Review: Hell Is The Absence of God

Atheism, Book Review, Critique of Apologetics, Humanism, Thought Experiments

Permit me to geek out a bit.

This past year, the movie Arrival hit theaters. I am an admitted geek with a particular weakness for time travel, linguistics and alien science fiction. So this movie was like crack cocaine for me. After watching the movie, I wanted more. I discovered the source material is a short story called “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It can be found in his book titled “Stories of Your Life and Others” which is a collection of short stories.

The short story did not disappoint. Like all great science fiction, the subject is not actually aliens or technology but humanity and what it means to be human. In fact, this is a poignant story about a mother and her daughter. Because of the mother’s exposure to the alien language, she is able to “remember” the future. She knows the toddler bumps on the head and the teenage temper tantrums that will occur *before* her daughter is born. Ultimately the mother decides to have her daughter even after gaining foreknowledge of her daughter’s death at age 25. In the same way that many of us, given the chance to do life all over again, would say “I would do it the same way because it led to my significant other and my children” the mother chooses to do it the “same” way for the first time.

There is a humanist message here. Human relationships are what give us meaning in life even though human lifetimes are finite. The joy and love are worth any pain and heartache we may experience.

Hell on Earth

As good as “Story of Your Life” is, another of Chiang’s short stories stood out as more significant for an atheist humanist such as myself. In his short story, “Hell Is The Absence of God,” the excellent​ premise is that a (generic) theistic god exists. One which, crucially, actually intervenes in the lives of modern humans in the form of angelic visitations that have both miraculous and disastrous effects. In short, no one in this world doubts the existence of god because there is physical evidence of his interventions.

There are still decisions to be made about this god. During the visitations, for example, one person may receive miraculous healing while another may be severely injured by the debris from a building destroyed by the divine presence. The devout in this world see the miraculous after effects of the visitations as proof of this god’s goodness and downplay the destructive elements, while others see the negative consequences as either negating the benefit of the miraculous or down right outweighing it. Sound familiar?

When this short story first came out, this was the main theme that caused controversy. Christians felt it was a direct attack on Christianity and a rehashing of the problem of suffering. Though the story never identifies a specific religion as its target, there are vague Jewish and Catholic overtones. Chiang did an excellent job of making it as generic as possible and not, in fact, specific to any extant religion.

For a critique from a theist along these lines see John C Wright. For a critique of that critique see this. Also check out a recent episode of Very Bad Wizards where David and Tamler take on the purposefulness/purposelessness of suffering in the short story which according to Ted Chiang’s notes on the story is much closer to Ted Chiang’s intention than what you find here.

Although there is much to unpack regarding the problem of suffering, that is not the most damning point of the story. I want to focus on the more obvious point: that this God actively intervenes in the world of the story. The subtle, or not so subtle, subversiveness of this story is an attack on divine hiddeness in the real world. In particular, this god continued to intervene in the world even in the modern scientific age. In the story, the visitations were studied scientifically, statistics were gathered and evaluations were made about those who benefited and those who suffered. In our world, where are the emperor’s new clothes?

Any straight forward reading of the bible (insert the usual apologies for focusing on Christianity) suggests a god who interacts with his creation, and yet that is not the world we find ourselves in. This highlights, as I have pointed out before, not that theists take religion too seriously but that they don’t take it seriously enough. If they really believed what the bible describes, they would be in sack cloth and ashes every day crying out for god to *DO* something … anything.

In the notes on the story Chiang quotes Anne Dillard as saying:

If people had more belief they would wear crash helmets when attending church and lash themselves to the pews.


For more see critique of apologetics from an honest seeker or check out the podcast


Thought Experiment

Like the premise of this story we can run the thought experiment:

If God is real what would we expect to observe in the universe?

We would expect to see evidence that god created the universe. Instead we see a universe that behaves according to the laws of physics. And we can model the evolution of the universe from near the Big Bang until now. There is also a common theory among liberal theists that god guided evolution of life on Earth. Yet we see no evidence of tampering in the DNA record. Asserting that a god created the universe is not the same as evidence.

We would expect to see that believers experience statistically significant better quality of life from non-believers. But we see that believers and non-believers experience about the same positive and negative life experiences. The divorce rate is not significantly different. Cancer rates are the same.

We would expect to see miracles. Really, this is the big one that this story highlights. The god of most theistic religions is an interventionist yet miracles mysteriously disappeared in the modern scientific age. I have always, even as a Christian, felt the explanations from believers for why miracles ceased were very weak tea. Their explanations would seem to be describing a change in character in their unchanging god. Double blind tests researching the effects of intercessory prayer on healing diagnosed sick people showed no effect beyond the placebo effect.

We would expect to see prophets accurately speaking for god. Today if a person says they are speaking for God we quietly call the authorities to have the person institutionalized. Where are the prophets who predict a god’s intervention before a natural disaster occurs rather than pontificating after the fact?

We would expect to see justice. Returning to the topic of the problem of suffering, we would expect to see the righteous victorious and the unrighteous punished.

This list of reasonable expectations is not even approaching exhaustive. One could go on and on about the expected results of an interventionist god participating in the world vs the deafening silence that we actually experience.

Angelic advise for the real world

In the story we learn that the fallen angels are rather rational creatures who tell the humans to “Make up their own minds.” Hell turns out to be … well … not much different than the world we find ourselves in minus the visitations of angels. This highlights that Reality is the absence of god. In short, this fictional story allows one to viscerally feel the disparity between what a reasonable person would expect and what actually happens in our world.

Does the character, Neil, experience god’s grace?

Another theme of the story to explore is the very human reaction when others experience miracles but you do not.

Both in the story’s world and in ours there is a tendency to equate success in life with god’s favor. How easy is it for those who are born comfortably ensconced in the middle class to avoid questioning whence their success came from? With a simple answer close at hand, “god loves me,” it takes a very self reflective person to recognize the privileges that are the more likely reasons.

Neil is born with a birth defect that affects his leg. He is ambivalent about his condition but resents that others take it as sign of god’s disfavor. The story highlights our tendency to see those less fortunate than ourselves as “deserving” it somehow.

Even worse, when his wife dies as a result of a visitation, those who experienced miracles push him to become devout. This is a painful reminder of the well intentioned but ultimately destructive pat answers believers give to those suffering (whether those suffering are believers themselves or not).

Neil’s reaction to such attempts at persuasion depended on who was making it. When it was an ordinary witness, he found it merely irritating. When someone who’d received a miracle cure told him to love God, he had to restrain an impulse to strangle the person. But what he found most disquieting of all was hearing the same suggestion from a man named Tony Crane; Tony’s wife had died in the visitation too, and he now projected an air of groveling with his every movement. In hushed, tearful tones he explained how he had accepted his role as one of God’s subjects, and he advised Neil to do likewise.

While Chiang’s one weakness is a tendency toward dues ex machina, in this story it is fitting: a literal shinning of the divine light on his main character, which sets up the last stinging critique. Neil, the main character, has been “blinded by the light” (his goal all along so he could join his devout wife in Heaven) which allows him to “love” God despite his bitterness. And yet when he dies shortly after, God chooses to send him to hell instead. Such that Neil is the one person in hell who actually experiences it as a hell. He loves God (he can’t help it) but will never experience his nearness. This is a stinging critique of the devout in our world who most yearn to experience the closeness of an absent god.

Unconditional love asks nothing, not even that it be returned.

— Neil

Neil still loves Sarah, and misses her as much as he ever did, and the knowledge that he came so close to rejoining her only makes it worse. He knows his being sent to Hell was not a result of anything he did; he knows there was no reason for it, no higher purpose being served. None of this diminishes his love for God. If there were a possibility that he could be admitted to Heaven and his suffering would end, he would not hope for it; such desires no longer occur to him.

Neil even knows that by being beyond God’s awareness, he is not loved by God in return. This doesn’t affect his feelings either, because unconditional love asks nothing, not even that it be returned.

And though it’s been many years that he has been in Hell, beyond the awareness of God, he loves Him still. That is the nature of true devotion.

The point is that Neil having experienced the blinding of the light and finding himself sitting in hell loving a god who neither sees him nor loves him back represents believers in our world on Earth. They are dedicated to a god who, at best, is indifferent and more likely is non-existent.

Is this grace?

My opinion: no. This is the opposite of grace. This is the cruelty of religious claims. The strong implication that if one does not experience god’s graces in one’s life it is somehow the fault of the believer.

When one wakes up and accepts reality on its own terms, one can experience awe, mystery and most important, the powerful loving connection between human beings. This is what actual grace can look like: Secular Grace.

This post is in the series Thought Experiments for Believers.

Review: Doubt: A History

Authors, Book Review, Naturalism, Philosophy, Secular Grace

I have just finished Jennifer Michael Hecht‘s Doubt: A History. It has been around for some time but as I am new to atheism it is new to me. I would suggest this is an extremely important book for modern atheists to provide perspective on where we have come from and direction on where we are going. There is something wonderful about history. It places our ideas in context. It draws lines between what would appear to be disparate ideas. This book provides that context and draws those lines in a valuable way.

After my deconversion I had a number of ideas I was desperate to express. You will find them throughout this blog. Interestingly, however, I was mildly disappointed to find that none of my ideas were particularly original. Come to find out my experience of deconversoin was rather typical in fact. Average.  I titled my first blog post “A very common message” after this realization.

After reading Hecht’s book I am even more disappointed to realize that my ideas are not only not original for today but not particularly original for 2600 years ago. It is quite a humbling experience. But it does provide a sense of unity with doubters throughout history. And for that I am grateful.

Hecht’s book is dense with quotes from doubters and moves at break-neck speed from 600 BCE to the turn of the millennium. Attempting to review the book in the traditional sense could never do it justice. If I were to start quoting this post would be as long as the book. (Take note meme creators, this book is a rich quarry of quotes). Instead, I will write about the reactions I had reading the book and how they apply to the modern doubter.

I had the chance to interview Jennifer Michael Hecht about “Doubt: A History” on the Graceful Atheist Podcast

In praise of Doubt

The book is not titled Atheism: a History and this is significant. For one thing, the original usage of the term meant something closer to heretic rather than the way we use the term today as a complete lack of belief in any god(s). In fact, a common theme in the book is the deep and profound doubt expressed throughout history that none the less defaulted to some distant conception of god, from Aristotle’s prime mover to Spinoza’s  (and Einstein’s) pantheistic god and  what feels like capitulation in Kierkegaard’s fideism. Those who took doubt to its logical conclusion of true atheism were few and far between until the time of the enlightenment. And even those who did were wary of releasing this truth upon the masses for fear of the collapse of social norms.

The book could easily be titled Skepticism: a History. In many ways it is philosophical skepticism that is the line one can draw through the history of doubt. The Epicureans and the skeptics really began to rigorously question theism. Questioning everything especially that which comes from authority is a common theme. Decendants of these philosophies often refer back to the ancient Greeks in solidarity during their own times. Including our own time, we owe a debt to the skeptics.

However the book is titled Doubt: a History. There is something deeply moving about the word doubt. It implies one cares enough to question. Doubters have skin in the game. Doubters question not purely for the sake of questioning but for the sake of knowledge and truth.

Taking one’s place in the line of history

I am a doubter and I am proud to be a part of its history. After getting over my disappointment in the lack of originality of my ideas, I found great comfort in having historical precedent.

Reading Hecht’s book one can see the cumulative effect of the writings of doubt through history. Each generation is emboldened by the writings of their predecessors. The fear of expressing one’s opinions which are contrary to popular belief is widdled away bit by bit. There is a wonderful scene described in the book when Hume sits down in a room with 15 other atheists for the first time. That is what you call a historic moment.

The freedom we in the West experience to express our doubt up to and including atheism is due not only to the enlightenment philosophers but all those who went before them as well. Today we are dazzled with Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and the inimitable Hitchens. But there would not be four horsemen today if not for Diogenes, Epicurus, Cicero and Lucretius.

The doubter’s perspective

Hecht spends a fair amount of time reading between the lines of history to find doubt’s story. By this I mean there were time periods and cultures which attempted to repress doubters. As is often noted history is written by the victors. But wonderfully we have doubter’s stories as imprints in the counter-arguments of the prevailing ideologies. Like a cast mold the negative space of doubt can be inferred (or directly quoted) by the diligent ways it is argued against by the true believers.

I personally enjoyed reading the stories I am familiar with from my own prior faith tradition delightfully told upside down from the doubter’s perspective.

The Jewish flirtation with Greek culture and the reaction as told in Maccabees and the story of Hanukkah. This is the pull of cultural assimilation and the conservative reaction against it.

I have always appreciated the book of Job for its brutal honesty. Job accuses God of being unjust. Hecht points out God makes a “heap” argument to Job for faith. Meaning, how can Job account for all of creation without appealing to God. Interesting take. Job’s wife steals the scene by encouraging Job to “Curse God and die” and may be the true hero of the story.

I have also always loved Ecclesiastes. But relieved of the burden to make pious sentiments from this wisdom one can hear the bitter exhaustion and resignation for what it is.

“Might as well have a good time because the universe is unjust and uncaring.”

Others have pointed out the doubt of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane but Hecht portrays Jesus as a world class doubter. He seems to be reliant on his followers’ belief in him and is practically begging them to do believe in him. He has moments where he seems unsure of himself and the Father. This all culminates on the cross with

“Why have you forsaken me.”

The key insight of the book is that Christianity, particularly as described and defined by Paul, forever makes doubt a feature not a bug by requiring faith alone. Not just faith but faith without evidence.

“Blessed are those who believe but have not seen.”

Hope and discouragement

My favorite term in the book is graceful-life philosophies. As you may know I have a particular regard for the word grace in a secular setting. This wonderful term describes the philosophies of Socrates to Epicurus. And it means seeking the answer to the question:

How does one live well?

This question seems particularly poignant to our times. We must seek a secular pluralistic society as the world grows smaller and smaller. Rather than beating the dead horse of if one can be good without god, we should be asking how can we thrive and work with each other. We need graceful-life philosophies to unite us in this task.

In reading the history of doubt there is hope that even in oppressive environments rational voices remain. Regardless of the culture or particular religion there are those who express their doubt giving encouragement to future travelers.

The flip side of this coin is that humans have a tendency toward superstition and religion.  People do not like feeling out of control so they fabricate stories which explain the phenomenon around them. Again we can see this by reading between the lines in the negative image of the prevailing ideologies. In the Old Testament all the idolatry that gets systematically stamped out is an indication of people  not only seeking gods but very localized micro-cultural gods. In the early Catholic church the attempts to rid itself of heresy eventually get worn down and the use of votive candles and individual saints indicate the same phenomenon.

Ultimately, the hardest take away from the book is that forward progress toward reason is not a given. The hard-fought for knowledge of reason, logic, mathematics and the beginnings of science collected by the Greeks and represented in the library in Alexandria can and was burned down figuratively and literally. Though the flame of reason moved to the Muslim world rather than going out during the “dark” ages there is still a sense of opportunity cost. Where would the world be if the pursuit of science had been unbroken from the time of the Greeks until now?

This too is especially poignant for our times. As I write this in the US at the begining of 2017, there is a sense of loss of forward progress for the voice of reason. We have a responsibility to protect this forward progress and stand up for truth.

We have been having the same arguments for millennia

I started out this post by acknowledging my ideas about my new-found atheism are not new. That is the understatement of the century. While reading the history of doubt one comes to the inescapable conclusion that there is “nothing new under the sun.” The arguments for and against theism have been hashed and rehashed over and over again.

What was exciting to discover is that these debates have occurred in many cultures throughout history. They are not unique to the Abrahamic religions in any way.

What is a little depressing to discover is that we are still having the same arguments. As science has moved the gaps in knowledge literally to tiny fractions of a second after the big bang, apologetic arguments have moved further into the abstract.

As a relatively young atheist what I am struck by is the evasiveness of apologetic arguments against doubt. Apologists always have an answer. Those answers rarely deal with the questions straight on and at least in my experience are never satisfying.

All apologetic arguments tend to reduce to god-of-the-gaps (what we do not yet know) arguments or the epistemological black holes (how can we know anything without God?)  of the Cynics. This feels like a thoroughly beaten dead horse. Doubt has won. The history has been written.

What is next?

The question I have been asking myself from minutes after acknowledging my own doubt and becoming an atheist and the question I find myself contemplating after reading this history of doubt is “what is next?” What do we do with the hard-fought for knowledge? Keep beating a dead horse?

I’ll be writing about that in the coming months. In the meantime, thank you to Jennifer Hecht for a comprehensive look back at where have come from and how we got here.