Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In Praise of Hell

The conservative boyz in New York Times' stable of columnists, Douthat and Brooks, went wild over this Easter on the reasons why old-fashioned religion is Good For You! By "old-fashioned" I mean the sort of religion where sinners end up eternally barbequed in a hell staffed with demons wearing horns, and also the sort of religion where adulterous women will be stoned to death. It's good stuff, Douthat and Brooks both agree. You see, it keeps the masses under control.

Douthat's piece is the one that has been extensively discussed because of comments like this:
Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.
Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.
In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.
Douthat's religion would give us the choices of eternally singing hymns in white nightgowns or of being one of the dishes in that eternal hellish barbeque. The rules of how to get the entry ticket into either place? Consult the ancient nomadic patriarchs and their writings! A rigged game, I think, and still played in the prison of Douthat's god.

But then I'm not qualified to write about religious doctrines, being a goddess. Douthat seems to think that he is qualified to interpret what it means when people say that they believe in a divinity but not in a hell, and that interpretation is like a children's game. Hence my hunch that he is ultimately writing about the best ways to keep the masses under control. Pitchforks, flames and the chance of spending eternity with people like George Bush might do it.

Brooks writes on a related topic: How only the doctrinal, literal and traditional religions keep people under proper control. He starts his piece about a Broadway production set in Africa, "The Book of Mormons", and then deplores the waffly new-age Christianity for its feel-good message:
This warm theme infuses the play with humanity and compassion. It also plays very well to an educated American audience. Many Americans have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.
The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking about it later) is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.


But it’s worth remembering that the religions that thrive in real-life Africa are not as nice and naïve as the religion in the play. The religions thriving in real-life Africa are often so doctrinaire and so socially conservative that they would make Pat Robertson’s hair stand on end.

I was once in an AIDS-ravaged village in southern Africa. The vague humanism of the outside do-gooders didn’t do much to get people to alter their risky behavior. The blunt theological talk of the church ladies — right and wrong, salvation and damnation — seemed to have a better effect.
Note that "socially conservative" phrase. It means that lesbians and gays get the death sentence and that women get to submit themselves to men. Order has been imposed on the chaos of modernity. Except that modernity is the wrong comparison in the example Brooks proposes. The proper comparison is to complete chaos, where only the powerful rule.