How Belief In Hell Directly Benefits The Elite

Coppo_di_Marcovaldo,_HellIf there’s ever been any doubt in your mind that organized religion benefits the ruling class then a recent paper published by PLOS ONE, an open-access, peer reviewed online publication, should quash it for good.

Psychologists Azim F. Shariff of the University of Oregon and Lara B. Aknin of Simon Fraser University, British Columbia conducted a study in which they asked asked over four hundred Americans to write about Heaven, Hell or what they did yesterday. The Americans who wrote about Hell were more likely to show emotional negativity compared to the other groups.

This was consistent across believers and non-believers. Just thinking about Hell makes people ill and out of sorts, and they don’t even have to think that it’s real. It’s worse for the true believers: Individual belief in what the researchers referred to as “supernatural malevolence” (Coming soon to pay-per-view!) was associated with bad coping skills, low self-esteem and poor health resiliency.

Shariff and Aknin also referred to a second study reporting that in developing countries, mass belief in Hell produced a more compliant, “coordinated” population. Further, these countries were found to have higher Gross Domestic Products than countries without widespread belief in a punishing afterlife.

Believing in hell can make you sick and miserable, but also a more productive little cog in the big Machine. It’s kind of a nice arrangement: You’re too scared to really live because of what might happen when you die. It really does become a matter of choosing the devil you know when your options are standing up to your local despot and dealing with Satan later, or keeping your mouth shut and spending eternity in paradise. You’re incentivized – or at least browbeaten – into not making trouble.

Hell isn’t just a religious idea, it’s a meme; an especially toxic one that we might be primed to believe in from birth – especially if you believe those studies that suggest we’re hardwired to believe in god. Hell is such a virulent, deadly little mind-virus that even secular minds have trouble fighting it off. And it seems that there’s a vested interest in keeping it strong.

Jesus urged his followers to render unto Caesar, and made a pretty damned good example of what I’m guessing is an appropriate response to government persecution: Turn the other cheek and let the bastards nail you to a tree if they want to. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the Romans bought into Christianity – at least to the extent that it allowed the elite to maintain a nice, strong grip on the masses. During World War II, Pope Pius XI secretly dreamed of building up a state of “Catholic totalitarianism”, going so far as to urge Catholics not to rebel against fascist leader Mussolini through various church publications. (See David Kertzer’s The Pope and Mussolini.)

The values of compliance, servitude and sacrifice aren’t just Christian things, either. The ancient Chinese conception of an afterlife was a bureaucratic nightmare that just so happened to mirror their Earthly government, complete with a heavenly Emperor. At least some verses in the Koran instruct believers not to rebel against Earthy leaders. And yes, there are hells awaiting sinners who cross the line.

Inculcating a belief – even an unreasonable one that persists despite the desires of the believer – is clearly in the interest of this world’s powers, but what can one do about it? How can the would-be free man or woman exorcise themselves of the grip of hell? It’s a difficult question, and maybe one that might be unanswerable. Even novelist Anthony Burgess wrote of suffering a “vestigial fear of Hell”:

“Am I happy? Probably not. Having passed the prescribed biblical age limit, I have to think of death, and I do not like the thought. There is a vestigial fear of hell, and even of purgatory, and no amount of rereading rationalist authors can expunge it. If there is only darkness after death, then that darkness is the ultimate reality and that love of life that I intermittently possess is no preparation for it. In face of the approaching blackness, which Winston Churchill facetiously termed black velvet, concerning oneself with a world that is soon to fade out like a television image in a power cut seems mere frivolity. But rage against the dying of the light is only human, especially when there are still things to be done, and my rage sometimes sounds to myself like madness. It is not only a question of works never to be written; it is a matter of things unlearned. I have started to learn Japanese, but it is too late; I have started to read Hebrew, but my eyes will not take in the jots and tittles. How can one fade out in peace, carrying vast ignorance into a state of total ignorance?”

Burgess wasn’t alone – if you do a little research online, you’ll discover quite a few self-described atheists and secularists still dealing with the afterlife jitters. Could it be that early indoctrination is enough to permanently scar the human mind? Neurologist D.F. Swaab’s We Are Our Brains makes an eloquent argument for the long-lasting effects of early environmental influences. A very strong argument can be made (and in my opinion there’s no argument about it) that introducing children to a malevolent idea like Hell is child abuse, and early instances of abuse can cause permanent neurological change. Maybe by the time we’re old enough to really consider Hell, it’s too late. That tiny, persistent little spot of fear will never ever fade, and it will take effort to overcome its effects.

As the state reaps the benefits of this religious abuse, there’s little incentive to curb the powers of various cults and sects. After all, why stand in the way of a good thing? A frightened citizen is a compliant citizen, and there’s not much more frightening than being ripped to pieces by demons in a fiery abyss. No, change has to start from within one’s mind and home and in the form of total ideological rebellion against this implicitly theo-poitical union. Within this context, one can understand the radical actions of so-called “crusading” atheists, for whom Hell – even if it doesn’t exist – must still be vanquished for freedom to truly flourish. It’s not just about separation between church and state: It’s an ideological war against an existential threat, and a desperate effort to free the human mind from the threat of a dangerous contagion.

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  • BuzzCoastin

    what the hell?!

    • M00nface

      who the devil are you?!

  • Ted Heistman

    I find its interesting that Buddhists have hell also. (the real Buddhists in Buddhist countries, like Tibet not the sanitized American versions)

    • qB^{D}

      Kinda. Being that a god doesn’t send you there and it’s not eternal, it’s really a different thing entirely.

      • Ted Heistman

        You are talking about academic Buddhism. I am talking about popular Buddhism. Its Theistic and has Hell.

        • qB^{D}

          Possibly so. My only only real experience outside of books was a talk given by the Dali Llama. He didn’t seem to believe in a hell, but he didn’t address it directly. As far as I was aware, the Buddha himself never really address hell. He considered the questions of gods and such irrelevant, as they could never be answered.
          I guess for myself, if I were to subscribe to a religion, I’d be more concerned with what the founders and the books had to say, than the interpretations of the followers. Non-theistic, academic Buddhism has more merit to my mind.

          • Ted Heistman

            The Hell stuff in Buddhism is all in the iconography. Like illustrations of what sins get you to which level of hell. There is also some apocalyptic beliefs.

          • Ted Heistman

            Like this:
            “In a similar vein, the Wat Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden represents a Buddhist iconography of hell and the underworld. It’s apparently no place for liberalism: while one image depicts a specific penalty for a woman who kills her husband, there is no equivalent for a man who kills his wife. Another particularly gruesome sculpture shows a woman being squeezed in a giant vice for practising birth control or having had an abortion.”

            http://www.forteantimes.com/features/fortean_traveller/1/the_wang_saen_suk_hell_garden_thailand.html

          • qB^{D}

            Sure, it’s in the iconography, but I believe this is more illustration than reality. Hell is merely the lowest level of being bound to the wheel. Even with heaven, you are just bound by golden chains instead. The idea is to cease the cycle altogether.

            While what you say I’m sure is true in the many writings attributed to Buddhism since it’s inception, it isn’t always how it’s carried out. Ashoka, the first Buddhist emperor of India, was the first ruler anywhere to advocate gender equality in education and religious institutions. Nearly 300 years before the time of Christ, at that. (if you believe that in sort of thing)

            Personally, I ascribe to the four noble truth and eight-fold path, because its truth became apparent through only a little practice, and becomes relevant in the daily lives of people all around me regularly. I don’t ascribe to any one belief system or worldview, but treat them more like tools on my belt. I adopt whatever tools is best fitted for the job. Among them, the core concepts of Buddhism and Taoism have been particularly useful.

          • Ted Heistman

            Its funny how literal Westerners take scriptures from Eastern Religions sometimes.

    • echar

      What’s your thoughts on the gnostic view of hell?

      • Ted Heistman

        It kind of reminds me too much of the traditional Christian view of Hell at times. Some times life is fun! Sometimes its just feels great to be alive!

        • echar

          I suppose there isn’t much room for fun, if one is working their way out of hell. Thanks this has given me another perspective.

        • echar

          I’d like to add on further thought, that there may be more of a sense of urgency.

  • Ted Heistman
  • Oginikwe

    Here’s the problem I have with hell/heaven–so I go to heaven and I’m seated between Billy Graham and some other self-righteous holy person, and surrounded by their minions, I think I’m in hell. Their heaven: my hell. Now what? lol.

    No wonder I can’t make any money being a sin-eater.

    • Dingbert

      Great observation. For many from the old-old-old school, that’s because Heaven and Hell are the same.

      http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/spirituality/the-kingdom-of-heaven/heaven-and-hell

    • echar

      Hypothetically speaking, if there is a hell, they are undoubtedly there. One can posit that their deaths made earth a little closer to heaven.

      • Dingbert

        Billy Graham is still alive, for better or worse. I also submit that “self-righteous holy person” is an oxymoron.

        • echar

          I should have looked that up.

          • Dingbert

            I made the same mistake recently. It’s probably a good thing, since it kind of indicates that he’s not as egotistic and extreme as the other Patriarchs of Protestantism. Or just that he’s no longer relevant.

          • echar

            Unconscious wishful thinking on my end, perhaps. I kid, his relevance to my world is mostly nil.

  • 1plakat

    Christ came and redeemed our sins, according to the bible itself no one goes to hell anymore. Now it’s not even fun to sin, since it no longer badass.

  • davakins

    This whole hell thing is a web of contradictions, as far as modern christianity goes. Hell used to be hades, where all the dead, er, lived. With the devil in charge, all hell is breaking loose and it’s all out war for the soul of your average baptist or catholic…….but he’s a fallen angel and will be cast into the pit at the end of time, so hell is not a place yet? It’s all a bit shaky. The plot of your average episode of Star Trek has less holes.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevebenson/ Stephen Benson

    “We will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
    Denis Diderot

  • HowardBrazee

    Jesus Christ fought the Righteous, preferring to be good. He warned us on how difficult it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He fed the poor. He welcomed sinners and Samaritans. The elite don’t want us looking at the gospels, distract us by telling us that we are either with them or will be punished.

  • G. Thomas Trammell Jr.

    Now THIS is a good example of political propaganda. There is actually nothing here but they make it sound like there is.

    Belief in any objective moral or ethical philosophy results in this. So this is not exclusive to Christianity or even religion itself.

    Wow… way to skew information to lie and propagate bulls**t.

    • Jin The Ninja

      certain philosophies actively promote critical thinking.
      the author never claimed it was ‘exclusive’ to ‘x’tianity’ they claimed a belief in ‘supernatural malevolence. ‘ they also linked it to the koran, roman catholic church, chinese triple religion etc.
      you really should READ the article before jumping to conclusions.

  • Anarchy Pony

    But hey, if you’re good and obey authority you get to go to the good happy time place!

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Quote: “Inculcating a belief – even an unreasonable one that persists despite the desires of the believer – is clearly in the interest of this world’s powers . . . ”

    ESPECIALLY one that is unreasonable. Reinforces the paradigm. If it were reasonable then you’d have some personal control over it, which would defeat the entire purpose as a mechanism for social control.

    Quote: ” . . . [B]ut what can one do about it? How can the would-be free man or woman exorcise themselves of the grip of hell? It’s a difficult question . . . ”

    Au contraire, mon frere. Nothing could be simpler: stop insisting that Life has a meaning and purpose. Live for the experience, not the outcome.

    Which is not to say that Life doesn’t have MANY meaningS and purposeS–just that they’re entirely up to the discretion of the individual. It locates the focus of control within yourself, not some external hierarchy.

  • Gjallarbru

    You’re not entirely there either…

    Anybody here heard of Hel, the goddess, the original owner of the name, sister of Loki. Look it up, it came from northern mythology.

    The slain in battle was for Odin, picked by the Valkirie, to bring to Valhalla. The drowned were for Njord husband of Skadi, etc.

    The plain old dead, that didn’t die in any particular way, or weren’t honored dead, went to Hel. Hel had 9 spheres of existence in her domain, only some of which were reserved for oath breakers, and the generally “evil”men. The first brige, over the river Gjall, is where my namesake comes from.

    At some point, Hel got a second “L” and became a place instead of a goddess. I have no doubt modern christian concepts of Hel borrowed from a lot of places, but in English, the name came from the Norse gods.

    • Dingbert

      I have! I just watched “Metropolis” yesterday and it reminded me of that myth with the shrine to Hel.

      http://www.walter-schulze-mittendorff.com/EN/metropolis5.html
      http://www.walter-schulze-mittendorff.com/EN/metropolis6_7.html

      • Gjallarbru

        Would you be surprised that she is involved in Ragnarok, which on the grand scheme of things, is a good event, one of renewal. But I digress…

        I much prefer Hel the goddess, which seems like a saner belief than Hell the place of damnation.

    • Tishamingo

      Point taken, but this is just more evidence; Hell was borrowed…

      I think it is time we gave it back so all the simple minded faithful will stop handing out bus rides to it at the point of their latest pamphlet. I have a pretty humorous one on my coffee table right now that a lady was distributing throughout my store. She called them faith bombs.

      Okily Dokily!

      • Gjallarbru

        Which reminds me a story. A few years back, some protestant believer came up to me as I was walking past his church with the usual “Jesus will save your soul” stuff. I kept walking but he kept following.

        When he mentionned Hell, I asked him if he knew how the name came to be, and he said no. I told him he was using the name of a norse goddess, a keeper of the dead. Which meant that the expression “go to hell”, was just wishing someone dead, no more. I told him that invoking the goddess each time he mentionned her name probably made him some kind of pagan.

        His eyes twiched, he stopped walking, and stood there with a “does not compute” expression on his face. On my face was a big grin, large enough for him to think me to be the devil.

        Hilarious!

  • Dingbert

    Yes, the idea that Hell is separation from God is arguably incompatible with Christianity, since it implies there are places where God is not present. Early Christians had several divergent views, all wisely tinged with agnosticism since, after all, none of them had been dead yet. Also, the Pope wasn’t considered infallible until the 19th century.
    Modern Christians just can’t seem to tolerate ambiguity.

    The movie “Hellbound?” was an OK overview from a universalist perspective, if you haven’t seen it.

  • Antonio bernal

    LOVELY ARTICLE. For the first time I understood what occasioned Constantine’s conversion- the Empire was falling apart and he had to figure out a way to unify it! Makes sense. This also leads to Saul’s conversion, 300 years earlier. The Romans were so vile he figured Christianity would at least keep the people alive, the wild lions in the arena notwithstanding. . It was a Hobson’s choice for Saul. The perfect answer to people who say to you “You are going to hell” is to say “SEE YOU THERE”, as you throw your feather boa over your shoulders and sweep out.

    • echar

      There were plenty of cults about at that time, but none other than the literalist christians offered him a free pass to heaven.

  • Anti-Crowley

    “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

  • Tishamingo

    It made me think of that too. My favorite Python movie

  • kowalityjesus

    “Blessed are the peacemakers” -Jesus Christ
    “There is no greater Jihad than speaking truth to power” -Muhammed
    To what extent can a man rely on his integrity of character to oppose the bullshit one encounters in a day? I am still exploring this, and believing in the justice of God as approaching the asymptote of naivity.

  • Virtually Yours

    I am forever grateful to Neil Gaiman for presenting hell as he did in Seasons of Mist, in which Lucifer decides to quit his day job as Supreme Ruler of Hell and starts to kick everyone out: “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here…” While he is making the rounds to ensure that the souls of the damned are making a prompt and timely exit, he comes across this guy who is chained and nailed to a boulder while being whipped and tortured by demons. When Lucifer tells him to pack it up and get the hell out, the guy starts listing all of the evil things that he did during his life, thus attempting to justify the need for his ongoing punishment. Lucifer is not impressed by these chest-thumping boasts and the guy starts weeping, literally begging to stay. The moral being: hell is a place of your own making, and you can choose to leave whenever you want…you just have to be willing to forgive yourself and move on. This idea hit me like a ton of bricks when I first read it, because it was so diametrically opposed to everything I had ever been told about hell while I was growing up.

    I had always questioned how a supposedly all-loving and all-knowing entity could ever rationalize something as horrible as hell. It always felt instinctively immoral to me, and it wasn’t until my grandfather passed away that I was finally able to give voice to these doubts. My grandfather was supposedly “saved” and everyone kept saying how wonderful it was that he was in heaven now, and hip-hip-hooray, because we’d all see him again some day! And I couldn’t help thinking: but what if he hadn’t been saved? What had he ever done during his life that should ever warrant such a dastardly punishment? So he’s saved…good for him. What about all of those others? I decided in that moment that I no longer believed in hell…could not do so if I ever hoped to sleep again.

    I was forced to attend a private school for apocalyptic fundamental Baptists and – during the following year, after my grandfather’s death – we were required to get up in front of the class and give our “salvation testimony”. Instead, I stood up and wrote two words on the chalkboard: “hell” and “eternity”. The teacher was standing in the back of the room and she looked distinctly uncomfortable. I used Hitler as my example: “Imagine if Hitler were to suffer a million years of hell-fire for every single individual moment of suffering which he caused. Not just deaths, but moments of suffering. Add them all up into years, and it’s not even a drop in the bucket when we try to contemplate this notion of eternity. Are you telling me that Hitler would not have served his time by that point, and then some? How is that a just punishment? Unless he didn’t want to leave. What if he couldn’t forgive himself? At that point, isn’t hell completely meaningless?”

    I so wish that I could have had a picture of the looks on the faces of my fellow classmates :-) The teacher pulled me out of the room and told me that she was going to report me to the pastor, not because she was mad at me (though she very clearly was) but because she was concerned for my immortal soul. How considerate of her! So for me, to this day, the very notion of hell is the lowest and most unenlightened of all the fear-based tactics which are used to try and oppress the masses. But it is difficult for me to fully sympathize with those who are unable/unwilling to let go of this pathological neurosis. Sure, everyone is different and we are all on our own unique paths. But everyone has the ability to let go of this notion. I am not special or unique and I am sure that there are many others who have similar stories. It’s simply a matter of belief – choosing not to believe – and then being able to find the courage to forgive yourself and move on to bigger and better things. Because there are plenty of real-world issues to lose sleep over, and hell is less than a drop in the proverbial bucket by comparison.

  • Rey d’Tutto

    “Where are we going? And why are we in a Handbasket?”

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