One of the indignities famous atheists in Christian nations have to go through is religious schadenfreude. It’s not enough that someone who doesn’t believe dies; fundagelical Christians have to remind the faithful that they’re burning in hell. Bruce Gerencser wrote a very good post documenting the latest round of it with Stephen Hawking. Some of the comments Mr. Gerencser found were some of the worst things people can say about each other.
Why does this happen?
The easy answers are related to church doctrine and tribalism. Many churches teach something along the lines of if you don’t believe in Jesus, you go to hell. Hell is a place of eternal torment. For people who don’t draw the resulting conclusion, there are some Christians willing to spell it out plainly.
There’s a more practical reason for this: intimidation. As an atheist who used to be a Christian, I know exactly what terrible things my family will get told when I die. That’s one reason why I don’t advertise my face with my lack of faith; I don’t like the idea of my family getting held hostage. People I care about will get the same callous comments said about Dr. Hawking. Worse, some of them believe it, which will make their misery even more pronounced.
But there’s also an element of sadism. Every snarky comment on how a dead atheist now knows better gets laced with it. Some religious Christians have this need to gloat over how right they are, no matter the consequences, and no matter how it negatively affects others. It’s almost like inflicting emotional pain gets them closer to Jesus.
How is anyone supposed to deal with this?
It helps me to think things through. I have to question the wisdom of any beliefs which makes gloating over corpses a thing. Death is something that everyone has to face. Why make life more miserable for those that lose loved ones?
As this post title suggests, there’s also more than one religion out there. Why don’t we have people threaten others with the consequences of dead belief systems? Nobody really cares about having money to cross the River Styx or being saved by Valkyries to fight in Valhalla. Since I no longer believe in any deities, the idea of eternal threats sounds just as hollow as those of dead faiths. Issuing these threats only becomes an exercise in embarrassing oneself.
However, it’s the thoughts behind all of this that cause the most problems. More often than not, bragging about someone in hell is just a petty way of screaming, “I told you so.” The need to validate one’s beliefs becomes more important than respecting the lives and well-being of others.
To proponents of religion: think about the message this sends.
All too often, the ideas surrounding hell and damnation diminish human dignity rather than add to it. It’s like family of people outside the tribe aren’t allowed to cherish their loved ones. Their memory has to get sullied with the consequences of ideas the deceased didn’t subscribe to.
Many other negative things erupt as a result of this practice. It reduces a search for meaning into pithy and pathetic Internet commentary. It invites criticism in kind. It reveals ugly consequences of specific articles of faith. Regardless of whether Christians might agree with any of it, these things pop up to everyone outside the faith.
To fellow atheists and deconverts: try not to let it get you down.
In a very real sense, bragging about non-believers in hell is a limitation on compassion. It’s a cultural faux pas to non-Christians, and a source of guilt to Christians with consciences. As I’ve mentioned above, this phenomenon spawns its own particular brand of misery.
Perhaps the thing I find most difficult to deal with is the fact that this misery is self-inflicted. Eventually, some Christians are going to have to come to terms with what they believe about the afterlife as applied to people they care about. Anyone can make snarky comments about famous atheists they never knew in life. At some point, those snarky ideas will come home to roost with someone they did know personally.
I think with all this extra negativity floating around, I don’t want to add to it. Life happens in ways that are joyous and terrible, and the decisions I want to make ought to add to the former. The best I can do for people of faith is to invite them to abandon specific beliefs which might hurt them. The thing about being alive is that we all can write new values on new tablets.
Nobody has to go to Greek hell, or any of the many others people have created over the years.