Friday, May 27, 2005

Scared of Hell? Part One

Is it wrong to have a portion of one's belief be based on fear of damnation? We'll eventually get to answering this from a sound Christian perspective, but let's look at one notable point of view first which comes from an atheist.

From the point of view of one well-known atheist, George Smith, author of the classic Atheism: The Case Against God, we have the following from page 300:
Hell stands as a constant reminder of the essence of Christianity: God is to be obeyed because, in the final analysis, he is bigger and stronger than we are; and, in addition, he is incomparably more vicious. With the warning, "Obey God or burn in hell," we have a straightforward illustration of a physical sanction, as well as a revealing gimpse into the core of Christianity.

Today many moderate and liberal denominations play down the concept of hell or deny it altogether; nevertheless, their moral codes remained drenched in rules. But without the benefit of hell, what is used as a rule sanction?

The answer lies within the realm of psychological sanctions. Recall that a sanction may be physical or psychological. Physical sanctions are usually uncomplicated and easy to detect, whereas psychological snactions are often complpex and subtle, which explains why they are rarely identified.

Now Smith quite often lets his rhetoric and forceful tone do the work of an actual argument in this classic book. Stripping away the fluff, let's go through the essential propositions in turn:

(1) Hell is a constant reminder of the essence of Christianity. God is to be obeyed because he is bigger and stronger than we are.

It would be more accurate to say that Hell is a constant reminder of the militant atheist's conception of Christianity, and not necessarily that of Christians in general. There are some Christians who have a real fear of Hell, and there are some who think about it now and then, and there are some who don't really let it occupy too much of the grey matter, and the matter is hardly brokered by a sweeping claim such as given by Smith.

Hell is one of the pinnacles of the faulty atheist argument-by-outrage. The syllogism, when stripped of its flowery humanistic rhetoric, generally takes on the form

X makes me angry or seems unjust to me
Christianity [or insert whatever religion you'd like here] instantiates X


Christianity [or whatever was in the minor premise above] is false. [Make this claim while tearing your garment and beating your breast for full effect.]

Smith takes this rhetoric and mentions that in the end God is obeyed because, basically, he's bigger, stronger, and "incomparably more vicious."

It is certainly true that God is bigger and stronger, as omnipotence is not a quality one associates with humanity. However, is God "incomparably more vicious"? More vicious than what? Context seems to indicate that Smith is asserting that God is incomparably more vicious than we are. When one thinks of human depravity exhibited both by so-called defenders of the Christian Church as well as those who set up the atheist-totalitarian state, one sees quite a bit of viciousness. As human viciousness can reach unthought-of levels with respect to decent folks, the claim about God's viciousness is a solitary assertion bereft of any sort of argumentation that anybody who hasn't bought into Smith's premise should be able to see as mere question-begging rhetoric.

But is God vicious at all?

If "vicious" is defined as "acting of behaving in a way that offends George Smith's sensibilities, then the question is settled in favor of Smith's claim. But the dictionary's definition gives

1. Having the nature of vice; evil, immoral, or depraved.
2. Given to vice, immorality, or depravity.
3. Spiteful; malicious: vicious gossip.
4. Disposed to or characterized by violent or destructive behavior. See Synonyms at cruel.
5. Marked by an aggressive disposition; savage. Used chiefly of animals.
6. Severe or intense; fierce: a vicious storm.
7. Faulty, imperfect, or otherwise impaired by defects or a defect: a forced, vicious style of prose.
8. Impure; foul.

Nowhere in Smith's book on pages 1-299 does he give a successful argument that any of 1-8 apply to God. [Actually, let me take this opportunity to recommend Smith's book. It is the Summa of all of the popular atheist objections to the classical concept fo God, in particular, to Christianity. It is generally easy reading for anybody with any philosophical training, and one can make a parlor game out of fitting every objection to God that one comes across in real life to the appropriate section of Smith's book.] The labelling of God as "vicious" with the comparative adverb is Smith letting his forceful personality do the work of an argument here. [By page 300, one is used to this.]

(2) Hell is "a revealing glimpse into the core of Christianity."

By way of comment, Smith is correct here in a certain sense. Hell is a non-negotiable doctrine if one takes the pages of scripture with seriousness. But
to say that Hell is the core of Christianity requires a special dispensation in the ability to overstate one's case.

It is more the case that, contrary to Smith, conservative Christians would make the person and work of Christ the core of Christianity. For example, in Pieper's Christian Dogmatics, the volumes of which were [and I believe still are] used in the LCMS dogmatics training for ministers, 300 pages of the second volume of the three-volume set is dedicated to Christology. The doctrine of Hell, by comparison, takes up only a few pages. For a more modern Evangelical dogmatics, Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology dedicates one out of the fifty-seven chapters to the topic. Simply put, if Smith wants to call Hell the core of Christianity, he is welcome to do so, but he does so by ignoring contrary evidence that isn't hard to find.

(3) Many moderate and liberal denominations "play down the concept of hell or deny it altogether."

This is true; see any liberal Roman Catholic parish, or, for an example close to the PP, see the local ELCA or Methodist parish and ask the pastor there what she thinks!

At the same time, we need to understand what "play down" means. It appears that Smith, who earlier above made the claim that Hell is the core of Christianity, would have to call anything that doesn't make Hell the end-all and be-all doctrine "played down." In particular, Pieper and Grudem may very well be accused of playing down the doctrine. Smith wants to build up a straw man whereby Christians obsess about hell, so when an actual living and breathing Christian doesn't, Smith might very well want to call them liberal or moderate, as they don't fit his incorrect conception of a conservative Christian.

(4) Nevertheless, the moral codes of these liberal denominations remain drenched in rules.

Wow! That's news to me. When I see liberal denominations ordaining a homosexual archbishop who abandoned his wife and children to pursue a sodomic relationship, I don't see any moral codes, nor a drenching in rules. When I see a culture of pederasty in the Roman Catholic Church that gets shuffled around for many years and not sanctioned until the you-know-what hits the fan and the public is outraged, I don't see any moral codes, nor a drenching in rules. Ah, but in the world of the village atheist, assertion equals argument.

(5) Smith then asks basically what "sanctions" one can have without, as he calls it, "the benefit of hell."

Let's now requote Smith's third paragraph from above:

The answer lies within the realm of psychological sanctions. Recall that a sanction may be physical or psychological. Physical sanctions are usually uncomplicated and easy to detect, whereas psychological snactions are often complpex and subtle, which explains why they are rarely identified.

And how does Smith define a psychological sanction?

A psychological sanction is a moral term that is used for the purpose of psychological intimidation, which is intended to motivate compliance with rules. Moral terms, when used in this fashion, function as psychological cue-words --- words used to trigger emotions, rather than convey information.

The next paragraph, now on p. 301, contains the following:

A psychological sanction, if successful, causes the emotion of guilt. A man motivated by fear may still retain an element of rebelliousness, of determination to strike back given the opportunity. A man motivated by guilt, however, is a man with a broken spirit; he will obey the rules without question. A guilt-ridden man is the perfect subject for religious morality, and this is why psychological sanctions have been extremely effective in accomplishing their purpose.

Smith continually views religion as an excuse for an authoritarian power-game whereby a priestly class controls the people. And, in many instances, this view is justified. [Think Rome and indulgences.] In many instances, the view is not justified. I'm on friendly terms with various conservative pastors, and they'd serve as instantiations of the claim that religion is not necessarily an authoritarian power-game.

Smith has a strange understanding of human nature when he says that a guilt-ridden man is a perfect subject for religious morality, for there are at least two obvious replies to this.

(a) One reply is that a guilt-ridden man may attempt to rid his guilt by denying the existence of the rules that cause him the guilt in the first place. For example, the appropriate passages in Romans and Corinthians [not to mention the Torah!] are conspicuously absent for the militant homosexuals, or, they're explained away with various sorts of linguistic evasions. Just as one is tempted upon blowing one's diet to give up completely and go hog-wild, a man can be tempted to greater sin because of his guilt, feeling that since he's blown it he may as well go all the way.

(b) The NT is quite clear about the person who is not ridden with guilt about their sins. These people are in a rather perilous state because they don't recognize their own deficiencies and sinfulness. One can point to the Pharisees, who according to the NT data were not prone to fits of guilt, as those who would partake and promulgate the authoritarian structure that Smith so despises. So, even if Smith's claim that a guilt-ridden man is a good subject for "religious morality," he can't state anything about perfection, for he has missed at least one possible type of competitor.

Have psychological sanctions been effective at times? Sure. But this has nothing to do with religion per se. Think of re-education camps, indoctrination techniques, and the other totalitarian goodies detailed in, say, The Black Book of Communism to see that sanctions and such are not a religion-only enterprise.


Smith states on p. 299 that
The belief in eternal torment, still subscribed to by fundamentalist Christian denominations, undoubtedly ranks as the most vicious and reprehensible doctrine of classical Christianity

It is therefore clear where Smith stands, especially given the superlative employed in the above quote. Based on this quote and the material above, Smith is making an argument against Christianity based on the facts that Hell offends him and the straw-man authoritarianism that he universally applies to all Christians offends him as well.

Basically, then, somebody like Smith would view as defective any person who worries about Hell and credits any part of their coming to faith to a worry about Hell. [Smith would view them as defective anyway, since those who have not reached his enlightened plane of atheism are worthy of scorn.]

But is such a person defective in some monstrous way? That shall be answered in the next part, coming this weekend in the Pedantic Protestant!


Blogger centuri0n said...

The "God's a bully or a fascist" argument is a funny one for a lot of reasons, but one of the better ones is this:

As my CARM readers know, I have a great time with atheists from time to time. One of my favorite questions to ask them is "Why should I not steal your car?" As you can imagine, the common answer is "because it's mine", but the more erudite atheist will say, "because society says it is wrong".

OK -- fair enough. Why should I listen to society? "Well, sciety has the police, and they will punish you if you don't do what society says."

Funny how that sauce tastes on chicken wings when it is repulsive on the turkey wings.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005 7:13:00 AM  
Blogger Pedantic Protestant said...

Welcome to my humble online studio internet apartment, Frank.

During the atheist/agnostic days, I often wondered exactly the same thing: why do X instead of Y? I considered myself a pretty well-informed atheist, and really never found satisfaction in whatever answers I read or came up with on my own.

I've run into a few intellectually honest ones who admit that morality is subjective.

Anyway, thanks for dropping by. I need to send Dr Svendsen at NTRMin another PP coffee mug or tee-shirt for directing you here.


Wednesday, June 01, 2005 3:09:00 PM  

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