It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that as a general rule I tend to disagree quite strongly with traditional biblical and quranic literalists. Amazingly, and disturbingly even in the 21st century antiquated concepts of acceptable punishment for what are now commonly accepted human behaviors still linger on. These range from burning in hell for such crimes as being gay to denying the existence of specific gods. Clearly these beliefs are a fertile ground for bigotry and cruelty. But one thing I cannot fault biblical literalists for (by which I include Jews and Muslims) is their honesty, at least they do not equivocate on what their books mean.
In numerous conversations with newer age theists however, I always find it fascinating the lengths to which many of them will resort to, to excuse from their beliefs the concept of a hell, eternal punishment, or any barbaric punishment of any kind. What new-age Christians and Muslims have started pushing is that hell is no longer the fiery inferno depicted by Dante or described in the Quran and the Hadith. Rather it is now an abstract form of shunning by God which they often describe as “Separation from God” or something equally vague. Interestingly however people still hold on to the concept of heaven. I argue that this too is immoral, unless we accept that in order to enjoy heaven we would have to give up the very humanity that supposedly grants us access to paradise in the first place.
How is heaven immoral and impossible? Well it certainly is if humans are as empathetic and social in their afterlife as they are here. I assume we are social because when people die the claim to a reunification with our loved ones is often what justifies the claim to an existence of heaven, so apparently we remain social beings in the afterlife. I assume we are empathetic because if we lose this very quality of ourselves that got us into heaven then we would not be humans, but rather just heavenly automatons.
Let’s consider a thought experiment:My mother is a devout theist and given the observant way she has lived her life: five daily prayers, strong faith even in the face of tragedies most would shun god for, charitable works, pious abstinence from forbidden practices, it’s pretty unlikely that according to her faith she is going to hell.
Her son through no fault of hers, is an atheist.
So when she is in heaven, knowing that I am in hell burning for all eternity, will she still be happy? What mother could be, in this situation? Will she just be ok with this fact? To say yes, is to say that heaven’s citizens will undergo an emotional frontal lobotomy which will strip them of the very character that gave them entrance to paradise. How then can hell be possible? There are no shortage of arguments against the existence of a hell, everything from its lack of redemptive value to the fact that even a god that is only as just as human beings, let alone maximally just, cannot repay finite crimes with infinite punishment. Hell is simply impossible and if hell doesn’t exist why should we trust that heaven does?
It occurs to me that this whole discussion may seem arbitrary and somewhat abstractly philosophical to most people. I think however that there is an applicable moral to any argument that aims to dismantle literal interpretations of holy teachings, in particular those from the Abrahamic faiths. Simply put there are billions of people in the world who live in fear (admittedly in varying degrees) of going to hell or some version of it derived from the Bible and Quran. This translates to an inability to divorce themselves from religious practices which directly or indirectly affect them in very negative ways. If you believe in the tortures of the afterlife you are likely to walk through life afraid to do quite human things or guilty when you do follow your human passions and enact them. You may choose not to donate organs (as many do) because of the afterlife belief that this is an egregious treatment of God’s gift to you: your body. In fact there are any number of actions people either partake in or refrain from as a result of believing in the rewards and punishments of the afterlife.
At the very least, if what is keeping you from living a secular existence, free from the judgment of your particular god is the fear of an afterlife of punishment and the desire for a post humus reward, then the knowledge that neither of these is a viable reality (if you believe in a moral god) should go a long way towards setting you free.