Seeking the Source of Hell

Question from Jakob:
Hello, I am back again. So my fear of hell has came back a little, just a little. So anyway do you know of any good books on the origin of hell and similar Christian mythology?

Answer by SmartLX:
Hell’s a little bit specific for a whole book. There is The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner, which is mostly focused on changing visual depictions of it. All I could immediately find besides that were essays by the devout like this one, podcasts like this one, and of course the mostly neutral fact dump on Wikipedia. If anyone has a good read to share, feel free to comment. (Yes, thank you, we know about the Bible.)

Books on Christian mythology are plentiful, but mostly focused on the Christ story and its parallels in earlier pagan mythology.

I think it might be just as useful for you to read about all the different concepts of the afterlife throughout history to see how plain it is that no living person knows what happens, good or bad. That means no one has the authority to threaten you with, or warn you about, any kind of hell – unless you hear it directly from the other side somehow. Listen out if you like, but don’t get your hopes up.

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Question from Patti:
I wondered how to cite your website? Hyperlinks don’t take me to your site! 🙁

Answer by SmartLX:
That’s the first I’ve heard of it. Some hyperlinks do work, I’m notified when people use them to come here. See Ask The AtheistS for an example: in my response there’s a hyperlink in the words “other site”.

If that one doesn’t work for you, you might have some kind of domain restriction at your end. If it does work, comment and point me to a link that isn’t working so I can help find out what’s up. Thanks very much.

Hollywood Hokum

Question from Jakob:
Hello, I am back with more questions and stuff particularly about the portrayal of the supernatural in the mainstream media, for example Hollywood ghost or demon movies like The Exorcist. Another thing that followed some of these are curses or strange phenomena surrounding them, like in the case of The Omen some of the cast during production died. and one guy supposedly crashed near a sign in the Netherlands that said Ommen 6,66. Upon further investigation that turned out to be an exaggerated claim although, he did crash in the area but not near the sign. also not surprisingly after movies like the exorcist came out more people reported demonic signs. it would seem that Hollywood would do everything in their power to make people believe this baloney. Nevertheless there is a large pseudo-acceptance of these things. Now recently some guy on The Thinking Atheist posted something about a sun miracle. i would appreciate it if you could help me debunk or explain these things.

Answer by SmartLX:
The supernatural is very, very common in Hollywood fiction. If it’s a movie where ghosts are real, or magic is taught in school, or demons are literally clawing to the surface from underground, then we accept it and view the rest of the movie in that context. IF ghosts were plainly real, we think to ourselves, how would these people behave? How would the world be different? Between our own imaginations and where the movie actually goes with the concept, we can arrive at a rough understanding of this hypothetical state of affairs, and ponder and discuss it for a long time afterwards. (For instance, at some point nearly everyone reading this has probably talked through the physics and practicality of a lightsaber while not watching a Star Wars movie.)

It’s a fun mental exercise to imagine alternative realities and contrast them with ours, and fiction helps us do this by inspiring concepts of alternative realities. If people believe these supernatural phenomena are real simply because they’ve seen them in a movie, then we consider them to have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction, and generally encourage them to get it straight or get help. Stories surrounding movies, like the idea of The Omen being cursed, do tend to be exaggerated as you say, and skeptics have made a meal of that one in particular. Here’s one discussion. Hollywood publicists do nothing to stifle or correct the stories because they’re happy with anything that gets people talking about a movie, which means more ticket sales.

As for the “sun miracle” at Fátima, I did a piece on that one a short time ago at your request, so I hope you got to read it.

Church and Community, City and Country

Question from Ghevi:
Hi, I’m 20 years old from a small town of Italy, so maybe the arguments that I will write here will be a little nonsense for someone that lives in a big city or in another country.
I don’t wanna argue by a “logical” position on God etc., as i think that is pretty obvious how religions were “made” by men reflecting values of a certain region. I don’t wanna say that religion wasn’t necessary either, for the development of art, geometry, architecture etc (I’m not educated on this, is just a “guess” based on what I learned in school).

So my question is about the future in an atheist reality, as I think new generations are rejecting religion. The fact is that celebrations like funerals, weddings etc. bring people together that normally are just on their own, my parents for example go to funerals of someone of my town even if they were not very connected, but as respect and for staying near the family that lost the person. Even on Sunday, going to church celebration is a way to see people you never see during the week. I have to admit the town feels very “alive” on Sunday, people then go to the bars, and it’s kinda nice.

So as you can see, I don’t argue about god, I think the celebration itself and what you say, repeat, read is just something very far away and disconnected from today’s problems (well, gospel celebration instead is funny I guess). I’m not saying that it could be a bad thing either, if we remove religion from society and create a “hole” we will replace it with something else to connect more as a “community”, but maybe for those who live in cities this is just nonsense and it’s not needed. Sorry for the messy question, I just wanna know your thoughts on this point of view.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m a lifelong city boy but I do see what you’re getting at, mainly because I think having some kind of community is terribly important for most human beings. In a small town you’re more likely to be surrounded by more of the same people each day or each week, whatever you do with yourself. A community builds up around whatever it is you all do together, and if you’re churchgoers then religion becomes a big part of the weekly rituals. It’s a practice tailor-made for building a routine because it demands weekly action, and practically takes attendance as if it’s a classroom. If you miss church, someone notices.

If church went away, there would be nothing else with an arbitrarily fixed schedule that everyone could participate in, except perhaps for a regular sporting event. That’s the main thing that strikes me about this issue: religion’s efforts to be ubiquitous are not matched by anything in the secular world, so a community without religion (or pseudo-religious worship of the state, a sport, some charismatic figure, etc.) has to bond over more things and smaller things. It’s worth the effort in my opinion, because if you can get the community of a church congregation without the church that’s win-win.

In a big city, generally speaking, though your life intersects with more people the group you interact with regularly (by choice) tends to be smaller. Church can be a part of this more intimate, insular community, but it’s easier for some other pursuit to be the central excuse to get together. If you all drink beer and play video games once a week, that might mean you see each other more than you see anyone else socially. Maybe that’s all you’ll need, or all you can manage with the free time you have.

O Fátima

Question from Jakob:
I have a question about the supposed Sun miracle at Fátima. An crowd of about 70,000 people saw it; I should note that nobody saw the same thing and thousands saw nothing at all. The Vatican said it’s worthy of belief. Now 70000 people can’t hallucinate at the same time, can they?

Answer by SmartLX:
If thousands saw nothing at all at the so-called Miracle of the Sun that gave rise to the incarnation of the Virgin Mary now known as Our Lady of Fátima, then 70000 people didn’t hallucinate at the same time. It doesn’t mean none of them did.

A multitude of people with beliefs ranging from fervent to non-existent crowded into an empty field with high expectations of something miraculous happening, but no idea what. As soon as exposure, overlong gazing at the sun, rare weather effects like a parhelion (check the Miracle link above for a picture) or pure zealotry drove someone to declare that they saw something strange in the sky, thousands more looked up instead of around them, and were far more prone to have a similar experience. Afterwards, there was much discussion among the lucky subset about what they had seen, which would have resulted in much greater consistency between accounts once they went to write it down. Once stories got out, the crowds got bigger, the expectations were higher and the chances of strange perceptions only went up, until it all peaked on 13 October 1917. The initial stories mentioned the sun, so later you had thousands of poor sods staring right at the thing far longer than they should, which would have played havoc with their eyes.

Several specific explanations have been suggested over the years, but I just look at the circumstances and I think I would have been amazed if no one had had a strange experience. It was a strange thing to do, and to be told to do by three Portuguese preteens.

Atheists and Assets

Question from Fahim:
How do atheists distribute their assets justifiedly? I was brought up in a Muslim family and have learnt the Islamic Assets distribution method. I want to know if atheists have any such methods.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m not familiar at all with the distribution method you refer to, though I’ve now read a bit about the rules attempting to apply Islamic teachings to economics and inheritance in particular. It won’t affect my answer, but if you have a good primer you can link to I’d appreciate seeing it in a comment.

Atheists distribute their assets according to any number of different systems and philosophies, because atheism itself teaches nothing about asset distribution. There’s no rule that says anything like, “There are no gods so give 10% to charity.” Some learn economics and manage their assets for the maximum profit and benefit to all. Some study various philosophies and use that to justify either spreading wealth or hoarding it. Many simply work from their own sense of fairness and honesty, which is easily tested because you get some pretty harsh feedback if you’re seen as unfair or dishonest.

I answer a similar question by Christians all the time; they ask where atheists get their morals. If you’ve been told all your life that one book is the only place you need to look for guidance in any aspect of your life, I realise it can be a strange-sounding idea that there are people who have no such book and yet find direction, meaning and clear intellectual justification for their actions, regarding assets or anything else. Nevertheless, it is another perfectly decent way to live your life. You just have to look a bit farther afield to find solid frameworks to build on.

Akita and the Incorruptibles (if that were a comic book I’d read it)

Question from Jacob:
Hello. Recently I stopped believing to a small degree, probably class 4 or 5 on the Dawkins scale (ATA Note: this indicates neutrality tending towards disbelief), mainly from reading the Old Testament. None of the mainstream Christian arguments are really that great like morality and so forth. But there are 2, well I would not call them arguments, more like paranormal activity. They are incorruptible bodies and the statue of Akita. They are the 2 main things that are still part of my chains of religion. My question is how do you explain them or brush them off at least? I heard atheists had high levels of intelligence.

Answer by SmartLX:
I can save myself some work here because I wrote about the so-called incorruptibles for a similar site: Ask The Atheists. I was SmartLX on that one too, just scroll down a bit. Since I’ve become acquainted with the power of Google Images in the 8+ years that followed, I’ll simply add that the examples available to us today do not exactly look natural or as fresh as a daisy.

As for “Our Lady of Akita”, much is unexplained about the events that brought it to the world’s attention but the most damning factor is the Catholic Church’s own reluctance to hail it as a miracle. See the Wikipedia article: though the local Bishop endorsed it, the Archbishop of Tokyo dismissed it completely in 1990, and then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who would have made the call at that level within the Church, made no call at all. If those with the most to gain from a miracle by the Virgin Mary won’t get behind it, what reason do you have? The Church all but abolished the office of “devil’s advocate” in 1983 so they don’t even actively try to debunk these things anymore, and they still didn’t give this one the rubber stamp.

A Relatively Simple Afterlife Question

Question from Jason:
Besides our energy living on for all eternity (watch 10 Myths About Death at 1:50) is any other afterlife possible? Is any, all (especially regarding Hell) of telling the truth? I am Fira777 on YouTube.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve written a great deal on the afterlife, because of course many are curious about (or troubled by, or desperate to salvage) the idea. The simple answer to your question is that anything is possible (science does not support an afterlife in any meaningful sense, but the mechanism of the supposed soul may be beyond science if real) but if the Evangelical Outreach page is correct about any of this stuff, it is not because they know for sure. They are relaying their interpretation of the scriptures they accept as the word of God, and they are right or wrong if the text is. “Telling the truth” is subjective based on what one believes; one can be honest and still wrong.

Demons AFTER an exorcism?

Question from Sneroul:
Ok this is gonna be a long post so brace yourself.

I live in South Africa Western cape. The Church here is quite conservative but that’s not the point. i have been indoctrinated but it never really had an effect. Well it did give me somewhat respect for the faith but that is about it. OK to make a long story short I went from liberal Christian to atheist to agnostic then to fundamental and then back to atheist and then agnostic. But I am gonna talk about the events in the last 6 months.

It happened like this: a friend of mine was a pastor who visited me. I was slightly bored so I decided to talk to him about random stuff. It eventually came to religion and I asked him why he decided his career path. And he converted me and I became born again, the feeling is hard to explain but I can’t say if its positive or negative. But that night I felt very strange, like I committed intellectual suicide. I brushed the feeling off… then the trouble started.

I began hearing voices in my head. Some of them good and some bad, it’s hard to explain but there did come out one good thing: one of the voices convinced me to leave a dangerous addiction. BUT I NEVER FELT ALONE. I made a big mistake to talk to some of the clergy and they said that there were demons in me. they decided to do an exorcism which did help at first but in the long term the voices came back worse than before. I started to feel fatigue and was tired and sweaty most of the time. So what happened next? Well I started to read about skeptics and atheism and the more I read the more I feel better, most of the voices are gone and only appear when I ask them. The clergy told me the reason for this is that the demons were successful in turning me away from God. I think they’re wrong so I came here and see if you can explain it.

Answer by SmartLX:
The simplest explanation for voices in your head (regardless of the mental state that is manifesting them so vividly…we’ll get to that) is that they are all you, expressing thoughts of which you are not fully conscious at first. The rational part of you would have been screaming for attention after you declared yourself “born again” in spite of all the issues with faith and religion which you learned about when you first became an atheist. If you had a dangerous addiction, that same rational voice would have been struggling against your compulsion to indulge it. It sounds as if you have externalised part of your own mind, to serve as a separate entity that you can talk to – both to work out difficult issues, and for company.

Some branches of the Church will instead jump straight to the conclusion that you have a case of demons, and propose (or impose) an exorcism. If you come to believe along with them that demons are responsible for your mental issues, an exorcism becomes a literal placebo, and you will feel better. Unfortunately, if the true cause is anything other than demons, the symptoms will return in time, and they may be worse for lack of proper treatment.

Hearing and conversing with inner voices is a known symptom of well-defined mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Between that and your mention of a bout of long-term fatigue, I can’t dismiss the possibility that you have a significant and perhaps serious medical issue. I advise you to see a doctor when possible, for a full check-up and for a referral to a psychiatrist. You will learn more about yourself and what you’re going through than you would from any pastor.

Tonight on Maury: “Suddenly Atheist in a Strict Jewish Family!”

Question from Josh:
Hey Guys,

Firstly, thanks for wasting hours of my time and robbing me of any sort of productivity 🙂

I’m 30 years old and grew up in an ultra-orthodox, Jewish home. While I always had my doubts and skepticism, I did not make the leap to accepting there is no God till the past few months.

My wife is of course religious, and there are a ton of things we gotta work through now. My question to you is: Is there anything redeeming you can find in raising your kids to be religious?

Of course we will make sure they have a great education, and view everyone as equals, but is it morally or ethically wrong to raise your child with the burden of religious dogmas and beliefs you know to be false? (when I write out the question, it kind of answers itself. I guess I’m asking you to throw me a bone.)


Answer by SmartLX:
Think of it in more general terms: as a parenting team, what do you teach your kids about a subject where you disagree with each other? You hold off on the subject until it’s settled between you, if possible, but if it’s unavoidable then you’re honest about it at an age when you think they’ll understand the truth – “This is what Mum thinks, and this is what Dad thinks.” It’s a perfect introduction to critical thinking, and in the case of religion it often ends up favouring irreligion. I speak from experience, because the discovery of the mere fact of my father’s disbelief drove home to me that I had some investigating to do. There’s a good reason why many dogmatic religions have specific instructions against questioning them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t go ahead and raise them in the Jewish tradition. For many branches of Judaism belief is one of the less important aspects of the Jewish identity, and simply teaching all the rituals, customs, Israeli history and so on will suffice. A “secular Jew” is a common thing, whereas you’d be hard-pressed to find a self-proclaimed “secular Christian”. Maybe it’s different in your family, but you can work with that: “This is what Mum and Grandma think, and it’s very very important to them so make sure you remember it, okay?”

As you can tell, I’m not okay with indoctrinating children into faith at the best of times, let alone when you don’t share that faith. If every voice they trust either tells them a thing is true or says nothing, they may believe it for the rest of their lives, or else have a very hard time shedding it later in life. That said, learning in my teens that my father was an atheist had a huge impact over time, so even if you do stay silent for years it may ultimately be for nothing in your family’s eyes once your real position slips out. Better to be straight with them at the start, and teach them to do what the family requires of them while knowing the truth of the situation.

I’ve got the same situation coming up in a couple of years when my son’s old enough to understand the concept of God, but it won’t be so difficult compared to your situation. My wife’s religious but liberal, and both sides of the family are a patchwork in terms of religiosity, so Junior will be exposed to a variety of viewpoints regardless of what I tell him, and therefore there’s no point pretending I agree with his mother.