By Sean Carroll | April 25, 2011 8:29 am

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?

A couple of rhetorical questions posed by Ross Douthat, who does us all the favor of reminding us how certain ideas that would otherwise be too ugly and despicable to be shared among polite society become perfectly respectable under the rubric of religion. (Via Steve Mirsky on the twitters.) In this case, the idea is: certain people are just bad, and the appropriate response is to subject them to torment for all time, without hope of reprieve. Now that’s the kind of morality I want my society to be based on.

The quote is extremely telling. Note that the first question is never actually answered — is Gandhi in hell? And there’s a good reason it’s never answered, because the answer would probably be “yes.” Hell is an imaginary place invented by people who think that eternal torture for people they disapprove of would be a good idea. And it’s the rare religion that says “we approve of all good people, whether or not they share our religious beliefs.” Much more commonly, Hell is brought up to scare people away from deviating from a particular religious path. Here’s the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire”, and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”

Do you think that, at the end of his life, Gandhi decided to believe in Jesus and converted?

The second question is equally telling, because even Douthat can’t bring himself to use a non-fictional person as an example of someone who deserves Hell. He’s trying to make the point that “we are defined by the decisions we make,” and if there is no way to make bad decisions then making good decisions is devalued. Which is a fine point to make, and many atheists would be happy to agree. The difference is that we don’t think that people who make bad decisions deserve to be tortured for all of eternity.

This enthusiastic stumping for the reality of Hell betrays not only a shriveled sense of human decency and a repulsive interest in pain inflicted on others, but a deplorable lack of imagination. People have a hard time taking eternity seriously. I don’t know of any theological descriptions of Hell that involve some version of parole hearings at regular intervals. The usual assumption is that it’s an eternal sentence. For all the pious musings about the centrality of human choice, few of Hell’s advocates allow for some version of that choice to persist after death. Seventy years or so on Earth, with unclear instructions and bad advice; infinity years in Hell for making the wrong decisions.

Hell isn’t an essential ingredient in humanity’s freedom of agency; it’s a horrible of invention by despicable people who can’t rise above their own petty bloody-mindedness. The thought of condemning millions of people to an eternity of torment makes Ross Douthat feel good about himself and gives him a chance to indulge in some saucy contrarianism. I tend to take issue with religion on the grounds that it’s factually wrong, not morally reprehensible; but if you want evidence for the latter, here you go.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Top Posts
  • Chris

    I was hoping for your take on the Atlas data “leak” Sean…

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

      Chris– I don’t really have anything to add to the rumor-mongering, except to note that the premature leak was certainly unfortunate.

  • anoNY

    For the sci-fi fans out there, Iain M. Banks’ new novel (Suface Detail) includes a major plot line involving certain technologically advanced civilizations’ creation and perpetuation of computer-based “hells” where they send the consciousnesses of “evil-doers” in their societies. Other, presumably more enlightened societies take issue and fight a war to stop this practice. It is an interesting question raised by technological advancement, but unfortunately the moral aspect is only briefly discussed, as the main civilization covered by his novels (the Culture) is already known by Banks’ fans to be the type to disapprove.

    I guess your post just reminded me of this.

  • Yoav Golan

    Why is it all-too-often that physicists mistake themselves for philosophers? I’m am by no means a religious person, but you know as well as I do that this post attacks a straw man.

  • Joshua

    @Yoav: Nonsense. This post attacks a particular religious sensibility that is elucidated by Ross Douthat. That Douthat may be philosophically/morally/intellectually bankrupt is something we can discuss, obviously, but Sean attacking his fantasy-based vindictiveness is no more a “stawman” argument than writing a critique of anyone who takes religious dogma at its face-value. Sure, theologians and apologists like to argue that taking a religious precept or scripture at face-value is problematic, but that’s their can-of-worms, not ours. If you say that there is an eternal soul that is consigned to eternal torment for arbitrary reasons regarding intellectual decision-making, it is fair-game to take you to task for the ethics and ontology of such a statement.

  • Joe

    The real question is, “Is Sean Carroll going to Hell when he dies?” I think we all know the answer to this question 😉

  • Joe Shobe

    It is morally reprehensible that religions use a hell as a control mechanism; but also, it is a mechanism that is inconsistently addressed in the new testiment and horribly misinterpreted by christian religions in general. I have given up on religion altogether, although very well schooled on the topic during my youth. While most would have to admit that “Gandhi is in hell” if you are to assume he did not convert to christianity on his death bead, little John in his second epistle said something to the effect – anyone who knows love knows God for God is love. This one statement in the new testiment set me entirely free from religion, and it became clear to me the manipulations that are intended around conversion and spreading the good word. Gandhi knew love, Tony Soprano did not. Not trying to score a point for god’s love, just relating that even little John knew something was wrong with the message. People need to act responsibly in their own circumstance, and trying to hold someone other than yourself accountable based on your thoughts and beliefs is flat wrong.

  • Mike


    Now you’re talking!! Couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    While I’m on board with the notion that Hell, in any modern context, is reprehensible, the “invention” of Hell is actually a pretty complicated story. The whole concept of an afterlife in Abrahamic religions evolved considerably over millennia, from a bleak semi-oblivion for saint and sinner alike on up. From Sheol to Gehenna is interesting history. The syncretic effects of translation and migration (e.g. Sheol to Hades, Gehenna to Hel) is also pretty interesting history. It’s not as simple as bad people dreaming up bad things to do to other people to keep them in line. Again, I do think it’s fair to characterize those who adhere to this ancient tradition today, and who, like Mr. Douthat, are in a position to know better, as depraved.

  • max

    I try my very hardest not to read Ross Douthat’s articles, but even his titles are so egregious that I can’t look away. He’s the deadly car crash of NYT op-eds.

  • K

    I don’t believe any educated Catholic would argue that Ghandi is in hell. If we actually believe in a loving God, then we can neither presume to know the goodness God finds in the minds and hearts of non-Christians, nor can we deny that they can live equally beautiful lives promoting love in accordance with the conscience with which we believe God has imbued us all.

    Given your post’s proximity to the Church’s Good Friday intercessions, I like to note that Catholics everywhere pray for non-Christians, not for their conversion, but for the end of inter-religious strife and for our own ability to better witness the Love we have found through faith. Additionally, we pray for those who don’t believe in God, that they (and we) may honestly pursue Truth and lead lives morally following their (and our) consciences.

    All that said, I won’t attest to how other Christian faiths understand Hell. Certainly there are those that use the idea to threaten those of different cultural backgrounds. It’s a shame these Christian extremists warrant reactionary posts like the above that do not fully incorporate modern understandings of Christian faith.

    Lastly, C. S. Lewis forwards a beautiful understanding of Hell as the emptiness we create for ourselves by holding on to those things (vice, fear, and perhaps even misplaced love) that distract us from seeking out that which is truly real. Check out “The Great Divorce.”

  • Adam

    That line from the Catholic catechism is not the full picture of what Catholics believe about hell. If you read the rest of the section on Catholicism in the link you gave, you’ll see that Pope John Paul II asserted that hell is the state of being completely unable to accept God’s love. This is a common theological understanding of hell.

    In addition, that understand in conjunction with “Nostra Aetate” from Vatican II indicate that if a person’s beliefs in life prepare them to accept God’s love after death, it is possible for them to enter into heaven. It is hard for me to believe that Gandhi, with his deeply held commitment to love (regardless of the fact that that commitment was born out of his Hindu faith), would have been unable to accept God’s love when he died.

    Considering that this is an extremely common belief among catholics, supported by official church teachings, it is hard for me to understand why Ross would even pose the question.

  • AnotherSean

    I asked a theologian about hell once. Like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, I figured that I’d share the same fate of most of my friends. It wouldn’t seem right otherwise. The theologian told me that the fire that Christ referenced was not a metaphysical location, but an actual trash refuse that existed outside of the town he lived in. Christ used this as an allegory, but in the synoptical texts never refers to it as some fate of the person who fails to believe. Now in the book of John, things become different because Christ emphasizes belief over deeds. Many people, including Elaine Pagels, believe John was a fabrication designed to gain political control over the Christians. I don’t know whether this is true, but it seems sensible.

  • Mike


    “Considering that this is an extremely common belief among catholics, supported by official church teachings, it is hard for me to understand why Ross would even pose the question.”

    Because heaven, hell and religion in general is such a bad explanation for things, anyone can come along, pick and choose what words they prefer, vary this or that aspect of their theology, and go on from there as if nothing had happened.

    Official church teachings themselves have done exactly that every time reason and scientific progress has wrested some area from their grip.

    Good explanations, like scientific explanations, provide no such luxury. A good scientific explanation is hard to change around and vary the inputs, and if you’re forced too, because of anomalous facts that arise, the theory no longer stands.

    On the other hand, it’s impossible to disprove myths.

  • Ryan

    Religion is dumb. News at 11.

  • whoschad

    Let’s up the level of sophistication on this blog, please. There’s a reason people including myself subscribe to this blog, and posts like this are definitely not it.

    Is there honestly anything in this post that couldn’t have been written by any angst-ridden Middle Schooler anywhere in the world? I can’t believe I spent time here reading this (for example):

    “Hell is an imaginary place invented by people who think that eternal torture for people they disapprove of would be a good idea.”

    I’m not normally this up front, but this post is seriously a joke. I say this as a concerned reader who strongly urges you to stick to writing what you’re good at.

  • Phil

    Another post on religion by someone who, once again, distorts everything about religion, a topic he’s far removed from and knows little about. Just stick to physics and going on The Colbert Report.

  • Mike


    “Hell is an imaginary place invented by people who think that eternal torture for people they disapprove of would be a good idea.”

    I don’t pretend to know what motivates individuals to embrace concepts like heaven and hell. I’m sure it is very complex, but I certainly don’t see anything wrong with the first half of the sentence: hell is an imaginary place invented by people. I’d be interested what evidence you have to the contrary.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    > I don’t know of any theological descriptions of Hell that involve some version of parole hearings at regular intervals.

    There’s actually something rather like that in C S Lewis’s “The great divorce”, mentioned in an earlier comment. (It’s not exactly “regular intervals”, and Lewis might have disclaimed the adjective “theological” (a) for himself and (b) for that particular bit of speculation.)

  • Phil

    Sean doesn’t want to read C.S. Lewis because he prefers to stick to his own prejudices about religion and those who practice it. Sean is just too good and smart for C.S. Lewis, right? Sean is sooooo smart!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    As is to be expected, dissent doesn’t take the form of “logic” or “evidence” or for at matter even “counterarguments” at all, only vague insinuations that greater sophistication makes everything better. (And of course the usual complaints by anonymous Internet commentators about the lack of proper credentials.). Believe me, I’m well aware of the sophisticated arguments that are being left unarticulated, and I’m happy to stand by every single thing I wrote.

  • Colin

    Agree that hell doesn’t come with images of regular parole hearings. Disagree that the typical religious view of hell is an eternal sentence….at least in the past century or so, christian writings have often depicted hell as less an eternal sentence, and more the eternal inevitability of choosing a life without god. So in this hell, even if you were given a parole hearing, it’s too late for you to bring yourself to choose God (e.g. look at C.S. Lewis’s “Great Divorce” which has little to do with fire and brimstone, and more to do with an eternal life in which one is tortured by never achieving fulfillment).

    So for these images of hell, it is less the case that those in hell are not given a chance to repent, but that those in hell are believed to be beyond rehabilitation….I’m not sure if that is any less offsensive, but at least slightly different.

  • Mike


    Please read @ 19 g’s home pages (you can link through his “name”). You might find it interesting, or not.


    I found your comments (here and on your home pages) generous and thoughtful.


    Keep up the good work.

  • Dan L.

    @16, 17:

    Quit the butt hurt. You don’t like what a blogger says, stop reading his blog.


    “a topic he’s far removed from and knows little about”

    1. Atheists seem to know more about religion than theists. The relevant poll was extensively discussed, but I’ll find a citation if you really need it.

    2. It’s pretty impossible to be far removed from public religious celebration and language in the USA. To the extent that atheists are part of the culture, we’re going to react to this stuff and we’re going to call it “religion.” If you have a problem with us calling stuff like Douthat’s op ed “religion” then that’s something you’re going to have to take up with the mainstream theists who say this stuff in the first place.

    You guys are acting like we (atheists) made this whole “hell” thing up. Wasn’t us, we’re just responding to what other people say about it. Why don’t you sort out these thorny theological questions with the other believers and get back to us when you have it straight among yourselves.

  • Mike

    Dan L,

    Here is a link to the survey you referenced:


    On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

  • Colin

    Sean’s comment 21,
    There are some comments here that assert that you are factually wrong about the typical religious view of hell, or at least that the description you give is too widesweeping (even if it is generally correct). It is my experience that religious people, and even official religions, have very divergent views of hell. I referenced C.S. Lewis, as did others, as several Christian religions have upheld Lewis as a great christian writer (in particular, we read “The Great Divorce” in our discussion of hell in Catholic high school…which gives it some level of officialness). I’d also look into the works of Karl Rahner, if you are not familiar (he is considered to be one of the most important Catholic theologians of the past century, and would have been very concerned by a question like is Gandhi in Hell, etc)

    I don’t disagree with your overall post, just think that its application might not be as broad as you implied….and this is an argument based in facts.

  • Cutter McCool

    Sartre famously wrote, “Hell is other people” in his play “No Exit.” I prefer a personal reformulation: “Hell is those who believe in it.”

  • Mike


    Just to put a little meat on the bones, and correct me if I’m wrong, but Rahner’s view of the subject at hand can generally be described under the rubric of Anonymous Christianity as follows:

    “Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity — Let us say, a Buddhist monk — who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold if everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity.”

    According to Rahner, a person could explicitly deny Christianity, but in reality existentially is committed to those values which for the Christian are concretized in God.

    To my way of thinking, this doesn’t materially affect the conclusion that religion and myth are simply bad explanations for what we find in the world, but I do think that this is certainly a more generous version and it comes as no surprise to me that is arose relatively recently.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Colin– I understand that no true Scotsman — I mean, religious person — is in favor of flaying people limb from limb for all eternity.

    Look, of course there are religious people such as Lewis or Rahner who are appalled by the naive picture of Hell and attempt to change it into something loftier. Not because Jesus came back with a clarification — “what I really meant was that nonbelievers would be tossed into the lake of fire of disappointment that they would forever be separated from God’s grace” — or because improved scientific observations of Hell revealed that the old model was incorrect in certain key respects. Just because the straightforward version is utterly horrifying.

    I’m not going to footnote every statement about some of religion’s more horrifying aspects by “there are some religious people who don’t believe these horrible things,” but you can take it as understood if you like. There are no data, so you can believe whatever you want. To me, the inclination to believe in Hell in any form whatsoever is characteristic of a deep sickness, no matter how much it may be prettied up. Just reject it as a bad episode that we should be past by now.

  • Colin

    That would be a fair simple explication of Rahner’s view (though some versions Anonymous Christianity sometimes only exonerate non-Christians who had never heard about Christianity, which could exclude the likes of Gandhi). Though in part, my comment spoke less to the final implications of Rahner’s work, and more to the fact that Rahner was deeply interested in how non-Christians could or could not achieve salvation after death. Given that Rahner was one of the most influential Catholic Theologians of the past century, that is relevant to Sean’s initial post.

    Though your final comment might be equally relevant…it is telling that these types of views did not become mainstream Catholic theology until relatively recently. And it doesn’t really have any impact on the validity/role of a religious ethic.

  • Escuerd

    I get a kick out of people who act as though someone has to be a professional philosopher to discuss a matter as banal and silly as religious belief. The best that they can do is to insist that any critic of their preferred superstition clearly hasn’t read the sophisticated theologian of their choice and to compare their critics to angsty middle schoolers.

    Yes, theological positions on any given topic vary, and the popular beliefs about hell are less popular among the theologian crowd than among people in the pews (almost by definition). I’ll give a shit what theologians have to say as soon as they come up with a good reason to believe that their basic premises are actually true. If the topic at hand is the moral reprehensibility of certain common beliefs (and belief in the hell of the sort Sean describes is quite common in the U.S. at least), then it is those common beliefs that concern me, not the historical beliefs they developed from or the elaborate retcons of dedicated fanfiction authors.

  • Colin

    I agree with the final point: “To me, the inclination to believe in Hell in any form whatsoever is characteristic of a deep sickness, no matter how much it may be prettied up.” Though I perhaps would have substituted a less prejudicial word for sickness.

    I don’t think it is fair to imply that I am cherry-picking a few people who don’t believe that Hell is brimstone and Fire. I’m not sure what percent of Catholics believe in brimstone and fire, but it is probably much lower than 100%, though potentially higher than the percent of scientifically-literate Catholics who still disbelieve in some form of evolution or big bang.

    I added Rahner as he is oft-cited as the most influential catholic theologian of the past century; I don’t know enough to judge that for myself, but the term influential means that lots of people ended up at least thinking critically about his views, if not agreeing with them. And Lewis is one of the most influential Christian writers, so the same implications apply. Moreover, No one is saying that we need to rewrite what Jesus said according to the bible, just not interpret it literally….which is hardly a new philosophy when it comes to reading the bible, even if not everyone agrees.

    The Catechism also affirms a less tormenting view of hell, though it also freely quotes from the potentially metaphorical language of the scripture: “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (1035).

    How you characterize a religious worldview goes a long way in how despicable you believe its implications. If the view is “All who don’t follow my teachings burn in hell for eternity,” that seems quite a bit different than “All who don’t follow my teachings will achieve only a lower form of happiness/fulfillment than those that do.” Though I agree that either view is a distortion of reality and should have nothing to do with how people actually live their lives….so categorically, maybe both views are the same.

  • Georg

    This eternal hell and more so the younger invention of “purgatory” is not
    an idea of torturers, it is moneymaking, nothing else.
    Real fortunes were/are herited to “church” in catholic countries to
    get some “testate” which saves You from hell/purgatory.
    That is why the “Church” was so upset when a little Monk in 1517 wrote
    posters against selling of indulgences! This knife aimed directly into
    the heart of church – money. I think Luther (more a theoretician)
    was not aware of that.

  • TC_Mits

    First, hell is an ancient religious concept concocted millennia ago for unsophisticated people. Ditto heaven. It is not difficult to imagine both as a continuum based, instead, on an abstractly perfect sense of absolute justice.
    Now, ***IF*** one begins with the premise that God (undefined) created — out of the purest nothingness (unimaginable) — all that “is” (undefined), from the ethereal substance of a quark to the most sublime states that human consciousness is able potentially to attain; consciously designed (to anthropomorphize the unknowable) it all with purpose and concern (read love and knowledge) ***THEN*** (and only then) does it make sense so say that it’s really not our place to judge those actions.
    Further, with the stated givens, it would make a kind of sense to say that failure to conform with the Will of such a Creator could have dire consequences. To ask “why or wherefore” is to challenge the assumptions.
    So, what is faith? And does it really have to conflict with knowledge? All science can be freely conducted without having to challenge the assumptions above. It is the imperfect assumptions of imperfect people trying to tell other imperfect people what God wants or means (read: “religion”) that creates all the conflict. Not the abstract idea of a deity — that concept can stand alone and one can accept or reject it as one chooses. Life goes on either way.

  • Dan L.


    That is awesome and I am going to start saying it. Thank you.

  • http://gravityandlevity.wordpress.com Brian

    Just for reference, Mormons believe in Hell as a temporary place, where “bad” people go for 1000 years of suffering before being directed to their ultimate (happy) final state.

  • James

    “the inclination to believe in Hell in any form whatsoever is characteristic of a deep sickness”.

    Whilst I do agree with this to a large extent, I do suspect that many (most?) believers outside the true fundamentalists may still believe in Hell for those who do bad things (not necessarily just for lack of the right specific belief).
    This is s a slightly more sympathetic aspect to the belief in Hell. People see evil all around them, they see rapists and murderers and just plain old dickheads and more importantly they see injustice go unpunished on Earth and they so desperately want to believe that there will be justice in the afterlife – be that Heaven for the good, Hell for the bad.

    It’s still crazy, of course.

  • Phil

    Sean, do you believe that when you die you will cease to exist in any form whatsoever (no “afterlife”) for all eternity. An eternity of nothingness? How do you feel about that. It’s my view that this question alone will make religion in some form persist. I, for one, cannot understand how something like is possible.

  • JimV

    ” … written by any angst-ridden Middle Schooler anywhere in the world?”

    That loses the Internet for this millenium at least. (If people can win it, there must be losers too.)

    Speaking as an ex-angst-ridden-Middle-Schooler, I pretty much defended by rote what my Sunday School teachers told me, at that age. It took long years of concentrated thought before I broke free of the conditioning and asked myself, how would I expect the world to look if it were all just superstitious nonsense, and to realize the answer was: exactly the way it does look.

  • http://www.sunclipse.org Blake Stacey

    He’s trying to make the point that “we are defined by the decisions we make,” and if there is no way to make bad decisions then making good decisions is devalued. Which is a fine point to make, and many atheists would be happy to agree.

    I wouldn’t. Not when the claim is stated so baldly, anyway. I mean, let’s say we’re flying in the USS Discovery en route to Jupiter, and there was only room on our hard drive for good movies. (Not just “arty” good, necessarily, but also including solid action fare like the first Die Hard and thrillers like From Russia With Love — unpretentious, quality entertainment for when we’re in the appropriate mood.) Does the fact that we can’t watch Michael Bay schlock “devalue” Kurosawa?

  • spyder

    I recall a Pat Benatar song from long ago; also a tryptich by Bosch and the execution of Bruno. Seems to me hell is on earth each and every day. Otherwise it would be meaningless in its entirety.

  • Jeri

    @38 – Phil

    I’ve always found it interesting that people are unconcerned with the eternity of time that passed before their birth — the nothingness, if you will — but are horrified at the thought of returning to that state.

  • Phil

    @42 , Jeri,

    I know, I’ve thought about that too. The only thing I can come up with is that that state of “nothingness” came to an end when you started sensing the world, etc. But when I imagine eternal nothingness that will never end, I just don’t understand how that’s possible. It has nothing to do with religion or fear of death. It just doesn’t make sense to me. How can I be around for several decades, experiencing the world, thinking, talking, having consciousness, etc., and then poof — gone. Nothing, forever. Even if I thought the concept of God is simply made up and all religion is nonsense, this thought cannot escape me, and I think that it’s this thought that has either been the seed of religion or will allow some sort of spirituality to persist even if all organized religion goes the way of the dinosaurs.

  • SteveB

    Can’t resist, Sean: is hell exothermic or endothermic?

  • http://home.uchicago.edu/~sgralla Sam Gralla

    I think this is an appropriate time to remember the words of Ben Franklin,

    “Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure. I shall only add respecting myself, that having experienced the Goodness of that Being, in conducting me prosperously thro’ a long Life, I have no doubt of its Continuance in the next, tho’ without the smallest Conceit of meriting such Goodness.”

    If you, like Franklin, have a foundational view of religion, or of morals, that is incompatible with Christianity, then just get rid of Christianity. There’s lots of good religion left! And you can perfectly well follow many of the morals given to us by Christ. Don’t attempt to modify Chrstianity to suit what you believe; just go with what you believe. The bible is very clear on Hell. If you don’t like it, stop believing in the bible. It’s that simple.

  • phhht

    Phil @38,

    I can’t speak for Sean, but I conclude that when I die I will cease to exist (no “afterlife”) for all eternity, and I feel fine about that. Just because you cannot understand how something is possible doesn’t mean it is not possible.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Reality is, whether or not we understand it, much less if we like it.

    I suspect Phil doesn’t believe that his computer somehow continues to run programs when he turns off its power, or that soap bubbles persist for eternity once blown, but his ego doesn’t let him see that his consciousness is just as ephemeral.

  • Dan M

    To everyone writing about CS Lewis on Hell,

    I am a former evangelical Christian and have read “The Great Divorce” about a dozen times, and I will say that everyone referencing it does not understand what Lewis was saying about Hell. “The Great Divorce” is pure fiction (as he makes clear in the end of the book, this is NOT how he really thinks hell is). It is more of an allegory for how Lewis sees us choosing hell for ourselves by our actions on earth.

    Now I’m not sure exactly what Lewis’ views on hell are even thought I’ve read almost everything he’s written, because he writes conflicting things on the subject. Sometimes he seems to be more of a universalist (like his hero George MacDonald), but if you read his book “The Screwtape Letters” I think you will see that he believes in a much more literal hell than many of you are letting on (i.e. a literal Satan, demons that torment the living to get them to turn from God, hell is eternal torment, etc).

    Also, despite whatever CS Lewis believed, the vast majority of evangelical Christians and most Catholics, at least in America, believe in a literal fire and brimstone hell full of everlasting torment. That’s a fact. Just look at all the uproar that Rob Bell started recently when he wrote a book saying that he believes that some of the people in Hell will eventually come to know God. He was raked over the coals for that and many Christians are calling him an unsaved heretic for even daring to say that maybe the punishment in hell isn’t eternal. The pastors of almost all of the largest Churches in America believe in a literal hell, and to pretend that liberal views (like Paul Tillich’s) are the majority Christian opinion is just silly and demonstrably false.

    Also, Sean is dealing with the argument of a particular author. If you disagree with that description of hell than argue with the original author, not Sean. And please don’t pretend that the traditional description of hell isn’t what the vast majority of Christians believe. If you hold to some mystical, liberal view of hell that only 1% of Christians agree with that’s fine, but Sean is dealing with hell as it is described by the vast majority of Christians past and present.

  • Mike

    Dan M,

    Thanks for the explanation. Very informative. I love learning more about this subject — of course without having to do the difficult research myself. As Sir Francis Bacon said in 1597, knowledge truly is power. :) Thanks again.

  • Anchor

    It requires a certain intellectual sophistication (if not maturity) to recognize that the concepts of heaven/hell are inextricably linked and, like many other diametrically opposed concept-pairs, like love/hate and good/bad (or ‘Evil’, in personification) are mutually and critically dependent on each other for their definition. If anyone ‘believes’ in one, they must necessarily accept the other side of the coin. This inevitably leads to an automatic (that is, largely unconscious) and pernicious training in the irrationality of circular logic: for example, evil exists because good exists and vice versa.

    The only way out of the dizzy trap is to emancipate oneself from the idea that belief or conviction or ‘faith’ in anything somehow automatically confers a reality to it. This is harder to do than we may like because we ultimately don’t have anything BUT our concepts and our imaginary world-view models to work with. The fact is, imaginary concepts that exist in the mind do not sanction their existence in the reality that exists quite independently outside of notably fallible human minds. Yet we have the capacity to recognize that our conceptions are never the Real McCoy and are only hazy representations of natural reality at best, or utterly mistaken fantasies at worst. But any attitude that places the importance of one’s convictions above any available evidence as a means of demonstrating absolute truth or simply to establish authority is a sure sign of the presence of undeveloped adolescence, if not outright madness.

    Pity we’re still gnawing so rabidly over this pathetic bone 400 years after the Age of Enlightenment and the era of modern science blossomed on the scene. One might think there has been some organized and very potent force at work on societies that has systematically subverted public education…but that’s just me.

  • chemicalscum

    This is why Darwin called Christianity a damnable doctrine:

    “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

    And this is a damnable doctrine.”

    From Darwin’s Autobiography

  • Jim Cross

    Attributed to Mark Twain:

    “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it. ”

    So perhaps hell really is being dead, really dead, not existing whatsoever; or is that heaven? Sometimes I get confused.

  • Mike


    400 hundred years is nothing.

    You say, “[y]et we have the capacity to recognize that our conceptions are never the Real McCoy and are only hazy representations of natural reality at best, or utterly mistaken fantasies at worst.”

    But I think we are making remarkable progress. Here we are today, making these comments and explaning the world in better and better ways. Your own remarks reflect this truth.

    We may not be able to advance sufficiently to progress for another 10,000 years; sad, but true enough.

    But I’m optimist. :) I think when conscious beings arise in the multiverse and reach the point where they are are truly self aware, exercising the degree of reason that I glimpse here, and when this is coupled with how quickly we are changing the world — and ever more rapidly — I can’t help but believe that (at least) we have a decent shot.

    We do know that the laws of physics put no upper bound on our progress — it’s entirely in our hands.

  • Jonathan Sackett

    I am a college student, and I’d like to offer a counter argument to your view of Hell, not against your view of Hell not existing but against your belief that Hell is an eternal place of torture. The christian bible doesn’t ever say that hell is a place of eternal torture (well at least any scholarly and honest translation does not). Hell is a place invented by humans. The only representation we get of a place that is not heaven after death in the bible is Sodom and Gomorra. In the story of Sodom and Gomorra, God wipes them from the face of the earth and out of a “hellish” existence. Hell is God’s mercy for those who would despise heaven. If God is a merciful God he would never force someone to go to heaven who would despise it. That would be truly sending someone to hell.

    I realize i am using the bible to argue with one who does not believe in the bible, but it is a valid as i am attempting to correct your beliefs about christians.

    Now for the disclaimer, I am only a Sophomore in college, I have been a christian all my life, but I believe in the rule of logic, but i also believe that religion has no need of scientific logic, as such all arguments that contain religion and science are invalid. Being so young I am sure i have much to learn about debate, logical thinking, but i believed that my opinions were under-represented and were worth stating. I am also sure that some day my beliefs will change, if I continue to be honest with myself, and hopefully those beliefs will come to a closer approximation of the truth.

  • Charles Ames

    Like many concepts from Abrahamic religions, our modern concept of Hell is a great deal more vulgar and less useful than it originally was. Looking beyond the horror gore imagery, Hell can be seen as an image of a phenomenon in which a person can become psychologically trapped in a condition of misery.

    The story I have in mind is that of Lucifer, who was God’s greatest lover, holding onto the “feeling” of God throwing him out of Heaven when he refused to serve Man (“go to hell!”) Another is a French play in which three people are put in a cell: a man who falls in love with a lesbian, who falls in love with a pretty young woman, who falls in love with the man, each being completely disinterested in return. The climax comes when the cell door is opened but no one leaves. They are trapped in a “hell” by their own choice. This is the true nature of Hell.

    That Hell has evolved to become a boogie man used by clergy to scare us straight is, to me, beyond debate. But there is a kernel in there worthy of reflection.

  • Phil

    #47, Naked Bunny,

    I don’t have an ego. What’s wrong with having trouble accepting that you absolutely cease to exist after death forever? I understand biology and physics and what we are made of.

  • Peter Ozzie Jones

    Jonathan @54
    The King James Bible, Mark, 9, verse 43:

    . . . to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched.

    Even the New International Version has it as: “where the fire never goes out.”
    Did you mean that we should read “never” to be be a shorter time than “eternal”?

  • tudza

    Ghandi would be in the first circle of hell, Limbo. No torture. He gets to hang out with the good Greeks, Romans, and unbaptized babies.

  • Dan M

    Tudza, I’m pretty sure the Catholic Church did away with Lumbo a few years ago. I found it amusing that all the sudden they said Limbo didn’t exist after centuries of teaching otherwise.

  • Anchor

    Mike 53,

    I fully appreciate how far we’ve come out from under the dark cloud of superstition in ‘only’ 400 years (say, 20 generations). I also consider myself optimistic, fully agree that there are no upper bounds on our progress, that it is indeed entirely in our hands. I even think we have MORE than a “decent shot” (probalistically speaking) 😉

    Rational thinking and a willingness or even passion to understand nature as it is (rather than imposing onto it what we wish it to be) is by far the most powerful and effective – if not the ONLY – means of constructing a serviceably valid model of the world humans possess. Rational thinking and the fruits of knowledge we harvest by it through the application of the scientific method is a mighty tough blaze to put out. But it needs constant nurturing and feeding.

    But my optimism is tempered by reality and the historical record too. It doesn’t take very much for the forces of irrationality and mob mentality (yes, often fostered by superstition) to turn the tables and exhile whole societies straight back into the darkness. Nature simply does NOT care. It’s up to us alone to accept the responsibility of our future, one consistent with natural reality. We have no choice but to ensure we do not slide back into the gloom. If we don’t, there will inevitably come a time when the flower – exhausted by constant neglect and abuse – will wither and blossom no more.

    Nature doesn’t care. Nature isn’t a conscious being with a vested interest in our welfare. We can’t hope for any assistance or divine intervention. Praying for salvation does nothing.
    If we knock ourselves off, we’ll have done it at our own hands and we have only ourselves to hold responsible. Fat lot of comfort to us, in such a dismal and appallingly possible cicumstance, that nature may be cranking out intelligent critters like hot cakes in the universe, let alone a mutltiverse: we won’t be among the success stories. And if the final dregs of humanity have any pride left, they might at last realize that we blew it not because nature is inherently endowed with some sinister or evil property (or an omnipotent scorekeeper that rescues us just in time), but because we were too stupid or stubborn to admit that we brought about our demise by dragging preposterous mental baggage along with us for the ride, because we could not part with the reassuring objects of our veneration, nonsense artifacts of the mind that are worshipped literally above everything else.

    That is the chief irony that has always struck me: how the pious so often hold the putative creative products of their Infallible Designer Being in such contempt, and the rapidity with which they are able to twist their necks around 180 degrees like Linda Blair and proclaim it as evidence of their Creator deity’s perfection is nothing short of stunning.

    This all reminds me of a rather telling exchange in the classic film, “The African Queen”, where a pious spinster character by the name of Rosie Sayer (played by Katherine Hepburn) responds to a remark by the drunkard river-boat skipper called Charlie Allnut (played by Humphrey Bogart). Allnut says during the course of a dispute, “A man takes a drop too much once in a while, why, it’s only human nature.” To which Rosie replies, “NATURE, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above!”

    Providence or luck save the day for the fictional movie characters, but its clear that the attitude displayed by Rosie remains disquietingly popular today, 20-odd generations after the blossoming of the Enlightenment…Man, are we ever asking for it.

  • réalta fuar

    @Yoav and whoschad: I couldn’t agree with you more. As to Yoav’s question, the answer appears to be pure ego, as most physicists (especially theorists) just naturally assume they’re the smartest people they’ve ever met. As a fellow traveler, this has to be absolutely the worst critique of religion I’ve ever seen. Sorta makes one ashamed of being a non-believer.

  • James

    @61 realta fuar:

    What on Earth are you talking about? Sean was responding to a fatuous article in the NY Times with a perfectly reasonable and accurate criticism. Have you even read the original article?

  • Dan M

    Fuar, I’m afraid you need to work on your reading comprehension. This is a critique of a particular individual’s view if hell (one shared by the vast majority of Christians), not a critique of all religion as you claim. If you find the traditional view of heL stupid take it up with the majority of Christians and the author of the article Sean was responding to.

  • http://users.ox.ac.uk/~mert0130 David Wallace

    There is, of course, absolutely no reason why someone needs professional philosophy credentials to comment on this topic (or any other topic, really: what matters in philosophy is the quality and clarity of the argument, not the credentials of the speaker). So equally, Sean doesn’t need to have someone (i.e., me) say that from a professional philosopher’s perspective, his argument is completely fine. But what the hell(!), I’ll say it anyway.

  • http://brokenglassware.blogspot.com Scientist Charro

    The difference is that we don’t think that people who make bad decisions deserve to be tortured for all of eternity

    This is an overstatement. Unless you’ve asked every atheist what they think you can’t just imply that all atheists share your moral standard. I actually know a good number of atheists that are of the opinion that certain people deserve to be punished (painfully and for many years) for their crimes. Maybe religious people are more inclined to have that mentality (this might not even be true, I don’t have data on that), but it is certainly not exclusive to them.

    If you want to criticize religious beliefs it’s your right to do so, but be honest in the process. There are plenty of religious people who have great moral standards and have no problems with scientific progress. There are also plenty of atheists who have ridiculously low moral standards. If you haven’t met one of those, good for you, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    David– thanks. The irony of people purporting to defend the honor of philosophy (or theology) while resorting to credentialism rather than arguments never ceases to amuse.

  • Amit

    I find the “is Gandhi in hell?” question itself somewhat questionable. It presupposes the primacy of a certain view of the afterlife. Do hindus go around asking if a European of similar altruism attained moksha? I doubt it, the idea is distasteful.

  • Brian


    I am amazed that such an intelligent person in one sphere (physics) would **publish** something so naive and simple-minded in another. I imagine you have spent tens of thousands of hours studying physics. How many have you spent studying religion? :)

    Publishing things like this simply exposes yourself as a fool. No one can be an expert at everything, but most have the good sense not to embarrass themselves through their ignorance in a public forum. Thank goodness you aren’t indefinitely insulated from sophomoric thinking by tenure!

  • Ted

    This just in: millions of believers in “science” think atoms are “round” and that electrons surround the nucleus in circular orbits. This model has clear flaws, so science is disproved! Don’t tell me about what so called “expert” or “credentialed” science believers say, they don’t represent the majority.

  • Tintin

    The invention of an “afterlife,” either in Heaven or in Hell, comes from the fear of total oblivion for “eternity.” But “eternity” should be time-invariant. So why should people be upset by the fact that when they die they will not reappear in some kind of place (TBD), when nobody seems to be distressed by the fact that before birth, they were also nowhere to be found?

  • Brian


    In reference to your comment, “…by the fact that before birth, they were also nowhere to be found”:

    (1) You use “fact” very loosely, certainly not with the rigor that I would expect from a good scientist;

    (2) Many people in various religions believe that they existed before birth.

  • Mike


    You make the serious mistake of assuming a past stretching to infinity. As everyone knows, certain religious folks believe that the Heavens, Earth, and all life on Earth was created by direct act of the Abrahamic God during a relatively short period, sometime between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago. Big difference between that and infinity :) So, if someone believes some wierd idea that you didn’t explicitly address, there goes your whole theory.


    “Many people in various religions believe that they existed before birth.”

    Well that’s the problem isn’t it? Many people in various religions believe all sorts of nonsense. It’s like whac-a-mole, knock down one absurd view and another pops up. That’s why myths of all kinds are simply bad explanations. Unlike scientific explanations, myths can be varied, modified and changed at will to support any crackpot view without ever being “disproved.”

  • Tintin

    @ Brian (71)

    Actually, I only wrote these few words in the context of Sean’s remarks, which were made in the framework of Christianity only. I am certainly well aware that many major and minor religions believe either in an eternal existence of a “soul” (however it is defined), with or without reincarnation. My comment, if you care to re-read it, had only to do with the argument I have heard (too) often about the absurdity of life if it is not followed by a “higher,” eternal FUTURE “life.”

    As for the word “fact” I would agree that it was used loosely, its rigorous scientific interpretation not being on my mind. However, I would also point out that not a single factual (read scientific) account of reincarnation has ever been recorded.

    @ Mike (72)

    Even with a very “limited” time-reversed eternity of some 5,000 – 10,000 years, I have yet to meet a Christian who ever mentioned (worried) the whereabouts of his/her soul up until his/her own birth. He/she has no recollection of this past “existence,” and does not feel the least anxious or depressed about it. However, without the promise of a “better world,” the whole meaning of his/her life falls apart…But God is by definition eternal, and shouldn’t the “souls” also be, and in BOTH directions?

  • Mike


    You took my comment too seriously 😉

    “But God is by definition eternal, and shouldn’t the “souls” also be, and in BOTH directions?”

    Sounds like a good argument to me — but I don’t think you’re going to win this one by splitting theological hairs — that way lies madness :)

  • http://www.scientopia.org/blogs/galacticinteractions Rob Knop

    As a theist scientist myself, I have to say that Sean is right here. There ARE people who believe in the literal fire-and-brimstone Hell, and believe in a overliteral interpretation of John 14:6– i.e., that if you haven’t accepted Jesus, you’re going to Hell. Those people would therefore believe that Ghandi is in Hell.

    (For a good time, drive along the BG highway in Kentucky. There’s this awesome place you pass where a billboard on one side of the street reads “HELL IS REAL”. On the opposite side of the street: a pornographic bookstore.)

    However, this still is a bit of a straw man. If you’re on a science blog talking about religion, the fundamentalists are just too easy to make fun of. They are real, they’re out there, and they form a distressingly large fraction of the USA. But it’s like shooting fish in a barrel to come up with things that their philosophy would claim that are absurd.

    My own views on Hell are… well, dunno. Hell is certainly a metaophor, and many of us (anybody who ever has been on the tenure track, for example) have been through its outer layers. But I’m agnostic on the notion of whether or not there’s an afterlife at all. I want there to be one, mostly so I can find out what happens (e.g. if they don’t work out quantum gravity while I’m alive, I’d be so disappointed). But I have to admit that I’m dubious about any sort of continuity of consciousness past death, as much as I want there to be something like that. (And, of course, there’s absolutely no scientific evidence for that, but religion isn’t science.)

  • Sleeth

    Regardless of whether or not there is an entity that created and controls the universe, this debate is still just an exercise of human intellect in topics none of us really knows the answer to. While your faith may have you argue otherwise, in reality, all religious practices, beliefs, institutionalizations, documents, teachings, ceremonies, edicts, channeling, feelings, and inspirations are products of human effort. There may very well be a creator or God, but no individual truly knows any more than any other individual, and when we die, we will either find out or we won’t find out.

    I have my own assumptions – like it would be ridiculous for a perfect being to play such heaven and hell games with that which it created, or for a creator to have a gender, or to be human centric given all possible forms of life in the universe – but in the end, I have no idea nor proof whether there is a heaven or hell.

  • KWK

    Lots of electrons have been spilled over Sean’s (anti-)theological claims, but I actually want to first take issue with his psychological claims; namely, that someone who believes in Hell necessarily possesses “a shriveled sense of human decency”, and that “condemning millions of people to an eternity of torment makes [such a person] feel good about himself.”

    It’s been my experience that one’s personality is less apparent in what one believes than in the manner one believes it. To hold otherwise is similar to accusing someone of arrogance simply for making a truth claim–one can certainly make such a claim arrogantly, but making such a claim does not prima facie make one arrogant. So it may be that Sean has personal knowledge of Douthat’s mindset, and further that he has directly experienced just how much (or how little) human decency other similarly-minded Christians have. But I seriously doubt it, and thus I would say that Sean’s charges of “petty bloody-mindedness” are just simply wrong.

    To be more specific, I’d wager that Douthat doesn’t *want* people to go to Hell, any more than I *want* people to be in prison currently. But I do recognize that justice demands some sort of accountability for the choices people make, and given our current judicial system, that means prison. Of course, Douthat’s (and others’) analogous belief in Hell could be wrong, but saying such a belief cannot be held by a good person is just as fatuous as the claim that someone who does not believe in God cannot be a good person.

    Furthermore, there is “good” in the conventional sense, and “Good ” in what I’ll call the theological sense. Christianity has held for thousands of years that, while people may be “good” in the former sense, none is “good enough”–that is, “Good” in the latter sense. As GK Chesterton put it, “Original sin is the only doctrine of Christianity that can be empirically proven.” Since all people, from Jeffrey Dahmer to, yes, Mahatma Gandhi, are on some level twisted and broken, then justice demands an accounting for each individual’s moral failures. So–at least according to Christianity–Sean has the issue exactly backwards. He may ask “How dare God send anyone to Hell?!?”, when the more appropriate question is “How can it be that God is gracious and merciful enough to bring anyone to Heaven?!?”

  • Jumblepudding

    So God made a defective product (humanity) and we are supposed to be grateful that he’s recalling the units back to the factory to fix them rather than dumping them in a landfill somewhere?

  • Mike


    “He may ask “How dare God send anyone to Hell?!?”, when the more appropriate question is “How can it be that God is gracious and merciful enough to bring anyone to Heaven?!?”

    Neither is a good question. The first, however, was meant facetiously, and succeeds in demonstrating a notable absurdity at the heart of the Christian mythology regarding hell. The second question is meant (if actually taken seriously) as a “better” explanation of Christian dogma.

    But it’s not a better question, even if meant seriously. As previously noted, Christian dogma, like any myth, can be changed, varied, refined, adjusted and reinterpreted ad nauseam, as it has been over time as its most cherished claims regarding the nature of reality one after another have been demolished by better scientific explanations.

    In the end this myth, and the theological questions it spawns, remains a bad explanation because, unlike scientific explanations, there’s never a way to disprove the multitude of changing claims, assertions and so-called “truths.”

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    How does the thermodynamics of eternal hellfire work out?

  • Colin

    A fairly recent Harris poll shows that only 70% of american catholics even believe in hell. It might still be the vast majority who believe in fire and brimstone, but I am doubtful that is the case….though the numbers likely are different among different christian faiths. The Catholic Cathechism post Vatican II also explicitly allows non-christians the chance of entering heaven, though arguably under fairly restrictive circumstances.

  • Trevor

    @11, @58, @75: Whether you send him to hell or not, please have the courtesy of spelling Gandhi’s name correctly. While it comes from a different language, there is a standard transliteration, with g, gh, d, and dh all being distinct. Gandhi has the g and dh sounds, and not the gh or d sounds.

  • Dan

    @Colin #81,

    I’m actually surprised that the number was as high as 70% for self-identified Catholics who believe in hell, but I still don’t think that hurts my statement that the majority of Christians do believe in a literal hell. I’ll explain myself because I realize that sounds contradictory. The majority of “Catholics” I have met are cultural Catholics who use contraception, think abortion is fine, don’t care what the Pope says, only go to Church for weddings and funerals, don’t think Jesus really rose from the dead, and some are even unsure if God exists, yet they still proclaim themselves proud Catholics. I’m sure that in surveys like the one you noted they were some of these people who claim Catholicism and said they don’t believe in hell, but I don’t think their opinion is really germane to whether Catholics believe in hell. All the Catholics I have met who actually go to mass regularly and hold to the Church’s doctrine believe in a literal hell with eternal torment. If you just polled practicing Catholics I think you’d see a much higher percentage who believe in hell.

    I hope it doesn’t appear that I’m using the No True Scotsman Fallacy, I’m sure there are some fervent Catholics who don’t believe in hell, but I think my point should be clear. If surveys came back and said that 30% of atheists believed in hell and it was known that there were a lot of people who identified as atheists yet believed in an afterlife, God’s existence, miracles, the soul, the Trinity, that Jesus was divine, etc I think it would be clear that the 30% number was being inflated by people who might call themselves atheists yet in practice were not. The same thing appears to explain why at least some of those 30% of “Catholics” don’t believe in hell.

  • Colin

    A less recent gallup poll showed that only 74% of people who attend church on a nearly weekly basis believe in hell; though 92% who attend church every single week believe in hell. I don’t think you can say that one of those groups of people should be defined as Christians, and the other should not (and more generally, I object to the view that self-identified Catholics who don’t attend church regularly should be excluded when it comes to asking what do Catholics believe).

    Given that the catholic catechism stresses that the primary torment of hell is to be away from God, and other leading catholic theologians have downplayed the fire and brimstone version, I’m standing by the view that catholics strictly defined to do not by a huge margin all believe in fire and brimstone.

    A more narrow (and less literally correct) definition of catholics might get you there, but it would have to be along the lines of “Catholics with evangelical leanings,” or “all catholics who believe the bible literally,” or something like that. But the majority of catholics don’t believe the bible 100% literally, so it begs the question.

  • http://www.catholiclab.net Ian

    Shame you couldn’t quote the remainder of the Catechism’s teachings on Hell before completing your article. Please stick to science.

  • Dan


    So you consider someone to still be a Catholic if they claim to be a Catholic, even if they think abortion is fine, mock the Pope, never attend Mass, don’t believe in the Trinity, don’t think Jesus was divine, and are unsure if God exists? That seems a bizarre definition of Catholicism to me.

    I’ve never met a Catholic who actually believed most of the doctrines of the Church and didn’t believe in Hell, although I’m sure there are some out there. Many people go to Church out for cultural reasons, don’t hold to the tenets of Christianity, label themselves as Christians, yet don’t meet any definition of traditional Christianity. I was in that boat for a while during my deconversion.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Yoav Golan Says: “Why is it all-too-often that physicists mistake themselves for philosophers?”

    Each of us operates according to many things, how we were brought up, what our experiences have been, what we learn, what tribe(s) we are a part of, etc etc. Each of us finds comforting axioms to have faith in, these axioms help form our worldviews, through which we understand the world. We ‘cut up’, edit, etc the world-as-it-is into understandable chunks, put it into a symbology/language, and call that ‘this is the real world’. So, in a very real sense, every word we use IS a straw woman — the words actually aren’t the objects they describe.

    Now, taking Dawkins’ (which is a revisiting of a VERY OLD IDEA) meme idea, certain memes get passed around and they can ‘take over’. They can be like slogans that repeat themselves. No one, I don’t think, is immune and it doesn’t matter, I don’t think, how smart one is. There are people and organizations out there that grok how this works and intentionally create memes and ideas that we then follow.

    Plus, I think that people aren’t as critical towards the things that they like as they are to what they don’t like — and this is normal tribalism.

    Sean is just doing what we all do; to some, Sean is expressing truth, to others, Sean has jumped onto ‘the bandwagon’ late, etc etc etc…we all have our slogans and our likes and we all aren’t at the same level of understanding or even likes/dislikes. THANK GOODNESS FOR THAT — life is much more interesting that way :)

    My personal idea of ‘Hell’ is that it shouldn’t be taught to KIDS AT ALL until they come of age. People, I think, have different predilections; it seems that some people NEED some sort of Archon/ruler to give up authority to or some sort of punishment to go through life avoiding…it is a complex issue that goes beyond simple reduction but involves many areas of knowing.

  • Colin

    Actually, I said that I believe someone can be a Catholic even without going to church every week. The Catholic Church explicitly allows members to have some leeway with areas of practice/belief as long as it is done in good faith; that obviously does not include things like the trinity, etc.

    Having gone to Catholic grade school and high school, known and read Catholic scholars/priests/officials, and bothered to read the actual teachings of the church and looked at studies of what Catholics actually believe, I disagree with your generalizations of catholics (maybe not so much with the generalizations, as with the comments that they hold true of virtually every devout catholic).

  • Dan

    Colin, Alright maybe many Catholics don’t believe in a hell like you claim, but that has not been my experience with talking to Catholics, reading polls, or reading Catholic theology/history. Even you admit that 70% of American Catholic’s believe in hell , and I’m sure the number would be higher in places that the Catholic Church’s numbers are especially strong like Central/South America and Africa.

    Like I pointed out, the majority of self proclaimed Catholics I have interacted with are just cultural Catholics who don’t even believe in Jesus’ divinity, all the Catholics who are devout I have talked to believe in a literal hell, every single one. If many Catholics are only cultural Catholics and still the numbers say 70% believe in hell I think it is clear that the vast majority of devout American Catholics believe in a literal hell (as did Catholic theological and philosophical giants like Augustine, Aquinas, Thomas More, Scotus, Descartes, Pascal, Chesterton, and all the Popes.)

    Do you really think that most Catholics disagree with the Pope that hell is a literal place where almost everyone who dies apart form God goes? What percentage of devout Catholics worldwide (including Africa and Central/South America) would you guess believe in a literal hell?

  • BigWaveDave

    It is nothing short of absurd to condemn the concepts of heaven and hell as “unimaginative.” If believability is accepted as a measure of the imagination contained within an idea, and I believe it must, then what better credential could there be than two-thousand plus years of human acceptance? Eternal reward/damnation, no matter that some might find it preposterous, is supremely compatible with human cognition, offering comfort, hope, and justice on a scale found nowhere else.

    Darwin’s theory may be compelling, elegant, and in harmony with the scientific record, but I wouldn’t recommend employing it to comfort a mother who just buried her toddler. Natural Selection might explain much about how humans came to be, but to offer it as hope for those who will live out their miserable lives under a brutal despot will only make them poorer. Randomness and chance may be acceptable in explaining how the elements came together to create life, but when it comes to satisfying the wrath of the brutally traumatized, culpability and hellfire have no competitors.

    If you accept that eternal reward/damnation is merely a human invention, then I would argue that it is Man’s greatest invention. For the minimal cost of spreading the word community members embracing the concept found peace of mind, brotherhood, and a belief system packing the fear factor necessary to compete with the formidable challenges of human nature. To populations facing the perils of disease, abandoned children, and broken communities, what better manner of suppressing destructive behaviors than to brand them immoral and punishable by eternal damnation? To communities in need of stability and heroic sacrifice, what better compensation could be offered than heavenly reward? In exchange for impinging on the liberties of a small minority of skeptics, communities reaped the kind of behavior-modifying benefits that might otherwise require a police state.

    Eternal damnation for non-believers may seem a bit extreme from our perspective today but for those vulnerable populations of long ago the positive impact of a belief system was in direct proportion to its degree of acceptance. A mechanism that would increase the embrace of doctrine would likewise increase group cohesion and civility (and face it, threatening a non-believer with eternal damnation wasn’t so bad when compared to the lash or burning at the stake). In the contest of survival fundamentalist societies proved safer from disease, disunity, and family dysfunction, which explains why so many of us will find fundamentalism in our family trees.

    A great many people make themselves feel good by picking apart the beliefs of the religious, ignoring the fact that our religions are merely reflections of ourselves, evolved systems chockfull of absurdities and conundrums. Yes, the greater good of every religion takes its toll on a few individuals, but is that not the same equation used by Natural Selection in strengthening the group? The road to human progress, whether measured in biological or societal miles, is paved with the carcasses of sacrificed individuals. Each and every one of us got to this place in history as members of a group, and it was religion — imperfect, unfair, and nonsensical religion — that made our group strong enough to survive a journey guided not by free thinkers and iconoclasts, but by true believers.

  • Dan L.


    This just in: millions of believers in “science” think atoms are “round” and that electrons surround the nucleus in circular orbits. This model has clear flaws, so science is disproved! Don’t tell me about what so called “expert” or “credentialed” science believers say, they don’t represent the majority.

    The difference is that we can tell when someone has the right answer or the wrong answer in physics, and one’s credentials are completely irrelevant to how that is done. Can we say the same about religion? If we have two conflicting models of hell can we decide which one is more likely to be correct without reference to the credentials of those advocating the two views?

    The problem with your argument is that the “unsophisticated” believers in a literal hell have every bit as much reason to believe their story as the “sophisticated” believers in C.S. Lewis’ claptrap: none whatsoever. You know where you can take your false equivalence.


    I am amazed that such an intelligent person in one sphere (physics) would **publish** something so naive and simple-minded in another. I imagine you have spent tens of thousands of hours studying physics. How many have you spent studying religion? :)

    Publishing things like this simply exposes yourself as a fool. No one can be an expert at everything, but most have the good sense not to embarrass themselves through their ignorance in a public forum. Thank goodness you aren’t indefinitely insulated from sophomoric thinking by tenure!

    See above. There’s no such thing as an expert “on religion” because there’s no external reference by which one could determine right or wrong answers about, for example, the nature of hell. Prof. Carroll’s opinion is just as good as the next person’s.

    Note that neither of you was the least bit specific about how this post was “ignorant” or what sort of expertise is required to have an opinion on this. Also note that most of everybody everywhere has an opinion on hell without a degree in religion or theology (why don’t you go whine on everyone else’s blog?). Finally, you don’t even acknowledge that Prof. Carroll was NOT presenting his own view of the concept of hell out of the blue, he was responding to someone ELSE’s view of hell — someone who believes in it no less. Why don’t you go bug Ross Douthat about how unsophisticated and foolish HE is?

    This stuff drives me crazy. If you’re going to be critical, you could at least be constructive about it. But no, all this talk of “sophistication” and “expertise” is completely empty. Fluff. Noise. Go sink into the television static from whence ye came.

  • Dan L.


    Shame you couldn’t quote the remainder of the Catechism’s teachings on Hell before completing your article. Please stick to science.

    Where do you fools come from? Stop telling people what to put on their own blogs!

  • JOL

    @34: While I wouldn’t say it quite that way (but then, I didn’t), your comments largely reflect my view; objecting to Hell as a consequence of rejecting God makes no more sense than objecting to physical death as a consequence of rejecting water: The latter by definition causes the former. Dragging atheists kicking and screaming into Heaven would, for them, be a Hell of its own, which is ultimately the point of the op ed more than reevaluating literalist views of Hell (though most of them could certainly benefit from reevaluation). As for the legitimacy of an eternal Hell (literal or figurative), for me it hinges on two questions:

    1) If, after death, someone who has rejected a religion (for this question it doesn’t matter which so long as it has alternate eternal afterlives; not all do) is confronted with its undeniable proof, would embracing it be moral, or simply enlightened self interest? If ones very existence is proven to be contingent on accepting a given deity, is that acceptance piety or selfishness, and what are the answers ramifications for their subsequent conduct? While I’m no fan of universalism (for the reasons Douthat states) this is what I troubles me in traditional fire and brimstone sermons: Choosing Christ soley to save your sorry hide just won’t cut it, because loving God is the paramount consideration. Which brings me to the second question.

    2) If one categorically rejects God despite temporal evidence (but never proof) of Him, how will a posthumous confrontation with Him as proof of Himself mitigate their antipathy? If one who resents the very notion of God to the point of explicit denial faces indisputable proof existence requires Him, how could that ever produce a change of heart and acceptance of Him? Those who ignore this question routinely paint God into a corner, equally quick to decry Him as a tyrant whether His fellowship coercively preserves their being or accepting their denial commits them to an eternity of non-being: God is incapable of being inoffensive. How can death alter such a sentiment?

    Needless to say in all this, faith is off the table when confronting a deity; one no more “has faith in” God at that point than the ground beneath their feet: It’s an irrefutable fact.

    As for whether one needs in depth knowledge of religion to comment on it, no, it’s not necessary to comment, only to comment credibly. Had you restricted yourself, Dr. Carroll, to comments on the op ed itself, that would be between you and its author, but saying, “Hell isn’t an essential ingredient in humanity’s freedom of agency; it’s a horrible of invention by despicable people who can’t rise above their own petty bloody-mindedness,” goes a BIT further, doesn’t it? Now you’re not just commenting on one authors views, but a significant theological concept of extensive pedigree and with many interpretations. Saying, “And it’s the rare religion that says ‘we approve of all good people, whether or not they share our religious beliefs,'” makes Taoism, most forms of Hinduism and the religious forms of Buddhism rarities, along with Unitarian Universalism. Saying, “I don’t know of any theological descriptions of Hell that involve some version of parole hearings at regular intervals” ignores Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Mormon and at least some sects of Zoroastrianism and Islamic theology. So, yes, you’re free to comment without deigning to study the matter, but the weight of comments on any scholarly topic is in proportion to the study informing them.

  • Karl

    “the weight of comments on any scholarly topic is in proportion to the study informing them.”

    Yes, just as one would need to be a Scholar of Greek myths to credible comment on the intricacies of that subject.

    However, you don’t have to be a scholar of Greek myths to conclude that they are false as a true description of reality.

  • shams

    “However, you don’t have to be a scholar of Greek myths to conclude that they are false as a true description of reality.” Yet they are are a “true description” of the greek cultural reality of that slice of spacetime. All religious belief is shaped and imagined through the lens of the culture of the congregants.

    Dr. Carroll.
    “And it’s the rare religion that says ‘we approve of all good people, whether or not they share our religious beliefs,’”
    But that is what Sufis say. We also say, all paths are the One Path.
    Hopefully, I can give both an islamic perspective and an evolutionary perspective here.
    bismillah ar-rahman ar rahim
    Most muslims believe in some form of wahdat al wujud (unity of being, existance) and wahdat al shuhud (unity of consciousness). Muslims also believe that all humans are born muslim.
    It seems to me that all successful religions basically incorporate two evolutionary actions…one action– a way to explain the unexplainable, and the second action– a way to increase reps. These two paths are of course, mappings of the selfish gene– survival and reproduction.
    I think a more intellectually interesting way to discuss Hell…is the Evolution of Hell.
    Anglo-saxon christianity is a dying CSS, and as such subject to all the symptoms of decline (see Scott Atran or Pascal Boyer)….and Ross Douthat is nothing more or less than a christian fundamentalist.
    In the current envirionment of hyperconnectivity and globalism, universalism and inclusionary religions will increasingly have a fitness advantage in increasing reps. And the older tribal exclusionary religions will die out.
    It is unfair to judge all religions on Ross Douthat’s fundamentalism.
    bi la kayfah

  • Karl

    “Yet they are are a “true description” of the greek cultural reality of that slice of spacetime. All religious belief is shaped and imagined through the lens of the culture of the congregants.”

    Yes, of course. They are a “true description” of the greek cultural reality at that time. What I meant was the “reality” or truth of the plot line, story or fable content of Greek myths as a true description of the way the world really works (e.g. Zeus marries someone and then something bad happens, like a war, or anything silly like that).

  • Matthew Saunders

    #95: that’s a good riff there. I’ve enjoyed Scott Atran’s works and am glad that he is trying to help humanity by actually going out into the field to talk to people and figuring out how to help them.

    I’ve thought that the 2 religions that stand the greatest chance of becoming the 1 dominant world religion would be either Christianity or Islam, and Islam has a slight advantage over being the least exclusionary. I don’t hope that everyone would convert to just one religion, that would be too dull of a world, but I do agree that, in our interconnected global world, humanity is going through the birth pains of figuring out a global ethics that everyone will follow and believe in (which can be thought of as a religion, trusting in something being true because it is good, because as we know, we can over-rationalize anything to show the flaws).

    Also, I have hopes that this global humanity will understand themselves more, that what they like and dislike, what they find sacred and what they find profane ISN’T what other people think. We’re all going to have to learn, as a global species, to figure out how to live with one another’s different worldviews, without banning or censoring or breaking the rule of law.

    I, also, am partial to those religions that have a sense of humour built in to them. I think not a little of the world’s problems stems from people taking themselves and their beliefs too solemnly. Like that famous GB Shaw quote just because someone laughs doesn’t mean that life isn’t serious as just because someone dies doesn’t mean life ceases to be funny.

  • shams

    oops, pardon….KARL.
    But that was the empirical reality of the Greek world. If you study ancient greek it is all action verbs, a dead language preserves culture frozen in time. The greeks interpreted events empirically through the lens of their culture.
    It may seem “sillie” to us moderns that Pallas Athena with her terrible gaze appeared on the battlefield of Troy, yet most christians accept the rolled back stone and the empty tomb.
    Who can say what they saw?

  • shams

    salaamu aleykum Matthew

    Islam has a slight advantage over being the least exclusionary.

    Actually Islam has a quite large advantage in the context of EGT (evolutionary theory of games). al-Islam is resistant to proselytization.
    al-Islam also incorporated both the sacred texts and membership of the older Abrahamaic religions with the doctrine of the People of the Book.
    eg, Jews and Christians could be citizens of the Caliphate– they just could not convert, preach, build churches or synagogues without permission, or marry muslimahs without reverting.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams.

    Islam isn’t monolithic, right? In my little investigations, I’ve found there are many, many different interpretations in Islam, unlike something like Roman Catholicism, which has the Central Authority.

    I understand here that Allah is the Central Authority, but I am talking about practical matters here, the people who do the doing and the people who do think actual thinking and acting.

  • shams

    “I, also, am partial to those religions that have a sense of humour built in to them.”

    wow…i hadn’t thought of that before. Is anglo-saxon christianity the only religion without a sense of humor? In Islam may sufi teaching stories are humorous, and and of course my beloved Mullah Nasruddin stories.
    Coyote in Navajo mythos is a good example and Loki the trickster in Norse mythology.
    Any other suggestions?
    Perhaps all Ross Douthat needs is a sense of humor.
    We could take up a collection.

  • shams

    wa alaykumus salaam Matthew
    yes, al-Islam is a consensus religion, and the practice of Islam is proscribed by the Generous Quran, a manual for being a good human. The Quran is interpreted by islamic jurisprudence aka shariah law. Some past interpretations are “fixed” by hadith and sunnah.
    The hadith and sunnah enforce a sort of memetic hygiene against mutation.
    I think this is particularily important for arabic texts….for example there are 77 words for different kinds of love in arabic. This is also why the Quran is reguarded as untranslatable, indeed there is an injunction against translation– to preserve the original meaning inviolate.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams.

    re: humour in religion. Yes, I was thinking also of Sufi here (just <3 Rumi cbuh–I have a picture of a quote of His that I found etched into a beach in WA state), Zen Buddhism, Judaism, Discordianism, Church of All Worlds and the Church of the Subgenius. Way too much of WASP religion doesn't have that sense of humour :3 Just look at the USA's reaction to September 11th…instead of dealing with the actual issue, an orgasm of trying to make the whole world completely safe…which is a fool's game.

    Thank you for the information on Islam and the Koran. I view there being a difference between a consensus and being monolithic — something that is monolithic would mean that there is only One True Interpretation of something, which everyone MUST follow (well, everyone can only follow because that is the only interpretation). There are lots of varieties of consensus…like Sufi is different from Sunni etc etc, and there are sub-sects within each group.

    And I think the only way to get the original meaning would be to not have people involved in reading it. Because as soon as we read something, it becomes ours — the words, which are meaningless by themselves, dead, get their meaning when observed by something with a neurology like ours and, from that, actions. I think that religions like Judaism and Christianity have already gone through this stage (and the current mutant strain of American Fundamentalist Protestantism, the one that takes the Bible literally, is mellowing out…)

    I like to look at a sacred text and look at the usages of each word and try to think of them all being true at the same time, or plug in a different usage and see how that changes things, how much or how little.

    But I understand all of what you are writing, all these mechanisms that try to maintain a social cohesion of an ideal that requires people to perpetuate it. Especially ones that can guide people away from their own role in the creation of such things as meaning and the world because, I guess, people can’t be trusted with that much power.

  • shams

    wallah, that is very perceptive.
    That is why quranic recitation is so popular, because arabic is an oral tradition language ….spoken before it was written.
    In order to become an islamic scholar the first step is to memorize the Quran and recite it.
    It is like passing the bar for islamic jurisprudence.
    “look at the usages of each word and try to think of them all being true at the same time, or plug in a different usage and see how that changes things, how much or how little.”
    In al-Islam we speak of mutawatir, it means still sending, still in continuous transmission. For example many scholars believe the directive to cover has stopped sending, is no longer in mutawatir. But some don’t, our fundamentalists, they resist that. In a consensus religion it takes a long time to change.
    The uncreated, revealed Quran is outside spacetime, so it must incorporate all the necessary meanings across spacetime.
    But only trained scholars can say if the translation we are using is still in mutawatir.

  • Matthew Saunders

    That’s brilliant! I can just imagine an Islam scholar who also happens to be a Physicist who believes in the Many Worlds Interpretation.

    Perhaps you could clarify this for me. I’ve heard that there is and has been a kind of civil war going on in Islam, between two groups who are vying for dominance?

  • Dan M

    Shams, thanks for sharing. I wasn’t aware that there was a strain of Islam that teaches postmodernism and cultural relativism. I’ve actually been having conversations with some fundamentalist Chrstians recently who rely heavily on moral and cultural relativism to excuse some of the stuff in the Torah.

  • shams

    salaamu aleykum Matthew
    “I can just imagine an Islam scholar who also happens to be a Physicist who believes in the Many Worlds Interpretation.”
    Can you imagine that Imam Ghazali postulated Many Worlds theory as a response to Aristotles eternal universe a full 400 years before the catholics tried to burn Galileo ? lol!

    Do you mean the Sunni/Shi’ia schizm?

    and salaams to you too Dan.
    Muhyyiddin Ibn Arabi once said
    “Beware of confining yourself to a particular belief and denying all else, for much good would elude you—indeed, the knowledge of reality would elude you. Be in yourself a matter for all forms of belief, for God is too vast and tremendous to be restricted to one belief rather than another.”
    The Sufi Poet-Saint Manzar-Jan-i-Janan said
    “You should know that the Merciful Being, in the beginning of creation, sent a book named Ved; this is apparent from the ancient scripture of the Indians. This book is in four parts [Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda] [and is] meant to regulate the duties of the people in this world and the next through the instrumentality of the divine Brahma, who is omnipotent. Now it must be borne in mind that the Koran states: ‘And there is not a people to whom a warner has not been sent’ [35:24]; and further, ‘To every land we have sent a warner’ [25:51] Hence there were prophets in India as in other countries and their accounts are to be found in their books. How could God, the Beneficent, the Merciful, have left out of his grace such an extensive portion of the globe?”

    And Dan, do not think of Sufis as muslim light, we are muslim l33t. mutawatir is part of all islamic jurisprudence. Islamic jurisprudence (shariah law) is true for all muslims. To me, westernculture seems almost willfully ignorant of Islam. Do you think that this is because of the scholarly tradition of orientalism or because of 9/11 ?

    salaams Yoav Golan
    “Why is it all-too-often that physicists mistake themselves for philosophers?”
    Dr. Carroll is obviously a third culture intellectual.
    An avatar of a new class of philosophers.
    Have you not read the book?

  • Claver


    I believe that you are sincerely misguided.

    Religion and faith in Jesus CHRIST are different but related things. If you read the Bible you will understand that Jesus Himself made this distinction.

    Secondly, it is inappropriate to assume that you have any deep understanding of faith which allows you to form a critique unless you have mastered certain aspects of it.

    Simply because the invitation to understand faith is given to all does not mean that all creatures understand it.

    Now, if you don’t even understand the difference between religion and faith how is it possible for you to even begin to understand the judgements that follow one who lacks faith?

    Moreover, how can you possibly understand the Christian faith, which is especially unique, if you have not let go of the ignorance you so blatantly display?

    If I made an equivalent statement in physics, no one would pay attention to me and you’d label me a crackpot. In Christianity, the word sinner has the same connotations as the word crackpot.

    If I find a teacher of physics and open my heart to understanding, or at least check that my understanding is accurate, I will no longer be called a crackpot.

    Likewise you Sean. If you find a teacher and open your heart to understanding you will no longer be called a sinner but a disciple. Hell will no longer be your destination.

    This offer is free of charge, open to everyone. That is to say, the price to enter heaven has been paid. Sadly, most prefer to pay the price of entrance into hell.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    “Can you imagine that Imam Ghazali postulated Many Worlds theory as a response to Aristotles eternal universe a full 400 years before the catholics tried to burn Galileo ? lol!”

    I can believe it! I mean, the Australian aborigines sailed to Australia using sailing technology that wasn’t invented yet. There have been finds in solid rock of things like modern human footprints, or strange writings within geodes. Perhaps time goes in cycles instead of forward?

    “Do you mean the Sunni/Shi’ia schizm?”

    I do.

    There seems to be one model that, since this ‘genocide’ has been going on for centuries, with Muslim sinning against Muslim (doesn’t that always seem to be too often the case with humanity, the same species murdering each other? Such a shame and a waste), that was ‘alright’ in the old days, but becomes more problematic when a more global civilization starts, so other countries can not not become involved. Can’t avoid it.

    Does that sound familiar to you?

  • shams

    Claver…umm…pardon….but you are proselytizing. Proselytizing was the most successful EGT strategy for more than a thousand years. It was easy to join…all one had to do for membership was accept The Christ.
    But not any more. Anglosaxon christianity is no longer the most successful ESS on the planet.
    Because anglosaxons are increasingly a global minority.
    Proselytizing is how anglo-saxon christianity became the most successful ESS in history, but the new global arms race is human capital. And anglo-saxons are global paupers.
    In 20 years one out of four humans on the planet will be muslim.

    We have not reached the end of history because we have not reached the end of evolution. Dr. Carroll is a prophet of the next instantiation of human religion.

    asalamu alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh Matthew
    The Sunni/Shi’ia divide is the continuation of the Real Forever War, the war that is going on in America even to this day. It is the war of Kylon against Pythagoras….the war of the oligarchs and their chattel slaves against free humans everywhere.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    “The Sunni/Shi’ia divide is the continuation of the Real Forever War, the war that is going on in America even to this day. It is the war of Kylon against Pythagoras….the war of the oligarchs and their chattel slaves against free humans everywhere.”

    Ahh dualisms again :) The eternal battle between Entropy and Life, between Freedom and Control, between Levity and Gravity, Ignorance and Knowledge.

    Pythagoras the mystic, still infecting science. Pythagoras the mystic, exploring His psyche and discovering GEMS and WORLDS and DIETIES.

    Kylon the ignorant, murdering that which he cannot control.

    So what to do? Whose Islam is going to take over and remake everyone in their image? Or will things continue to be ‘secular’ (whatever that means), and the organized religions will grok their place in the world and stop trying to take everyone else over, but be allowed to exist without killing each other because of their interpretations.

    Will humanity ever get over these Crazy Years? I have hope.

  • Claver


    No, I am not proselytizing. And no, accepting the CHRIST is NOT all one has to do otherwise the faith would not be deep. Though it is acceptable.

    As pointed out by CHRIST, when He spoke in reference to Judaism (Pharisees), proselytizing is an unacceptable and insufficient bridge to GOD.

    Faith is something much deeper than that. It goes deep to the heart of humanity, it is the solution to human failure.

    Now, religions differ. Religions provide an outlet for humanity to show their more caring side. Naturally, because those to whom we have access live within one’s community we find that religion is most easily expressed to those in that same community – historically, within geographical reach.

    Problems tend to arise in that religious activity in one community may be miscontrued by another. Misunderstood – because cultures are different.

    This is where wars and strife can arise, amongst the religious. What makes it more difficult is that each community believes in the righteousness of its cause.

    I hope you understand this.

  • shams

    @Claver, no you are proselytizing and evangelizing. You are saying yours is better, yours is the only true path. In the beginning there were the Jews. Membership was birthright or bride capture. Then came christians and preaching, all one had to do to join was accept the Christ.
    Christians cannot stop proselytizing, eg “spreading the good word”. Islam evolved in the environment where proselytizing was the most successful EGT strategy. So Islam evolved to be proselytization resistant.
    “Religions provide an outlet for humanity to show their more caring side.”
    This is nonsense and empirically false. Religions offer a membership in a memetic tribe which is a fitness advantage for survival and reproduction.

    Masha’allah, Matthew!
    “Whose Islam is going to take over and remake everyone in their image?”
    Islam is just one evolutionary attempt…umm an iteration… to write the manual for building a successful human. It is just the most recent of the major monotheistic religions so it is currently the most evolved. A successful evolutionary strategy is that al-Islam is a process.
    So who can say how long it can continue to adapt and evolve?
    I’m very interested in the next iteration on the Manual For Being a Successful Human–the one where we write our own genetic code, pasture the stars, and touch the face of Al-lah.
    The one Dr. Carroll is working on.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    What do you think about something like Buddhism as a way if building a successful human?

  • shams

    salaams Matthew
    I think it very comparable to al-Islam, like Shayyk Manzar-Jan-i-Janan says…. “the Koran states: ‘And there is not a people to whom a warner has not been sent’ [35:24]; ”
    Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha was a warner, like Issa himself.
    It is my understanding that prana is similiar to wahdat al wujud and wadat al shuhud.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    OOO, more stuff for me to look up :)

    It’s also practical, I think, in that someone who is really ‘good’ at it will be able to, say, see someone burn something that they would consider to be sacred and not want to destroy the person or hate the person or even try to stop the person.

    It is, really, a science of mind. I just <3 every time I come across a western science article where they find out "Oh my. Meditation WORKS!" and such :)

    That's one of the things that I think has to happen to humanity, to gentle it, not in a thankless effort to try to stop violence completely, but, rather to get people more aware and more in 'control' of those things that they can control.

    Like stop giving up responsibility for one's actions to the various 'G_ds' (like money, 'He was evil', capitalism, the various addictions, etc etc).

    And the really cool thing is one doesn't have to give up one's religion to practice it. It just helps make one more…aware of how one's mind works and, from that, how their society works etc etc etc.

    I think that is one of the reasons why, after September 11, 2001, the Dalai Lama went on a world tour, especially to the US, to GET PEOPLE TO CALM DOWN and STOP BEING SO ANXIOUS. Anxiety kills! :)

  • shams

    salaams Matthew
    “see someone burn something that they would consider to be sacred and not want to destroy the person or hate the person or even try to stop the person.”
    well….you must understand that religion is symbolic. Pastor Terry Jones was symbolically burning Islam, and the afghanis that killed the UN/NATO workers were symbolically killing crusaders.
    Islamic terrorism is a defense-against-proselytization reflex.
    Want to stop islamic terrorism?
    Stop proselytizing ie trying to standup/implant/spread/impose/westernstyle democracy in MENA.
    It is impossible anyways.
    When muslims (in majority muslim nations like Iraq and A-stan, 97% and 99% respectively) are democratically empowered to vote they vote for shariah.

    I think what Jones did was a very evil thing. It was the equivalent of shouting FIRE! in a crowded theater an ocean away from where he was safely sitting in his nice free speech fortress.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    I’m talking about much more than that tiny part of the world. I am talking about globally.

    (a ferinstance: there was one time that the AMA went on a witch hunt against an American psychologist for his different views, Wilhelm Reich was His name, and His books were actually burnt. So I am talking about much more)

    I understand that everything I think of and communicate is symbolic. When I say “I am going to sit in the chair” that doesn’t mean that there is really something objectively called a “chair” there, it is a term created by people to designate a variety of objects that we all agree on is a “chair”.

    Now, each of us has things that we take to be true and not true, we also have things that are comfortable and are not comfortable to us, different things that we find sacred and different things that we find to be blasphemous. And where do our thoughts and feelings come from? They come from the person who has the thoughts and feelings and the actions that come from those thoughts and feelings also come from the person having the action. There is no magic ‘influencer’ of thoughts, feelings, or actions.

    So, everyone who got involved in that violence was responsible for it, because all the thoughts and feelings and behaviours were generated by them and them alone.

    It is alright that you think that what Jones did was a very evil thing. That is your belief. And you are the generator of those feelings, what thoughts arise from those feelings, and your actions. No one else is. That is just how our neurology actually works.

    So if everyone was taught this and actually practiced it, worked at it, meditated, etc, then they would realize the control that they do have over their own feelings and thoughts and actions. That being offended happens and is a part of life.

    To live together, we are all going to have to learn this. Without forcing the other to adopt the other’s worldview, blasphemies, or sense of the sacred. We are a global civilization and we can’t have people hiding in their countries anymore; what one country does, another does. So it behooves people to change themselves to adapt instead of trying to take one over and remake others in their image :)

    This is going to be the challenge with this global civilization. People are going to have to be calm without attributing ‘class’ or ‘race’ or ‘nationality’ to thoughts and feelings and ideas and behaviours which are without boundaries or nationality or religion :)

    I know how islamic terrorism is ‘going to be stopped’ — their numbers are pretty small. There are a lot of good programs going on.

    And you DO know what the phrase ‘shouting fire in a crowded theatre’ was really used for, right? It isn’t about dangerous speech, but Oliver Wendell Holmes was using it against this group who was protesting the WWI draft, to shut them up. Here is the link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shouting_fire_in_a_crowded_theater

    Humanity has to drop its tribalisms to be able to survive. G_d, Allah, Krisna, Satan, Astarte, etc etc, are crying that we are still acting this way :)

    Btw, thanks very much for the riffing — I’ve been learning a lot.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    I think of Jones as a nutter myself :)

    And about Islamic Terrorism: surely it doesn’t come down to just one cause? I mean, couldn’t the Forever War you mentioned have something to do with it? And/or the interpretation of the Holy Book itself? Or the Holy Book itself (this one I don’t believe, but it is possible). And/or Islamic youth not having the old ways to gain purpose from, the old ways dying off, so they seek meaning and purpose…in dangerous things? And/or other things that I can’t think of? :)

    All I ask is that you try to at any time, especially when you feel threatened or have strong emotions, be aware of your thoughts and feelings, and where they come from, stuff like how long they last, where they go, how they change, stuff like that :)

  • JOL

    @Kyle, if Christianity and most modern religions were as primitive as Greek nature religions they could be dismissed with the same minimal level of investigation. They also wouldn’t have flourished (in one case, begun) among educated Greeks and Romans embarrassed by the credulity of ancestors who believed in pantheons long since discredited as absurd. Those mythoi lack much theology of any kind, let alone thousands of years of diverse and often competing educated schools. Comparing the two is like comparing Gibbon to Homer.

    @ shams, with all due respect, there’s a surprising amount of proselytizing here for a blog whose creator has no religious affiliation. If religions simply “offer a membership in a memetic tribe which is a fitness advantage for survival and reproduction” you’re entirely right to wonder what will replace Islam as the most successful. Either way, reminders that “Muslims also believe that all humans are born muslim” and approving observations that Caliphate Jews and Christians “just could not convert, preach, build churches or synagogues without permission, or marry muslimahs without reverting” doesn’t support Mr. Saunders argument that Islam is less exclusionary than Christianity. Such a competitive view of existing religions by one member seems like proselytizing, and projecting the religious persuasion of 25% of the planet 20 years from now depends on many uncertain variables (e.g. regional birth rates, immigration and growth of the various religions in the abstract). I’m curious how you derived that stat; the first page of hits when googling the phrase yields:

    1) One liberal blog,
    2) One Islamic author citing an Islamic scholars 1990 prediction 25% of the world would be Muslim by 2000 (but claiming the actual figure to be 20%) and
    3) A host of far right fundamentalist sites predicting Europe will be a casualty in an Islamic World War Three

    To be clear, I don’t seek a Christianity vs. Islam debate (I doubt Dr. Carroll would be thrilled by the prospect), but if the Caliphate was more generous to its second class religious minorities (some weren’t even taxed for their beliefs!) than Europe at the time, since the Thirty Years War revealed the full horror of religious intolerance Europe has been far more tolerant of them than most of the Muslim world. The only doctrinal Christian position on non-Christians is dissociation; Church fathers could hardly advocate unfavorable treatment when the dominant government (which they urged Christians to respect as holding authority by Gods sufferance) was itself non-Christian. Christianity is thus no more exclusive than Islam, and far less so than the sects that prioritize descent from Abraham; a distinguishing characteristic of Christianity is INclusiveness.

    All of that makes it ironic to say, “To me, western culture seems almost willfully ignorant of Islam. Do you think that this is because of the scholarly tradition of orientalism or because of 9/11 ?” I think western culture seems that way to you because you’re taking a rather limited view of it; 911 hasn’t fundamentally altered its very structure and basis in under a decade, and scholarship is not so foreign to it as such a loaded question suggests.

  • shams

    salaams Matthew.
    “surely it doesn’t come down to just one cause?”
    indeed, it does, if we are discussing islamic terrorism.
    9/11 was a response to western interventionism.
    OBL junk-punched America in the economic nads.
    The Bush admins response was to try to spread/standup/impose/implant westernstyle democracy (with freedom of speech and freedom of religon) in Iraq and A-stan.
    This cannot be done.
    Shariah forbids proselytization. Freedom of speech legalizes proselytization.
    Therefore freedom of speech is incompatible with shariah law.

    salaams JOL.
    “I’m curious how you derived that stat”
    Pew polling
    I cannot proselytize christians or jews.
    We all believe in the same Al-lah.
    Muslims generally do not care if christians want to believe in the Jesus godhead. Christians and Jews are People of the Book, we all believe in the same Al-lah.
    We do care, quite vehemently as it turns out, that christians want to make us believe it too.
    “I think western culture seems that way to you because you’re taking a rather limited view of it;”
    umm…for example westerners do not understand that freedom of speech is incompatible with al-Islam in its current form.
    Or America would not have spent a trillion dollars making more islamic states and more muslim enemies and more islamic terrorists.

  • shams

    “a surprising amount of proselytizing here for a blog whose creator has no religious affiliation”

    I was explaining that many religions are universalist, and that universalism and inclusion are likely to be successful EGT strats (see Maynard-Smith) going forward.
    Christianity is NOT inclusive. That was the point of Dr. Carroll’s post. Did you read it?
    I used EGT and evo theory of culture to explain that Mr. Douthat is a fundamentalist of a dying religion, and exhibiting fundamentalist behavior (see Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer).
    There are more things under heaven and in earth than are dreamt of Ross Douthat’s philosophy.

  • Pseudo-name

    There was a string of comments about eternity and nothing, so…

    While we can conceptualize many things, like eternity and nothing in their truest sense, we cannot actually comprehend many of those things.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    yes, it seems like it is always the ordinary folk who get caught up in our country’s machinations. It is too sad for words.

    “indeed, it does, if we are discussing islamic terrorism.
    9/11 was a response to western interventionism.
    OBL junk-punched America in the economic nads.”

    I heard about that guy, the hardcore Muslim Billionaire who was willing to send himself and his compatriots to Islamic hell making 3,000 odd martyrs.

    “The Bush admins response was to try to spread/standup/impose/implant westernstyle democracy (with freedom of speech and freedom of religon) in Iraq and A-stan.”

    I was really afraid that they’d over-react and send out nukes. I’m glad they didn’t. But it looks like they got that Muslim Lex Luthor — the USA’s grand poobah made an announcement.

    “Shariah forbids proselytization. Freedom of speech legalizes proselytization.
    Therefore freedom of speech is incompatible with shariah law.”

    That obviously doesn’t preclude Muslims from going online, which is a wonderful American invention, full of freedom of speech and so on and so forth…it is quite empowering…just look at what is going on in such places as Libya and Syria etc etc over the past few months.

    So tell me, do you think that Islamic terrorists are ‘radical Muslims’ or do you think they are ordinary? I hope you understand my meaning…

  • Brutus

    Science posts are way better. This is totally asinine. Son, I am disappoint. I doubt a real theologian would be impressed by this post. I did a few semesters of theology many years ago and you sound like the equivalent of someone who’s read “A Brief History of Time” pontificating about how to interpret quantum theory. I just feel obliged to break the news. I do so with all due respect. Again, your science stuff is great. Peace.

  • http://teamadetrepte.wordpress.com Ioana

    Well, I guess most people are in fact theologically illiterate… that’s just another article to prove it. Is it so hard to inform oneself before writing?
    I’m afraid the author doesn’t understand anything about christianity, hell and gheena (not sure how you write this word in English). For one thing, neither hell nor gheena are places of torture (by others), not as you see it. It’s a state of being brought on by one’s decisions – a self-torture if you will, because loneliness and remorse are torture. Some people who in life were closer to God will feel His presence lovingly in the afterlife. But for those who are far from God, His presence will be painful – as one who knows is guilty perceives the looks others throw him as dire accusations, is shamed and would like to hide one’s shame. But there is no hiding in the afterlife. We are all delivered to ourselves and to the consequences of what we made of ourselves – truth-loving children of God or vain renegades, free people or people enslaved by our passions.
    Of course, those who did not have the possibility of knowing Christ will not suffer in the gheena for something that wasn’t their fault. But it appears Gandhi did know of Christ yet did not accept Him as the sole Way and Truth, nor did he know His Church. Therefore he is, one assumes, in hell. His fate however is not for us to judge.
    I am not sure about the Roman Catholic theology, but in the Mother Church (Orthodox) this is basically what we know about hell and gheena, it’s not very well defined because not even the Holy Fathers have much information about these things. Concepts like Limbo and Purgatory were never recognized by the Church (they’re Roman Catholic inventions).

    Oh, wait. There’s also talk of Islam. Seriously, how can one advocate Islam is more tolerant than Christianity (even the heterodox branches)? To this day muslims all over the world are killing people for no other reason than being christians. When did christians kill muslims (or anyone, really) for religious reasons? It was always done in self-defense and for getting back land muslims had conquered in their invasions. Unless you want to go for the white guilt and blame the entire christianity for the (often exaggerated) horrors of colonialism, conveniently glossing over the fact that most european peoples never had colonies and empires and were in fact fighting for independence.

  • shams

    salaamu aleykum Ioana
    “To this day muslims all over the world are killing people for no other reason than being christians. ”
    no this is simply not true.
    Islamic terrorism is an EGT reflex against western meddling and proselytizing.
    Christians are not killed in islamic countries simply for being christians. The Generous Quran is clear on this. The excuse that the christians or bah’ai or whatever is always that they were proselytizing in some fashion.
    Proselytizing is against shariah law, and shariah is the law of the land in MENA.
    Again, Dr. Carroll should not all judge all religions by Ross Douthats version of hell.
    Anglo-saxon christianity is a dying religion, and Douthat is exhibiting classic fundamentalist behavior.
    I assume you are attempting to speak of gehenna? It means in arabic a pit for the burial of the dead. There is much in Islam of paradise and the sufi concept of faana, but little liturgy on the concept of hell. I think Dr. Carroll was speaking to both the exclusivity of anglo-saxon christianity and the loving dwelling on the horrific detail of the christian concept of Hell.

  • Claver


    ‘ This is nonsense and empirically false. Religions offer a membership in a memetic tribe which is a fitness advantage for survival and reproduction. ‘

    If it’s nonsense how can you prove it’s ’empirically false’?

    Moreover, if it’s nonsense then how could you have possibly understood what I wrote? And if you haven’t understood my statement then you are not responding to what I said, but speaking to yourself.

    I think you are using words, whose meaning and use in context, you do not understand.

    These are matters of life and death. You cannot afford to gamble on your life because you only have one.

    You speak of things you have read about, I speak of things of which I have seen. You are like a tourist who visits London for a day and tells the world how expert they have become on English history.

    I said to you I am not proselytizing, I will also say to you that I am NOT evangelizing.

    I am doing something incomparable. Which you do not understand.

    Let me give you an illustration because I cannot make you understand: light is different from darkness.

    You are either in the light or in the darkness. These are primitive examples because the English language is constrained.

    Likewise, when you read your Bible (which I assume you have done) remember that the English language is constrained.

    Now, if all you depend on is your ability to understand the meanings of words and your comprehension – you will fail to understand the Christian faith.

    Everything that you read in the Bible is like a tutorial for the Christian. Written for learning. As such, the practical stuff is not in the pages, not in the letters.

    My friend, you are out of your depth. Humility is your best approach.

    For example, Sean knows much more than me about General Relativity. For me to obtain some of his knowledge would require some humility on my part, to take lessons from him. Likewise, you need some Bible lessons.

    Make sure you choose carefully who you get your Bible lessons from, there are ‘crackpots’ calling themselves Christian Teachers.

  • shams

    salaams Matthew
    “just look at what is going on in such places as Libya and Syria etc etc over the past few months.”
    Libya and Syria are muslim grassroots revolutions. Social networking has nothing to do with resisting western proselytization. Both Libya and Syria have franchises of the Muslim Brotherhood supporting the revolutions, and like Egypt, both will be islamic democracies when their revolutions succeed.

    “do you think that Islamic terrorists are ‘radical Muslims’ or do you think they are ordinary?”
    It is EGT defense-against-proselytization reflex, hardwired in a sense.
    I know it is a difficult concept to grasp…but think of it this way.
    Proselytizing to christians is an article of faith. It cannot be switched off easily.
    Resistance to proselytizing is an article of faith to muslims. It is human nature. Religious tendency is hardwired in humans. Not everyone has an IQ of 180 to overcome religious tendency.
    bi la kayfah

  • shams

    “If it’s nonsense how can you prove it’s ‘empirically false’?”
    Upon historical observation.
    The Crusades, the War of the Roses, pograms against jews, the Conquistadore mission in South America, all empirical data.
    Christianity has some history of proselytizing with the sword.

    And yes, you are proselytizing and evangelizing. You are saying your way is best way, only way and you own the only truth. That is the question of Dr. Carrolls post ‘is Ghandi in hell.’ Like Ioana said, to christians Ghandi is in Hell, the Douthat version I guess.

    “Sean knows much more than me about General Relativity”
    And I know much more about history, Islam, Evolutionary Game Theory, and Evo Theory of Culture than you as well.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    it’s brilliant, actually, what you and I have been writing to each other about can be thought of as just all of these game rules acting out in the world. Perhaps we don’t really have free will but are acting in accordance to these game rules? :) So OBL doing his thing is just game rules acting through Him. All this worship is just people acting out game rules. Bush II reacting to OBL’s bit of performance art is just Him acting out game rules. And so on and so forth.

    (but that’s why I think it is imperative that we learn to be able to suss out these rules and learn how we can guide or modify them — I personally think that a believer can still get the benefit/life out their faith life while knowing how their faith works etc etc. In fact, it’ll make them more resistant to being manipulated by people who don’t have their best interests at heart — or even worse, those who do :)

    So how does Islam spread to non-Islamic countries? Can a religion succeed if it doesn’t grow?

    And yes, I commiserate with you about religious tendency being “hard-wired”*…I think of it in terms of how our neurologies are made and how we all process reality — we take reality, which seems to be many-valued, non-verbal, mutable and then we apply symbols to it, making it understandable, static, and verbal. And we put essences into things that don’t have essences by themselves, inner identities, so, and ‘evil’ person actually IS Evil (cue reverb) and a ‘chair’ actually has this essence called Chair in it. Our metaphysics, those fundamental axioms we take on faith to be true, affect how we act and view the world. If something has action, we tend to anthropomorphize it, turning it into an agent.

    * though I think that concept is just a result of the fact that everything operates by rules or habits coupled with our neurological structures. It is possible to modify these ‘hard-wired’ things, like the Buddhist monks who can actually STOP the same autonomic reflex arc as when someone burns their hand. Those rules that we aren’t aware of rule us more easily.

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  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    So all these things, “Shariah forbids proselytization”
    “Freedom of speech legalizes proselytization”
    “Therefore freedom of speech is incompatible with shariah law”
    “Christians proselytizing”
    “symbolically killing crusaders”
    “defense-against-proselytization reflex…”
    “implanting western style democracy”
    “crying at a movie”
    “opening a door for a woman”
    “calling someone good”
    are all GAME RULES that can be studied and understood by the people who follow them. They all involve the practitioner and are not unbreakable laws of reality, there is always a choice (but the problem arises when there are other GAME RULES that tell us not to examine these GAME RULES that are ruling our lives and wrecking each other). And if they are understood, then humanity is more gentled, more humane, less like a raging and unthinking animal. This is how global humanity will survive.

  • shams

    salaams Matthew
    yes, all EGT strats. there is a biological basis for all behavior.
    but articles of faith are not subject to reason.
    So only humans that have sufficient cognitive ability can overcome the wiring of the genome and the environment shaped phenome.
    Its like when I started to study qphysics.
    I had to rewire my brain.
    Not all humans have the raw material to do that.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    I understand where you are coming from; not everyone can take decades to learn how to know the self and the mind and the spirit like the Dalai Lama has done; he has said as much himself.

    But I think we must try and not expect for everyone to ‘take’ to the teachings. After all, it is apparent that not all of Islam have ‘taken’ to the teachings. I think behaviours, etc, more follow a bell-curve distribution than an all-or-nothing distribution.

    Because, if we take what you have written right now as true, then this is what will have to happen (one of these):

    1) Nothing changes. People will still die, women will still get murdered, violence will still happen.

    2) Islam takes over the whole world, so then there are no challenges to its game rules. This is problematical (as you say, one of the game rules is ‘no proselytizing’) and not very good.

    3) Islam is destroyed in some way. This is problematical and not very good.

    4) Those faithful who cannot break free of their game rules are ‘voted off the island’ and cared for in special preserves so that they can’t hurt people any more.

    5) We endeavor to teach people everywhere how to recognize their own game rules. Those who can’t, and this will be a minority, won’t be franchised in the society and will be cared for.

    It seems apparent that Islam has its own game rules (like religious faith) that are made to keep people from being aware of game rules, to preserve ‘Islam’. A docile population is an easily-controlled one and I understand its attraction. I see the same thing happening in such places as the UK, the USA and Canada.

    These teachings, I think, don’t just involve rationality (and I believe in the notion that rationality is mostly unconscious and NEEDS emotions); meditation and things like Yoga are just learning the language of the body and the mind, to be AWARE and MINDFUL. These things are, I think, intuitional as well.

    So, for Islam to survive*, I think Islam must do some form of this teaching. As the environment changes, so must the organism. It was the past’s geographical isolation that enabled these faith systems to develop as they did…now they can’t anymore.

    Our G_ds are pretty schmart and tricky; it’s a kind of test, now, to see if and how well we all can get along :)

    * heck, for us all to survive. Humanity can’t live on autopilot anymore and we can’t live in the dangerous world that cranky Imam’s or violent Presidents create for us, so it is up to us, ordinary people, to help the world.

  • shams

    salaamu aleykum Matthew

    im sry, but your statement is so wrong it hurts my head.
    Islam is surviving….even thriving. In 20 years one out of 4 humans will be muslim.
    Defense against proselytization is the most successful ESS on the planet right now.
    anglosaxon christianity is dying.
    In the old days, dominon, individualism, exclusivity and proselytizing were the dominant successful EGT strats.
    Now because of social media and globalization the new successful strats for religious ESSs will be inclusivity and universalism and resistance to proselytizing.
    Because even our G_ds evolve.
    And like I said, the Next Religion will be the one where Dr. Carroll is a priest and i am an acolyte.
    Where physics and metaphysics become one.

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    Yes, that pain is probably your game rules preventing you from seeing something else 😉

    How does Islam grow?

    And I agree on the ‘next religion’…where the G_d will be humanity and universe as one…with no stoning of blasphemers or apostates…where any violence will be consensual…where people will be free to practice their worldviews and have any sort of marriage…

  • Karl


    You play with words nicely and write in an elegant style. But you would have a better chance of convincing people of the correctness of your outlook (to the extent there really is a coherent outlook), if you could speak simply and clearly and address the following two conjectures:

    1. Mainstream Islamic culture has exhibited a major moral failure. It seems to struggle even to find the language and the conceptual framework genuinely to oppose the crimes that are committed in its name. Large numbers of peaceful Muslims find themselves in effect condoning mass murder, and painfully few can bring themselves to side with the victims who exercise their right of self defence. Nevertheless it is not the tenets of Islam that have caused the present violence. This is a political evil we are facing, not a religious one. And it is a modern evil, not an ancient one.

    2. Mainstream Western culture has also exhibited a major moral failure: a refusal to distinguish between right and wrong. The unique glories of our civilisation — self-criticism, tolerance, openness to change and to ideas from other cultures — have in many people’s minds decayed, under this moral failure, into self-hatred, appeasement, and moral relativism.

  • Matthew Saunders


  • shams

    “Mainstream Islamic culture has exhibited a major moral failure.”

    islamic terrorism is a defense against proselytization REFLEX.
    Stop proselytizing and meddling in MENA and the islamic terrorists will go away.

    “Mainstream Western culture has also exhibited a major moral failure: a refusal to distinguish between right and wrong.”

    /scratches head
    This makes no sense. Mainstream western culture glorifies tribalism and ingroup values. I guess you can say MW culture refuses to distinguish between ingroup wrong and outgroup right. Truth should be truth, whether one is a white american christian or a brown afghani muslim.

    Masha’allah, Matthew.
    Islam is changing and growing right now.
    al-Islam is a process.
    bi la kayfah
    (it is understood)

  • Matthew Saunders

    #138 Karl: “This is a political evil we are facing, not a religious one. And it is a modern evil, not an ancient one.”

    When did the political evil start?

    Namaste shams,

    I respect your beliefs. I am curious and a seeker and someone who is trying to understand the various game rules that we all follow; especially mine 😉

    So how does Islam grow? I’m trying to parse the game rule of ‘defense against proselytization’ and Islam growing because that seems like a paradox there.

  • Karl


    Pretty much what I expected as your answer. Terrorism justified because of someones so-called “proselytizing and meddling”? Such a terrible crime, such a genuine grievance. Very sad, because this is nothing other than condoning mass murder. And, interestingly, it’s a clear example of the first conjecture: your fundamental inability to find the language and the conceptual framework genuinely to oppose the crimes that are committed in the name of Islam.


    You “respect” these beliefs? Unless your being sarcastic, this is a perfect example of refusing to distinguish between right and wrong. And is, as it turns out, a clear example of the second conjecture: openness to change and to ideas from other cultures has decayed into appeasement and moral relativism.

    Gentleman, you’ll get the last word here, because I know a hopeless situation when I see one. I have no doubt that unless Sean cuts this off — you two could go on like this no end.

  • Matthew Saunders


    I don’t have enough data to say either way, that is why I am collecting data still; not all of us are at the same stage of knowing, hmm? :)

    I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, but I am exploring. Riffing. For me, it isn’t about already knowing the answers when trying to find them out, it is about exploring to find ‘more questions’. There will be the time when my ideas are ossified to the point of dogma, when my intelligence dies, but before then, I intend to listen to people’s viewpoints and learn as much as possible.

    And what if this goes on to no end? I don’t think any resources are expended in this? You don’t have to read any of this. And this is under a thread that is ‘religious’, so contained from the rest of this lovely journal of Sean’s (and yes, it is his and he gets to do anything with it he wants to).

    So since I am still finding things out, when did this political evil thing start?

  • Pingback: The Question of Hell | James Russell Ament()

  • Brian Too

    I have “issues” with religion. Many issues.

    For instance, religion is supposed to address eternal truths about the universe and our place in it. Yet it is filled with almost endless variations, beliefs, shades, meanings, interpretations. Even amongst the great faiths that are supposedly unified and cohesive, schisms long ago fractured their communities and belief structures.

    Is Hell a literal destination for unbelievers and the evil? Is it a metaphor for a psychological state? Can Hell be experienced by the living or merely the dead? Seems like an important question and yet the faithful are all over the place on the matter.

    Therefore when I read comments like (loosely parapharasing a prior comment, can’t find it now) “no one in religion X has said that for 100 years”, I think, ‘what about believers who lived prior to 100 years ago’? They were WRONG? You’re telling me they went to their graves with an incorrect belief or beliefs?

    My understanding of most religious philosophers on these matters is that it all boils down to the fallibility and incompleteness of man. The mind of God is unknowable and we struggle towards enlightenment. Well, that seems like a bit of a cop-out, actually. Hell is a fairly simple mental construct in certain aspects. It either exists or it does not. It is either a literal place or it is a metaphor. Which is it?

    When I step back I find it difficult to pick winners and losers amongst the faithful. I mean there are many religions and many faithful. Yet nearly all of them (yes I know there are exceptions. Not many though) claim that only they got it right and all the rest of religions are false. False religions with false gods.

    If those religions are right about that, then all the other believers from all the other faiths are going to Hell. Whether literal or metaphorical. So I ask you, which is the One True Faith that will deliver salvation? Because that Hell place, it doesn’t sound nice. Oddly enough that’s one of the meta-beliefs that nearly all religions agree on; even the ones that don’t believe in Hell.

  • Matthew Saunders

    # 145 Brian Too: Yeah, pretty nuts, ennit? :)

    Just like there are people in the world who would go goggle eyed at you if you eat dead animal flesh, or ride in a metal contraption that stinks, or sleeps in a bed with someone else, or alone, or not on the floor, or who drinks rotten fruit juice, or who thinks that they are separate from their environment, or who thinks in terms of subject-object, or or or…

    There is so much variety out there, so many worldviews to sample, so much bizarreness :)

  • shams


    Terrorism justified because of someones so-called “proselytizing and meddling”?

    I am saying defense against proselytization is a REFLEX. It is an article of faith.
    it is not “reasonable” or “justifiable”.
    it would be great if al-Islam allowed freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
    But right now it cannot be done.
    Defense against proselytization is in the Quran, and it is obviously still in mutawatir as long America has 100k missionaries with guns trying to spread westernstyle democracy in A-stan.

    Article 10 of the Declaration states: “Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or to atheism.”

    Shariah forbids proselytization. Freedom of speech legalizes proselytization. Therefore shariah and freedom of speech are incompatible. And if you want empirical proof, look at Iraq and A-stan and the other epic fails of the US to spread/standup/implant/install/impose westernstyle democracy in majority muslim states.
    It cannot be done. 10 years, a trillion dollars and 7,000 dead american soldiers later Iraq has shariah in their constitution and is putting a boot in America’s ass in December, and the Taliban are stronger than ever in Afghanistan.

    Brian Too.

    Hell is a fairly simple mental construct in certain aspects. It either exists or it does not. It is either a literal place or it is a metaphor. Which is it?

    No, the concept of Hell has evolved and is evolving.
    It is not static, it is in flux. The point of Dr. Carrolls post is that the anglosaxon christian concept of hell is exclusive and rather extreme compared to other religions.
    But then, Douthat is a fundamentalist in a dying ESS.

  • addicted

    @Matthews, unfortunately, it seems shams is sugarcoating largely misleading statements with nice sounding “facts”.

    For example, the growth of Islam is entirely due to faster population growth (according to wiki, 1.8 fertility rate vs. 1.12 for other religions), which has almost every thing to do with the high levels of poverty in many highly populated islamic nations.

    Additionally, the high growth rate of Islam in places with low Islamic populations (e.g. Europe) has everything to do with migration.


    It has little to do with how much more evolved Islam is as a religion.

    Additionally, most of the concepts being pointed to by shams are merely theoretical anachronisms from an era when the Muslim world was the most knowledgeable and scientifically literate part of the world (a consequence of being at the center of trade routes between the East and the West). The mass muslim population barely hears about them. Besides, sufis forms an extremely minuscule part of the Islamic population.

  • Matthew Saunders

    #148 addicted: Thank you :)

    shams is making sense to me — a lot of what we do is unconscious (even what we call rational thought, as the research shows — or the research I pay attention to :)). So here we all are, at the behest of our unconscious. Kind of like robots 😉

    There are reasons that things happen, and one thing I am gleaning from shams is that:

    1) Islam can’t change in certain ways right now, but he holds out the possibility.

    2) He thinks that a major stressor is the ‘West’ being in MENA, which is causing some
    pretty harsh game rules to trigger.

    Another thing I’m curious about, if anyone can answer, is about the Al-Aqsa Mosque: who is allowed to go in there? Is it a general public area where people can just wander about? Who can preach? Is there a vetting process? I just don’t know :)

  • shams


    “It has little to do with how much more evolved Islam is as a religion.”

    Yet EGT defense against proselytization strategy has everything to with the epic failure of COIN and the Bush Doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    10 years and trillion dollars later Iraq has shariah law in a constitution paid for with American tax dollars, and Afghanistan will have the same when we leave.

    ” The mass muslim population barely hears about them.”
    Yet the mass muslim population is very involved in the Arab Spring, even Iraq and AfPak.
    Western media is just not covering that part. Justice Party leader Imran Khan staged a youth led closure of the NATO supply routes in Peshawar last month. Mosul erupts in riots every friday.
    For some reason we dont see much coverage of the Arab Spring style protests in Iraq and AfPak.
    Is it because after the Arab Spring comes the American Fall?

    I’m a girl. Shams can be either a boys name or a girls name in arabic.
    It means “the sun”.

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  • shams

    actually….I think Dr. Carrolls point was that atheism is “better” than anglosaxon christianity.
    That is very probably true.
    But….humans aren’t there yet.
    So the more recently evolved versions of religion that have higher memetic fitness than anglosaxon christianity; inclusion, universalism, resistance to proselytization, are going to be more successful in the short run.
    If the existence of the supernatural becomes demonstrably and empirically false, humans will become mostly atheists.
    I think religion will continue evolving as humanity approaches the Real, babystep by baby step.
    Who can say what the end of the journey will be?

  • Mike


    “If the existence of the supernatural becomes demonstrably and empirically false”

    It’s impossible to disprove supernatural explanations. They can be changed, modified and tinkered with ad nausea — and because they can and have been varied throughout history without ever becoming “demonstrably and empirically false” (e.g., replace Zeus with the Sun god, or whatever, and then claim it to be a “better” explanation), there is in the end no way to finally disprove them.

    Good scientific theories, on the other hand, theories that are hard to vary without losing their explanatory power, can, have been and regularly are disproved in whole or in part (e.g., Einstein’s theories supplanting Newton’s).

    That’s why scientific theories, and not supernatural ones, are better (and continually better) explanations for the way the world works.

  • shams

    “It’s impossible to disprove supernatural explanations. ”

    but that is what secular humanism claims….all will be explained by science in time.

  • Mike


    Your comment was totally unresponsive to the argument made in my post.

    It doesn’t matter at all if you can identify someone you label as a secular humanist who says that supernatural explanations can be disproved, or as you put it, become “demonstrably and empirically false.” They simply can’t.

    As I said, it’s impossible to disprove supernatural explanations because they can be changed, modified and tinkered with ad nausea — and since they actual have been varied throughout history without ever becoming “demonstrably and empirically false” (e.g., replace Zeus with the Sun god, or whatever, and then claim it to be a “better” explanation), there is in the end no way to finally disprove them.

    I then contrasted that with good scientific explanations which are hard to vary without losing their explanatory power, and which can, have been and regularly are disproved in whole or in part (e.g., Einstein’s theories supplanting Newton’s).

    And, this is why scientific explanations are better explanations, regardless of what some “secular humanist” somewhere may say.

    Supernatural explanations may fade away as people become less and less enamored with their failure to provide any meaningful insights into a constantly and more quickly evolving world — but because of their nature, they are impossible to “disprove”.

  • shams

    lool, okfine Mike.
    I see your point, that scientific explanation addresses a moving target.
    But what happens when everything is explained?
    When there are almost no more questions, and the last question is does quantum uncertainty exist or what was the origin of the multiverse (s) ?
    What happens when we run out of questions?
    Or are you a godelian, and you believe the question set is inexhaustible?

  • Mike


    “what happens when everything is explained?”

    That will never happen. Each new and better explanation only gives rise to different and better questions.

    I don’t know if I would agree that this view is “Godelian” — it really doesn’t address the question whether or not minds can be explained in purely mechanist terms — but I do think (given what we know so far) that the laws of nature put no upper bound on the capacity for humans to generate new and better explanations, and in that sense, yes “the question set is inexhaustible.”

  • shams

    Godelian incompleteness I meant.
    So as questions get answered and generate more questions, religion evolves, and religious concepts like god and hell evolve.
    But we will never reach the point where everything is explained….because its like bisecting a line segment, you are always only halfway there.

  • THE

    I disagree.

    In a finite visible universe, with a finite number of qubits in it, there is a limit to the number of distinct yes/no questions that can be asked about it.

    Even if you consider answers, there is still a limit:
    If every answer is a theory, i.e. an algorithm for generating a model of the world; and if we always want our theories to be simpler than the finite, visible universe they are modeling, (otherwise why bother with the theory?), then there is also a finite number of possible finite theories.

    In a sense you have asked the wrong question, Shams, although it is a very, very, good question. Unfortunately, it does not apply in our kind of universe.

    In our kind of universe, there is a different question that needs to be asked:
    In an accelerating, expanding universe like ours, will we run out of energy, before we answer all the interesting questions, and what will happen then?

    If we run out of energy before we answer all the interesting questions, then we will freeze to death, never knowing all the answers.
    If we answer all the interesting questions before we run out of energy, then we will die knowing everything that can be known. But we may die of boredom before we die of lack of energy.

    Faced with these two choices, I choose the fulfillment of the second option, rather than the frustration of the first.
    I will choose death, when I am satisfied that I know all I wish to know.

    Eternity is not my goal. Knowledge of Nature is.
    I have no existence or purpose apart from Nature.
    Where she leads, I will follow.
    Where she stops, there I too will stop.

    Of course if Nature kills me before I reach my goal of total knowledge of her,
    then I die frustrated, yet content to return my essence to Nature.
    For I was never really apart from her, and her Tao is necessarily mine.

  • shams

    ima muslimah AND a tegmarkian.
    i WILL know those other universes, even if only in theory and imagination.
    im shaped by both genome and phenome to be a mystic.

    How can it not know what it is?– Decker, Blade Runner

    consider embodied cognition theory in strong AI.
    mebbe the silicon hordes will need just not forms, but faiths.

  • THE


    “i WILL know those other universes, even if only in theory and imagination.”.

    No problem. As long as you remember where reality ends and imagination begins.
    The problem is when people start really believing their fantasies.

    “mebbe the silicon hordes will need just not forms, but faiths”.

    I doubt it seriously.
    If a robot is not really mortal, why would it worry about 90% of religion?
    Only a Darwinian being needs to die, because it is in the interest of genes to put all the effort into making more copies, rather than keeping individuals alive forever.
    But robots can have interchangeable parts.
    They can be indefinitely repaired.

    But we may need to give our AI’s intense values, if they are to be friendly AIs.
    If they need a religion, they can worship us as their creators.
    That might help to keep them tame.

  • THE

    Also too, there is nothing stopping you from combining mysticism with naturalism.
    There is are several venerable traditions of nature mysticism.
    Many rationalists play with it.
    It’s one way to reconcile the rational with the spiritual, without compromising intellectual rigor.

  • http://latesttechnologynews.org Michael White

    What might make sense is what I think 7th Day Adventists believe… something along the lines of, that those who continually do bad are simply destroyed and cease to exist, rather than burning in Hell forever.

    That makes a lot more sense, it seems perhaps. A loving God would simply destroy or cease the exist of those will not stop making others miserable or are causing suffering to others.

  • MariaPeron

    When reading these generally anti-Christian screeds in on-line magazines, one cannot help but note the sharply aggressive tone of criticism when it comes to Christianity but quite accommodating language (for the most part) where Islam is concerned. Even when people are relatively anonymous on the Internet, it seems they consciously pull their punches when it comes to Islam for fear of being hunted down and having their throats slit or something. The hypocrisy here is absolutely stunning, especially when coupled with the self-serving notion that they, or anyone else, are somehow being courageous criticizing Christianity.

    A superb example of this can be found in Hollywood where they routinely slam Christians and Christianity. Recent case in point: “The DaVinci Code.” Can anyone even begin to imagine these same “courageous,” truth-seeking producers in Hollywood making a movie called, say, “The Mohamed Code,” similarly critical of Islam? Are you freakin” kidding me? These people know damn well that such a movie, if ever made, would bring on worldwide riots, not to mention having them and their families hunted down and likely killed by fanatical Muslims, but I repeat myself. But Christians don’t do this, so they’re fair game. So much for courageous atheists and secular humanists! Keep up the good work, Sean!!!!!

  • Matthew Saunders

    Namaste shams,

    You wrote “lol@Matthew
    I’m a girl. Shams can be either a boys name or a girls name in arabic.
    It means “the sun”.”

    Righto, I usually assume that everyone here is a woman…every so often, I change things up and go “he” 😉

    So you’re a sun of Allah? :) If I may ask, what faith are you? The closest I can come up with (asides from my wife calling me a heathen) is Discordian, one who is creating their own religion (I can’t take the ‘easy way’ and go for something already created).

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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