Sometimes I worry I will burn in hell for not following the One True Religion. This lasts about two minutes, however. That’s all the time it takes to recall how unlikely — insane even — the idea seems.
If we assume that a deity or deities exist, it seems more reasonable to assume there is no punishment (of a miserable, torturous nature anyway) for non-belief. It’s simply a question of how likely it is that a higher power would be an immoral monster or a total madman. Whichever the One True Religion is, throughout history countless millions (almost without question billions) have been born, lived, and died without ever hearing about it. Even today, as Daniel Dennett points out in Breaking the Spell, “whichever religion is yours, there are more people in the world who don’t share it than who do.” There may be two billion Christians or Muslims, but the global population is nearly eight billion, and plenty in remote parts of the world won’t hear of either, and still more won’t ever be proselytized to or decide to study them (after all, how many Christians would undertake a serious, thoughtful study of Shenism, Sikhism, Santería, or Zoroastrianism, or grow beyond the most minimal understandings of major faiths like Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism?). The idea that a god would bring eternal suffering to such people is mind-boggling. It would have to be evil or insane. But that’s the deity described in various religions — an honest description, not a dogmatic one about how this God is one of love, justice, and forgiveness. Yet if a supernatural being of superior intellect and power exists, it’s likely a little more reasonable than that. If there’s a wager to be made (better than that faulty Pascal’s Wager), it’s that if a god or gods exist they’d be more moral and sensible than sending people off to be tortured for something they had no control over. Perhaps instead all people reach paradise regardless of belief, or there is no afterlife for some, or no afterlife for any of us, or some go to a place that isn’t paradise but not uncomfortable, or it’s all determined by one’s deeds, not beliefs. Who knows? There are countless options far more moral!
Careful readers will notice there’s a bit of an assumption there. When I was young and devout, I used to imagine the Judeo-Christian God found a way to make sure every person across the globe heard about him — and, after the resurrection, Jesus. People would read about them, someone would speak of them, or God would appear or make himself known in some fashion, to cover those in secluded and faraway places. If a deity exists, we assume it has the power to do this, so the above assumes it’s refraining — that could be a critical error. All true. Yet that may not ease the being’s moral culpability much. Suppose you go through your life and suddenly hear of Shenism — you saw it mentioned in an article somewhere. You read the article, but didn’t study the religion. You didn’t think to, you have your own religion you’re sure is true, you’re busy and forgot, you prefer learning about other things, and so on. Missing your moment, do you deserve eternal punishment? Have you “made your choice”? Let’s go further and imagine God ensures every human being receives enough knowledge about the One True Religion to make an “informed choice.” Suppose you learn about Islam in school, or have a Muslim co-worker. You hear all about the faith — you even study it on your own, earnestly. But you’re just not convinced, the evidence and reasoning don’t seem strong enough — no, thank you. You’ll stick to Christianity or atheism or Hinduism or whatever, inadvertently rejecting the One True Religion, sealing your fate. If this is how affairs are arranged, billions aren’t persuaded and will burn. Some people will be swayed, maybe everyone who gets a flashy visit from God himself will convert, but the vast majority of humanity is toast. (And surely not all those billions recognized the One True Religion as true but ignored it for sinful, selfish reasons — I can hear that ludicrous line coming from the Christians.) So, do you deserve hell? Because what you heard or read didn’t convince you? Did you “make your choice”? One could phrase it that way, but do you really choose to believe something is true? Or do you simply believe it’s true? In any case, what kind of being would torture good people for eternity because they weren’t convinced of something? Being unpersuaded…that’s your sin! Now burn. It would again probably have to be an immoral monster or a total madman.
So if it seems plausible that a deity is more likely to be a moral and sensible being, who wouldn’t issue everlasting damnation on people who didn’t hear about her or simply weren’t convinced by the evidence and reasoning available and presented, there isn’t too much work remaining. God is clearly a reasonable fellow, and in that light special cases can be considered. What of apostates? Perhaps you belonged to the One True Religion and left it. This is too similar to the above musings to warrant much discussion — if you can be forgiven for not being convinced, mightn’t you also be forgiven for no longer being convinced? But what of atheists and agnostics who don’t follow any faith? Same story, that’s simply not being convinced of something. If the gods are moral and sensible enough to not torture someone unconvinced by the One True Religion, why would they torture someone unconvinced by the One True Religion and all false ones? This is why my worry, as both apostate and atheist, dissipates quickly. If God exists, he’s probably good enough to not do X, and if he’s good enough to not do X he’s probably good enough to not do Y.
This could all be wrong, of course. It could be that a higher power exists and he’s simply a tyrant, completely immoral and irrational in word and deed, shipping people to hell regardless of whether they’ve heard of him, regardless of how bad the “evidence” is. (Or only tormenting atheists and apostates!) We should sincerely hope the Judeo-Christian god, for instance, doesn’t exist or is at least radically different than advertised in holy books (he has a long history of choosing less moral options and even punishing people for things they had no control over, such as the sins of the father). Or it could be the deity is mad and wicked in the opposite way. It may have been former pastor Dan Barker who wrote that a god who only lets atheists and agnostics into paradise, as a reward for thinking critically, while letting believers burn, could easily exist. Humorous, yet entirely possible (the “evidence” for each is of comparable quality). Millions of gods could be and have been theorized. But it makes some sense to suppose a higher power would be moral, because it presumably created us, and we have a moral outrage about all this, at least in modern times: most people, even many believers, are horrified at the thought of billions being tortured forever because they believed differently through no real fault of their own. We would figure out “options far more moral,” like those above, if given the power. Wouldn’t the creator be more moral, more loving and forgiving, than the created? Can mortals really surpass the gods in ethical development, in an interest in fairness and minimizing harm? Regardless, in sum, it’s simply up to us to decide if it’s most plausible that an existent deity would be good and sane — if so, damning the vast majority of humanity to hell for not knowing about, studying, or being convinced of the One True Religion seems highly implausible.