Obesity and Hell

Religious communities have the highest rates of obesity. According to the Center for Disease Control, the state with the most obese people in 2008 was Mississippi (32.8%), followed by Alabama (31.4), West Virginia (31.2), Tennessee (30.6), Oklahoma (30.3), and South Carolina (30.1). These are among the most religious of the states. We might expect Utah to be on the list, but mountain states have low obesity rates, with Colorado being the lowest (18.5) Massachusetts, not a mountain state, is second after Colorado in having a low obesity rate (20.9) and is possibly the least religious state in the union.

Is there a cause-and-effect relationship? I think so. Many religions, perhaps most, include the doctrine of eternal damnation. Could anybody, with the possible exception of a Hitler, deserve to be tormented forever? If you believe in Hell and accept it as an aspect of God's mercy and justice, then you believe in the idea of punishment. That's not the same thing as believing in negative reinforcement or preventing crime. Hell is not negative reinforcement, since it's too late for those in Hell to learn. Hell is not crime prevention, because the dead are not in a position to do anything bad.

It follows that people who have faith in the justice and morality of eternal damnation are strict parents. They are not afraid that it might be wrong to equate discipline with punishment. They don't feel squeamish about punishing their kids. And what are kids most likely to do that irritates parents? They don't finish their food. They say they don't like the dishes that have been prepared for them with great effort. They dawdle and ask to leave the table. They claim they are not hungry.

And so, parents tell the children that if they don't finish what's in front of them, they are wasting it. Parents can’t figure out that eating something you don’t need and don't want is also wasting it. If the parents are religious and have no qualms about punishment, they punish their children for not cleaning their plates. And religious parents are the ones who think that punishment in the abstract is God's will. They train their children to eat, and then the children grow up and continue to finish what’s in front of them even if they’re not hungry and even if they know they're overweight.

Force feeding is very much less common than it used to be. But punishment-oriented communities cling to it. That’s why states with religious people have the highest obesity rates.

There are many variables besides punishment. Obesity is growing because fewer and fewer people have jobs that involve exercise. Fewer children go out to play with their friends, since they would rather spend time with their computers. Fattening foods are readily available. This is true in all states. The combination of factors is what makes the difference. Low rates of exercise and increased consumption of carbohydrates are already fattening, but when combined with a compulsion to eat everything on one's plate, obesity rates zoom up. Obesity leads to higher rates of diabetes and heart disease, and so the belief in Hell leads to a Hell on earth.

This essay appeared in And Then, Volume 16, 2011.