I See Demons!

Question from Alexia:
I would like to know if atheists ever have moments of fear over the idea that they could potentially be wrong, and that there is a nasty afterlife waiting for them? I, as an agnostic theist, do. I feel that if I were to stop believing (the idea has crossed my mind) that I may regret it.

I have had dreams before of seeing hell, and my grandfather had a Near Death Experience where he saw hell and was tortured by evil creatures. I have noticed that in many dreams, near death experiences, and so called revelations, people often report seeing demonic creatures in this so called hell. I would like to get the perspective of atheists. Why is it that if Christians are raised to expect Satan in hell that they never report seeing Satan in these visions, but they commonly report multiple strange beings or creatures attacking them and enjoying it? I read a book from the 1980s about Near Death Experiences by Raymond Moody, and even he says in his research that negative experiencers often report demonic creatures from interviews conducted early on in Near Death research.

What might be the reason for why many of these visions people have involve evil creatures, when the bible says nothing about that? People from the early 1900s have been giving consistent reports with people today in 2017. What would you say, percentage wise, are the odds that a literal hell exists, given the consistency of so many peoples’ “visions” and “revelations” of hell? Is there really going to be multiple reptile looking creatures who enjoy peoples’ misery and torture them forever, swearing at them, taunting them, or is there something else at play here?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists do get these moments of fear, but not usually forever. For those like myself who had faith and lost it, the fear of God’s wrath often outlives the belief even though it’s irrational to be afraid of something you no longer believe in. (It’s part of the phenomenon I call “faithdrawal”.) This is to be expected, since emotions can easily defy rationality. I personally avoided this completely by hardly thinking about religion at all for over a decade before realising I was an atheist; my emotional attachment to God and faith had faded away so it didn’t try to reassert itself.

In previous articles like this one I’ve answered the general argument based on the similarity between people’s visions of the afterlife, so read through the link and also just search the site for ‘nde’ to find more on the subject. Here I’ll address the particular question about Satan and lesser demons in Hell. Most Christians get most of their mental images of Hell not from the Bible but from other media, everything from Dante’s Inferno to Constantine to The Simpsons, and sadistic torturer demons have been a fixture in this material for centuries. While you can imagine individual demons looking and behaving any way you like without challenging your theology much, Satan is a major figure on whose appearance the subconscious might be uncomfortable taking a firm position. Thus Satan conveniently does not put in an appearance for people who are just passing through.

And then there are the Christians who do report seeing Satan, which doesn’t really help any argument based on this not happening.

Rooting For The Ultimate Underdog

Question from Kyle:
I was wondering if you agree with me that even if we knew Christianity were true, any moral person would be morally compelled to follow Lucifer not God.

– God kills at least millions, Lucifer killed less than a handful of people.
– 1/3 of all angels rebel with Lucifer to fight a war against an omnipotent being they know they can’t win.
– Lucifer is cast out of Heaven for refusing to worship God.
– Lucifer sees human slaves so he gives them knowledge.
– God decides to torture his most beloved creation, the devil, for all eternity.

List could go on forever.

Answer by SmartLX:
When you don’t believe in either of these two characters a discussion like this is moot, of course, but think how many discussions are had over who is the true hero of Star Wars or Game of Thrones. In that spirit, there is certainly a discussion to be had over which of them is more moral – when you don’t define God as the source and model of morality and therefore incapable by definition of doing anything immoral.

The question in my mind is whether one would actually be morally compelled to follow the more moral of the two. If God controls who goes to Heaven and Hell, you would want to know that following Lucifer was actually of any use to Lucifer before potentially consigning yourself to Hell for no good reason. In most of the relevant theologies there’s no reason to think that Hell stops being an eternal torment if Lucifer acknowledges your allegiance (remember, it’s a punishment even for him), though maybe there’s a Satanist text that says otherwise. And is Lucifer expected to try another insurgency anytime soon for which he’ll need anti-Christian soldiers, by anyone other than the fear-mongering kind of Christian?

Fear of the Devil – as an atheist

Question from Evelyn:
So I recently accepted being an atheist and I’m fine with it. But even though it’s easy for me to accept that there probably isn’t any God and I’ve been praying to dust this whole time, I still find myself panicking at the thought of Satan. I still have the same fears as when I was religious, and I find myself quickly making sure I didn’t commit blasphemy, or praise the devil. I figure it’s from all the fear techniques people from my religion used to get people to follow them. I wasn’t in any cult religion or anything, just Christian. But looking back the way it was fed to me was quite like the manner of a cult. Anyway, I just want to know if you have any tips for my irrational fear of the devil coming to eat my soul. Thank you!

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, which is the best word I’ve ever invented.

This happens to a lot of people because fear of Hell and Satan goes beyond the intellectual. You’re not frightened of him just because they’ve told you he’s there, or else you’d have stopped being frightened when you became an atheist. Rather it’s been drilled into your subconscious to the point where your emotions bypass rational thought entirely and you simply behave as if there’s a devil. There’s no particularly insidious technique the religious use to achieve this, they just speak and preach to you as if it’s all true until you internalise it as an unspoken assumption.

Fortunately, this kind of conditioned fear needs regular reinforcement to persist at the same strength, and as an atheist you’re not getting that reinforcement anymore. (Some evangelists threaten atheists with hell in an attempt to reach lapsed believers with some last-minute reinforcement, and sometimes it probably works on individuals, but generally speaking it’s a futile effort.) It’s still bad now, I know, but it will fade over time until you calmly look back on your prior fear and see it for what it was, namely unjustified and needless.

If you want to try to speed up the process to save yourself some stress in the long term, equip yourself with a little ridicule. Satan has shown up in popular culture quite a lot recently (try this list), and in nearly every case some aspect of the concept of Satan is held up to the light and found to be silly in some way. There’s not that much media openly ridiculing all religious faith (yet), but criticising and lampooning specific ideas within specific doctrines is fine, and the Devil is a prime target. Go check out some different takes on the character. My personal favourite is Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, who makes a raucous but really quite robust case that he’s actually the good guy.

Finally, just take a moment of self-awareness whenever you find yourself afraid of something you don’t really think is there. The more you catch yourself at it, the less you’ll end up doing it. And don’t worry, because right now is worse than it’s ever going to feel again.