Saturday, April 29, 2023

The Mind and Eternal Torture in Hell

One of the most important abilities of the human mind is the ability to “tune out” sensory information that is constant and ongoing. This allows the mind to respond to new information. Examples include scent and sound. If you smell something new, you notice it, but after a while your mind tunes it out, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. After a while, people cannot smell their own body odor. If you hear something new, your mind pays attention to it, but after a while it is relegated to “background noise.” People often literally do not hear the barking of their own dogs. We call this sensory adaptation. It is one of the basic concepts I taught in general biology classes.

Sensory adaptation may be a property of minds in general, not just human minds. It is certainly true of other mammals, such as dogs that do not react to their masters’ presence, or birds that get used to you when they build their nests near your patio. You can even find examples of it on the level of single-celled organisms that respond to their environments but do not have what we would call minds. And it might also prove to be an important part of AI (artificial intelligence). A mind, even an artificial one, would “go crazy” and stop working if it reacted to every bit of information as if it were new and important.

And pain.

After a while, a person can often begin to ignore chronic pain. Pain exists for a reason. It is a body’s way of telling us, don’t do that. My painful knee tells me that I should give it a rest and let the tendon heal up. But my brain mercifully allows me to ignore this pain except when I am actually moving and need to be reminded. Pain is important, but it should be modulated by sensory adaptation. Let us call it mental adaptation, since it does not depend on actual sensory input.

But, according to Christian fundamentalists, there is one exception. Hell. They believe that Hell is unending, infinite pain, especially the Fires of Hell, but maybe all other kinds of pain as well. This picture is not consistently found in the Bible; for example, Job 10:21-22 talks of the afterlife (for both good and evil people?) as endless darkness. If mental adaptation is a characteristic of minds in general, including the alert minds of souls suffering in Hell, then after the souls have been in Hell for a while (a week? A century? But who’s counting?) their minds will at least partially tune out the suffering. That is, if they have minds at all, the damned souls should begin to adjust to the fires and tortures of Hell.

What Does the Bible Really Say About Hellfire - Eternal Torment? -  Christian Publishing House Blog

But fundamentalists insist that the pain and suffering of Hell are not only infinite and endless, through all eternity, but that you remain infinitely conscious of the exquisite pain during that entire time (so to speak; time does not exist in Hell, I suppose). But for this to occur, God would have to specifically create a miracle to suspend mental adaptation. The Bible makes mention of no such miracle. The fundamentalists just made it up.

Why would fundamentalists insist that the pain of Hell not only continues forever, but remains as fresh as the day it started? How could a God of infinite love specially create minds that are unable to ever tune out pain? Would such a God want souls to suffer as exquisitely in Hell after a million years as they experienced the first day? What kind of God would this be? Yet this is the image of God that fundamentalists offer to us.

The reason fundamentalists insist on this is that they want to make themselves infinitely deserving of our obedience to and reverence of them. To them, specifically, by giving money. If people began to suspect that Hell might not be so bad after a few centuries, they might not let the big fundamentalist churches tell them how to live or give the churches their money. It is not faithfulness to God, but to the evangelists Themselves, that is threatened by the concept of mental adaptation.

By the way, the same thing would apply to the pleasures of Heaven. You would think that, after a few million years, the blissful souls would start to get bored. Flying around on cloud banks and playing harps might be oodles of fun for, say, a couple of thousand years. This idea was elaborated by Mark Twain in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.

One of the characteristics of religion is that it creates little artificial worlds of thought that are impervious to any outside evidence. Only within such an artificial world would rich evangelists be able to get people to give them money regardless of what they say or do.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Yet Another Earth Day

Every April 22 since 1970, we have had a worldwide Earth Day celebration. Back in the early days, there seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm for it, but today it goes almost unnoticed in most places.

To a certain extent my view is influenced by the fact that back in 1970 I was just having my environmental awakening. I began to learn about nature, its details and its big picture, and about environmental problems such as pollution and the population explosion. In 1971, I gave the junior high graduation speech, “The Overcrowded Spaceship Earth.” It was actually not a cliché back then. Today, after a career as a scientific and environmental educator, author, and scientist, I have lost much of my enthusiasm, largely because I am now old and tired.

I was also enthusiastic about ecological issues when I was younger because I was a passionate Christian. God made the world, and He expected me to help take care of it. One way to show Him respect was to respect and love His creation.

But there seems to be less enthusiasm even in the younger people around me for environmental issues. This has occurred for bad reasons, but also for a good one.

  • Bad reason: People have become overwhelmed by how many challenges there are just to get by from one day to the next. If you expect people to “get involved” with something other than mere survival, they may not have much time and energy left, especially if they have to work two jobs just to pay rent. On most days, here in Tulsa, there is a fatal shooting. At the end of the day, I breathe a sigh of relief: I didn’t get shot today.
  • Bad reason: People today are overwhelmed with currents of selfishness. Marketers have convinced them that every moment of every day they should experience intense pleasure and that no task should be difficult. To a greater extent now than in the past people don’t care—sometimes because they are overwhelmed, and sometimes because they don’t want to.
  • Good reason: Some of our problems are ecological being solved. The average fuel efficiency of vehicles is improving, because people aren’t stupid: most of them don’t want to waste gasoline. People actually want electric and other zero-emission vehicles. People are using less water per activity because they want to save water. People don’t want to live in toxic environments, and they will buy goods and services that are less toxic. Even the population explosion is cooling off a bit because people, especially women, don’t want to have a huge number of kids who are all sick and starving. A lot of people want to recycle.

Another change that has occurred is that the most common conservative Christian view now is not to take care of God’s good green Earth but to help destroy it. The more Christian you are, the more likely you are to have a big pickup truck, for example. True Christians, from the conservative view, means people who have guns, not people who recycle. Hiking in the woods is for wimps, they think. And why not? God is going to destroy it all anyway, and take His True Followers to a Heaven filled with endless barbecue roasts and truck racing. What about the Christians who do care about God’s Earth? You cannot see or hear them in the blasting din of Televangelist Churches. The answer to the question below, should Christians go green, is usually no.

Green Christianity? - Sharefaith Magazine

The general attitude of people—a little bit more openness to environmental responsibility—probably would not have occurred without the environmental activism of earlier decades. I am glad to see these changes. Even in my extremely right-wing neighborhood, I see that most houses have a blue recycling bin in addition to the gray trash bin. But will these changes, which are sometimes minimal, be enough to save Earth from catastrophe?

Each year, most of us produce less carbon than we did in the past for similar activities. But each year we fall short of the carbon reduction targets that we know are absolutely necessary to avoid ecological crisis. If the Earth survives long enough for a history of Earth Day to be written, it might be entitled, One Step Forward and Two Steps Back.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Fiction Can Make Us More Humane

One of the things that makes humans different from other animals is that we have a uniquely well developed sense of creating and appreciating art. I myself am mediocre at musical composition and art, but I consider myself a good writer. Writing, especially fiction, is an art.

But in some cases art, including fiction, seems like a waste of time that could be more profitably spent in some other way. But art makes us more humane; that is, it increases our capacity for empathy and altruism, both of them extremely important products of evolution and both of them dangerously low in the world. Almost anything we can do to increase our sense of empathy is worth the cost. If my writing helps to increase the sense of empathy in my readers, it was worth doing. Below is an example.

I have been reading recently about how white Americans have slaughtered Natives in gruesome ways, hundreds or thousands of times. This is our white national guilt. We need to face up to this part of our history, even if it makes white people uncomfortable. Here in Oklahoma, it is illegal to teach anything (such as but not limited to history) in such a way as to make anybody (that is, anybody white) feel guilty.

One famous example of a white massacre of Natives is the Sand Creek Massacre in southeastern Colorado. Colonel John Chivington attacked a peaceful party of Cheyenne Natives. A former minister, Chivington justified his massacre by saying “Nits make lice.” He hunted down women and children who fled the camp and mutilated them. His soldiers sliced open a pregnant woman. One soldier sliced the pubic hair from a Cheyenne woman, and it was on display in Denver. The next decade, in the Black Hills, whites bought Sioux scalps for up to $300 apiece. (It was as common for whites to scalp Natives as the other way around.) I will not go into more details, partly because they sicken me. You can read about it in Edward Lazarus’ monumental 1991 book, Black Hills White Justice.

History - Sand Creek Massacre Foundation

This is what happens when powerful men are free to do whatever they please to poor and helpless people. There is no sentiment that can stop them.

At the same time, writers of stories and novels depicted Native Americans as being brave, honorable, noble, and respectful at least to people who were not killing them. An example that comes to mind, of which everyone has heard, is Last of the Mohicans. Painters such as George Catlin lived among them and painted them as real people, with real lives and relationships. While the nineteenth-century fiction about Native Americans seems racist to us today, at the time it stood out as practically the only defense of the humanity of Natives. At the time of the slaughters of Cheyenne and Sioux, “East-river” humanitarians (east of the Missouri River in Dakota Territory) called for peace with, rather than slaughter of, Natives.

Whenever the Natives struck back against the Army that gleefully massacred them, the newspapers (writing what they considered non-fiction) would loudly proclaim the Natives to be savages that deserved extermination. In particular, one editorial proposed a Final Solution for the Natives. He wrote, “It’s high time the sickly sentimentalism about humane treatment and conciliatory measures should be consigned to novel writers. There can be no permanent, lasting peace on the frontier till these devils are exterminated” (emphasis mine). You will find this on page 39 of Lazarus’ book.

This shows how important it is for us writers, especially of fiction, to reveal the humanity of all groups of humans. I mean full humanity, the bad as well as the good. People who read these novels opposed the slaughter of Natives. Without these novels, the humanitarians might have disapproved of the slaughters but would not have felt very much outrage at them. It was not just a matter of legal fairness, good government, or the proper use of human resources. These are human beings we are talking about.

This is an exact Native equivalent of the important role that Uncle Tom’s Cabin played in stirring up the national conscience against slavery.

As a writer, I consider it my responsibility to champion the full humanity and beauty of oppressed peoples.