11 February 2008

The road to hell...

Oh dear ... I've done it again. Following yesterday's response to Dr C I've had a storm of condemnatory mail. My correspondents are not exercised by torture, one way or t'other, but by my reference to "the deepest cycle of hell". My critics, believers and nonbelievers alike, are united in (I'm sorry, I really can't resist the word) unholy alliance.

To put the record straight: I am an nonbeliever, and hell was a cultural metaphor drawn from Dante's Inferno.

To those of my fellow nonbelievers who think that I should not use metaphors of religious derivation: I'm sorry, but I can't agree. Such elimination of most of our shared cultural history would truncate and impoverish discourse to an insupportable extent. Even Richard Dawkins wouldn't approve.

Even if I were a believer, I would have to point out that there is little scriptural evidence for hell - it is a relatively recent sociopolitical addition, aimed at cowing peasants into doctrinal submission.

There is a third, albeit smaller, group in the mailbag: fans of Dante. Their objection is a different one: that the poet already assigned classes of sinner to each of his cycles of hell, and torturers didn't figure. I don't quite know what to say to that one ... but I somehow doubt that it will greatly influence my use of everyday metaphorical language.

So there.

But, on the other hand ... listening is important, and so is thinking through what we hear. Despite finally coming down in favour of my own usage, I did carefully think about all of these objections. I wouldn't want anyone who objects in the future to be put off from saying so - seeing and considering ourselves from outside is the only way to stay real.

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