To begin with, I have to say that I believe in God, but I do not believe atheists are going to hell. In my opinion, there is little significant difference between believing in goodness and believing in God. I am more confident in the eternal fate of an atheist who tries to be the best person they can than I am in the fate of a believer who muddles through life without making the hard choices that true goodness requires on a regular basis.
I believe I am on firm ground on this, by the way. Changing your opinion is easy. Changing your character is not. As far as I’m concerned, character is what counts, now and forever.
So, when the New Testament, for example, talks about the need to believe in Jesus Christ, I see that belief as being measured by a person’s actions, not their opinions. And if we cannot change our opinions after death, we are all in trouble. Imagine being stuck with the opinions you have now for all eternity! I know that a belief in God is not just any opinion, but is it so different that it cannot be changed after death?
My religion leads me to this view, of course. While I am not an “active” Mormon at the moment, the church’s teachings still inform my beliefs and the idea that people can choose to convert after death is essential to the religion’s view of life, death and the eternities. So, the arguments I have made here are really nothing more than a way of explaining and defending Mormon belief with generic terminology.
As a result of this belief, Mormons do not usually fear for the eternal fate of non-believers. I am hardly alone in this perspective. While individual Mormons may look at some of their loved ones and believe they are bound for hell, most Mormons are quite optimistic about the fate of the people who are dear to them. The religion gives you a choice in how you see others.
The real issue I wanted to address, however, was the claim that religious people (especially Mormons) abandon critical thinking to maintain their beliefs. I had to include the above paragraph so that I didn’t contribute to—or participate in—the atheist-bashing that is so common in American culture.
It is simply not true that religious people do not engage in critical thinking. It is not even true that Mormons do not engage in the practice, no matter how many people may claim otherwise. (For examples of Mormons using critical thinking, see Joanna Brooks and Jana Riess or the sprawling website By Common Consent.)
Someone who does not use critical thinking will encounter facts that counter their beliefs and ignore them. Someone who uses critical thinking will encounter those same facts and see if there is some way they can be reconciled with their beliefs. They ask whether it is their understanding of God and religion that is wrong, rather than rejecting the facts or abandoning their beliefs. They ask whether they need to adjust and adapt their beliefs. They ask whether rejecting one of their beliefs will really diminish the rest of them.
Someone who engages in critical thinking does not immediately abandon their beliefs, although they may do so eventually if they can find no way of reconciling or adapting their new knowledge to their former beliefs. I’m not saying that critical thinkers never come to the conclusion that they must abandon what they previously believed. It is clear that some do. But the majority of critical thinkers with deep-held beliefs about God do maintain most of them, without rejecting the new facts they encounter.
In sum, you cannot divine a person’s character or their eternal fate by asking if they believe in God, and neither can you use the question to assess a person’s critical thinking skills.