Is hell a taboo?

Norm points out, as Ian MacDougall did in comments, that I said too much when I said I didn’t think we need empirical evidence to warrant thinking that telling children that people suffer torment in hell forever is harmful and bad. He points out that extrapolating from experience is itself a form of evidence – ‘The experience we have contains various forms of evidence.’ Well yes, and if that is included in what is meant by empirical evidence, then I do think we need it, but I was making the (usual? common?) distinction between subjective evidence about first person experience and intersubjective evidence about the world outside first person experience.

Part of my point was that for empirical questions about the real world, personal experience is not considered evidence (except by some theists). My claim was that for questions about what it is or is not cruel to do or say to people, personal experience can be considered evidence because experience is what it is about; that extrapolation from subjective reactions is reasonable there while it is not reasonable when discussing, say, ‘alternative’ medicine.

I’m not sure about this part:

[I]n principle we have to allow for the possibility that new evidence might show – though I don’t, myself, believe this is likely – that the beneficial effects on children of hell-talk outweigh the harmful ones. Could be, you know, that it toughens kids up and better prepares them to meet the harshness of the world. Unlikely, as I say; yet, although there are claims that don’t depend on empirical evidence – such as that it’s wrong to cause unnecessary suffering – I can’t see that a claim (of fact) about what harms people can do without the support of such evidence.

I balk at that – so now all I have to do is figure out why, and figure out if it’s irrational or if I have a reason. I balk in the sense that I think even if there were robust evidence that hell-talk made children braver than they would otherwise be – it’s still wicked and wrong. Why?

I know – I have it. It’s what NB said in comments. Well done Neil! It’s because hell itself is wicked, so a God that is responsible for it shouldn’t be worshipped. That’s why. Believing in hell and worshipping the God that sends people there puts an appalling principle right at the center of what one believes about the world. Being tougher or braver is no good if you’re someone who endorses sadistic power in that way – so evidence that belief in hell made people tougher or happier wouldn’t touch the basic flaw.

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