Friday, August 3, 2018

Atheism is preferable to Christianity, Islam, and other religions

I had recently made a tweet about how great it is that major religions like Christianity and Islam are false:

This prompted a tweet and blog reply by Christian theologian and apologist Randal Rauser.

For reference, every time I mention the word hell here, I’m talking about the traditional Christian view of hell as eternal conscious torture.

Randal’s first point is to avoid the idea that Christianity entails a belief in hell:

“Christianity per se does not include the belief that ‘billions of people suffer eternal conscious torture.’”

In support of his point Randal quotes the end of the Apostles Creed, noting that it “is fully consistent with various theories of posthumous punishment (e.g. divinely inflicted torment; self-inflicted torment; destruction/annihilation).” He goes further to note that since there is no mention of the ratio of saved to lost, the Creed is compatible with versions of universalism.

The first reply is that the traditional Christian view of hell has been the eternal conscious torture kind, not either the annihilationist or universalist sort that Randal endorses/hopes for (respectively). 

Where things get a bit odd is that Randal elaborates on the positive aspects of the Christian afterlife by going on to quote the bible:

“What the Creed does outline is the fact that the creation will ultimately be set to rights, that God’s perfect justice will be done (Matthew 6:10), that all will be well (Isaiah 3:10), that every tear will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4), that God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).”

The issue I have here is that Randal appeals to the parts of the bible that paint a rosy picture for the saved Christians, but reads in a heavy skepticism to equally clear parts of the book that describe hell as eternal conscious torture:

  1. “Everlasting Fire" (Matthew 25:41)
  2. “Unquenchable Fire" (Matthew 3:12)
  3. A place where "the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44-49)
  4. A place of "torments" and "flame" (Luke 16:23,24)
  5. “Everlasting destruction" (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
  6. A place of torment with "fire and brimstone" where "the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever" (Revelation 14:10,11)
  7. A "lake of fire and brimstone" where the wicked are "tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:10)
  8. Jesus himself indicates that the punishment in hell itself is everlasting - not merely the smoke and flames (Matthew 25:46)
What’s more odd is that Randal appeals to how the Apostles Creed doesn’t mention a ratio of saved to lost, but the bible sure does in Matthew 7:13-14 where it says the wide gate leads to destruction and many will find it, but the narrow gate leads to life and few will find it. In further support against universalism is where Jesus talks about how it would have been better for Judas to have never been born (Mark 14:21). How can it be “better to have never been born” if all souls are to be universally saved?

Now Randal is no stranger to non-standard readings of problematic areas of the bible. For instance, he believes the passages that describe Yahweh commanding genocide in the Old Testament should not be taken literally but rather a kind of divine irony or satire in the vein of “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift.  As someone who used to be a believer, I just can’t wrap my head around these interpretations. I’m not alone, these are minority views among Christians.

This does seem as if Randal is picking a hermenutic specifically in a way to avoid the exact argument that atheists are making: the bible very straightforwardly presents hell as eternal conscious torture, and that is incompatible with perfect goodness - therefore Christianity is false. Furthermore, between Christianity with a hell and atheism with non-existence after death, atheism is preferable.

In fact, Randal’s reply seems to grant the very point of my argument.  Randal doesn’t try to argue that a world with hell + heaven is preferable to the atheist world where our consciousness simply ceases to exist after death.  He argues along the lines that: Some versions of Christianity don’t have a hell, and shouldn’t we hope that’s true instead?

Here Randal appeals to Martin Luther King Jr. with the quote of “while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice”. In fact he goes a bit further:

“With the exception of those persons who are themselves interminably wicked and opposed to justice, the rest of us surely ought to hope that this vision of reality is actualized, that God’s perfect justice will be done, that all will be well, that every tear will be wiped away, and that God — the absolute and transcendent source of all goodness — will be all in all.” (emphasis mine)

That’s quite an appeal Randal is making, and he even seeds it a bit by implying that if you don’t agree with him then you are “interminably wicked and opposed to justice”. Randal here is also appealing to the Christian definition of god as “the absolute transcendent source of all goodness”

Well I don’t think I’m interminably wicked or opposed to justice, but I’m mostly going to disagree with him.  Of course much like most disagreements between Christians and atheists, most of the disagreement here is about what the term “justice” and even “goodness” means. 

After all, as Randal points out while Christianity is compatible with annihilationism or universalism he admits it is also compatible with eternal conscious torture. The problem is that so is Randal’s last statement about justice. If we accept the Christian definition of a god as “the source of all goodness” and that “justice” will be done, and the version of Christianity where there is a hell is true - then supposedly we are to think that hell is just and that the transcendent source of goodness (if that’s even intelligible) and justice itself is compatible with the existence of a hell.

But that is exactly what I deny as being possible! There is a contradiction there between what we inherently understand as good and the concept of hell. Randal seems to grant this by appealing to versions of Christianity where there is no eternal hell.

So sure, I could say one might hope that some special version of universalist <insert religion here> is true.  After all, it doesn’t matter if the true religion is Islam or Christianity or Hinduism if eventually all souls end up in heaven - what matters is the order of preference:

Getting into heaven >> Ceasing to exist >> Going to hell

The problem is that I don’t see there being plausible universalist interpretations of any of the major religions on offer, especially not Christianity. Even Randal himself says he is “hopeful” that universalism is true, because presumably he can’t be sure if the bible can be interpreted that way.

I think I can stand by my original statement. It’s a wonderful thing that atheism is true compared to Christianity and Islam because non-existence is infinitely preferable to hell. 

Sure I can of course grant that if you think there is a universalist version of any religion that’s preferable to atheism/non-existence, but I don’t think there is a plausible version of a universalist religion.


  1. Hi! I was under the impression that atheism is ONLY a lack of belief in God. If that's the case, then it cannot make any claims about what happens when you die. That would be something beyond atheism. So, what do you mean when you call yourself an atheist? Why do so many atheists insist that atheism is ONLY a lack of belief in God? If in fact that is all that it is then it would by definition be compatible with any conception of the afterlife that doesn't include a God. Maybe when you die your soul goes into an inanimate object like a toilet and you're forced to be pooped on for years and years. Atheism would be compatible with that. So I hardly see how atheism is preferable. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Barry! This is an interesting point that I hadn't considered before. There are notable examples of non-theistic faiths that are in opposition to annihilation, such as Theravada Buddhism and Jainism.
      I imagine that some folks who don't believe in an afterlife are "materialists," "physicalists," or "humanists," but I don't believe that a term has been coined to represent only this specific point of view. I guess maybe the OP could more accurately say "atheist-annihilist."
      On the other hand, for the less pedantic among us, contextual clues are sufficient- and I suspect they are for you as well.

  2. I'm on board with the conclusions, but I'd like to see a little different approach to the discussion. I'm glad we have people around like Randal who are willing to discuss possibilities of their interpretations instead of absolutes. So, let's engage him.

    I needed a like more than 4,096 characters!

  3. Thanks, I'll reply in a subsequent article. However, you have shifted the goalposts here. Your original tweet stated that you prefer atheism to Christianity simpliciter. Now you say you prefer atheism to Christianity coupled with the ECT account of the lost.

    1. I decided I'll just respond here rather than write a separate article. The essence of your comments is that non-ECT theories are not plausible, in your view.

      Fair enough, we can have a debate about the respective merits of ECT over other theories of posthumous judgment, if you like. However, that is a separate issue. Your original tweet read as follows:

      "it's one of the best facts about life that major religions like Christianity and Islam are false."

      No nuance there, at all. If your real target all along was a particular theory of posthumous judgment rather than Christianity and Islam, per se, you should've said so.

      In your article you cite a list of Bible verses that you claim support ECT. But you provide no evidence of ever having researched these verses. That reduces your list to little more than proof-texting.

      Take your first citation from Matthew 25:41 where you cite "everlasting fire". The word translated as "everlasting" is "aionios". But "aionios" actually refers to an age of indefinite length: we get the word "aeon/eon" from aionos. For that reason, the fire in question can be a reference to an age of punishment rather than forever. Augustine argued that it should be forever because it is a comparison/contrast with "life" in verse 46. Thus, Augustine reasoned, if life is forever than punishment is as well.

      Augustine could be right, and the influence of his reasoning is reflected in the translation you cite. However, it could also be that these two states are penultimate states of punishment and blessing prior to the eternal state of reconciliation of all things (e.g. Acts 3:12; Eph. 1:20; 1 Cor. 15:22, etc.). In other words, the text is fully reconcilable with the abundant texts in scripture which provide a prima facie witness to universal restoration. This interpretation also comports with the common biblical image of fire as a symbol of refinement and cleansing (i.e. the refiner's fire) which removes impurities.

      Conversely, Matthew 25:41, 46 can also be interpreted in accord with annihilation. As John Stott observed, the passage is as much a contrast as a comparison: on Stott's view, both life and punishment are parallel in being eternal states, but they contrast in that while life results in the fullness of being, destruction results in the cessation of being.

      The same point I made with respect to your first verse can be made with respect to every one of your ECT prooftexts. Suffice it to say, there are biblical (and historical, philosophical, and theological) reasons that Christianity has always encompassed a variety of theories of poshumous judgment. Today, annihilationism is widely held within Anglicanism and among a growing number of evangelicals, while universalism has been widely held in Eastern Orthodoxy.

      Similar problems attend your other instances of proof-texting. For example, you cite Matthew 7:13-14 to sustain your claim that the Bible clearly teaches a pessimistic ratio of saved-to-lost. But that is to miss Jesus' teaching by a wide margin. He's not providing a definitive ratio of the eternal ratio of saved-to-lost. Rather, he's invoking a vivid rabbinic image to prompt his audience to repentance and self-introspection.

      It seems to me that you are strawmanning the Christian tradition. It's akin to a Christian equating atheism with nihilism. There are versions of atheism which are nihilistic, but others are not. So you cannot object to atheism simpliciter by targeting nihilistic atheism.

      Similarly, it is deeply disingenuous for you to purport to target Christianity by critiquing a particular Christian theory of posthumous judgment (coupled with facile and perfunctory objections to other theories of posthumous judgment).

      Just treat Christians the way you'd want to be treated.

    2. This is the problem I was attempting to highlight. Instead of discussing Randal’s thoughts on what hell might be and then the relative merits of it, we’re now stuck in a conversation about bad the quality of Biblical interpretation. And I think Randal is right, the list provided was a straw man.

  4. It does seem very true that the doctrine of hell in creedal Christianity and Evangelicalism, and orthodox Islam is horrific, and that no religion would be better than all of that horror.

    Plus, many multi-millions of Christians also believe that true Christianity is that God has foreordained billions of us humans to eternal torment before the universe began, all and solely for God's glory:-(
    And that every infant is born "in essence, evil," and no human has a choice, etc.

    So then why do I disagree with your statement that atheism is preferable?

    Well, like Christians (there are thousands of contradictory versions) that appears to be true of Atheists, too.

    Many of the most famous atheists claim that humans are "puppets, wet robots," etc., that none of us has any choice. Heck, some atheists even claim that even rapists and murderers aren't morally responsible! And that no action, even slavery and slaughter aren't wrong unless our society decide to say those actions are wrong. Heck, many Atheists have told me that my opposition to slavery, etc. is only my subjective opinion, that there are no human rights, that the latter is a "myth."

    One of the last statements I read by an Atheist, obviously engaging in hyperbole, but what horrific exaggeration is that all humans have no more inherent worth than a speck of gravel:-(

    Since I was never a creedal Christian, I didn't have that to repent of when I deconverted. Most of my life I was an extremely liberal Quaker.

    So why didn't I become an Atheist at deconversion (of the versions of many of the famous Atheists?

    Because, moral realism, human worth, justice, human rights, etc. are vastly better than their denial by so many famous atheists.

  5. Just a quick logic quibble:

    If you're setting this up like a decision theory problem, you're not comparing identical outcomes, and you're not clear on defining the subject of evaluation. You give this preference ordering:

    Getting into heaven >> Ceasing to exist >> Going to hell

    1. In terms of outcomes, it's not just comparing ceasing to exist to going to hell. If you're comparing atheism to theism, it's "going to hell & a god exists" to "ceasing to exist & no god exists." But if we're just ordering preferences, we can't leave out the existence of god. I'm not saying it analytically entails that we prefer it, but leaving it out makes the comparison incomplete.

    2. Preferable for whom? Are you assuming this to be an individual decision theoretic problem? If so, are you assuming something like practical egoism, like decision theory usually does? In that case, for anyone that gives a high credence to personally going to heaven, it's prima facie irrelevant how many other people go to hell.
    If you're setting this up as a preference about the value of the whole world, along the lines of consequentialist ethics that seeks to maximize global value, you're invoking a value calculus that is open to all the typical philosophical objections. For example, suppose god is a "utility monster" that delights in the eternal punishment of the wicked more than they are suffering. Then, you get a net gain of utility in a world with a god & a hell over an atheist world. So even there, nothing logically forces the preference of atheism.

  6. Daniel WilcoxAugust 3, 2018 at 9:52 AM
    "It does seem very true that the doctrine of hell in creedal Christianity and Evangelicalism, and orthodox Islam is horrific, and that no religion would be better than all of that horror."

    what creed explains hell?