Why the Hell?

Photo Credit: Plutor via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Plutor via Compfight cc

It’s Halloween and many people celebrate it by wearing depictions of hell’s denizens — demons, witches, ghosts, zombies, vampires, and so on. As a child I grew up believing in heaven and hell, as taught to me by my elders. As a teen trying to understand my faith, I raised a lot of questions about it, trying to understand how a loving God could create such a cruel fate for the unfortunate souls that get sent there (of course, I wasn’t one of those because I was “saved”).

A friend of mine posted an article entitled “What Kind of God Would Condemn People to Eternal Torment?” by Tim Challies, and it contains the usual sort of justification that moderate or conservative Christians would have of hell. These are the salient points of the argument:

  1. A God who is totally just and holy must necessarily have a hell. Or according to Challies, “God’s goodness doesn’t negate eternal punishment in hell. It demands it.”
  2. The punishment is eternal because humans have sinned against an eternal God. “When you sin against an infinite God…you accrue an infinite debt.”
  3. The punishment must also be conscious and must be in the form of torment because God’s holiness is “unable to tolerate anything or anyone that is unholy” and because all sinners are “active rebels” against God (there are no passive unbelievers) — because the Bible says so.
  4. Challies then concludes by saying that “To wish away eternity in hell is to wish away eternity in heaven. It is not that they exist in some kind of mutual dependence so that one can only exist alongside the other. But sin demands eternal punishment, while grace calls for eternal love and joy, the re-establishment of the good and holy relationship that our Creator intended to enjoy with us forever. How can I believe in a God who condemns people to hell? I must believe in this God, for He poured out the punishment of hell on Jesus Christ through whom I have hope.”

I wholeheartedly disagree on all points.

First, no justice system in any civilized society condones torture and active torment of its criminals. In fact, a better justice system would focus on correction and rehabilitation instead of merely punishment and torment. If someone were to start taking hardened criminals from their cells, and strap them to a table, and burn off their skin with a lighter inch by inch until they die — with no hope of reprieve or redemption, would we see that as an act of justice or as an act of sadistic perversion? Yet millions of people take delight in a God that does that. Why is that so?

The second point may seem to make sense but it really doesn’t. Your debt does not depend on the nature of the debtor but on the debt itself. In other words, if I borrow 20 pesos, then my debt is 20 pesos regardless of whether I borrowed it from a poor man or a wealthy man.

A finite being cannot produce anything infinite, thus his sin is also finite, regardless of whether he commits it to a finite or an infinite being.

The third point is strange because Jesus was supposed to be God and thus holy, yet he was more “a friend of sinners” than those of the so called holy men of his days. So that claim pretty much shoots itself in the head.

Also, it’s quite a stretch calling passive disbelief (or even ignorance) as willful disobedience or active rebellion. It’s such a stretch that the only justification the author has for it is to appeal to the correctness of his holy book, of which he has no proof whatsoever.

The conclusion is wishy-washy — to wish away hell is to wish away heaven, he says. In other words, he is not willing to give up his dream of living it up in paradise for the sake of those suffering eternal damnation. Is this the vaunted, unselfish Christian love that he so self-righteously preaches?

If I were given the choice, I would choose annihilation for everyone in a heartbeat, never mind heaven or hell. Just wipe the slate clean after death. How can I enjoy eternity, singing and dancing in heaven, knowing that some of the people I dearly love are suffering excruciatingly in hell?

So what kind of a God would condemn people to eternal torment?

I have but one answer — the worst kind.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me.

Why Secularism Matters (Part 2)

Altered Image. Original Artwork by Clyde Mante.
Altered Image. Original Artwork and Design by Clyde Mante.

A couple of readers chimed in on last week’s article when I asserted that secularism means “government neutrality in religious matters” — a phrase not of my own invention but quoted from Fr. Joaquin Bernas, a noted constitutional lawyer and Jesuit priest.

The first claimed that there is no such thing as neutrality and that I “shouldn’t be telling people that removing “God-loving” is neutral when it is not (referring to my own example of DepEd removing the words “God-loving” from its vision statement). This reader stated that doing so already favors unbelievers.

I countered that it is neutral because removing the words “God-loving” does not prohibit private individuals from loving God. It was not as if DepEd changed “God-loving” to “God-hating” or “God-denying,” which would be equally atrocious to a secularist. In fact, this is what the rephrased DepEd vision statement looks like:

“We dream of Filipinos who passionately love their country and whose values and competencies enable them to realize their full potential and contribute meaningfully to building the nation. As a learner-centered public institution, the Department of Education continuously improves itself to better serve its stakeholders.”

In terms of religious tone, this statement is perfectly neutral and what makes it so is the absence of any mention of God or religion. This absence, however, favors neither believers or unbelievers as both parties can easily adopt the statement as their own, without making any concessions to their beliefs.

Another reader based in the US gave an example of a Colorado judge who ruled that a baker named Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop discriminated against a same-sex couple by refusing to bake them a wedding cake, and was now forced to make wedding cakes for an occasion or ceremony that went against his deep religious convictions.

Admittedly, this is a matter more prickly to resolve than a vision restatement. I will also concur that neutrality is easy to write on paper but much more difficult to implement in practice because humans are naturally subjective and opinionated (this writer included) and thus have to make extra effort to see past one’s inherent biases.

I will again turn to the writings of the late former Associate Justice Isagani A. Cruz, who writes “the right to religious profession and worship has a twofold aspect, freedom to believe and freedom to act on one’s beliefs. The first is absolute as long as the belief is confined within the realm of thought. The second is subject to regulation where the belief is translated into external acts that affect the public welfare.”

In other words, the government guarantee of religious freedom and neutrality holds perfectly and absolutely while belief is confined to one’s mind. Any individual is free to believe or disbelieve as he sees fit. He may even believe in evil deities or worship demons and the state has no right to punish him for doing so.

However, once the individual acts on these beliefs, it is now a different matter because these actions may affect the welfare of other individuals or the general public. For example, if the above-mentioned demon-worshipper were to abduct children because his religion advocates child-sacrifice, the state would well be within its authority to arrest that person and he cannot justify his actions in the name of religious freedom.

In the case of W. Va. Board of Education v. Barnette in the U.S.A., Justice Frankfurter noted that “The constitutional provision on religious freedom terminated disabilities, it did not create new privileges. It gave religious liberty, not civil immunity. Its essence is freedom from conformity to religious dogma, not freedom from conformity to law because of religious dogma.”

So let us go back to the controversial case of Mr. Phillips. Was he within his rights to refuse his services to a gay couple because of his religious convictions? Colorado has a law that prohibits business establishments from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation. In this light, it is easier to see that Mr. Phillips violated this law and how his religious beliefs do not grant him “freedom from conformity to law.” He was not “forced” to make gay wedding cakes (as claimed by one news site). Rather, the state was only ensuring that he provides the same level of service to everyone who walks into his store regardless of their sexual orientation.

Remember that it was only a few decades ago when many establishments likewise refused to serve customers just because they were black, and many of these establishment-owners had deep religious convictions about the matter as well. Did the law “force” them to serve black customers or did it only ensure fair business practice? How would Mr. Phillips feel, I wonder, if he walked into a restaurant and the owner refused to seat him because it was against his religious beliefs to serve food to Christians?

Originally published in SunStar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me.

Why Secularism Matters

Photo Credit: Duncan C (Flickr)
Photo Credit: Duncan C (Flickr)

A lot of people in our country misunderstand secularism. No, let me rephrase that. Majority of Filipinos do not even understand what it is. Yet, secularism is a basic principle of our government that is embedded in our constitution as stated in the Bill of Rights (Article III, Section 5):

“No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”

Secularism is the principle of separation between church and state. In other words, the affairs, authority, principles, activities, teachings of one should not automatically carry over to the other. An example of this is that even if a priest, pastor, bishop or imam is head of a church, he has no power or authority in a government office. He cannot march into City Hall and demand all workers to stop working immediately and attend mass. Likewise, a mayor cannot simply march into church and collect the funds in the offering plate in favor of the government.

Some people have the mistaken notion that secularists want to promote atheism. Just recently, a student group from a religious school invited me to give a talk on secularism. The school authorities thumbed down the proposal because they thought it was going to be about atheism. In truth, the secularist abhors state-imposed atheism as much as state-imposed religion.

What secularism is all about, in one word, is neutrality. The late Isagani A. Cruz, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, writes:

“The rationale of the rule is summed up in the familiar saying, ‘Strong fences make good neighbors.’ The idea is to delineate the boundaries between the two institutions and thus avoid encroachments by one against the other because of a misunderstanding of the limits of their respective exclusive jurisdictions…The doctrine cuts both ways. It is not only the State that is prohibited from interfering in purely ecclesiastical affairs; the Church is likewise barred from meddling in purely secular matters. And the reason is plain. A union of Church and State, as aptly remarked, ‘tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.’ It is also likely to result in a conspiracy, well nigh irresistible because of its composite strength, against the individual’s right to worship.” (Constitutional Law, 2007)

An interesting case is the recent brouhaha over the change in the Department of Education’s vision statement. The original phrasing had the intent, among others, of producing “God-loving” individuals while the restated (and current) text has removed that particular phrasing. (The core values though still include “Maka-Diyos” but that is a battle for another day).

The change prompted some strong reactions from the religious community and some media outlets capitalized on this by writing such sensationalist and provocative headlines as “DepEd No Longer God-Loving.” I myself penned a strong reaction against one religious leader (published in the Filipino Freethinkers website) and later wrote a satirical article in this column in an attempt to show how ridiculous it would be if the government made concessions to each religion instead of simply omitting the phrase altogether.

This is my argument, in a nutshell: DepEd, as a state-institution, cannot attempt to mold citizens to be “God-loving” for to do so would be to favor religion, or even only a certain brand of religion (what if the student’s religion involves a goddess, instead of a god, or involves honoring animal spirits, or a pantheon of deities?). This is not to say, however, that by removing the phrase, DepEd suddenly becomes anti-God or anti-theistic. That is a silly notion, especially considering the fact that the organization is headed by a religious brother. DepEd is only practicing neutrality and fairness, as mandated by the Constitution. Rather than include all sorts of concepts and definitions of “God” in the vision statement, it is much more efficient to simply remove the loaded phrase altogether.

Fr. Joaquin Bernas, a noted constitutional lawyer and former president of the Ateneo de Manila University, writes:

“What non-establishment calls for is government neutrality in religious matters…Government must not prefer one religion over another or religion over irreligion because such preference would violate voluntarism and breed dissension...Government funds must not be applied to religious purposes…Government action must not aid religion…Government action must not result in exclusive entanglement with religion because this too can violate voluntarism and breed interfaith dissension.” (The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines)

Secularism is important both for the religious and irreligious alike because it safeguards against abuses, and likewise preserves individual liberty and freedom of choice. A secularist is not anti-religion but simply someone who lives true to the idea of fairness and justice for ALL, not just a select few.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me.


yogaI first fell madly in love when I was 15. I still had a head full of hair back then. I was naive, starry-eyed and a hopeless romantic.

Today, the hair is gone. I’m a bit older, hopefully wiser, and more realistic. And exactly today, I have been married 15 years.

Many men complain endlessly about their wives — how they are always nagging, how they keep a tight fist on the money, and how they just don’t understand them. My wife, however, proofreads my articles before I submit them, so I do not have that luxury.

Seriously though, what do I have to complain about? I do not think I could have a found a better complement for my personality. She does many things I cannot do (and do not like doing, anyway), and likewise I can also do things she cannot do. When we ran a web development business in Manila, she would be the one meeting potential clients and contacts and I would be the one in the back office, taking care of the technical stuff, making sure we could deliver what she promised.

I would often be amazed when she called back new customers and would talk to them, joke with them and laugh as if they had been best friends for many years. She connects with people very quickly, while it usually takes me some time to warm up to them.

When we tutor our kids, we divide the labor. She takes care of Chinese, Filipino and the Social Sciences, while I take care of Math, English and Science. She tends to be more firm and strict while I tend to be more loose and laissez-faire about academics, and between those two polar opposites, I think we have created a healthy balance in how our children approach their studies, if they do not become schizophrenic, that is.

After 15 years, you think we would have run out of things to talk about and our conversations would have degenerated into the boring drudgery of empty greetings and mindless grunts. But no, we still enjoy discussing new ideas, and still find new topics to argue about.

I think a key element in our relationship is that although we have opposing personalities, we enjoy many things together and we find new things to enjoy together. We like the same movies and TV shows (well, mostly — when she wants to watch Filipino movies, she usually has to go with someone else). We like the same type of music.

We laugh at the same jokes, although sometimes I have to explain things a bit. We like eating out together, so much so that our kids give a collective groan when we tell them mommy and daddy are going out on a date. As a natural consequence, we also grow fat together.

This is not to say that our partnership has been smooth sailing all the way. As with any relationship, we’ve had our share of spats and quarrels, of saying or doing things we later regretted. But I guess what keeps us going is that from the very start, both of us are committed to making our relationship work, no matter what.

So to my wife of 15 years, and best friend for much longer, here’s to more music and laughter (and food) as we grow old together.

And to my dear readers, if this seems a bit too rosy for your tastes, remember who my proofreader is.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me.


A Cause For Tears

Altered Photo. Original Image by: Anders Ljungberg via Compfight cc

Father Joseph, the old curator of the Vatican archives, was giving a grand library tour to some novice priests who were visiting for the first time.

At the end of the tour, they came upon a steel vault and Father Joseph proudly proclaimed, “This room contains the oldest copies of the church documents and teachings. Some are even original documents drawn up by the church fathers. From these, monks over the centuries copied these all by hand. And these copies upon copies were used in our training and instruction as priests, and they form the basis for our doctrines.”

One novice raised his hand and said, “Father, did succeeding generations copy everything from the original document or from the copies as well?”

Father Joseph said, “Well, I would suppose they copied from the copies, as over time, the original documents became too fragile to withstand constant use.”

The novice pressed on, “And did anyone bother to check if the copies we have now match the original? I mean, what if someone made a mistake on that first copy? Then everyone else who copied from that source would have passed down the wrong information from generation to generation.”

Father Joseph chuckled and said, “That would be next to impossible, my boy. They had very stringent procedures on copying and proofreading. They had numerous safeguards against it. There were layers of proofreaders diligently checking for mistakes. If they found even one mistake in a manuscript, that would be burned and the monk would have to copy everything all over again. After all, this is the Holy Teachings of the Church we’re talking about.”

The young priest nodded at that answer, and seemed to be satisfied. No one else had any questions so Fr. Joseph dismissed them.

As he was walking back to the library, the young priest’s question came back to his mind and he was overcome with curiosity. He proceeded to the archives, went inside the vault, and carefully took out a small volume on the roles and responsibilities of the priesthood. He remembered holding a copy of this book when he was still a struggling seminarian. His teacher then had been very strict and had made the class memorize the entire book. Thanks to that training, Fr. Joseph was very well-versed with the book and could still recite long passages from memory. He opened the first page and began to read.

That night, there was a commotion at the priestly residences. Old Father Joseph had not shown up for the communal supper and could not be found anywhere. The priests were afraid that something had happened to him. One of them dimly remembered seeing him earlier, going towards the archives building. As they entered the building, they heard someone moaning and wailing. They followed the sound and found Father Joseph, still in the vault, sitting on the floor. His hands covered his face and his shoulders shook as he sobbed uncontrollably.

One young priest rushed over and wrapped an arm around the old man. “Father Joseph! Father Joseph! What is the matter? Why are you crying?”

“We got it all wrong! We got it all wrong!” wailed Father Joseph, refusing to be consoled.

“What’s wrong? What did we get wrong?” The young priest asked.

“CELEBRATE!” cried Father Joseph as he raised his hand and slammed the floor. “The damn word is CELEBRATE!”

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me.

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