Hellbound? Or simply hell on earth? This is a question some of us struggle with throughout our lives. Unresolved, it represents a war between faith and logic, as well as doctrine and science, separating families, peoples and nations.
Picture a young child with an active mind who recognizes many inconsistencies within the religion her culture is imposing upon her. She asks her father if it is true that her friend in school from a different faith is going to hell. He says yes. But Susie is nice, she argues. Why should Susie go to hell because her parents are teaching her the wrong information? Further, what if her parents are right and you are wrong, Dad? I’m not wrong, says Dad. Trust me. Trust the faith and ignore your questioning mind, and everything will be fine.
This exchange tells the child that if she doesn’t believe in her father’s version of God, she is going to hell alongside Susie. But she can’t escape the fact that the brain she was born with simply refuses to accept what she is being taught. Her father tells her that faith is a requirement for salvation, but she simply doesn’t have any, and believes she is damned as a result.
She goes to her mother and explains the situation. Mother says, Well, if you think you are going to hell because you don’t believe, that means you must believe in hell at least. So you have at least half of the faith required. If you believe in hell, you must believe in heaven as well, whether of not you recognize it.
For awhile this explanation suffices to quiet the deep fear of hellfire that has been instilled in the child. It takes forty years from that time to recover fully from this early indoctrination. The fear of hell and punishment is much stronger than trust in God and the universe, colouring all the decisions this child grows up to make in her lifetime.
Through study, exploration, and experimentation with multiple religions, agnosticism and atheism, the adult the child eventually becomes realizes that any experience with the divine is ultimately personal, and any outside indoctrination is a pollution of inner growth. But by that time, the mistakes are already made. The trajectory of wrong turns, failed relationships, and lowered expectations speak their own truth: that indoctrination creates a hell in the mind of the subject, even while torturing her with promises of more punishment in the hereafter - eternally.
One look at the news today will provide a pretty accurate snapshot of the negative effects of religion on society. You have both Muslims and Christians claiming access to the ultimate truth and inflicting hatred and bigotry towards anyone who does not share their views. The result is war and misery for both sides. Remember 9/11? While Bush was invoking the assistance of Almighty to combat Islamist jihad, the jihadists themselves were certain of divine reward for their murderous actions. Who can be the arbitrator in such a deep divide? The Almighty has been silent on this question so far, leaving the rest of us to fight it out on a perpetually bloody battlefield.
Why is this so? I think the answer lies in what could be termed the positive effects of religion. Organized religion provides comfort in the face of disturbing questions, such as what happens when we die. It gives people a sense of belonging and community. The sad thing is that this sense of belonging is a result of tribal instinct that separates “us” from “them.” As soon as an individual identifies with a “club,” he or she is encouraged to believe that all outsiders to this belief are a threat. And they are. Alternate opinions are not welcomed in organized religion, as they threaten the entire structure of tribal ‘togetherness.”
As a child, beginning to use my own critical faculties, I recognized the many contradictions in the doctrines I was being taught, but I was told to stifle my rational thought in favour of “faith.” I was told that if I couldn’t believe, I was damned. Since the intelligence I was born with was deemed inapplicable, I was left with conflict that took many years to resolve.
Many atheists and agnostics have had to do a great deal of study before having the courage to trust their own convictions. Are they hellbound, or not? Do they suffer doubt? You bet. You suffer doubt until you make up your mind, based on the best evidence you can find. And the dominant culture demands it. Meanwhile, the anguish and confusion suffered by those who can’t swallow doctrines pushed by their tribe diminishes the tribe's quality of life overall. The unfaithful may be cast out, shunned and even killed by their own relatives. Family strife takes it's toll in addiction, alcoholism and mental illness - and all the ramifications that follow, including unemployment, divorce, and social isolation. And, of course, war. For me, this is the true cost of organized religion.
I am not athiest. Nor am I agnostic. I know what I've experienced, and I have my own theories. But I am not a preacher. It's not up to me to convert you to my religion. But I do hope you are discovering your own.