Startling the mind of a child (or a vulnerable adult) with threats of hell is manipulative and, yes, even abusive. I see no sense in denying it. But there is a premise that underlies the condemnation of hell preaching that deserves scrutiny: a lot of atheists simply assume that if hell is absented from the developmental equation of the psyche then it will integrate in an otherwise healthy manner. In other words, left to itself, and without the malicious terrors applied to it by religious fundamentalists, the psyche supposedly stands a high chance of bypassing hell realms entirely, and without a great deal of difficulty, mess, or fuss.
But a moment’s reflection shows this to be ludicrous, doesn’t it?
We are, after all, already inescapably immersed in a hell realm, the knowledge of which arrives early and sears us for life. It consists of two inescapable facts:
- we die; and
- the universe appears to have no purpose.
Put another way: unless you pass away as an infant or toddler, you simply cannot escape the relentless movement of your consciousness from its garden of innocence to the hell realm of this experiential knowledge. William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche have always been right: life is a war against fiery Dionysian and entropic forces, nobody gets out alive, and you appear to be nothing.
Contrast this hell realm with the religious one. At least with the religious one, the nihilism vanishes instantly—you are relieved of that—for everything that you do is eternally consequential; suddenly, you’re really, really important to the grand scheme of things, and others are important as well. The only ones who burn in hell, after all, are those who treat their neighbors as objects without lasting value. You might expect to find a nihilist like Nietzsche, but not a lover like Gandhi, in hell. And so, in the context of heaven and hell, religion confidently tells you a couple of optimistic things about existence, however delusional:
- you do not really die, you are not nothing, and life has purpose;
- everything you do is important and has eternal consequences for good and evil; and
- there is a route of escape
In other words, the death and nihilism that the human psyche becomes increasingly aware of from the age of about five onward can be overcome through faith, hope, and love. So choose wisely.
With its carrots and sticks, the religious narrative is manipulative, to be sure, but it is also a mercy: death and nihilism are no more. If you had a genuine empirical choice between the religious hell realm and the atheist hell realm, which would you choose: the one with or without a solution to the problems of death and nihilism; the one with or without an escape hatch?
And if you are a parent, which one do you suppose is worse for a child to internalize fully into consciousness? Below is the hell of atheism. And if you feel compelled to reveal this inescapable gnosis to your children someday, don’t call it abuse. But also don’t be surprised if he or she one day flees to religion for some relief from it: