By Helen Simmons
Maybe it’s the will of God (if God exists) or the result of my karmas (possibly negative) in who knows how many previous existences (if the karma theory is at all true), but through much of my life I’ve found myself surrounded by people who take their religions perhaps more seriously than they should. A few of them were certainly among the best human beings I’ve ever met—no doubt their faith gave them meaning and helped them bloom. Many of them, however, were stunningly boring. If you surrender what, if you believe in God, you must accept as your God-given right to think for yourself, you’ll almost inevitably become that way, I suppose. It was painful the way they had to rationalise bizarre religious beliefs and doctrines. The ritualism that their religions imposed on them, seeking to control almost their every action and thought, was obviously a heavy burden to bear, but they had become inured to it, like prisoners get used to their chains after a while and can’t seem to live without them. It was evident to others, if not to them, that their morose and sometimes cantankerous religiosity had only added to their depression.
The most pathetic of the religious folks I’ve ever met were ardent believers who insisted that only those who believed just as they did were on the ‘right path’. Everyone else, they were firmly convinced, was doomed to perdition in hell. If your beliefs didn’t exactly correspond to the ones prescribed in this one ‘true religion’, there was simply no way, they argued, that you could escape divine punishment after death—which, according to some, was languishing in the fires of hell for all time to come. They would describe hell in chilling detail—as if they had been there, hung around and seen it for themselves.
It wasn’t that these folks were an eccentric minority. In actual fact, this is precisely how a great many religionists actually do fervently believe. Although this belief isn’t exclusive to just one religion and is shared by adherents of various religions, it appears to be more typical of some faith communities than others. It underlies the pervasive hatred that many religionists, fed on such supremacist dogmas, typically have for people who don’t believe as they do.
I can’t get myself to understand how people—even some who think of themselves as ‘highly educated’—can take this belief at all seriously. Leave alone the tragic human consequences of such a belief—the missionary campaigns, the hate-driven ‘holy wars’ and so on—the consequences of this belief for (our conceptions of) God itself are ominous. To put it mildly, this belief cannot in anyway be reconciled with the notion of God as Justice and Love, and, at the same time, Omnipotent—which is how most religionists imagine God to be. If you insist that your God is—or should or must be—just, loving and all-powerful, you will have to also insist that people who claim that God’s going to banish people who don’t believe in their religion to everlasting hell are making a complete mockery of Him. One couldn’t conceive of a more serious case of defamation than that. As far as I am concerned, in claiming to defend God such folks are giving Him an awful name, and I’m sure He isn’t pleased with this in the least.
I don’t quite know if God exists—at least in the form that most religionists, who believe in a personal deity, do. But suppose He does, and that He is indeed All-Powerful, All-Just and All-Loving. Now, if, as they say, He really does want everyone to go to heaven (that is, supposing that heaven, as most religionists imagine it, does exist), why didn’t He make it evident to every human being, and not just to a chosen few, what the supposed one true religion, which is supposedly the only path to heaven, is? He could have done this had He wanted to, because, after all, He is All-Powerful. Then again, why didn’t He arrange for every human being, and not just a chosen few, to be born into a family that follows the one true religion so that everyone, and not just some people, could grow up fervently believing in it, thereby assuring their smooth passage to heaven?
That He didn’t do all of this can indicate several possibilities. Firstly, maybe there is no such God as religionists imagine Him to be, and that all our discussions and beliefs about Him are useless speculations about a non-existent entity. Maybe there’s nothing as everlasting hell—and heaven—too. Secondly, supposing the first possibility is wrong and God indeed is, maybe He doesn’t correspond to our human understandings and claims about Him. Maybe He isn’t a personal being, who marches off people to different destinations on their deaths. Thirdly, if God is a personal being perhaps He isn’t the All-Just, All-Loving and All-Powerful being we think He is. Maybe, while being All-Powerful, He isn’t All-Just and All-Loving, which is why He can send billions of people to everlasting hell simply because they didn’t follow the ‘one right’ path (which most of them weren’t even aware of while on earth), even though they may otherwise have been wonderful, compassionate and loving human beings, certainly much better folks than most ‘true’ believers.
Frankly, there’s no way we mortals can decide about the reality, or otherwise, of these possibilities, and it’s pointless speculating about them. Be that as it may, they indicate that our human understandings of God—supposing He exists—are very possibly mere claims, based on our own prejudices and beliefs, which cannot be independently substantiated outside the realm of blind belief.
There’s another reason why I think this doctrine of God throwing people who don’t follow the supposed one ‘true’ religion to hell is totally unacceptable. And that is the everlastingness that some people believe in of the punishment of failing to believe in the ‘right’ religion. Frankly, I can’t seem to think of any crime—not even murder or genocide—that can merit endless punishment, especially of the horrific sort meted out in hell. God, so they say, is like a Father, and His Love apparently far exceeds that of a loving parent. I can’t see anything loving or parent-like in a figure who’ll cast his children into everlasting hell simply for not believing in the ‘right’ things about him, especially if, for no fault of their own, they weren’t even aware of these beliefs and their supposed rightness while on earth.
Suppose a father were to demand from his son to believe that he has a chocolate hidden in his pocket. The son, being an intelligent lad, answers, ‘Father, I just can’t get myself to believe there’s a chocolate in there. Maybe it’s there, but, then, maybe it isn’t. I’d rather check your pocket and see for myself and then I can be really sure. If you show the chocolate to me, I’ll know it’s there and so there won’t be any need for me to believe it is. Knowing’s better than believing, after all, isn’t it, Father?’
Wouldn’t you think the boy is justified in his response? After all, how can we believe in something if there isn’t adequate proof of it? Isn’t it better that the child sees, or is shown, the chocolate instead of being ordered to believe in its existence without being supplying any convincing evidence? To order the child in this way is to simply insult his intelligence and indicates a fundamental lack of compassion on the part of the father.
Suppose that instead of listening to the boy the father flies into a rage. ‘How dare you not believe me!’ he booms. ‘Even if I say something that sounds absolutely incredulous and stupid, you simply have to believe what I say!’ He whips out his belt and lashes the poor lad so badly that he dies. He doesn’t stop there, though. Even after the boy is dead, he continues to punish him for his ‘disbelief’ by throwing his body into a boiling cauldron and has snakes and scorpions to come and sting him—all because the hapless boy refused to believe that he had a chocolate hidden in his pocket and wanted firm evidence before he could answer.
Now, what would you say of such a father? Wouldn’t you think he is barbaric, utterly insane and cruel? Would you consider him at all worthy of our respect and trust, leave alone our worship? Wouldn’t you think that it is the father, rather than the son, who merits punishment or treatment at a mental hospital?
I don’t need to say more—discerning folks can well understand what this little anecdote indicates about the lamentably all-too-widespread belief in an avenging, sadistic God who revels in the sufferings of His children who, for no fault of their own, didn’t believe in the things that, so it is claimed, they should have. As far as I am concerned, either God doesn’t exist, or, if It does, It definitely isn’t the God of folks who make It out to be a raging, hate-driven monster.
Helen Simmons is a lapsed believer. She thinks spending time with cats and dogs and reading nineteenth century English poets is a far more sensible way of seeking the divine than mumbling, howling, bowing and scraping in man-made structures.