Left Christianity, but Hell followed you out?

Question from Chris:
I was raised Christian until I found a Jewish website that explained how the New Testament contradicts the Old. I now describe myself as agnostic, but I’m still afraid that there may be a hell. This is stopping me from living my life and while I doubt that I’ll become a Christian again, I sometimes wonder if there’s any chance the Jewish faith was right.

Is there any way that I might be able to let go of this fear? Maybe some way to make a firm decision on whether or not I should be religious? People have advised me to learn more about religion and the world in general; maybe there’s something specific I should look at?

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, which is my word for the lingering emotional aftereffects of strong religious belief, chief among them fear and guilt. That fear might stick around for a while even if you stop believing entirely. The more often you can register that your level of fear is unjustified, the quicker it will fade, but probably only by small degrees.

If you think the Jewish version of Hell is the most likely to be real, it certainly doesn’t warrant the same kind of fear as the Christian Hell because it is NOT a place of eternal torment. Read this Jewish article on the subject: their name for it is Gehinnom, and it’s light-heartedly described as a “spiritual washing machine” that prepares your soul for Heaven. It’s closer to the Christian concept of purgatory; while it’s not something to look forward to, there’s a purpose to the suffering and most importantly there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

So that’s what to keep in mind when you’ve got your figurative yarmulke on, but the rest of the time it’s good to read up on conflicting reports of Hell from different religions, and even different denominations of the same one. It’s the strongest sign we have that no one really knows anything about it, or has any authority to tell you what to fear. Not only that, but the reasons a soul is sent to Hell are mutually exclusive between different religions and denominations. Beyond the obvious fact that you can only proclaim one kind of faith which denies all the others, the rules for living are different all round. That means it’s futile to try to behave any particular way in order to avoid Hell because you’re almost certainly doing something wrong. That sounds pessimistic but it can at least free you from micro-managing everything you do, and give you a sense of community as you’re in the same unreliable boat as everyone else.

You can make a decision about how devoutly to keep to the tenets of whatever religion you choose to adhere to, but how religious you are is not really your decision to make. Your level of belief is influenced by what you see, read and hear. You could immerse yourself in religious media and after long enough you might no longer doubt it, or avoid it altogether and slowly forget, but this is artificially reinforcing a bias and does not reflect reality. Regardless, I can tell you that being more religious is very unlikely to make you less afraid of Hell. If you accept its existence and its specific nature as dictated by your religion, your work is cut out for you as you are acutely aware of what you must do, and not do. You’re also surrounded by people who don’t share your faith, aren’t living right and are therefore bound for Hell, emphasising how easy it is to fall short and pay the price.

Better to get on with life, I say. Just be a person in the world, do what you can to be a good one, improve life for others, have your fun when it’s not hurting anyone. Thoughts of the afterlife tend to take a backseat when you live in the now.

Comparative Religion Books for Kids?

Question from Crystal:
Hello! Hoping you can help me. I am an atheist and my son, who is 7, is, without knowing the word, already an atheist. Not because of me but just because he is smart, logical, scientific. Which is great! But I want to teach him to be tolerant of others’ beliefs. Also I want him to be able to understand, on some level, some of the biblical references in literature. Can you recommend a comparative religion book for kids that is NOT written from a Christian perspective? he is very bright and not a typical 7-year-old boy so can understand “young reader” type books. I’m looking for something written at a higher level than a kid’s picture book. thanks!

Answer by SmartLX:
That’s the right question to ask. Many books on comparative religion are written by Christian theologians, who can’t resist adding to the basic message: “These are all the major religions and what they believe…and here, here and here is why each of the others is wrong.” We get a lot of visitors from people in Christian courses that use these kinds of books.

A good start is Our Religions, which covers seven major religions and has seven different authors (plus one collator). The section on Christianity is written by a Christian theologian, the section on Islam is by an Islamic scholar, Taoism is covered by a Taoist and so forth. The authors are there to write introductions, so while they may state their cases against each other they are still required to provide good information. While it’s not specifically aimed at kids, its introductory nature encourages simplicity.

Beyond that one, I can’t recommend any books as neutral with much confidence, but that doesn’t mean good books aren’t out there. An Amazon search can be very enlightening, though. Each of the books featured has a few bad reviews saying what people don’t like about it; people of a given religion are quick to point out when a book appears biased towards one of the others, or gives incorrect information about their own. If you want something not Christian-centric, look for the one fundamentalist Christians hate.

Finally, I should mention The Heathen’s Guide to World Religions by William Hopper, which is basically an atheist humourously tearing them all down equally and not even trying to be neutral. At least it’s honest.

Religious Education and Religious Schools

Question from Dean:
Brief background:
I am a Christian. When I was raising my Children we went to Church occasionally and my kids went to Summer Camp (religious one) every year until their early teens. (I know, very brief but it should do)
My Son is now in his 30’s with two beautiful children and I am a proud Grampa!

My Daughter in law wants to enrol the kids in a religious based school as opposed to the public system…mainly due that she feels they offer a higher quality education, I agree. And NO…the school is not a wacko young earth type group…and yes…they teach evolution and proper science.
Anyway….my Son flat out refuses and has informed me that he thinks religion is nothing but bullshit.

I respect his choice but I have explained to him that his children should have some religious education like he did, after all, he was free to make his choice and I love him just as much regardless.

I have always felt that exposure to religion is part of a well rounded education.
Free will is a very important part of my Faith, but to have free will and the freedom to choose you should also have exposure to your choices.

Am I wrong?

Answer by SmartLX:
I completely agree with you that exposure to religion is important, because it’s a huge part of everyday life even if you’re not religious, but religious education in a religious school usually goes beyond exposure and is seldom comprehensive.

The issue from your son’s perspective is likely that even a moderate Christian school will not only expose his children to Christianity but actively indoctrinate them into it to some extent at least, and it will not expose them to other religions (that is, other choices) as well. For both your sakes, it’s worth finding out what the RE curriculum is at this particular school, if only to confirm that you have something to fight about.

It’s always a dilemma for non-religious parents when the private, religious schools are the ones with the resources to offer the best education, which happens a lot. I was in exactly the same position myself, but as the child; my Catholic mother won out over my atheist father and I went to a liberal Catholic primary school. It didn’t stop me from questioning Christian doctrine at about age 11, and fading to agnosticism before I reached high school. Based on that alone I can assure you and your son that his kids’ ultimate positions are not foregone conclusions based on the choice of school, especially if it isn’t “wacko”.

I and a lot of other atheists see “comparative religion” as the ideal religious education: “This is what Christians believe, and how they worship. Now this is Hinduism…” and so on. It lays out the undisputed facts and the known history of the major world religions, without endorsing any particular view. That’s the kind of course that gives kids the most information, the most understanding and the widest choice. Sadly, only religious schools tend to be seriously interested in religious education at all, and they have a vested interest in not being impartial. (It’s certainly not the kind of class I had. I had to find it all out later.) This need not be a guaranteed deal-breaker for non-religious parents, but they do feel the need to take it into account.

My regards to you and your family. Good luck with sorting this out.

Religious Education

Do atheists want religious education to be removed from schools, especially public and other secular schools?

Answer by SmartLX:
Generally not, though it depends on the type of religious education.

Like it or not, participate in it or not, religion is a huge part of modern life. Kids need to learn about it so they can understand where people are coming from, and of course keep the multitude of religious literary references whizzing around from going right over their heads.

Atheists tend to object to religious education only when it becomes religious indoctrination, particularly indoctrination of young children. The difference in a nutshell:
– Religious education is, “This is what people of this religion believe.”
– Religious indoctrination is, “This religious doctrine is the truth.”

There’s nothing wrong in principle with proclaiming what you believe to be true, but the reason why a lot of people believe in religious doctrine is that it was taught to them as fact before they developed the faculties to judge it on its merit. That makes it very difficult to examine objectively, even later on.

An approach which would make most atheists happy would be for schools to teach comparative religion: the beliefs, practices and known histories of all major religions (and as many minor ones as possible). Then it’s all in the open for the kids, and when they’re ready they can make their own decisions about what faith to identify with, if any.

One issue with comparative religion is impartiality. The person teaching it has to be very aware of his or her own bias in the matter. This also applies to the texts; there are plenty of books comparing religions, and some of them are better in this respect than others.
The Universe Next Door by James Sire is heavily biased towards Christianity and theism in general, which is why it’s used in a lot of Christian courses.
The Heathen’s Guide to World Religions by William Hopper is basically an atheist’s irreverent view of the different faiths. The difference from the above book is that this one doesn’t bother to claim impartiality. (It’s really very funny, so I can recommend this book for your own recreational reading.)
Our Religions takes an excellent approach from an educational perspective: the section on each religion is written by a scholar and adherent of that religion, so every faith featured can represent and defend itself.

Most atheists learn about religion, and in fact many of us were indoctrinated into various religions and denominations as children (including me – I sometimes refer to myself as a “cultural Catholic”). There’s no reason why the genuinely educational part of this shouldn’t continue into the foreseeable future, for as long as religion is so prominent in our daily lives. It would simply be nice to see religions compete with each other and with non-belief on a level playing field, letting people come to them with their eyes wide open.