The Theist’s Hell vs. The Atheist’s Hell: Which is Worse for Children to Learn About?

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.  

Welcome!

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:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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27 Responses to The Theist’s Hell vs. The Atheist’s Hell: Which is Worse for Children to Learn About?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    You give the atheists too much credit. They’re busy deluding themselves with their own lies:

    • santitafarella says:

      Andrew:

      That was a good video, but I’m not sure why you think it will never happen.

      It seems plausible to me that transhumanism is the future: people can expect to live for spectacular durations 500 years from now and they will not think of themselves as just organisms tied strictly to biology.

      The consequences for religion in such an environment could not be more bleak, for it thrives on anxiety about death. If death, for most people, always feels about 300 years away, it’s hard to see where religious urgency will come from.

      —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        Namely the part where they always hint that people alive today could potentially achieve immortality.

        The more I frequent atheist sites, skeptical forums and the like the less and less hope I have for humanity. You take away one crutch and people just rush to grab another. And there are always con men ready to take advantage and fools who actually believe the garbage they spew. These ‘futurists’ know just enough about science to sound intelligent at first glance, but it’s a lot like sociology. You take the 101 course and think, “Hmmm, this could be interesting.” Then you quickly realize that the 101 course is all there is and everything else is just flash and show.

        Perhaps I should go read some Greek myths again. i think I need to rekindle my admiration for the human spirit. Well maybe this song will help.

      • santitafarella says:

        If you want to be read Greek myth, try the following plays (if you haven’t already read them): Prometheus Bound, Oedipus, and the Bakkhai.

        Just a suggestion.

        And Sartre wrote an anti-gods existential version of a Greek tragedy titled “The Flies.” It’s excellent. You would probably like it.

        And if you want a lighter send up of rationality, try the ancient Greek comedy, “The Clouds.”

        —Santi

  2. St. John the Baptist says:

    Ever since Christ taught to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” we know that we owe Caesar our friendship, but we owe God our lives.

    Of the two mentioned, Christ equates to the theist, and Caesar to the atheist. It is dreadful enough to face Caesar’s hell in this world – prison, murder, corruption, unjust punishment – and these things are only seemingly spared to holy innocents. To add to the list an eternal, unquenchable fire is more than one can bear, which is why Christ uses both the Holy Spirit and fire to make us better, not worse.

    So, hands down, hands up, hands clapping, the theist’s hell is a good thing.

    • JCR says:

      Whatever helps you get by. Many people use religion as a crutch to answer for injustice in this world. For you, maybe for many, belief in hell gives you mental stability. I prefer to face the world with truth and reality. The world is a brutal place, but it is balanced by incredible beauty, kindness and love. This world is both a heaven and a hell.

      • santitafarella says:

        JCR:

        How do you access beauty, kindness, and love?

        —Santi

      • JCR says:

        All of these things have a high individuality component to them. But they also have a large common component. Most of us see beauty in nature – be it anything from a crisp morning to the aurora Borealis or anything in between. Most seen to see and understand love as well. The easiest example of this is parent to child. Caring more for others than for yourself is one of the most pristine examples. I guess that you could classify kindness as similar to love. Simple things from giving to the homeless to helping someone in need. My friends 6 year old son wandered away from school the other day (somehow got past the teacher) a mother a few blocks down noticed him and walked him back to school. I would consider that pretty darn kind.

  3. santitafarella says:

    St. John:

    I wouldn’t say that the theist’s hell is better. It’s definitely different. But my larger point is that the atheist, having escaped the psychological burden of religious hell realms ought not to imagine that he or she is delivered of hell realms.

    Even if atheists and agnostics (like myself) lived for a very long time (or even eternally), we would still have to struggle with the hell of nihilism. Simone de Beauvoir’s novel, “All Men are Mortal,” is a meditation on this point:

    http://www.amazon.com/All-Men-Mortal-Simone-Beauvoir/dp/0393308456/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1285178718&sr=8-1

    —Santi

  4. Martian says:

    How about we just stick to reality and not wonder what’s “better” to believe? There’s no proof for hell — when you’ve got some, please let me know.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Martian:

    It depends, I suppose, on what you mean by hell existing.

    I presume it’s a psychological construct—not a real place—but if so, then both religious people and nonreligious people seem unable to entirely avoid them in the psyche. My question is, given this fact of hell realms in the psyche, which ones are more terrifying and more difficult to work with psychologically—the theist ones or the non-theist ones?

    The fact that most people flock to religion, despite its hell realms, suggests (at least to me) that they find their psyches better integrated on that side of the fence than on the inescapable mortality/nihilism side.

    I’m thinking, for example, of some of the chilling final short stories of John Updike before his own death, and how desolate human aging can be absent any religious hope whatsoever.

    Here’s a quote of Updike’s that has long rattled me:

    “The non-scientist’s relation to modern science is basically craven: we look to its discoveries and technology to save us from disease, to give us a faster ride and a softer life, and at the same time we shrink from what it has to tell us of our perilous and insignificant place in the cosmos. Not that threats to our safety and significance were absent from the pre-scientific world, or that arguments against a God-bestowed human grandeur were lacking before Darwin. But our century’s revelations of unthinkable largeness and unimaginable smallness, of abysmal stretches of geological time when we were nothing, of supernumerary galaxies and indeterminate subatomic behavior, of a kind of mad mathematical violence at the heart of matter have scorched us deeper than we know.”

    —Santi

  6. It seems to me that knowing you’re going to die isn’t any worse than just knowing how small you are in the cosmos. My life will only occupy a small span of all time, but I also occupy and affect a tiny part of the earth, that in term isn’t even a drop in the bucket in the just the milky way. I think we all tend to want to think we’ll transcend this by becoming something greater after death in many religions, or maybe through science in the atheist’s world.

    If we’re mature, shouldn’t we be able to accept our small place and make the most of that, believer or not? Live in the singularity of the here and now, not delude yourself about your place in the cosmos.

    • JCR says:

      You point out what I find to be the hypocritical nature of the religious. They often claim humility, but can never see themselves as less than little gods – with immortal souls – and the most covetous role in the universe. Not very humble at all, actually.

    • santitafarella says:

      Bruce:

      Is it really that simple? Doesn’t at least some of the air of eros flab out of the balloon of life if the universe is, ultimately, a pointless chaos and not a cosmos? (Sorry for the Freudian-laden sentence.)

      —Santi

  7. JCR says:

    @Santi

    You pretty regularly write that without a deity or heaven, then the universe is without purpose. There are several problems with this line. Isn’t it also possible that there could be a deity, but that the universe could also be without purpose? what if some omnipotent being made the universe the way we would make a sandcastle? It is cool for the few minutes you look at it, then you wander off and forget it even existed.

    I find this argument of god giving life purpose as off kilter as the argument that human rights come from god. Purpose is derived from within individuals and societies. Have you ever had a god or his messenger come speak to you directly to grant you purpose? Most (I would say all) have not, yet we all find some purpose. forget god, look at the universe – it already gives us purpose. Evolution and instinct have given all species a rudimentary purpose of procreation and survival. As humans, we can take that innumerable steps further. We can better ourselves, we can try to eliminate war, poverty, we can ensure that the next generation is healthier, happier, safer, lives longer. In reality, we already do these things. They date back to the earliest human societies – and far predate the Abrahamic, Hindu and other mythologies. No god has given us this purpose, the universe itself – evolution – gave us this purpose. The universe is god. for all intents and purposes, it is infinite. How much more infinite is god than the universe and what could that possibly mean to us piddly little humans. We cannot even imagine the breadth of our universe, much less something greater. Maybe if we survive a million years, we will evolve to something capable of grasping even the infinite we can see and touch. And even that million years would be the blink of an eye in the scope of the life of the universe.

    • santitafarella says:

      JCR:

      Your position is akin to Terry Eagleton’s. Eagleton posits (brilliantly, I think) that the universe is God’s aesthetic project, not something serious. This bypasses the traditional fretting over the problem of evil, but opens up other cans of worms.

      I do think you’re downplaying nihilism. Put whatever optimistic spin you choose on human purposes absent God, Nietzsche still haunts.

      —Santi

      • JCR says:

        You clearly have a broader and deeper knowledge of philosophy that I do. Many things have intrinsic understanding to you that I do not share. Please forgive my ignorance, but is the issue not straight forward? We are already born with purpose:

        – survive
        – procreate
        – prosper, making life better for one’s self, family and community
        – protect your self, family, community

        These concepts span the globe, span religions, and predate all modern religions. You seem to want a bigger purpose, which I understand. Personally, I turn prosper into advancing the human race, and that is my overarching purpose. But to claim we are without purpose is to discount the purpose implicit in all of us.

      • santitafarella says:

        JCR:

        There’s a cartoon my wife showed me a month or two back. It shows various panels, each containing a different animal, and each is accompanied by the same caption: “eat, survive, reproduce.” In the last panel, of course, is a star gazing human, turned away from the animals, asking the following question: “What do you suppose life is all about?”

        —Santi

      • santitafarella says:

        That’s it!

        Google akbar (Google is great).

        —Santi

      • JCR says:

        That is great 🙂

  8. I may not have been clear. I think that we should be able to accept being temporary in our existence, whether we believe in God or not. Live in the here and the now and make the most of it. I don’t think I insisted on the existence of hell.

  9. concerned christian says:

    Santi:
    While I admit that there are many things in life that I do not understand. I believe that God communicates with us through the supernatural, and I consider that to be an important “crutch if you will” that helps me accept the madness of this world. Non-believers in general do not take miracles seriously. Using their post Christian reasoning, they assume that miracles never happen, and if they ever hear about one they simply discard it without any effort to investigate it. For example there have been many apparitions of St. Mary from Lourdes to Fatima to even a suburb of Cairo in 1968, and many miracles accompanied these apparitions. But the reaction of the secular world was lukewarm. Let us assume that these miracles are God’s way of communicating with us why don’t we take them seriously. To make my point, in the last few decades there has been concentrated effort by many scientists to search for extra terrestrial intelligence. Project SETI is one at the forefront of these efforts. Imagine if tomorrow we recorded what looks like an ET signal, how the world will react? I am sure many will start looking to their lives in a totally different perspective. Why many do not treat the question of existence of a spiritual world with the same scientific curiosity and dedication they treat the search for ET?

    • santitafarella says:

      I’m certainly not against crutches—we all need them at some level. I just put up a post on this, a defense of crutches, if you will. See here:

      https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/in-your-trance-youre-not-unfortunate-atheism-vs-theism-in-euripidess-bakkhai/

      As for eye witness testimony, I wish it were more reliable, but isn’t it curious that physical evidence almost always goes begging in so many accounts of the miraculous?

      As for a second world apart from this one, I certainly don’t think it is impossible (either logically or physically). Even atheists seem to need other worlds to account for this one (the multiverse and other dimensions). And the very fact that our little planet contains about 7 billion material objects possessed by ghosts (that is, our bodies and brains with an individual inside them) is startling. Why is there any conscious matter at all? No other matter, in so far as we can tell, is conscious. Stars aren’t conscious. Nor rocks. To quote Tony Soprano’s mother, What makes us so special?

      Ghosts are everywhere. I seem to be one. I seem to have free will. Who or what turned me on? And is there any purpose to it?

      —Santi

  10. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi – Hi

    “Which is worse for children………………..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”

    After your post yesterday – Damon Linker etc., (on which I will also comment) – I felt compelled to go back to this one.

    I drafted a comment at the time (addressing the specific issue of children), but it didn’t ‘gel’. I later asked my wife to remind me how we had handled belief issues with our own children and I concluded that the way you had phrased the issue was responsible for my difficulty. You employed a degree of false dichotomy.

    We didn’t “reveal” either one or the other to our children. That would have been abuse. Wouldn’t you agree that what you owe to your children is to teach them from an early age to think for themselves and make up their own minds on issues which relate to belief? Full stop!

    Without getting into a debate about the non-validity of generalising from the particular (or issues of luck, nature v. nurture, etc.) can I risk being an old bore and say that our three progeny (nearly your age and also productive members of society) are ‘matter-of-factly’ atheist with psyches that do appear to be successfully “bypassing hell realms entirely, and without a great deal of difficulty, mess or fuss”.

    -Colin

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