Friday, August 30, 2013

Fairness Sucks

When I was reading “The Inferno” by Dante in my high school English class, I noticed that one of the key ideas to its premise (and indeed, to Hell on the whole) is fairness. “It’s only fair that the adulterers who wrongly pleasured in their senses should be cold and wind-beaten in Hell. It’s only fair that the suicidal people should be robbed of their bodies that they disowned and made into trees.” And my first thought was, “Okay, why does it have to be fair?” You hear it all the time: “person X deserves Hell”, “God is just”, etc. 



I anticipate that Christians will remind me that God does not want anyone to go to Hell, but reality just happens to be such that people do go to Hell, and that’s fine. In this essay, I’m talking about the idea (which I’ve heard Christians repeat) that this arrangement is all good and fair. 

Self-murderers are tortured in the 7th circle of Hell by being made into trees that bleed.

But first I thought maybe I should take a step back and start by looking at the human system of justice as a reference point: why do we punish people? How does fairness fit into our system of punishment (if at all)? In short, what is different between our human justice system, and God’s “divine” justice system?

Here’s what I’m thinking: the primary purpose of any human system of law and punishment is discouragement; it’s an attempt to keep people from doing something wrong by threatening them with jail time or some other form of punishment.

Of course, many people still break the law anyway, and so our justice systems follow through with the threat and punishes these people. This serves two purposes: it takes them out of society to protect everyone else, and, hopefully, it discourages these people from breaking the law again. 

Now in our human justice systems, it’s critical that we actually carry out the punishment we threatened, because if we didn’t actually punish people, eventually everyone else would find out that the laws were just idle threats, and the laws would lose their preventative power, which would likely increase crime rates. 

The people in Hell will never get back to Earth. This means that they’ll never get the chance to break God’s laws again, so there’s no point in punishing them in Hell to deter them from future sins (which they will never get the chance to commit). Additionally, the fact that they can’t go back to Earth and that there are no “divine investigative journalists” means that there is absolutely no way for humans to know if Hell is an idle threat, so it can still carry a deterring effect even if it’s not a bad place.


The people in Hell will never get back to Earth. This means that they’ll never get the chance to break God’s laws again, so there’s no point in punishing them in Hell to deter them from future sins (which they will never get the chance to commit). Additionally, the fact that they can’t go back to Earth and that there are no “divine investigative journalists” means that there is absolutely no way for humans to know if Hell is an idle threat, so it can still carry a deterring effect even if it’s not a bad place.



Now let’s look at the Earth-Hell justice system in “The Inferno” and Christianity and Islam. There are two key differences between human jails and the “spiritual jail” that is Hell. First, once you’re in Hell, you will never get released back to Earth. And second, there is no way for people on Earth to observe Hell and see that it is, indeed, the horrible place that Bible claims it is.

So given these two characteristics of the divine “jail” that is Hell, what is the purpose of it being such a horrible place? Let’s imagine that Hell, despite its horrible description in the Bible, was actually a very nice place. Not quite a Heaven, but not unpleasant. Would that have any negative consequences? I don’t think so.

Considering all this, there really would be no purpose for torturing people in Hell, and the only reason for doing so would be in order to entertain this idea of fairness: “It’s only fair to punish people who have done bad things. They just deserve it because that’s fair.” Essentially, it’s fairness for the sake of fairness, and for no other reason. Nothing comes from this punishment except “fairness”.

So if fairness leads to such a poor and fruitless outcome, why is fairness so deeply ingrained in Christianity? I, as a non-Christian, can think of a good reason why Christianity is so deeply demanding of things to be fair: it’s because HUMANS are so demanding of things to be fair; we think that things should always be fair, and so any religion and religious laws that we invent will reflect this. Now, fairness is a good heuristic: it’s a good “rule of thumb” that we use to determine what we should do in cases of harm to others. But like many human heuristics, our compulsion to be fair does not always reach a logical conclusion. In the case of the Heaven-Hell system, fairness simply leads to fruitless suffering.




Sunday, August 11, 2013

Keep Your Prayers (or at least keep them silent)


When someone loses a loved one, it amazes me that some people think that what that person really needs to hear is that the person offering condolences has a magic invisible sky Santa who killed them on purpose. Oh, certainly they clean up the phrasing a bit. “She’s in a better place.” Or “He’s with God now.”  “It’s all part of God’s Plan.” These phrases are intended somehow to confer some sort of relief to the grieving; as if somehow it’s better that they just lost their mom, their son or the love of their life as long as it was part of some Divine Plan.

I lost my mother when I was twelve years old. These were the types of things grown people said to me. I was distraught, broken and motherless. I watched my father fall to pieces and had no clue how life could possibly go on. I listened to these people and wished I could throw these words right back in their faces. How dare they!? Their God took my mom? I wanted nothing to do with them or their God. It certainly didn’t provide me with any relief. It made everything a lot worse for me. Not only had I lost my mom, but now I had to hold resentment against an imaginary being.

I’ve grown up since then. I had to raise myself. I realized the folly of that resentment. My dad stayed broken. The closest thing I’ve had to an actual father since then has been my Godfather.  Funny that we both still recognize that bond, even though neither of us adhere to any of the other tenets of that empty faith any more, if we ever did.

My godfather just lost the love of his life, his wife of nearly a quarter of a century. I’ve stayed close with him.  Well, as close as I know how. We text, we see each other for holidays. He took me in once years ago when I needed a place to stay. His daughters are like little sisters to me. I knew his wife too, their mom, my Aunt. Perhaps not as well as I could have.

I drove up to be with them for the last couple weeks, as much as I could. I saw in their eyes the pain I felt when my mom passed away, the questioning, the searching for answers, for a reason, for some kind of sense that wasn’t there. I missed my Aunt, too. My grief for her was overshadowed by the pain I felt watching my Uncle and his daughters suffer her loss.

I knew then the comfort that those of faith must feel, the relief it gives them to convince themselves that it really is for the best. To tell the bereaved that it’s a good thing that their loved one died and that they would pray for them. That last part is the best. “I’ll pray for her,” they say. And they think that this means they are actually doing something to help. They tell us that our lost ones are in Heaven above and “They’re probably looking down on us right now.”

I know that those words are empty, though. The only person they relieve is the person who said them. And that to me is selfish. They’re pulling their religion out in public and waving it in the suffering faces of grieving people so that they themselves can feel like a righteous person.

The truth is there is no God, there is no Heaven and there is no Divine Plan. This doesn’t mean that our loved ones don’t live on after death, though. Every time we think of them, remember something they said or did, they are alive in us. We tell stories about things they did and we are the people that we’ve become in part because of them.  Who I am is a result of who my mother was. My aunt shined her light on her daughter and my Uncle. They are, in no small part, her life after death. Everything they do, and every decision they make will be colored by the life lessons she shared with them, and that is far better than some pearly gates stuck on a cloud. So if you must pray for me and my family, please keep it to yourself.