Daniel Fincke over at Camels With Hammers returned from computer problems with dialogue on Hell, and it’s a good springboard for some of my comments on it, especially since I find the dialogue to be a bit harsh, and his theist advocate a bit unprepared to deal with that. Of course, it’s hard to give different replies in a dialogue and keep the narrative flow, so I’ll try to write my responses as dialogue responses but won’t try to fill in the atheist side too much. Note, of course, that this will be using my belief system, and so the Stoics will be mentioned a time or two.
Jaime: The other option is hell! That’s like some sick abusive husband telling his wife that she has two options—either she stays in the physically and emotionally damaging relationship or he “divorces” her—and keeps her chained up in the basement being subjected to non-lethal torture the rest of her life. And, as a bonus, he has the power and the unchanging will to make her live and continue suffering in that dungeon forever. By your definition, a woman who refused to be in this relationship would be “choosing” this torture. But this is ridiculous. For “choosing” your god to actually be “freely done”, under these circumstances, it is clear there has to be another option—we have to be able to be without your god and not suffering at all for it.
Stoic: Well, there is a lot to say here, and let’s start at the end. You assume that for a free choice under these circumstances it would have to be the case that no suffering would arise from not choosing God. This might be consistent with the idea of Hell, in this case, as being a punishment, but isn’t consistent with the idea of Hell being a consequence. Even the punishment model does not lend itself to that sort of conclusion. After all, there is the threat of punishment if I murder someone, but that doesn’t mean that I never freely choose not to murder. Ultimately, you are looking at it in a sense that if you are under a threat, you can’t make a real choice and so cannot be held responsible for it, but I’m on-board with the Stoics here and deny that. If someone puts a gun to my head and says “Murder that person”, I still make a free choice. We might, of course, completely understand someone making the wrong choice and killing someone and so be more lenient, but they still made that choice. If you really think that you should not believe or worship God, that’s your choice … and then you live with the consequences. And I don’t just hold this for you, but for myself as well. There are things that I disagree with when it comes to religious morality, at least in part the idea that morality is to be determined separately. So I act in ways, knowingly, that are called sinful. I do so because I decide they are what I should do, and I’m prepared to accept the consequences of being wrong, no matter what they are or, in fact, even if I get punished, no matter what that is.
Your analogy with the abusive husband and battered wife is also a bad one. First — again, starting at the end — it isn’t the case that if we reject God that God “divorces” us. We “divorce” him, and separate ourselves from him, and God is always willing to accept us back. So, in essence, the choices would be between her staying in the relationship and her leaving it herself and separating herself from God. Second, you simply assert that it’s a physically and emotionally damaging relationship, but religious people certainly don’t feel that way, and in fact feel quite the opposite. So from the religious point of view, it would be her leaving either a fulfilling or potentially fulfilling relationship for … something else, thus separating herself from God who is always patiently waiting for her to return, but where the consequences are bad. It doesn’t seem like a good choice for her to make in that case, and not because God is some kind of abusive monster.
Jaime: I’m sure that’s what every bullying husband tells his battered wife—he knows she really needs him and is too stupid to understand that herself.
Stoic: But God really would know better and we might really not understand ourselves. It’s easy to get caught up in chasing indifferents and ignoring the real virtues, to think that the less restricted life is better. Humans have a tendency to choose things that seem like they’ll provide the best life that actually don’t, like say people who think getting plastered all weekend is great despite the hangover and damage to their bodies. The sarcastic reply, here, still simply carries on the misunderstandings shown earlier; you consider God abusive, and so deny that the advice may be in the best interests of the people involved, whereas if you don’t look at it that way it certainly, at least, isn’t clear.
Jaime: There are plenty of indications that your own Bible and influential Christian theologians teach that the dead are resurrected—and not that they simply become disembodied spirits. You do claim Jesus’s body came back to life, right?
Stoic: That Jesus rose bodily from the dead doesn’t mean that we do. Remember that the NT says that his body went missing from the tomb. That clearly doesn’t happen to us, so if that’s what’s meant then you have an obvious way to falsify Christianity. But things are not that simple. Since it isn’t our body, then, what does it mean for us to have a body, or do we even really have a body at all? This can only be settled with a lot of theological work.
Jaime: But my life as an atheist not even believing in your god is not miserable. Why would it be any more miserable were I sent somewhere after life where I wasn’t around your god either? Why would this suddenly start eating me up inside then, when it certainly does not now?
Stoic: Living in the world, you aren’t actually separated completely from God. After death, you would be. Simply not believing that something exists does not mean that you are separated and not influenced by it. After death, you might actually be separated, which would be a completely different experience.
Jaime: I would think it would be impossible to be miserable and not realize it! How could I be confused that I was happy when “in reality” I was secretly miserable? If I feel like I’m experiencing pleasure—or even just indifference, or even feeling, you know, just “blasé”—then how could that be misery unbeknownst to me. What do you even mean by misery if it’s something someone could not know they were experiencing. If hell is an eternity of thinking I’m as pleased as I am here on earth but “secretly” and “unbeknownst to me” being miserable then I’ll start packing for my eternal “suffering” in hell.
Stoic: Misery may be too strong a word, but you may simply be not realizing the true and greater pleasures, and you’d feel miserable if you had experienced them and then tried to find fulfillment you would indeed feel miserable. So it might be that you don’t feel miserable now, but would if you knew what real pleasure was. I, personally, resist basing my arguments for this on happiness versus misery, feeling that decisions should be right without considering the traditional notion of “happiness”, but that’s just me.
I don’t know, I feel pretty damned fulfilled. And I feel like there is plenty of good in my life without your god. In fact, I would say I know there is plenty of good in my life without your god. Saying your god is identical with goodness and that all badness is identical with being separated from your god is meaningless. Sex is good—is your god sex? Food is good, is your god food? Power, respect, fame, accomplishments, friendship, romantic love, and all the people themselves whom I love—they’re all good; are they your god too? What about all the virtues I have that lead to good things in my life without any need for your god’s intervention and which are themselves delightful to have? Is my generosity your god? Is my sense of humor your god? Are my powers to investigate truths your god? All these things are good and I can have them without your god because they are totally distinct and independent from your god.
Stoic: On what grounds do you say that those things are good? You need to distinguish between good used in the colloquial and Good as used in terms of ultimate ends. Is sex good? It’s generally pleasant, so in the colloquial it is. Is sex Good? Well, is sex a virtue? No, it seems like sex is not intrinsically good in that way. So, then, again borrowing from the Stoics I see sex as an indifferent when we talk about Good. So, then, you have an indifferent in your life. The same applies to pretty much everything you listed until you get to the virtues, and of those only generosity seems to be undeniably a virtue. Now, I personally think that we can find the virtues without believing in God, because I consider them — as the Stoics do — to be the base principles of morality, and I believe theologically can we have the capacity to learn to be moral without having to appeal to scripture or God directly. So, if you really are virtuous without believing in God, that’s fine. A theological argument — and one I support — would be that subscribing to real virtue is far more like a proper belief in God than lip service of declaring belief in a God. So acting virtuously may well be argued to actually not separate you from God, even if your web of belief doesn’t include the proposition “God exists”. At which point, it wouldn’t be independent. I’m not sure how far I want to push that argument, though; it’s pretty controversial in many ways and may even look like a way of defining atheists as really being theists. Suffice it to say, though, there’s a lot more to say here about good, Good, virtue, God, and separation from God.
Jaime: Not believing someone exists is not “refusing to be with” that person. I mean, seriously, Robin, why do you refuse to be with Aquaman? Why do you reject him so? Don’t you see how you will one day deservedly suffer emotionally forever with an Aquaman-shaped-hole in your heart after you die because of the ways you “deny” Aquaman in your life? Why won’t you just accept that Aquaman loves you and that only in Aquaman will you find fulfillment? Why won’t you accept that all the good things in life that you currently enjoy are not nearly as good as they would be if you also knew Aquaman? Don’t you see how an eternity in which you have all of Aquaman’s gracious gifts except for the presence of Aquaman himself would be a terrible fate from which you should want salvation?
Stoic: For novelty, I’ll start at the top. I agree with you that not believing someone exits is not a rejection, and so lean towards explanations that allow for the missing belief while still allowing room for real and legitimate rejection. As long as you don’t reject God, you won’t be separated from him, and so would not, one presumes, go to Hell on the “Hell is living without God” model (which always reminds me of the Alice Cooper song, BTW). But if you reject God, then you would be separated from him on that model. Now, are comments like “Seriously, even if he was up there in some heaven, I could never love—let alone worship—someone who offered me the choice between loving him and being burned alive for eternity.” indications of rejection? Is your stance that God is completely and terribly immoral a rejection? It might be, but note the difference between that and simply lacking belief. It’s much more active and much more rejecting, which would bring us back to the original comment.
So, let’s take Aquaman. Do I reject Aquaman? No, I merely do not believe that Aquaman exists. I do not deny Aquaman’s supposedly intrinsic qualities; if Aquaman existed, I accept that he can swim, breathe underwater, and talk to fish. But I think him a fictional character. That’s not a rejection … but it also isn’t what you do.
Also note an important difference here. I know that Aquaman does not exist except as a fictional character, because I can trace the history back to Aquaman’s invention and prove that. Do you really know that God doesn’t exist? I have seen nothing that rises to that level yet, and so this weakens such analogies; it is difficult to compare something that we know does not exist to something that we may not know exists, but that we also do not know doesn’t exist. But without that move, these analogies don’t work; it is not as unreasonable to believe that something exists when you don’t know that it doesn’t exist (and have evidence outside of your mind, at least, for it) as to believe that something exists when you do know that it doesn’t exist.
His deeds are ugly—and none is uglier than the gruesome child sacrifice in which he has his own son brutally crucified.
Stoic: None uglier? Why? Is life a virtue, or an indifferent? I think it reasonable to claim that giving up your life and enduring suffering for the virtues is, in fact, morally superior to avoiding it. As with most of your examples, you have a specific idea of what is good and right and moral in mind, and you use that to bludgeon your opponents. But your idea of morality is not yet proven. Neither is mine. Under mine, there are certainly good reasons to think that death and suffering are indifferents and that a virtuous end might have been achieved by sacrificing those indifferents, and if that was the case all virtuous beings must allow this sort of thing to happen. Yours is different, perhaps, but we don’t know if you’re right and I’m wrong. Your “gruesome child sacrifice” is my “noble and virtuous death”. The same applies to the other examples, in some sense: can you think of no cases where it is morally questionnable whether or not genocide is right or wrong, for example? If you can’t, then you don’t watch or read enough science fiction, I submit. The cases may still be wrong, but there are interesting questions there, that you ignore when you make such pronouncements. That you do so knowing that those you are replying to do not see the events the way you do smacks of simply ignoring them, something that you yourself seem to get quite upset about when you perceive it happening to you.