Love, Guilt and Hell.
The blog Pharyngula has an ongoing series called “Why I am an atheist” which consists of stories submitted by readers. You can probably guess the subject.
Saturday’s story really stands out, though, and I’ve been meaning to share it since I read it that morning. It’s author calls herself mouthyb, and it starts like this,
My childhood sounds like the word “jesus,” repeated until it falls into noise, and you realize that it never meant anything to begin with.
My mother used to repeat it in the car, on road trips. She spent twelve hours of reminding us of this: jesus said that he had no mother, no brother, and that no one would get into heaven but by loving him more than anything or anyone else.
It was okay that she didn’t love me, she said. It meant that she was going to heaven.
It’s difficult to read, and yet I recommend you do. Mouthyb’s life has not been an easy one, and while I feel like I could write an awful lot about this story, I don’t feel that I would have much of substance to say. I would like to reproduce one more part here, though, from a conversation with her mother about guilt.
I told her that guilt is supposed to be a transient emotion; we are meant, in my experience, to suffer guilt for an action, consider the action, learn from our mistakes and amend our behavior.
She looked at me sadly and said no. Guilt, she said, is a punishment from god that we cannot escape and must only live with.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, trying to imagine feeling that way. Feeling unable to escape and without hope is something I’m familiar with, but the idea that you could deserve this, that an all-knowing authority incapable of error has judged and sentenced you, that’s another beast entirely. I’m honestly not sure I can imagine it, but what I can imagine is pretty damned awful.
On top of that, this woman also fears an afterlife of infinite torture. Ponder that for a moment, as awful as her life is, the terrible ways she’s hurt her family, she hurts herself and enables her husband to hurt her. I wonder how much of that is because she thinks it is what she needs to do to make the grade for heaven, so avoid that eternal afterlife of endless, pointless torture.
The concept of hell, especially the idea of eternal damnation, is probably the most obvious social control mechanism in authoritarian religions. It’s an outstanding threat to levy against people because it’s worse than death, endless suffering without even the hope of sweet oblivion to end it. By its very natural it’s untestable, nobody can prove there’s not a fiery pit of devils waiting for you after you die. The message is simple, “Do as you’re told, or the worst imaginable fate awaits you.”
It also would make no sense to actually do it to someone. Think about it: There’s no justice to it, because nothing you could do in a handful of decades alive could possibly equal even a billion years of torture, let alone eternity. It’s not to teach you a lesson or improve you, because you’re never getting out. For that matter it’s not to put down rebellion, because you’re never getting out, you’re literally in the worst place possible and the only worthwhile thing to do is organize revolts. The only possible reason to sentence someone to such a fate is if you’re cruel enough to enjoy the idea of their suffering.
But as a tool of manipulation, it’s brilliant. You can’t see the threat, but it’s so awful can you really take the chance that it doesn’t exist? Pascal’s Wager does most of the work right there.
Meanwhile, every other aspect of life is co-opted into working for the more subtle control mechanisms, including guilt. Arbitrary rules are placed on basic behaviors, eating, grooming, sex, etc. Often these rules are not only difficult, but actually impossible to follow all the time. Naturally, every lapse builds guilt, which at least feed into the fear of punishment from the all-knowing authority, and in some sects must be confessed to priests, handing over tools for emotional manipulation.
Another tool of control is easily seen every time a natural disaster is blamed on some scapegoat group. Good things that happen are signs of God’s generosity, while bad ones are either tests or something you brought upon yourself. You tell the flock what to do, and any bad thing that happens is punishment for not complying, or not complying fast enough or good enough or whole-heartedly enough or something, while any good thing that happens is proof that God still loves you, even though you should totally be doing what you’re told.
God gets all the credit and none of the blame. God loves you, but will do terrible things to you if you disobey and take no responsibility for those actions. Don’t make God hurt you by disobeying, He hates to hurt you because he loves you, but has to if you disobey. It’s the classic language of abuse. Authoritarian religion is an abusive relationship.
As mouthyb learned, challenges to the authority, often even questions, are not welcome. In my own experience I often see questions dismissed with phrases like “Who are you to question God” or “Allaah knows best” or similar appeals to absolute authority. But God or Allaah or whatever never speaks, it’s always humans saying these things. Often they back up their words with a book, claiming ancient wisdom or divine inspiration or both.
There are many old books, one could crack open one of the Eddas and read about how Odin slew the frost giant Ymir and crafted the world from the giant’s corpse. Or perhaps the Bhagavad-gita, to see how Lord Krishna explains transcendence to Arjuna. If you want something really old you can read the Epic of Gilgamesh, which predates not only the earliest books of the Old Testament, but the entire Jewish culture by a thousand years.
I mention this not to disparage the Bible, or to suggest dishonesty on the part of those who adhere to it, but to explain why when you are talking about the nature and purpose of the universe, and claiming to have a direct line to the author of existence, then I’m sorry but your word and an old book are simply not enough for me.
When someone says they’ve found Truth, or Enlightenment, or even just Something That Works For Them, that doesn’t bother me. It’s their life, not mine, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone then whatever makes them happy, right? But when people start insisting that their rules should apply to everyone, or that the laws should contain exceptions to their rules or for their groups, or that the laws should take away rights from certain people because their rules or gods say so, then I have a problem. We see this happening even in this country, who’s highest laws prohibit church & state from influencing each other and guarantee equal protection to everyone, at least in theory.
We can look at Iran or Saudi Arabia to see where it leads.
The authoritarian mindset is a dangerous thing, and I want less of it on our planet.
Posted on May 9, 2012, in Daily Post and tagged abuse, holy crap that got long, I meant to discuss love but the subject just never came up, mouthyb, postaday2012, religion, well that wandered off into dark places. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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