As a result of a flurry of ads we ran in the last two weeks on CNN featuring talented “unabashed atheist” Ron Reagan, our busy administrative staff has already sent out more than 1,000 information packets to prospective members, and are processing hundreds more.
Exciting as the responses are from folks like the man who exclaimed “Where have you been all my life?”, typically, the first to call after the commercial airs are angry, aggressive believers. They appear to find it personally insulting and even incomprehensible that atheists could exist, much less advertise. More often than not, they’re mad about Ron’s humorous tagline: “life-long atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
NBC also particularly found that tagline unacceptable. NBC, ABC and CBS have all banned our ad nationally, but NBC even refused to permit regional NBC markets to air the ad, unless that hell tagline was cut. Even a few friendly freethinkers have suggested the tagline is somehow unnecessarily alienating to the public.
I think the question should rather be: Why is the concept of Hell socially respectable? While aren’t those of us who reject such a primitive, distressing and retributive teaching hailed, rather than criticized?
Why is it disrespectful to make light of Hell? Hell — and its corollary, damnation — are horrific constructs. Hell is portrayed as a place of everlasting torture, where non-Christians and nonbelievers (but not Christianity’s greatest mass murderers who “accepted” Jesus, such as Hitler) can be tortured and burned eternally simply for sincerely believing the “wrong” religion. Even innocents who may never have heard of Jesus, under traditional doctrine, cannot avoid this fate far worse than death. Our crank callers smugly relish telling us nonbelievers that we deserve to be tortured forever, simply because we don’t share their primitive beliefs. And that, as Charles Darwin famously (and punningly) put it, is indeed a “damnable doctrine.”
Perhaps more injurious than the psychic harm of imbibing fears of eternal retribution in young minds is the desensitization this socially acceptable belief causes in its believers. I would not be the first to speculate about how the horrors described in Hell may have inspired or excused the earthly horrors of the Inquisition, the rack, even the Holocaust. What were the finite ovens of Nazi destruction compared to the ever-lasting ovens of God’s Hell? Hell makes the infliction of torture and pain in the name of religion conceivable, even praiseworthy.
To take a recent example: A mob of righteous Islamic men in Kabul beat, stoned, dropped, ran over, then burned a 27-year-old woman, FarkHunda, on March 19, because there was a rumor she had set fire to the Koran, thereby “desecrating it.” Then, it was discovered she had not done this thing.
As Mark Twain wrote in Europe and Elsewhere, one “does not know whether to laugh or cry”:
During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after eight hundred years, gathered up its halters, thumb-screws, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood.
Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry . . . There are no witches. The witch text remains; only the practice has changed. Hell fire is gone, but the text remains. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain.
Hell doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean some religionists aren’t doing their best to turn this world into one.
Although many of the more enlightened denominations of Christianity now no longer insist on a hell, the text remains. These more enlightened believers fail to condemn these texts, thereby giving credence to the fundamentalist beliefs.
Smile — there is no Hell! Isn’t that truly “good news”?
PROVOCATIVE QUOTES ABOUT HELL
“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” — Charles Darwin
Hell is empty
And all the devils are here. (Ariel, “The Tempest”) — Shakespeare
Heaven for climate, hell for company! — Mark Twain
I have no respect for any human being who believes in it [Hell]. I have no respect for any man who preaches it. I have no respect for the man who will pollute the imagination of childhood with that infamous lie. I have no respect for the man who will add to the sorrows of this world with the frightful dogma. I have no respect for any man who endeavours to put that infinite cloud, that infinite shadow, over the heart of humanity. — Robert G. Ingersoll
In heaven, all the interesting people are missing. — Friedrich Nietzsche
If you need a rest and you’re all out of sorts
Hades is the best of the winter resorts
Paradise doesn’t compare
All the nice people are there
They come there from ev’rywhere
Just to revel with Mister Devil
. . .
Pack up your sins and go to the devil
And you’ll never have to go to bed at all
“Pack Up Your Sins (And Go To the Devil)” —Irving Berlin
I think that I shall never smell
A poem as pungent as a hell,
Where grinning devils turn the screws
On saintly Sikhs and upright Jews,
Giving them the holy scorcher,
Timeless, transcendental torture:
Poems can make you want to yell,
But only God can give you Hell.
“Fleas” — Philip Appleman
There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. — Bertrand Russell
The orthodox religion, as drawn from the Bible and expounded by the church, is enough to drive the most imaginative and sensitive natures to despair and death. Having conversed with many young women in sanatoriums, insane asylums, and in the ordinary walks of life, suffering with religious melancholia; having witnessed the agony of young mothers in childbirth, believing they were cursed of God in their maternity; and with painful memories of my own fears and bewilderment in girlhood, I have endeavored to dissipate these religious superstitions from the minds of woman, and base their faith on science and reason, where I found for myself at last that peace and comfort I could never find in the Bible and the church.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The Degraded Status of Woman in the Bible, 1896 (reprinted in Women Without Superstition)