Hell is kinda like Santa Claus

Before I get started on this topic let me apologize in advance. I am posting for the first time using the WordPress app on my smartphone.  I am attempting to shed my Luddite persona.  This may be a mistake, but I’m not really known for good judgment so here goes nothing.

I’m sure if you have spent any time on any of the atheism websites or read the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins you have come across this notion of religious indoctrination as a form of child abuse.  I, like many agnostics and atheists, grew up in a church.  I was baptized, confirmed, and married in a church. Granted it was a moderate mainstream church (ELCA Lutheran), but I don’t feel like the teachings of that church somehow scarred me for life.  Things are probably different in a more fundamentalist tradition to be sure, but I think its unfair to paint all religions with the same broad brush strokes. 

How many people are actually scarred by the teaching that if you sin (whatever that is) you go to hell?  What is hell anyway? Is it really like it was portrayed on the South park movie? Doesn’t even matter?  I tend to think of hell as a metaphor or little white lie adults use to get kids to behave and do the right thing.  Hell is kinda like Santa only without presents and a little hotter. But hell is eternal…. Sure, but can a child wrap his head around eternal?  Most adults can’t even grasp the 4.6 billion year history of the Earth, yet we expect a child to grasp forever?  Think about it.

For most, when they shed the idea of God, the notion of Hell goes with it.  I suppose you could argue that the very idea of hell would prevent someone from considering the absence of God. But I would argue the two are so tightly linked that questions about one lead to questions about the other.  And again, I’ve never experienced the intense indoctrination of a fundamentalist faith so I could be full of ¢®@¶.

I personally don’t think the ideas of hell and eternal damnation are as damaging to a kids psyche as many people want to think.  But I may be wrong. And if I am, I guess I’ll see you in Hell (metaphorically, of course)


About benevolentheathen

I am an Associate Professor of Biology at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. I teach courses in ecology, evolution, and behavior with an emphasis on terrestrial vertebrates, especially reptiles. In recent years I have become increasingly interested in the interplay between science and religion. I consider myself spiritual, but not religious. I am continually reassessing my thoughts and ideas about God, faith, and religion and how they fit into my empirical worldview. View all posts by benevolentheathen

7 responses to “Hell is kinda like Santa Claus

  • Maria Kingsbury

    I think you’re right: the idea of hell is bound up in Christianity with the idea of God; the West is all about diametrical oppositions, right? However, I’d hesitate to agree that the notion of hell is, at its core, benign, and solely a rhetorical tool to enforce social norms and desired behaviors.
    I grew up Catholic, and the “placeness” of hell (and purgatory, and limbo, which existed back in the day– I think that the Vatican decided recently that it wasn’t a thing anymore–) seemed as conceivable to me as, say, Saudi Arabia, which at the time was depicted as a place of confusion, heat, violence, and death– as Other as it could be. It’s funny: I can’t recall any specific images of hell that religious training or sermons evoked, but it was always hanging out there on the periphery, like He Who Shall Not Be Named. Catholicism, or at least the Catholicism I experienced, trades heavily in supernatural, mysterious, terrifying entities and places. These fire the imagination, especially of small children, like you wouldn’t believe. I still can’t shake a lot of it. Probably never will.
    The biggest thing, I think, besides the bias elicited by my personal experience, that separates the idea of hell from other cultural enforcers like Santa Claus, is that the grown-ups in my world believed it too, and believed it so fiercely that they demonstrated behaviors that were in contradiction with other elements of their faith that they professed to embrace. Hell had to be real, and powerful, if it made you abandon basic human kindness, begin judging and threatening your fellow beings, not to mention the empirical cues that guide our everyday thinking.

  • benevolentheathen

    I so enjoy the way you think, Maria. I am also saddened to hear of some of your less pleasant experiences in the Catholic Church. My Mom is Catholic and i have several Catholic friends. I will need to ask them about their views of Hell. Would you also hesitate then to agree with the idea that ALL of religion is means to enforce social norms?

    Your point about believing in something to the point of behaving in ways contrary to you Faith is a good one. I have recently been talking about this to a friend of mine. He firmly believes we need to put Christ back into Christianity. Believing in Hell may be one small part of this curious development in the history of Christianity. Something many who practice this faith seem to forget…that it has a history.

    • Maria Kingsbury

      I’d be curious to know the experiences of other Catholics… While I’ve read several memoirs of Catholics and ex-Catholics, all were written by individuals raised in the Church prior to Vatican II– so I can’t help but think that this would have somehow affected their culture and understanding of the concept. But I don’t pretend to claim that with any authority. (James Carroll writes many smart critiques of Catholicism– if you haven’t encountered him, he’s worthwhile.)

      Have you read or heard of “Zealot” by Reza Aslan? The contextual history he gives for the man we know as Jesus Christ is completely fascinating. I’d argue, based on what we know about the real person of Christ, putting “Christ” back into Christianity would remake the religion into a organization of politically agitated Jews– interesting, given the close association between evangelical Christians and the Zionist movement, no?

      In response to your question about organized religion persisting as a means to enforce social norms: I don’t know. I definitely think that there’s a valid argument to be made there, anthropologically speaking. I suppose it partially depends on how you define “social norms;” religion also carries with it narratives and rituals that symbolically represent and communicate through generations a culture’s “origin” and “progression,” it provides a central locus for community organization and activity (especially in times of crisis), and, I think, historically religion in the West has been a conservator and proponent of education and classical texts (though I can easily see how the Catholic-dominated education system has been detrimental in as many ways as beneficial). Christianity also historically provided the sponsorship for creation and maintenance of amazing (and sometimes slyly subversive) art and architecture… In doing the latter, a particular set of aesthetic values were certainly enforced, but in some ways, that isn’t far off from our present consumer-driven artistic economy.

      I am ashamed to admit I don’t have the same depth of knowledge about religions other than Judeo-Christianity, so I wonder if religion or spiritual practice has similar functions in, say, animist systems of belief…

  • Cris

    If Hell is like Santa Clause, what is Heaven? Is there any existence after death? Is afterlife like Bigfoot?

    • benevolentheathen

      Can this question even be answer with tangible evidence? Either you believe in Heaven or you don’t (The same is true for Hell). I personally don’t, but I don’t judge those who do. The veracity of Bigfoot on the other hand is testable. The most recent discovery of an ape was in about 1996 (the Bili Ape of the Congo), so there is still hope for bigfoot. As far As I know there is only one way to test for the existence of Heaven and I’m not quite ready for that, but i may be by the end of the Spring semester!

  • Dan Traun Photography

    It all boils down to faith and what you select as your belief system. I believe in myself and my ability to be me and therefor and very simply have faith in myself (and some others close to me). Nothing more; nothing less. Simple. I forgive myself directly when I f up or when others do. I don’t need to ask a higher power for it. Sometimes I just forget. I fear no hell nor long for a heaven. Life is way to short to spend answering to someone other than yourself.

  • LScott

    If I were to define “hell,” I would loosly relate it to suffering. In the religious context, I would relate it to punishment (that results in suffering). There is suffering all over the world. People being murdered, tortured and raped, and are children being molested. So many people are suffering and in pain and misery. And it’s all hapening NOW! So hell is everywhere. Is it punishment? If you get stabbed to death by a drug addict who wants to steal your money to buy more drugs, is that God’s way of punishing you? Are we in hell. People are being murdered RIGHT NOW.
    Yet, if we consider the opposite of that to be heaven (peace and equanimity), then heaven is here too. I know a lot of people who are content with life and for the most part happy, their lives are good. Babies are laughing, birds are singing, the wind is blowing, the sun is shining and everything is beautiful. So heaven is HERE NOW.
    When our minds separate from the body when it dies…is there a possiblity of us being punished directly by the power that gives life? Yes. Most of the time though, people go to “hell” after leaving this world as a result of their OWN actions. It’s not God that is sentencing them to punishment, instead they are being punished by themselves because of the lives they lived and the crimes they commited. A murdering rapist is sentenced to prison as a result of his evil actions. So in essesnce, he put himself in prison. Hell works the same way. Beyond religions and belief systems and all conjecture, hell is real and so is heaven. By being good, righteous, upright people, we are eligible for heaven. Just as we respect a person who is good and honorable, God too, loves the righteous.

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