FFRF awarded Alex $2,000.
By Alex Kellogg
Religion has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I distinctly recall, at the age of 6, coming down to the church stage, awash in fog machine smoke and gently playing electric guitar music, to accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior. It would not be the last time I said that prayer in my young adult life, though in the future it would not be childlike faith that motivated my prayers, but rather something much more pernicious: the fear of eternal damnation. Over the course of my childhood, I attended Christian weekend retreats, Wednesday youth groups, and even won what amounted to my Christian school’s “Best Christian of the Year” award two years in a row.
None of this was enough, however, to expel the gnawing doubts that I was really, truly “saved,” that Jesus had actually forgiven my sins and that I was actually going to heaven when I died. This doubt slowly grew from a fear into a mental illness during which, for three-and-a-half long years, I was obsessed with how to make absolutely sure that I was not going to hell. My father, a Christian fundamentalist, insisted that this was merely a test from God, and that sleep, rest, exercise and morning bible study would cure it. In his view, mental illness was the result of sin or divine intervention, not chemical imbalances in the brain, and an attempt to cure mental illness with medication was an affront to God’s plan.
In the years since leaving home, I have become an unabashed agnostic, although the antics of self-proclaimed Christians such as my father make taking up the label of atheist tempting indeed. As I have traveled and been exposed to new ideas, I have come across theories that attempt to explain the phenomena of religion. One theory, the one most convincing to me, suggests that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that allows humans to act as a cohesive group, efficiently allocates resources among members, gives divine moral justification for the group’s actions, and provides an end goal that rewards adhering to the group’s understanding of morality in the afterlife, even if it means sacrificing one’s own individual will and desires in the present. By sharing the same epistemological universe and by having a divine goal to advance toward, religion could have served as an incredibly effective mechanism by which to pass the adherents’ genes on to the next generation.
However, a more interesting, if less charitable, theory states that religion serves merely as a mask for power, providing the strong with the moral justification to do as they please to the weak. This seems most evident to me in the Christian doctrine of hell: What better way to scare someone into obedience than by telling them that they will burn for eternity if they do not submit to your rules? Intellectual reasons aside, this can be a profoundly psychologically traumatizing thing to tell a child, the effects of which I am personally well acquainted. On a society-wide scale, the divine threat may have the desired effect of keeping people in line, but at the cost of free inquiry, innovation and individual ambition.
What minds have we lost to the fear of going to hell that, had they been empowered to make up their own mind, would have chosen to pursue science, philosophy or art instead of submitting to the powerful agent that keeps their mind in fetters, be it a parent, partner or church?
It is for this reason that I strongly disagree with the rationale behind Pascal’s wager, as we have potentially everything to lose in this life by believing we will be revived in the next. And if he happens to be correct, should I face God after my demise, I will, as Twitter implores, face him/she/it/they and walk backwards into hell.
Alex, 22, from Chapel Hill, N.C., attends the University of North Carolina. He spent the summer in Colombia learning about indigenous farming practices, spirituality and resistance to foreign mining companies. Alex is fascinated by ecological processes and the ways in which human culture interacts with them, particularly regarding agriculture and religion.