Paul Bloom:

And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

A few random thoughts after reading the article:

I really, really hate the word “spiritual”. I hate the metaphysical overtones. I hate the fact that it’s usually one half of a shallow, stupid dichotomy, the other half being “organized religion”. I know we’re supposed to get the impression that a “spiritual” person is an independent-minded individual who doesn’t let religious authority figures tell them how to think or behave. In my experience, it’s just as likely, if not much more so, for self-identified “spiritual” people to be dilettantes who hold a lot of incoherent ideas, perhaps due to their tendency to treat the world’s religious and philosophical traditions as a sort of Whitman’s Sampler, accoutrements for accessorizing your inner lifestyle. Mix and match, create your own! I prefer the terms “reflective” or “contemplative” or “philosophical” if I need to indicate that I spend a lot of time looking at the bigger picture and pondering where and how I fit into it.

It’s interesting to see how much the pro-religion argument, especially when advanced by people who aren’t devout believers themselves, comes down to a Hobbesian claim that believing in inescapable cosmic justice prevents the majority of people from acting on their baser impulses. Misanthropic as I can be, I’m not so quick to assume that all my neighbors are just aching for a chance to rape, rob and pillage, and are only being held in check by the thought of a divine eye upon them and a fiery prison awaiting them. Not to mention the obvious fact, as alluded to above: do we really need to go through the ways in which believers from George W. Bush on down have committed utterly horrific crimes while managing to justify them through select scriptural readings? In a country that identifies itself as 80-90% Christian, it can’t be atheists committing all the crimes. Somebody’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

But speaking of hell, let me just say this: I don’t think anyone seriously believes in it. Try this thought experiment: imagine you were living in Germany in the 1930s, and somehow, you came across a list of people scheduled to be rounded up by the Gestapo the next day. You see a close friend or relative’s name on there, so you speed to their house and rush in, frantically telling them to grab a few things and get the hell out of there, only to have them dismiss your claims with an incredulous laugh and go back to what they were doing.

How would you react? Would you just calmly shrug your shoulders and say something like, “All right, guess you’ll find out soon, but don’t come crying to me, because I warned you!” Or would you hit them over the head, if that’s what it took, and drag them to safety, figuring that they would eventually thank you for it?

Yet when it comes to a place that is, by definition, infinitely worse than a Nazi concentration camp, we see people react with blithe indifference to the thought of their close friends and relatives, not to mention the vast bulk of humanity, ending up there. Anyone who honestly believed there was such a place would be an utter wreck from the emotional strain of imagining people, especially those they love, being tormented there with no chance of reprieve. But without a place like hell, what use is a savior? Who cares what Jesus said about anything if there’s nothing to be saved from?

It amuses me to wonder if one of the most enduring institutions on earth could only exist as long as people refrain from spending five minutes thinking through such logical implications.