World-renowned physicist and atheist Stephen Hawking recently passed away. Why do some believers seem to relish the idea of his eternal torment in Hell? This is one perspective from an ex-evangelical.
A True Believer’s Response to the Death of Stephen Hawking
Physicist Stephen Hawking died several days ago, on March 14th, 2018. In a very short time – possibly within minutes of the news getting out – some devout believers (Christian and Muslim, etc.) took to the internet to post what seemed like gleeful warnings about his demise and damnation. One Instagram account @positiva.tea began posting images of a disfigured, zombie-like picture of Hawking in his iconic wheelchair with a video overlay of flickering flames. Aside from one other tweet from last May, the only images on the account – all 14 of them at my last count - show the same flaming video with the following caption, posted at various intervals.1
Later in the day Richard Dawkins shared the same image and tweeted: “Hate at this pathological level demands explanation beyond the obvious low intelligence. I suggest that Godnuts are secretly unconfident of their beliefs & mortally terrified they might be wrong. This translates into hyper-extreme hate of anyone who credibly boosts their doubts.”2
Hate at this pathological level demands explanation beyond the obvious low intelligence. I suggest that Godnuts are secretly unconfident of their beliefs & mortally terrified they might be wrong. This translates into hyper-extreme hate of anyone who credibly boosts their doubts. pic.twitter.com/2DBlX5b9RS
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) March 14, 2018
While I think Richard made an interesting hypothesis in the latter half of the tweet, the first part stung – I used to believe this myself! It also clearly displayed his understandable anger and utter disgust.3
But I don’t think we should assume low intelligence when we see statements like this and then neglect the rather extraordinary and powerful effects of indoctrination and confirmation bias combined with the strong determination of the human mind. I was an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian, and this is exactly what I believed at one point in my life – and a variation of what I believed at others -- though I don't think I was ever so heartless as to desire it for someone.
I was never taught by my parents to be joyful about the eternal damnation of others, or to gloat about it -- or my own salvation -- but I did think this was the way it was. The threat of eternal damnation in my childhood was intended – I hope – to be a powerful motivator to become a devoted “fisher of men”4 and a missionary to the world, sharing the good news of salvation through Christ Jesus. But because I believed that atheists (read blasphemers) chose their own fate, often freely5, it was fine to use the lost and damned as an example of the dangers presented by denying God. A statement like the one made by positiva.tea – and I did hear such things -- would be met with solemn nods and thankful murmurs of therefore but by the grace of god go I, but certainly not anger, disgust or horror at the sentiment.6
Are Believers Mortally Terrified that They Might Be Wrong?
Read the latter part of Richard’s tweet again: “I suggest that Godnuts are secretly unconfident of their beliefs & mortally terrified they might be wrong. This translates into hyper-extreme hate of anyone who credibly boosts their doubts.”
When you're taught from early childhood that any time you feel uncomfortable with a teaching, that those feelings are caused by the indwelling Holy Spirit warning you of the influence of Satan, then you aren't even able to evaluate whether you should be afraid. You immediately close your ears. Discomfort means you are straying into dangerous territory and you should put up barriers to exposure. I once visited a “charismatic” Pentecostal-style worship service when visiting family, and I recall the extreme discomfort I felt in the middle of a worship service full of people worshipping God in a different way than I was accustomed to. Dancing, arms raised, talking over each other, speaking in tongues. I was certain that the Devil was at work, leading those poor believers astray and tempting me to adopt practices that were displeasing to God. In reality, I simply felt out of place, but I couldn’t recognize that then. I had been warned repeatedly that I would feel discomfort when teaching strayed into dangerous or heretical territory. As a result, when I encountered an unfamiliar and different viewpoint, rather than being able to listen and evaluate, I was primed to feel uneasy, and when I noticed that I would rejoice in the fact that my personal Holy Spirit alarm system was working correctly - confirmation bias!
Once I felt that discomfort – and I felt it many times over the years - I could deploy protective measures. I could slam the walls into place and refuse to listen or be tempted by the siren song of false faith - no matter who was singing it. I believe Richard is right - there are some people who believe in God and Heaven and Hell that are afraid that their beliefs might be wrong, and express anger and disgust toward people who threaten to dismantle or poke holes in their beliefs. But I suspect that those are not often the devout faithful. I honestly think that many more people – especially “true believers” – simply never even allow themselves to listen long enough to experience fear at all. At the first hint of discomfort they stick their fingers in their ears and say “lalalalalala” and totally refuse to hear. Evangelical faith is a battlefield and there are no neutral parties. You are either with God, or against him, and if you are with him, you are a strong warrior. Fear isn’t allowed to enter.
How Do Believers Respond to Atheism?
I do think that there are definitely preachers, pastors and religious leaders in many faiths that know – often from experience -- that questioning will surely take people away. In most cases I think this leads to well-meaning attempts to keep the flock safe by warning, building up faith and teaching protection mechanisms.7 I think there is a smaller subset still that know and experience existential fear. I think they are responsible for the indoctrination of anger and hatred in their flock, in addition to the standard indoctrination of belief. They “otherize” non-believers and atheists, as well as believers from other religions that “don’t worship the same God.” They teach that the Others choose their fate – that they are wicked and hate God. And don’t people who hate God deserve to be vilified and hated themselves? It’s a logical step, even if not an explicitly stated one. That small subset that doubts, fears and hates grows when the people indoctrinated into hatred eventually begin to fear doubt as well.
Many of us from different evangelical traditions can recall memories such as this8:
“In prayer sessions we prayed that people be punished or be “taken” to hell for “leading the flock of jesus astray” if I remember correctly. The idea was that these “bad people” were corrupting innocents so we had to pray that they be punished or “struck down” by god. That counts?”
When difference of belief can instead be relabeled as a tactic of your enemy in battle then righteous anger and hatred can be easily justified. When you believe that the enemy is being powered by spiritual forces behind the scenes, when you believe that they have chosen the path to destruction, then it is possible to view such people as less than human. Empathy and compassion are vanquished. There is then no allowance for redemption.
When atheists are systematically seen as agents of the devil, who have chosen their fate, then they are just pawns on the losing team, to be exploited for gains on the righteous winning side. People who believe these things may possess “low intelligence.” But sadly, any deeply devout believer is at risk and the ones who are the most intelligent can be especially skilled at using motivated reasoning to reduce cognitive dissonance.
When the people indoctrinated into hatred begin to fear, and both are combined, then we see the most truly horrific results: It becomes possible for someone to feel absolutely confident that they are displaying the love of Jesus Christ to the world by glorying in the eternal torment of an unbeliever, and being entirely satisfied that they deserve it.
What do you think of my conclusions? They are, of course, a product of my own personal experience as a devout believer combined with my more recent experience as an atheist.
References / Notes:
1 I first saw this image on the Twitter account of Michael A. Sherlock – shared from his Instagram account. He is the one who added the note in the corner that says “StephenHawking was an unrepentant and unapologetic #atheist. Be like Stephen. #BeAtheist.) I sent the image to my online research notebook for my book Losing Your Life to Save It and copied Richard Dawkins as I often do. This charming soul was not alone in tweeting about Hawking, as noted by Hemant Mehta: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2018/03/14/a-bunch-of-relig...
3 I commented on his tweet then wrote him a slightly petulant email saying, “Richard, it isn't low intelligence necessarily. You know the power of indoctrination and confirmation bias. Remember, this is EXACTLY what I believed, though I don't think I was ever so heartless as to desire it for someone.” His response – an apology and the following statement: “Let me put it this way. Childhood indoctrination must indeed be very powerful indeed if it can cause even someone as intelligent and educated as you to think the creator of the majestically expanding universe (versed as he must be in General Relativity, Quantum Gravity, Dark Matter, etc.) cares a tuppenny bit for the sins and beliefs of evolved creatures on a speck of cosmic dust in the outer reaches of one rather ordinary galaxy!” I responded with a laugh and “Either that or I have an incredible power of will and stubbornness. Probably a deadly mix of both.”
5 Sometimes people’s “hearts were hardened” by God and they were used for his purpose without a choice – Pharaoh in Egypt refusing to let the Israelites go, Judas betraying Jesus, etc.
6 I attended progressively more dogmatic churches as I grew up. I began at a non-denominational church with my family in Western Pennsylvania that we attended until I was about 15-years-old. When we moved to New York I began to attend a Christian and Missionary Alliance church with my mother and aunt. That was followed by attendance at what I believe was a Baptist church in Connecticut – of my own choosing and on my own. My last regularly attended church, during my college years, was one that I now consider to be a fundamentalist Baptist church, in upstate New York. Ironically, at the point when my mind should have been most open to science and critical thinking, while I studied Materials Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, it instead became the most closed and dogmatic.
7 Or in some cases, expulsion of the offending person asking questions.