Going to Hell on a Hoverboard

I’m going to hell. No doubt about it. I say that without any trepidation, worry, or concern. When I say it to some people, they promise to pray for me. That’s cool, I tell them. I certainly won’t discourage anyone from throwing positive energy my way. But if there’s a Biblical sulfuric pit of endless heat and horned devils, I’m going to end up there. And I’m okay with that. Given a choice between spending eternity with Pope John Paul, Mother Theresa, and Oral Roberts or with Socrates, George Carlin and Christopher Hitchens, I’ll take the latter and let Gabriel be bored by the former. There’s a better, more interesting class of people in hell. Even Hitler would be a better after life companion than Ted Cruz. At least that’s what I understand from listening to his college roommate.

Of course, because of my NDE (near death experience), I already have a primitive understanding of the afterlife. Pearly gates, rainbow horses, and fiery pits are not involved. God spoke to me and said, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Okay that’s not what he actually said because mouths, ears, and sound waves were not involved. But it’s a close enough translation. To those who might question the validity of my revelation due to the TBI I suffered, I would like to point out that every prophet from Abimelech to L. Ron Hubbard was influenced by some physical condition. Starvation and dehydration preceded many of the revelations to the prophets that ended up in the bible. Getting knocked off of a horse led to Paul’s epistles. Mohamed wrote the Koran while spending significant time in caves saturated with petrochemical fumes.

I’m not suggesting that all religious writings spring from brain injuries or altered states of consciousness, but there are enough examples to make one wonder whether there is causation rather than a mere correlation. If we add mental illness as another possibility for divine inspiration, it becomes almost mandatory to question the origin of any sacred text. But I began my questioning at a much earlier age than my NDE. My first communion and then confirmation classes raised a simple question that I could not answer to my satisfaction. It kept bothering me like a sticker from a cocklebur left behind in my sock. The I examined the question, the more the collapse of my Catholic belief system became inevitable. Remember that acorn cracking the glacier in the movie Ice Age? That’s what happened to my Catholic faith.

The concept that threw me was original sin. How can a brand new baby be guilty of any sin? Babies have no ability choose “bad” behavior. The church even acknowledges this except in the case of “Original Sin” which can only be washed away with magic water (ie. holy water). No amount of prattling by priests could get me to accept that babies are sinners just by virtue of being born. And the Protestant concept that man is inherently evil and needs to have his nature suppressed by a religiously correct government is even more irrational and bizarre to me. By modern definition, evil (in so far as psychology acknowledges evil) is expressed through behavior. And we know from studies and experiments that most behavior is driven by childhood experiences and environment. Logically then, evil is created and not an inherent human trait. Of course there are physically driven behaviors resulting from brain tumors, TBI, or schizophrenia. But those are another category all together. They are not chosen and therefore do not qualify as evil. A lion is not being evil when it eats another animal that is still alive. It is just behaving according to its physical nature.

Many people in America believe in angels, devils and evil spirits. They refuse to accept that humans are capable of both great acts of kindness as well as horrible atrocities. They want the comfort of outside influences driving behavior rather than acknowledging that both good and evil are part of our nature. Humans are social creatures and each society is a product of its environment. Tribal warfare was once necessary to ensure survival, the ultimate biological goal of any life form. Tribes had to struggle against animals, the environment and each other. It is not accidental that the Middle East is the nexus of tribal conflict in the world. Every path out of Africa led our ancestors through the Middle East. The majority of historical trade routes went through the Middle East. Every group that settled in or went through the area had to fight to gain, maintain, or regain an evolutionary advantage in the always hostile environment of North Africa and the Saudi Peninsula.

Successful societies have to make the personal sacrifices that individuals make in order to be part of the group worthwhile. Therefore societies must offer a competitive biological advantage to people and their offspring. Tribes and societies naturally develop a political structure to put the most capable individuals at the top of the hierarchy. We can observe this in animal species that live in groups. Ape societies are a classic example, but hierarchies and political maneuvering can be found in everything from Meer cat families to bee colonies. Politics is self interest writ large. And yet it has the dual purpose of advancing society as well. Good political leaders can be both selfish and selfless at the same time. Those who are totally one way or the other, inspire others to be the same, but selfish societies inevitably collapse under the weight of their own greed.

Religion likes to argue that without fear of post life consequences, there is nothing to control the self-centered interest of individuals. This is demonstrably wrong and has been explored by many people such as Dostoevsky in his book Crime and Punishment. I offer myself as Exhibit A. I have lived an honorable and ethical life most of which has been devoted to serving my community first as a soldier then as a teacher. And I am not driven by fear of hell or desire for heavenly bliss. Nor am I alone. There are many atheists and agnostics (full disclosure: I do not fit into either category) who live or have lived admirable lives. From Socrates to Thomas Jefferson to Neal deGrasse Tyson, people have managed to be morally upright people sans religion.

The trick is to sort out which part of our nature is driving our behavior and then choose accordingly. Are we being selfish or selfless? People in Nazi occupied countries, for example, had to choose between protecting themselves by following societal rules, or break those rules to help those caught in the maw of the Nazi extermination machine. Only a fool would condemn those who chose to protect their families over the lives of strangers. It’s why we consider Meep a heroine. Personally, I try and keep it simple. Which choice has the most positive impact on the most people? The answer I arrive at usually drives my decision. And if that sends me to the fiery pits of hell then okay. You can have your magic books, crackers, and water. I don’t need them. I’ll be in good company no matter what.