a butcher's counter
Reading Time: 10 minutes (Michael Waddell.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Hell — as a concept, yes, but especially as a beloved threat from toxic Christians. Constantly, such Christians deploy this threat to strong-arm new victims into complying with their various demands. Of course, they also use it to keep existing Christians’ butts parked firmly in pews. Yesterday, we covered the various unsupported claims that go into the overall unsupported claim that is Hell itself. Today, let’s cover the various ways that humans are made out of meat, thus invalidating the threat entirely.

a butcher's counter
(Michael Waddell.)

(Previous Journeys Into Hell, and Other Such Related posts: The Night My Fear of Hell Died; But WHICH Hell Shall We Fear; Why Hell Fails as a Christian Threat. Obviously, I mean hopefully obviously anyway, this post concerns that subset of Christians who believe in Hell and use it as a threat to gain power over others. #notallchristians and all that.)

They’re Made Out of Meat.

Yes, the title of today’s post riffs off of a famous 1991 short story called “They’re Made Out of Meat.” Terry Bisson’s brilliant story weaves dialogue between two unnamed, undescribed aliens as they discuss what sure sounds like a message from Earth that they’ve intercepted. In essence, the aliens are flummoxed because the only sentient life-form they’ve found on that planet, apparently human beings, are entirely “made out of meat.”

The aliens have no idea how to cope with the idea of “thinking meat,” much less “conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat.” Just the mere idea of it all disgusts both aliens.

However, they must decide how to respond to the message. Even if they have about the same opinion of human beings that we have of the meat counter at our local grocery store, there are protocols involved here.

Eventually, a decision gets made:

“Officially, we are required to contact, welcome, and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in the quadrant, without prejudice, fear, or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing.”

“I was hoping you would say that.”

“It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?”

“I agree one hundred percent. What’s there to say?”

And then the aliens move on to their planned response to “a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster” in a faraway galaxy:

“Was in contact two galactic rotation ago, wants to be friendly again.”

“They always come around.”

“And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the universe would be if one were all alone.”


I ran across this story in the mid-1990s somewhere, and I haven’t been able to forget it since then — as you might have guessed.

We could admire this story for many reasons, of course. But today, I want to draw us to one particular reason:

In its simple premise, this little story contains the seeds for the most potent imaginable argument against Hell as an afterlife destination for humanity.

Thinking Meat.

If someone were to accuse human beings of being big-headed, we’d have to concede the point. We do, indeed, have ginormous heads for our size. And we have them because we have accordingly ginormous brains that require a strong case of bone.

The Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History tells us that human beings began evolving larger brains around 6mya (million years ago). About 2mya, that growth accelerated a bit more, and about 800k years ago, it accelerated quickly. They think climate change had something big to do with that evolution.

Our brains require a huge amount of energy each day — some 20% of our energy goes straight to our heads to keep that organ running. Moreover, those brains — and the bigger skulls needed to shield them — mean babies get born with bigger heads too, which means more danger and pain in childbirth. And that’s after our brains evolved lots of wrinkles and folds to make the most of the space available!

However, a lot of a human child’s brain growth occurs after birth, so their skulls aren’t even fully enclosed yet! I can’t imagine how much more dangerous human birth would be if most of the brain development happened in the womb, like with chimpanzees!

And that organ is where we store and process information, yeah, but also what directs and allows us to express ourselves in consciousness. (The brain stem handles a few important processes. But it does poorly without a brain.)

For these reasons and maybe even more besides, a human brain can and will sacrifice every single limb and organ in our bodies to keep itself alive and fed, if it must.

It performs this brutal arithmetic because once our brains die, we are well and truly dead. Forever. There is no returning from the cold stark whiteout of brain death, as Elise has explained at length over on her classic nursing blog End of Shift Report.

Conscious Meat.

As long as our brains are alive and receiving energy enough to do their job, we express consciousness in various ways.

Once our brains die, we stop being conscious at all.

In fact, if our brains get injured, we can easily stop displaying all signs of consciousness.

Surgeons who specialize in operating on the brain know this very well. In fact, sometimes they must keep their patients awake throughout their operations, even as their brains get uncovered, uncased, and exposed to the sweet fresh air for the first time in ever. These surgeons ask the patients to talk or even to play music while they do their thing. If they tap something they shouldn’t, they’ll know immediately because the patient’s speech or musical ability will alter dramatically. They need the patients conscious for all of this! Yikes!

Tell me, where in all of that is there room for us to die, for our brains to become mush and dribble, and us still to meaningfully be conscious afterward? If we had any ability to express consciousness without a living brain, someone would have figured it out by now. But nobody ever has.

Christians must demonstrate that we have the ability to be conscious after death — at least, they must if they want me to believe that I actually could. If I can’t be conscious after death, then Hell becomes quite meaningless.

Loving Meat.

In the book version of The Princess Bride, which I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone forever, Buttercup shares the depth of her deep and intense love for the Farm Boy Westley:

There is no room in my body for anything but you. My arms love you, my ears adore you, my knees shake with blind affection. My mind begs you to ask it something so it can obey.

It’s sweet to imagine a love that is so strong that it lodges in the body like muscle memory. In truth, though, a lot of our emotions live up top in our all-powerful, energy-hungry brains.

Not only do those emotions die when our brains die, but they can be dramatically changed if those brains suffer the right kinds of injuries. If our brains get infected, or if something penetrates that powerfully-strong case around them, then their emotions can change quite a lot.

For example, just take concussion, which is a strong blow to the head. Even if it’s not that strong, survivors can face a whole bunch of big changes. They can become moody, depressed, anxious, or suddenly deal with a whole host of personality shifts.

And with just the right drugs or science-wizardry or incredible group experiences, people can be made to have luminous experiences.

But Christians have never once come up with any evidence that our emotions can live on without our bodies — especially without those big beautiful brains of ours (BBBs, thenkyewverymuch).

Once our meat brain dies, so do our emotions. And the emotions can be painfully fragile even if the meat survives an injury. If our capacity for feelings has vanished, then Hell’s a pretty meaningless threat.

Dreaming Meat.

Animals share a lot in common with human beings. Many species use tools and do physics in their heads just like we can. And anybody who claims an animal can’t feel emotions probably needs to be carefully watched, because they very obviously can.

TELL ME we’re not seeing emotions here. (Lord Snow and Monster.)

But human beings have a few traits that we haven’t spotted in animals. I covered these in detail here, but I’ll whisk through them now:

  • Decoupled cognition. Simply put, we can imagine situations that have not happened and might not ever happen. We can have conversations with people who aren’t in front of us and maybe don’t even exist.
  • Hyperactive agency detection. Often, we mistake minor cues in our environment for major threats. However, we don’t often make the opposite mistake. We don’t often see a wild tiger slink past and think we’ve just seen bushes rustling. So rustling bushes become a potential tiger, and we take appropriate action just in case. We become extremely sensitive to potential threats, even if they’re not realistic.
  • Agency detection. Human children go through a phase where they think everything has a mind and agency of its own. It’s interesting how religious people tend to hang onto that phase, no?
  • Promiscuous teleology. I love this phrase so very much. It refers to another phase children go through where they think everything has a big overarching purpose. Usually, that purpose caters to people somehow. That breeze was meant to help people fly kites. This rock’s purpose to be sat upon during their family’s camping trip.

(Did you notice how my examples involved scenarios that don’t exist in front of me right now and maybe never even happened to me? Yeah. It’s powerful stuff, that ol’ decoupled cognition.)

The way we evolved, and the way human children develop specifically, involves a lot of traits and biases that religious leaders have found useful over the years. And all of it’s based in — you got it! — the brain.

Our meat contains our emotions and imagination. If it dies, so do those abilities.

The Unutterable Coldness of Being Lonely Meat.

Now let us stray briefly from the story (and my hijacking of it as a framing device, for which I hope Terry Bisson can someday forgive me).

A big part of what makes us human is our ability to form and maintain social connections. Even if we’re introverted hermits (*cough*ahem*cough*), we usually have some kind of social ties to someone else. Often, those ties develop into deep loyalties and affections. Many of us have formed such a connection with those closest to us in our family units, or maybe we’ve found family outside of that immediate and first one who we love just as fiercely.

Yes: fiercely. Ferociously, even. We can feel love that consumes us, staggers us. I once heard one of our commentariat describe how absolutely gobsmacked she was by the strength of her sudden love for her first baby. She realized that she could and would, if needed, literally kill to protect that infant. The stark simplicity of that truth scared the bejeezus out of her.

If someone were to tell her that she would go to Heaven without that child, who would then be doomed to torture forever in Hell, I cannot imagine what she’d do. The results of that conversation would probably look like something out of that grimdark comic book about superheroes in WWII.

Similarly, I cannot imagine my own mother going to Heaven, learning that her daughters wouldn’t be accompanying her and would instead be consigned to eternal torture, and her being okay with that.

And I wouldn’t be satisfied with the opposite outcome either. I simply wouldn’t. It shames me that fear so overwhelmed me once that I didn’t even question that outcome. Once, yes, I accepted it. But I was young then.

Now, I absolutely can’t. A heaven without my mother is no heaven I want any part of.

Not Without My Mother.

Hooray Team Jesus! Get the popcorn, saints, and let’s head downstairs to watch all those sinners roast alive!

— Augustine, impiously paraphrased

I’ve heard Christians hand-wave away a lot of my objections before. None of it sounds in the least persuasive. Often, they come up with ways for us to feel flames licking at our nonexistent skin, or thirst parching our nonexistent tongues, or fear coursing through our nonexistent nerves. They dream up a sort of post-hoc bodily reconstitution, just so we can be tortured forever.

They can get very creative at this self-appointed task. Indeed, they must be creative, because no facts support any of it. 

But these glittering-eyed and unsettling false prophets can’t negotiate around our deepest loves.

(Strange, isn’t it, that a religion that pretends to be based entirely in love has so much trouble negotiating with the real deal? Hm. Maybe not so strange. The claim makes a good smokescreen. By the time the marks realize there’s no love there at all, the terror of Hell has probably hooked them.)

Indeed, any version of me who would be okay with knowing my loved ones were in Hell wouldn’t be truly me at all. It’d be someone else. The me that I know now would be gone. She would have to be gone without a trace or hope of return or reconstitution. And I don’t care in the least what happens to that other me. She’d be the kind of person who’d be okay with her loved ones facing torture in Hell.

I mean, I’d be long gone at that point. She wouldn’t have any connection to me. Hell is already unjust enough as it is. Adding the grotesque fact of someone suffering there who had nothing to do with getting there couldn’t possibly make it any worse than it already is.

Imaginary Cruelty is Still Alarming.

Even if Christians could somehow show that we can think, express consciousness, love, and dream without our wondrous brains, they’d be stuck there at the last, at love. All they’d have would be some kind of post-death sentient existence anyway, but they definitely wouldn’t have a moral god who was actually worth worship.

In fact, they’d have the opposite: a lot of explaining to do about why they support such a monster.

One day, maybe we’ll call them to account over it all.

Even supporting an imaginary monster is reprehensible. Even imagining eternal torture is shocking and depraved.

We are, after all, made out of meat. We’re thinking, conscious, loving, dreaming meat. We are, in a lot of ways, what our meat imagines as our brains shape us each into a distinct pattern for a brief little while. And we are interconnected as tightly as bone and sinew — living patterns that interact and dance together for that little while, and then break apart to become part of other patterns.

This life is more than enough, and yet it can’t ever be enough. And that’s good, I reckon, because there’s no evidence that we get any more than what we have now.

As I get older and older, it just seems stranger and stranger to me that so many people seek to separate themselves from others like they do with imaginary threats and power-grabs.

It must be unutterably cold where they are, to try so very hard to separate themselves from all the meat of humanity. I’m so glad I don’t feel anymore that I must try to do the same.

NEXT UP: LSP! And then, we’ll finish our journey by looking at the very troubling edge cases of Hell.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...