I cannot imagine being Ross Douthat. There’s just something so bizarre and twisted in his brain that I cannot empathize at all with his point of view — it’s a brain in which all the proteins have been crosslinked by the fixative of religion. Now he’s arguing that Hell must exist.
As our lives have grown longer and more comfortable, our sense of outrage at human suffering — its scope, and its apparent randomness — has grown sharper as well. The argument that a good deity couldn’t have made a world so rife with cruelty is a staple of atheist polemic, and every natural disaster inspires a round of soul-searching over how to reconcile with God’s omnipotence with human anguish.
These debates ensure that earthly infernos get all the press.
Wait. There might be another factor here, you know. How many unearthly infernos have occurred, and how would we get news about them? Douthat is unhappy that all we hear about is mere “ordinary” infernos like the Holocaust and disasters in Haiti, and we’re all worked up about those, but hey, what about the Queekwan Rebellion on Fomalhaut VII, or the outcome of the theological debate on the nature of ectoplasmosis in Heaven’s sixth ward? Why aren’t the newspapers making a big deal about those catastrophes, huh?
This is just weird enough to discombobulate me already, but where he loses me is where he thinks the omission of supernatural news from beyond is a very bad thing.
Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.
So we’re less human because we care far more about real human catastrophes than we do about lobstermen in outer space or archangel celebrity gossip? This does not follow. This does not make sense.
There’s also a peculiarly inverted perspective on the issue. Douthat argues that Hell must exist because we wish it to exist, to create a particular desirable environment to shape humanity’s moral development.
As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”
No, no, no. This is so backwards. That he wishes something to be so does not mean it must exist; it is so primitively theological to argue that “X exists because it should” rather than “X exists because there is evidence for it”. But worse, there it is again, the diminution of the real for the fantasies of his poor imagination.
The birth of my children was not an unimportant event to me. It is not humanism to look down on a wonderful, human event like two people joining together to produce a child and declare it meaningless unless we’re also dwelling on an existential horror invented by self-serving priestly parasites. I could see important choices on the horizon, real-world responsibilities and actions, that would make a huge difference in the lives of myself, my wife, and my kids, and I don’t need imaginary goads to motivate me.
So confused is Douthat about what is real and imaginary that he chooses to end his little essay with a ‘difficult’ theological question that is…well, you have to see it to believe it.
Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?
No. Not only does heaven not exist, but Tony Soprano is a fictional character who did not really exist in the first place.
Also, about Gandhi? He’s dead. He has ceased to exist. He’s not anywhere anymore.
These are not difficult questions, unless your brain has been addled by religious damage.