.
Is it respectful to tell people they deserve to be tortured? No, it’s not. Yet I’ve had more complete strangers than I can count tell me I’m bad enough to deserve to suffer forever, and for the life of me I can’t even think of a crime that deserves eternal torment. Certainly not anything I’ve done. How dare you tell someone that? What an awful thing to say to someone! And utterly disrespectful. That’s the irony here. You can tell me it’s disrespectful to call out someone’s religious beliefs, but I’m only encouraging them to work through the same questions I’ve worked through myself. In reality it’s those who tell me I deserve a fate worse than death who are showing the most disrespect.
So I’m done with permitting this kind of talk without speaking up about it. This is one of four or five things I’ve decided I can be resolutely against without any reservations. I wouldn’t consider myself an anti-theist; rather I consider myself an anti-fundamentalist. In one of my next posts I intend to talk about what I mean by that. So stay tuned.