The turning point was one Christmas, when Nate [Phelps] decided to teach his children about God. In the end, his son Tyler began crying in the backseat of the car, saying that he didn’t want to go to hell.I know that fear. I grew up with it. My parents didn't abuse me in any way, they didn't pound the concept of Hell into my head- but it was there in Sunday school, it was there in the pastor's sermons. When adults that you love and trust are telling you that you will suffer for all of eternity if you don't believe in God or Jesus, how can't you take that as a credible threat? How can't you be terrified?
“He wanted to believe because he didn’t want to go to hell,” Nate said. “I was just stunned because I didn’t know what I had said or how I had left him with that fear. I thought I was doing a good job of presenting it without the fear.
“Thinking about it after the fact, I realized you can’t do that. With a young mind it doesn’t matter. You can try as much as you want to talk about how good God is, but the bottom line is there’s this intolerably frightening punishment if you don’t accept it. And how does a young mind deal with that?”
Nate agrees with prominent atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins, who has said that religion can be “real child abuse.”
Even if you're scared enough to believe as fervently as possible, and to try to do as much good as you can, you're also told repeatedly that you're a flawed creature who can't help but sin, no matter how hard you try. No one can give you the definitive "Don't worry, you're going to Heaven" guarantee. Only God knows that, and God sure isn't telling you.
I remember crying myself to sleep one night, because my mom revealed to me that she was really more of a Deist than a Christian. She said she believed there was something out there- call it God, call it Jesus, whatever. There hadn't actually been a son of God- who's also God himself, but also isn't (the "three in one" business)- whose mother was impregnated by a ghost, who later died, then joined the ranks of the undead, then flew up into the stratosphere, and eventually into Heaven.
I cried because I worried my mom was going to Hell for not believing that all of that actually happened.
I even used to agonize over whether I had actually been baptized or not. Not being baptized is one of those "Do Not Pass Go" routes to Hell. I had my parents' word for it that I had been baptized, but I'd been a baby then. How did I know I really had been? I eventually went through confirmation, but would that actually "count" if I hadn't been baptized?
In getting where I am today, intellectually, the hardest thing for me was overcoming this paralyzing fear of Hell that had been planted into my psyche at a young age, by people who believed they were acting in my best interests. When I worked up the nerve to read books and essays that were critical of religion, I had to ignore the pounding of my own heart, the chills running down my spine, the frantic voice in my head screaming, "Don't do this! You'll wind up in Hell! Burning, suffering, torment forever."
A lot of people- too many people- listen to that voice. They let themselves be intimidated out of analyzing and thinking critically about what they've been brought up to believe: whether there's actually something to it, or whether those views just don't hold water.
I kept reading, I kept thinking... and that voice got quieter and quieter over time. Most of the time, I forget that it ever existed. However, it's just like any wound that festers for years: an ugly scar remains. The echoes of that fear will stay with me, in some form, for the rest of my life. There's also the regret of all those tears I shed, and all the years I spent worrying, over something that we have no evidence of in the physical world- aside from a millennia-old collection of writings that has been edited, miscopied, mistranslated, and reinterpreted thousands of times.
Remy and I will probably be parents one day. I think one of the greatest gifts we'll give our progeny is the freedom from that horrible, plaguing fear that they might be cast into an eternal torment by a "loving" deity if they don't act, say, or think exactly the way someone else has told them they should.