Quiet Condemnation

Last week our freethought group on campus met with some representatives of Campus for Christ.  A friend of mine, blogging about the experience here, was taken aback by the fact that they really do believe in Hell and eternal damnation, that we actually “spent most of the evening sitting and having a civil and polite discussion with some nice, fairly intelligent people who sincerely believe that I and my friends will be in eternal agony after death.”  Put like that, I can recognize how strange it was, yet all the same I didn’t find it strange.  As I told him then, I’m used to those doctrines.

To explain, I was raised in a fairly devote Catholic family.  While the doctrines concerning Hell were never emphasized in the way that is stereotypical of Catholicism, they were there.  At Mass they did sometimes teach the concept of mortal sin, but I relied on books to follow its course of logic to the end and learn among other things of the damnation on account of such sin of those who understand that they scorn the faith.  (These books, some admittedly rather dated, “taught” me many things besides this, but that’s perhaps a subject for another time.)  I came to believe that “the damned” were all around me, in my community, my school, my church, and that I might even be one of them should I fail to behave in accordance with God’s will.  Unbelievers seemed to be a particularly bad sort in light of the nature of their rejection, but as far as I could tell, most of the people I knew were unbelievers.  I was very reserved though, so I never tried to evangelize to them or anything like that.  I merely became used to having ‘civil and polite discussions with nice, fairly intelligent people whom I sincerely believed were (probably) going to be in eternal agony after their deaths.’  So I’ve been that person who thinks this way.  I know well that such people exist.  Their experience is too familiar to be strange to me.

I was able to persist in such belief for several years, longer than I think should have been possible.  There were two main reasons for this.  The first is probably applicable to many: the belief that being good requires a certain degree of orthodoxy means that challenging the orthodox doctrines of Hell was out of the question, since believing such doctrines and not challenging them was one of the things necessary to being good and thereby being saved.  (Duh!)  The other reason is probably common as well, but by nature not something easy for others to notice: as I said, I seldom talked about these beliefs.  In fact, I didn’t talk much about my beliefs at all.  The result is that they received little direct challenge.  How could they?  But I was sensitive to those devilish sentiments which made their way in my general direction by less direct routes, and the basic dissonance inherent in believing in the probable eternal damnation of seemingly-decent people around me gradually became too much to remain acceptable.  Something had to give, and in the end it was my belief in Hell (and its God).  I have to thank everyone who ever said that it is a foul doctrine, and so I don’t hesitate to join them now.

What I really want to talk about though is the basic social dynamic involved in situations like these, where (let’s say) two people can sit around having a friendly discussion while each quietly believing that the other is fundamentally wrong on some important matter.  After all, believing that one’s interlocutor surely faces eternal damnation while not saying much of it to them is just one of the more excessive forms of this pragmatic civility.  I’m sure that it’s something we all do in other forms.  Here are just a few examples that come to mind from my own experience.

1) In a certain community organization I find myself working with people with whom I share rather different political views, and by that I mean I often find their views quite repugnant.  But we have things to do together and fighting each other for political reasons wouldn’t seem to be productive, so I simply do what I can to avoid political discussion.  (I admit that I could be mistaken on that last point about avoiding conflict, especially because it leaves open the risk that the inaction of people like me will passively allow the group to move in a distasteful direction.  Case in point: ‘doing what I can to avoid political discussion’ has increasingly meant simply being less involved in the group.)

2) For mainly ethical reasons, I’m a vegetarian.  Most people aren’t, including the majority of my friends.  We tend to avoid the topic.

3) Someone is wrong on the internet, but I don’t hit ‘reply’ because I have things to do.

What should I do in these situations?  They’re not entirely comparable, but what they have in common is that they all involve silent inaction for practical reasons in the face of a situation which might seem to call for something more from anyone with a conviction that they’re in the right.  More generally, what is the proper response to such situations?  This is a difficult question and I won’t pretend to have the answer, even if I assume that the context underlying the situation is always one in which it is safe to speak.  (It’s also problematic for me because I tend to be somewhat shy.  This means that the fundamental reason for my saying nothing in such situations is sometimes only that I find myself too unassertive to say anything when the occasion surely calls for speech.  I can then rationalize my failure by saying that it was a sound tactical decision on my part when it was merely a thoughtless reaction.  Separating good reasons for inaction from such rationalizations adds another level of difficulty to this situation, and I’m sure that many people face the same difficulty.  Shyness is after all something that may vary with context.)  I suppose it’s something to think about.

3 comments on “Quiet Condemnation

  1. lainie2011 says:

    Your discussion of the dynamic between “believers” and “non-believers” is interesting and thoughtful. Having grown up in a hyper-religious household, I often wondered how the “saved” could sit and calmly converse with one doomed to eternal damnation. I still don’t quite understand it. If the Christian truly believes the atheist is speeding toward the fiery pit, wouldn’t he try harder to stop the descent? I wonder if those believers actually accept eternal damnation as fully as they claim to do.

    What I appreciated even more was your mention of not wading into every fray, even when your convictions are challenged, and your attributing this to shyness – Or perhaps a reluctance to fight. I speak as a reluctant theist – one who appreciates atheist logic and precision (not always a given, but much more likely than what is found in Fundamentalist circles)

    I’ve been unable to let go of my belief in some sort of the divine. So, although my view technically differs from yours, discussion would possibly be a reasonably productive exchange of ideas – especially since I’m not quite able to accept the concept of Hell.

    When you understand that the person with whom you’re speaking is a Fundamentalist, it becomes obvious that there will be no bit of common ground upon which you can build a dialog. It would be wasted breath, and who has the time?

  2. Heorrenda says:

    Χαῖρε, and thanks!

    That actually did come up at the discussion I mention here. At least some Christians do see it as their mission to evangelize precisely because they feel that they are called to help save people from some kind of Hell. I think that they, the ones who actively do this, are in the minority though.

    I should add that the people at the meeting seemed to attribute the ultimate success of evangelical efforts to some kind of Divine Grace. We should have asked them what they thought the role of human agency was in all this. The idea of Hell seems problematic enough, but when combined with Predestination and that sort of thing I find it gets especially ridiculous.

    I suppose how productive these sorts of discussions are really comes down to our starting assumptions. (“What is it possible to know? In what ways can one know things?” /etc) People in a freethought group and an evangelical Christian group obviously answer some of those questions very differently, for instance in terms of how they understand textual authority and its relation to knowledge. The more obvious differences, like their belief in Hell and its strangeness to us, follow from those. If people with rather opposing viewpoints really want to have an interesting discussion then they’d have to all be willing to speak about those most basic assumptions.

  3. lainie2011 says:

    Ah – See, if they attribute salvation to “Divine Grace,” which I read as predestination, that really shoots the whole omnibenevolent thing, eh? It would be tough to continue the discussion at that point, even for me, and I’m not quite an atheist…

    There are discussions where each side simply throws out a blizzard of facts (or perceived facts)- Neither countering the other’s argument in a menaingful way. I have seen this with some otherwise very bright people, and find it most frustrating when that is the case. Again, wasted time and breath. How can you teach or learn from someone who doesn’t hear you?

    You wrote a comment a while back about snobbery in the atheist community that I found very fair. I have been fascinated with atheism for a long time, and truly want to understand it. Most of the ones I spoke with ignored my questions and threw boilerplate, easily-countered blurbs at me. I didn’t mind that, but I really did want to understand. From what i’ve read of your blog, there are some thoughtful rationales for lack of belief in any supernatural being, and i have been enjoying them. Thank you.

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