Daniel received $2,050 from FFRF for his essay.
When I was 6 years old, my father told me about hell. Christianity isn’t all manna and miracles, it turns out, and at some point every believer has to struggle with the dark side of scripture. My struggle, which would last another seven years, began with a simple question: “Is Irving going to hell?”
“Well, yes,” my dad admitted, sounding a bit unsure of himself. “Yes, he is.”
Irving Statman lived in the house next door to ours, where my brother and I spent countless afternoons playing with his model trains and jumping off of his creaky backyard swing set. Irving’s kids had gone off to college several years before I was born, and he and his wife Gersa were delighted to open their home to children again.
By any reasonable account, the Statmans were loving parents, kind neighbors and all-around good people. But as followers of Judaism, they didn’t accept the divinity of Jesus Christ, and as I’d just learned, that meant they were doomed to an eternity in hellfire.
“Why doesn’t Irving just become a Christian?” I asked. “That way, God will let him into heaven.” (Pascal would have been pleased.)
“It’s not like that,” my dad explained. “Irving and Gersa were just brought up differently. They’ve been Jewish their whole lives.”
By this point, I’d stopped listening. I was lost in thought, exploring dangerous, new parts of logical space. God was sending Irving to hell, where he certainly didn’t belong, but God was supposed to be all-loving! My beliefs about God and morality were in direct conflict. How was I supposed to know what was true?
I started with what I knew for certain: Irving didn’t deserve infinite torture merely for being Jewish. How could I doubt that? Eventually, desperate for a rational answer, I questioned the unquestionable: “If I’m right about morality, does that mean I’m wrong about God?”
Fifteen years later, as a 21-year-old atheist, I’m almost certain that I was wrong about God. It’s an ethical truism that no one deserves an eternity of torture just for having the wrong theology. Even if there were an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent god who sits in judgment of the living and the dead, such a being wouldn’t judge us according to our religious beliefs, but according to our moral character.
If the deity were to punish nonbelievers like Irving and Gersa (and me), that wouldn’t be benevolent — it would be arbitrary and cruel. Therefore, there can’t be a “triple-O” god who sends nonbelievers to hell just for being nonbelievers.
As I’ve since discovered, this isn’t the worst of the theist’s problems. According to Christian teachings, Jesus suffered an excruciating (though temporary) death by crucifixion to absolve humanity of its sins, serving as a divine scapegoat. But according to commonsense morality, if someone deserves to be punished, it doesn’t make sense to punish a scapegoat, especially not one who’s perfectly innocent.
If I deserve to pay for my sins, I should pay for my sins! Though the logic of moral scapegoating is perverse, God demands scapegoating both from his followers in the Old Testament and from his son in the gospels. Jesus’ death was a sacrifice, just like the Israelites’ slaughtering of goats and lambs. But why should atheists grant the moral high ground to a religion founded on human sacrifice, one of the worst moral catastrophes of all time?
Another, more famous worry for the theist is the Problem of Evil, more properly called the Problem of Suffering. It’s necessarily true that an omnibenevolent god would try to create the best world it could. Given that the God of Christianity is also omnipotent and omniscient, it follows that He can’t fail to create the best of all possible worlds.
But how could a world where innocent people are raped, murdered and prone to disease be the best that God could do? We must either deny that this undeserved suffering really is bad — a morally grotesque proposition — or deny that God exists. The choice, I think, should be easy.
These arguments attack religion where it’s usually assumed to be at its strongest: ethics. Religious belief serves two intellectual functions: to explain the natural world and to give our lives meaning. As our scientific theories and methods have matured, more and more thinkers have become satisfied with scientific explanations of nature, no longer feeling the need to appeal to religion.
But when it comes to the meaning of life — ethical questions of right and wrong, good and bad, life and death — many still can’t help but feel that without a god, there can be no explanation. Some even claim that without a god, there wouldn’t be anything to explain, that life would be meaningless and morality would be a sham. As Dostoyevsky’s dictum warns us, “without God, everything is permitted.”
Though prima facie plausible, this idea is profoundly mistaken, as I have argued. Like science, ethics needs no help from supernatural assumptions; like science, ethics reveals deep truths about the world that make a religious worldview untenable.
The dark side of scripture tells us that the torture of nonbelievers is good, that human sacrifice is just, and that undeserved suffering isn’t really bad. Since these claims are false, it’s clear that ethics doesn’t give us evidence that God exists. It gives us evidence that He can’t.
Daniel Muñoz, 21, was born in Dallas and is a senior philosophy and linguistics major at the University of Texas-Austin. He co-founded Texas Secular Humanists on campus in 2011 and is currently its president.