Am I going to hell?

I think I'm an atheist -- but what if the Christians are right?

By Cary Tennis

Published December 14, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

My parents were raised different religions, and so partly because of this, and also because neither is particularly religious despite their upbringings, they decided to raise me with no religion at all.

I grew up in a predominantly Christian town, and I occasionally attended church with friends. I even went to church camp a few summers, but I always felt like an outsider. Even when I was a kid, organized religion just seemed like a hoax to me -- a way to guilt the masses into being nice to one another. I remember asking an adult I respected at church camp how she could just have faith in something she had no proof about. She responded, "What if I don't believe and God does exist? Then I go to hell." The fact that fear was her primary motivation was enough to turn me off of religion for another decade.

But now I find myself thinking the same thought she expressed to me. I feel haunted by the issue of religion. I'm agnostic but much closer to atheist than believer. Probably 95 percent of me believes that religion is a big joke on people not smart enough to think rationally. I realize how snobbish this sounds, but it's how I feel. I've met smart people who are religious, but the majority of smart people I know are not. I really hope I'm wrong about organized religion being a hoax, because the idea that this life is all there is terrifies me. The other 5 percent of me believes that maybe there is some higher power, but that part of me is terrified too, because by not accepting this higher power, am I dooming myself to an eternity of misery and punishment? I'd like to think that God cares more about who's a good person than who believes in him, but what if that's not the case?

I lie awake at night wondering: Should I ignore the large part of my brain screaming, "Religion is a hoax!" and find some way to embrace religion for the comfort that truly believing would bring me? Honestly, I think this is what I would like to do, but I have no idea how. How does one turn from skeptic to believer?

Scared Religious Skeptic

Dear Scared Religious Skeptic,

I take it your main worry is that if the Christians are right, you're going to die and then wake up in hell, which involves the burning.

They talk about the burning, these folks. I think that's just insane, to talk to kids about the burning. Like, they're telling a kid that underneath the ground he's standing on is the reservoir of all the souls who didn't do what they were told to do by these people, and they're down there burning in agony, screaming and leaping around in agony, right under our feet, now and always and forever. Like forever. And like they come around and tell kids this. I grew up in one of those towns, too, until I was 12. They'd come around to my school when I was a kid and talk about the burning and I was like, right, the burning, you must be nuts. My parents thought they were nuts, too, which helped. I wasn't going to be scared by some weirdos in robes talking about burning. I don't care if they turn out to be right, maybe I'm screwed, but I wasn't having any of it. And I'm still not. I do know something about a spiritual condition of suffering in the now, and I know something about metaphors and something about poetry and something about the vast array of possibilities for existence outside of what we take for normal consciousness and what we take for provable physical science. Anything's possible. But this burning-in-hell business I do not buy.

One thing I'm looking forward to: After I'm dead, I'm paying no more bills. They can call all they want. I'll be dead. I'll have settled my "final expenses," as that television commercial for funeral insurance so charmingly puts it.

I think it's a matter of choice, and that the choice is very important and very simple. You don't need to have all the facts. You don't need to be able to prove anything. You just need to decide. Either you believe what they're saying or you don't. If you believe it is possible to end up in hell after death, then by all means go and get baptized in a Christian church. Say the words. Do your best to believe. What harm could it do? I believe that's called Pascal's wager. Maybe it's what all the smart people are secretly doing, while pretending otherwise. I mean, you could hedge your bets in that fashion.

But if you really cannot believe that this unlikely-sounding scenario is a genuine danger, you might conclude that your real problem is anxiety. Your anxiety may have attached itself to the idea of some awful future event, because you were scared out of your wits by a religious person when you were a kid, but your real experiential problem is the anxiety itself. The anxiety itself is something that a lot of us deal with -- free-floating anxiety, worry, inability to relax and enjoy life. If you were to approach it like this, you might take that to a professional and just say, hey, with cognitive behavioral therapy or psychodynamic therapy or any number of specialized varieties of modern psychotherapy, would you please help me remove this ridiculous and annoying anxiety?

And I'll bet you could rid yourself of it.

My main recommendation is that you stop wasting time and make a choice today. It's an either-or question. Either you're in danger of going to hell or not. If you believe you are, then take the threat seriously and inoculate yourself by professing to believe in Jesus Christ. If you don't believe it, if you believe that it's a psychological symptom, then go to a therapist to deal with your anxiety and fear.

You can do either one. You might end up doing both -- that is, one choice may exhaust itself and lead to the other choice. The main thing is to stop dithering and pick one. For, as we all know and do not seem to tire of pointing out to each other, life is short and death is certain.

Cary Tennis

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