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.