In an effort to increase attendance at Sunday Mass, some conservative Catholics have urged Church leaders to emphasize the dire consequences of failing to attend. They say children should be taught: “It is a grave matter of mortal sin to deliberately choose not to attend Mass.”

According to Catholic dogma, an unforgiven mortal sin causes a soul to suffer eternal torment in hell. Humanists believe that tremendous harm is caused by telling children that such a punishment can be inflicted on anyone – let alone a child who only skipped Mass.

By teaching children that there is a God who will send people to eternal torture in hell, the Church promotes the attitude that violence is an acceptable method of dealing with problems. If a just and loving God can inflict extreme and unnecessary violence on humans, it’s natural for his followers to conclude that they may behave similarly.

Their reasoning goes like this: since God can remain just and loving while killing and tormenting – and does those things for the greater good – they surely can, too. The American patriot Thomas Paine referred to the development of this attitude when he said, “The belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man”

Moreover, through the teaching that eternal torture is an appropriate punishment for missing Mass, the Church conveys a crude and barbaric notion of justice. Missing Mass is a harmless and insignificant act, and eternal torture is the most horrible punishment conceivable.

To believe that such a cruel punishment should be imposed on a child who merely chose not to attend Mass, all civilized standards of justice and humaneness must be extinguished. A person holding this belief could not be expected to recognize or oppose any other type of injustice or abuse.

Additionally, by teaching children that they will be perfectly happy in heaven while billions are punished with eternal torture in hell, the Church discourages compassion and promotes selfishness. A hope for this world is that people will become civilized to the degree that they cannot be completely happy while others are suffering and needy.

The Church assures its followers, however, that they can remain insensitive to the plight of suffering billions throughout eternity. This teaching perpetuates and increases indifference toward those hurting and deprived in this world.

Further, the doctrine of hell can literally terrorize children who may doubt their ability to live up to the many onerous demands made by the Catholic Church and other religious groups who believe in hell. Enormous fear and anxiety can result from believing that, at any moment, one’s soul might be sent to eternal torture.

For example, one woman stated: “If I think back to my childhood, it’s one dominated by fear. And it was the fear of disapproval while in the present, but also of eternal damnation. And for a child, images of hell-fire and gnashing of teeth are actually very real.” She said she was taught: “Hell is a fearful place. . . . There is real fire, there is real torment, real torture, and it goes on for ever so there is no respite from it.”

To instill such beliefs and fears in a child’s mind has to be considered a severe form of abuse.

Finally, the doctrine of hell can be horribly painful to persons who worry that a loved one may have died, or will die, after committing an unforgiven mortal sin. Many have suffered greatly from thinking that a friend or relative was being tortured in hell or would suffer such punishment in the future.

For instance, another woman said that when she was a young girl being raised in the Catholic Church: “I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to hell. It gave me nightmares.” This is another case of extreme child-abuse.

In fact, that woman said the pain resulting from her belief in hell was far worse than the pain she suffered from being sexually abused at age seven by a Catholic priest.

Humanists agree with the great nineteenth-century agnostic Robert Ingersoll on the doctrine of hell. He said: “From the Christian’s cruel hell and from his heaven more heartless still, the free and noble soul, if forced to choose, should loathing turn, and cling with rapture to the thought of endless sleep.”

[The accounts of the two women are from Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), pp. 317-318, 322.]

[Please also see the article titled “Some Violent and Heartless Results of Believing in Hell.”]