The Ethical Dilemma: My Family is Worried I’m Going to Hell. What Do I Say?

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Hail Hellfire: My fundamentalist family really believes that I am going to roast in hell, and they’re especially concerned since I’m getting older. Is there anything I can say to comfort them?

—Break Out the BBQ Sauce

Dear BBQ,

Timely question as we head into grillin’ season!

You could mention that you’ll be in good company, with people like Kurt Vonnegut, Betty Friedan, and Isaac Asimov—all humanists who didn’t believe in a god or hell. You could point to many prominent individuals living today, such as Ron Reagan and Gloria Steinem, who do good for the world and are nonbelievers like you. You could encourage them to read things like Good Without God by Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein (even if they may not venture past the title). You can point out all the wonderful charitable work being done in the world by secular organizations like Foundation Beyond Belief. You can note that study after study indicates that atheists don’t seem to be responsible for their fair share of crime or other problems compared with religious people.

What you don’t want to do is show them this dramatization of what happened to a very good woman at the Pearly Gates. Talk about adding fuel to the fire!

There are a gazillion arguments you could make and facts you could cite, but the overriding reality is that it tends to be fruitless to apply reasonable responses to unreasonable notions. The number one reason you don’t believe you won’t burn in hell is that you don’t believe there is a hell. But that won’t change your family’s minds or quell their fears for your afterlife.

So just accept with good humor and gratitude that your family cares about you and your eternal wellbeing, then continue living a happy, healthy, ethical, and productive life here and now, regardless of what may ensue afterwards and elsewhere.

Readers, have you confronted this problem? How did you respond—and did it do any good?