Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Deadly Sin #2

When I made my post about pride, I wasn't really intending it to be the first of a series. But since I'd happened to entitle the post "Deadly Sin #1", this got me thinking about some of the other supposed "deadly sins", and how they relate to the relationship between religion and atheism. So, even though it wasn't what I'd originally planned, I decided to go ahead and make a series of it anyway. Which brings us to today's post, Deadly Sin #2: Wrath.

As I said in the post on pride, my numbering of the deadly sins is arbitrary, being some combination of a decreasing order of what I feel is their importance, and just the order in which I feel like writing about them. Still, wrath is certainly responsible for a lot of evil in this world. And, once again, it's a "sin" that lies at the foundation of religion more than most religious people would like to admit.

After all, that's what Hell is all about.

When the non-religious talk about the concept of "Hell", they usually dismiss it--in my experience--as a scare tactic. The purpose of "Hell" is to frighten people into following the church's laws, because if they don't they're going to suffer in fire and brimstone forever. There may be something to that, but I don't think that's the only purpose Hell serves for the churches that preach of it, and I'm not even sure it's the most important one. In fact, the most self-righteous and closed-minded Christians don't find Hell scary at all--after all, they're sure they're not going there. No, many of them find the concept of Hell actually appealing.

Why? Because they're not going there, but their opponents are. If you don't listen to them when they tell you to accept Christ, if you oppose their attempts to impose their religious views on the legal system, if you don't agree with every nicety of their belief...well, then, you're going to Hell. And that's just fine with them.

I don't claim that all Christians are that way. (And yes, when I talk about "religions" here, I'm again talking mostly about Christianity, since that's the religion I'm most familiar with...though I'm sure that at least some other religions internalize wrath in their own way.) There are those who don't take such satisfaction in others getting what they feel to be their just deserts. There was, coincidentally, just yesterday in the comments to a post on Pharyngula a running debate between a fire-and-brimstone Christian, "M Petersen", who insisted that yes, Hell was a place of eternal torment that those who failed to follow Christ would be subjected to, and a more moderate Christian, "Chance", who found utterly abhorrent the idea that anyone would ever be subjected to everlasting suffering. (I say "coincidentally" because I'd already started writing this entry before that post was made, furnishing those fortuitous examples.)

Now, even M Petersen didn't exult in the prospect of the sinners and the faithless going to Hell--he just saw it as a fact of life, or rather of afterlife. Or at least, if he was internally exulting about the matter, he wasn't obvious about it. But there are Christians who do seem to find a vicious glee in the thought of the people who disagree with them being bound for an eternity of torture. They may be in the minority, but they're very visible, and they're becoming increasingly prominent, as the radical fundamentalists continue along the path to try to dominate American discourse.

Now, it's tempting to argue that maybe this glorying in the prospect of Hell is a new take on the matter, and that "wrath" had nothing to do with the original purpose of the doctrine--but I don't think that's true. The whole basis of the idea of Hell is founded in wrath. Why would God send anyone to Hell? The standard Christian answer is that he must satisfy some kind of fundamental principle of justice. There's a common analogy made in the Mormon church--and I gather from some of M Petersen's comments in the aforementioned Pharyngula posts that something similar, if not the exact same parable, is current in other churches as well--about sin as a debt, and man as a debtor unable to pay, and begging for his creditor to have mercy and forgive the debt rather than throw him in jail. The creditor refuses--without payment, there can be no justice. Mercy cannot rob justice. Then Christ comes and pays off the man's debt for him, so that both mercy and justice can be satisfied. The implication of the analogy--one of the implications, anyway--is clear. Christ's sacrifice was necessary, man's sins had to be atoned for, because justice is an eternal principle, one that cannot go unsatisfied.

Now, there are some logical difficulties here--why would God be constrained to follow some principle of justice? If God's imposing the principle of justice Himself, well, that mainly boils down to God punishing people just because He wants to, which doesn't seem particularly benevolent. Which is probably why it's usually implied that justice is an eternal principle external to God, one that even He is beholden to--but then what does that mean? So is God not omnipotent after all? And why this particular, bizarrely arbitrary, limitation to His omnipotence?

But never mind that; that's not the point for the moment. The point is that in this context, "justice"--whether it's ordained by God or whether it's a principle He's somehow forced to satisfy--is really just a euphemism for "revenge". There's no purpose for it, other than hurting people who did something God didn't like (or that the people who developed the tenets of the religion didn't like). Justice on Earth, in the sense of punishment of criminals, certainly has its purposes. The prospect of punishment acts to discourage people from committing crime. The time they spend in jail prevents them from committing more crime at least while they're there. And ideally, there may even be a rehabilitory component to the imprisonment--however poorly that may often work out in practice. It's hard to see how any good purpose is really served by "justice" in the sense of God's sending people to Hell. If punishment in Hell is eternal, there's certainly no rehabilitation taking place, is there? If an omnipotent being is interested in preventing people from further sins, He'd certainly have much more humane means of doing so than keeping them in constant torment. There is, again, probably something to the discouragement part--as I mentioned above, that seems to be the most common motive the non-religious ascribe to the idea of Hell, scaring people into staying on the straight and narrow--but that's clearly not what's meant by "justice"; that doesn't fit in with the idea of justice as a principle God is required to abide by. No, saying that God has to punish people to satisfy some standard of "justice" implies that, in some way, those people deserve their punishment. Which, incidentally, could also be interpreted to mean that faithful Christians can feel justified in being happy about that punishment. All this talk about "justice" clearly shows that Hell isn't just a way of scaring people into toeing the line; it's also a way of allowing them to take pleasure in the thought of dire eternal fates for their enemies.

(I may as well note here, by the way, that the LDS Church has a rather different outlook on Hell than most Christian churches. Mormons don't believe that anyone is literally going to suffer forever; the afterlife will consist of three "kingdoms", and a person's faithfulness and righteousness will determine which of the three he goes to, but even the lowest of the kingdoms will be better than life on Earth. There is also an "Outer Darkness", a much worse place, but even that isn't literally about fire and brimstone and physical torture; its biggest drawback is a complete separation from God--and anyway, the criteria for getting sent to Outer Darkness are pretty stringent; you have to know for a fact that God exists--as in, for example, actually having seen Him--and yet publically deny it (or rather, "deny the Holy Ghost", though the distinction isn't really clear). There may still be a bit of satisfying schadenfreude for wrathful Mormons in believing that their foes won't make it into the highest kingdom, or may have a period of temporary suffering before the Final Judgment, but it's not the same magnitude; it seems to me Mormonism isn't nearly as steeped in Wrath as most other Christian religions. 'Course, it's still got the Pride going for it that I wrote about last time, and I'll have something to say about Mormonism when I get to Envy...)

Now, there may be something in the human psyche that makes us want enemies. Schools have rivalries, for example, that have no other particular basis behind them except to give them a focus for their antipathy. People want something to oppose. Maybe because it seems to give them more meaning to be fighting against something. We have, apparently, some innate desire for Wrath, in a way, and like to find outlets for it.

That may be another reason for the idea of Hell, for the characterizing of those who fail to follow one's religious tenets as sinners and evildoers. It gives the "righteous" ready enemies. And Christians have never been shy about setting up enemies to fight--not since the Middle Ages, at least, and historical records of the Christian church before that are too sketchy, as far as I know, for us to really know the situation all that well back then. But anyway, in the Middle Ages, one of the biggest enemies was the Jews. Antisemitism was rampant in medieval literature, from Grimm's Fairy Tales to the Prioress's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The Jew made a convenient enemy, one that, in medieval fiction, did horrible things, ranging from simple cheating to human sacrifice, and generally met horrible ends--and Christian readers were delighted by these stories, and by seeing the fictional Jews get what was coming to them. It was an outlet for their Wrath--a wrath that was less checked by rationality and introspection than most people's nowadays. After all, most college students probably recognize at some level how arbitrary their college rivalries are, and don't wish students at their rival colleges dead. Medieval Christians had no such reservations about the Jews. Not, of course, that the conflict between Christians and Jews was anything so simple as a college rivalry; it was much more complex, more deep, and more dangerous--but I think the antipathy may have been founded in part on a similar drive for finding something to oppose.

Nowadays, of course, antisemitism still exists, but fortunately it's no longer so widespread or so generally accepted. But the fundamentalist Christians have no end of enemies to oppose. They've expanded the list of enemies--at least, the most radical fundamentalists have--to include basically anyone who's not them. Jews, atheists, agnostics...homosexuals, and anyone who speaks in their favor...certainly anyone who dares to condone something as heretical as separation of church and state...all of these are enemies of God, and therefore enemies of those fundamentalists as well. All of them are going to Hell.

Modern fundamentalists, it seems, have a nearly unprecedented amount of Wrath to go around...


At 7/13/2006 4:43 PM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

While I agree with you that there's an unseemly gloating aspect to many of the threats of hell - try reading the comments over at Panda's Thumb or Talk.Origins -- I really wanted to say that this post made me think of the rewrite of Dante's Inferno by Niven & Pournelle, in which the suggestion was made (not originally, of course) that the difference between Hell and Purgatory is in the person: if you get out, it's not Hell. Their "Dante" ended up believing that Hell was "the violent ward for the theologically insane" ... It's a better idea than most concepts of Hell, I suppose, if you have to have a Hell.

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