Freethought NOW!

For heaven’s sake: Why do so many still believe in an afterlife and why is that dangerous?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

FM Emily Dickinson 01 2 For heaven’s sake: Why do so many still believe in an afterlife and why is that dangerous?

My topic is heaven and hell — and my proposal is that believing in heaven can be as corrupting, unhealthy and damaging as believing in hell.

First, I’d like to talk about hell, and to introduce that subject, I’m sure most of you have seen the TV commercial Ron Reagan so graciously has recorded for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in which he says:

Hi, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed, as you may be, by the intrusion of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep state and church separate, just like our Founders intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.

The improvs from Ron are what make this commercial so memorable. When the text ran a bit short, he improvised “ … not afraid of burning in hell” right on the spot.

When I first approached Ron about recording a TV commercial back in 2014, I explained that my goal was to get the ad on “60 Minutes.” I had every expectation of being able to do this, as we’d run an FFRF spot on some other CBS news shows. I thought the hard part would be raising the funds to pay for such an ad, not getting it past network censors. But when I tried to place it on CBS, and many other stations, it was turned down flat. Only Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and CNN were willing to run it at the beginning. In fact, it took a few years before MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” relented and accepted the ad, and gradually CBS’ “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and CBS’ “Sunday Morning” also OK’d it. Finally, only last year did “60 Minutes” deign to accept our ad. It’s still being rejected by NBC, Discovery Science and ABC TV, among others.

Why has it been so controversial?

Because of Ron’s punchline: “Not afraid of burning in hell.” NBC openly told us they’d run the ad if we just lopped that bit off. As if. We were told this tagline insulted believers. Why would a believer be “insulted” by that little bit of insouciant irreverence? After all, it’s those of us who are regularly told we’re going to hell to be burned, tortured and punished forever in an “unquenchable fire” just for being heathens, who ought to be insulted — not hell-believing Christians.

Corporate networks are so worried about offending believers. Yet how many times have we been preached at from Psalms 53:1, which says: “Only fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good!” Why should it be perfectly acceptable to embrace that barbaric and malicious belief of damning nonbelievers to everlasting torment, yet be socially unacceptable to gently rib the idea of such primitive and retributive beliefs?

Ambrose Bierce’s definition of “faith” from his Devil’s Dictionary is instructive: “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.” Really, could there be anything more juvenile than sentencing someone to hell for an eternity simply for rejecting a belief that is without evidence, spoken by someone without knowledge, of things without parallel?

“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true;” wrote Darwin, “for, if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlasting punished.” With a memorable pun, Darwin deemed hell “a damnable doctrine.”

I was lucky to be raised without religion, but I’ve often wondered: What about the unlucky children whose parents teach them hell is real? There are parents and guardians who still indoctrinate children to believe they deserve to end up there, who take them to church and Sunday school where other authority figures tell them that if they’re not the right kind of Christian, or commit a so-called sin, when they die they will be tortured and burned eternally, and that such treatment is the just judgment of a loving God. As Thomas Paine wisely put it in The Age of Reason, “Any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be true.

Feminist and agnostic Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in her autobiography: “I can truly say, after an experience of 70 years, that all the cares and anxieties, the trials and disappointments of my whole life, are light, when balanced with my sufferings in childhood and youth from the theological dogmas which I sincerely believed. . . . I  believed myself a veritable child of the Evil One, and suffered endless fears lest he should come some night and claim me as his own. To me he was a personal, ever-present reality, crouching in a dark corner of the nursery. The memory of my own suffering has prevented me from ever shadowing one young soul with any of the superstitions of the Christian religion.” Think of the neuroses religion is responsible for implanting.

The 19th century is full of literature dwelling on the psychological blight of hell. One of my favorite passages comes from Jane Eyre, who, as a young, rebellious, unloved orphan, is being catechismed by the character Mr. Brocklehurst, a horrid minister who runs a school for girls.

He asks Jane Eyre: “Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“‘They go to hell’ was my ready and orthodox answer.”

“And what is hell?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there forever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

“I must keep in good health, and not die” was Jane’s classic reply.

The great agnostic Robert Ingersoll recalled being in church with other children, where the minister asked them if they knew they all deserved to go to hell. Ingersoll wrote, “We all answered ‘yes.’ Then we were asked if we would be willing to go to hell if it was God’s will, and every little liar shouted ‘YES.’”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a turn-of-the-last-century freethinker and feminist, asked in her 1923 book, His Religion and Hers: “What glory was there in an omnipotent being torturing forever a puny little creature who could in no way defend himself? Would it be to the glory of a man to fry ants?”

It’s worth pondering the role that belief in damnation and eternal torture has played historically in instigating or excusing atrocities, such as the Inquisition, Crusades, tortures, witch-burnings. And why did the Inquisitors so often favor burning at the stake to kill women and other heretics? Perhaps to replicate the idea of deserved hellfire. The Torquemadas out there could justify setting to flame sinners, as, after all, being nothing compared to an eternity of torture. A belief in hell dehumanizes those you think belong there, and can justify committing abominations against them. I would not be the first to wonder what role the concept of hell played for Catholic Adolph Hitler and his iniquitous Final Solution? After all, what were the concentration camps, genocide and ovens compared to an eternity of righteous torture of Jews, gypsies, political dissidents and other non-Christians?

Sadly, we’re not just talking about hell belief confined to the Dark Ages, or even the 19th or 20th centuries. Associated Press released a poll in July showing that a whopping 58 percent of Americans still believe in hell and 69 percent believe in heaven. Perhaps those TV network agents who continue to censor our commercial have read these polls! (I looked up how Canada fares in comparison. According to the Angus Reid Institute in partnership with Faith in Canada, 57 percent of Canadians in 2017 believed in heaven, but only 41 percent in hell. So, once again, Canada shows up the United States.) Still, we’re at an all-time low in the United States for such beliefs, so that’s progress.

Of course, it’s belaboring the obvious to talk about the unwholesome or toxic ramifications of this pernicious idea of hell. And, it goes without saying that traditional Christianity’s morality is skin deep — incentivizing one to be good and do good only to avoid hell or gain eternal rewards. But that’s a topic for another talk.

Which brings me to heaven, and my thesis that, in its own way, heaven is as harmful a notion as hell. Sure, it might seem like a good sign that more Americans believe in heaven than hell. Is it so bad to want to believe in paradise? For starters, how about 9/11? These Muslim believers were recruited with the promise that if they martyred themselves, Allah would reward them with 72 virgins and everlasting happiness. The kamikaze pilots in World War II thought they too would go to heaven and were dying for their god, the emperor.

Christianity, with its empty promise that “You will have your reward in heaven,” was used to enslave people in the American colonies and United States for 400 years, and justify Jim Crow. Billy Graham, asked to comment on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, responded: “Little white children of Alabama will walk hand in hand with little Black children only when Christ comes again.” Translation: NEVER, if Graham had had his way. Then there are those horrible, tragic cases of religious, often psychotic parents who kill their small children, saying they wanted them to go to “a better world.”

But aside from such extreme examples, the philosophical harm of heaven and belief in an afterlife is the underlying problem. It teaches believers that this life, this world doesn’t really count. There’s an old hymn that goes: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through … And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” In other words, our real home is heaven and our objective should be to prepare for life after death. As Gloria Steinem put it: “It’s an incredible con job, when you think of it, to believe something now in exchange for life after death. Even corporations, with all their reward systems, don’t try to make it posthumous.”

By the way, heaven ain’t no paradise. The bible depicts it as a spirit realm where the lucky few selected spend eternity praising a jealous God who requires unrelenting displays of sycophantism.

Belief in an afterlife is the ultimate form of death denial, which gives rise to a whole host of problems with the lack of control over one’s death. There are only 10 states (plus the District of Columbia) with medical-aid-in-dying laws, and opposition to them is almost entirely religious, especially in the form of the Catholic Church, which labels assisted suicide and euthanasia “a crime” and a “mortal sin.”

The delusion that this world is just a stepping stone to an afterlife not only demeans our only life, but it’s dangerous. It’s jeopardizing our planet’s very survival. Pew Research Center found last year that the more religious Americans are, the less apt they are to accept human-made climate change. A majority of evangelical Protestants are least likely to view global climate change as a very serious problem. Meanwhile, nine-in-10 atheists understand that human activity is causing climate change, compared to a narrow majority of Americans overall.

The late James G. Watt, President Reagan’s notorious secretary of the interior, infamously testified about his anti-environmentalism: “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”

The idea of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die is a very perilous concept, especially in a world racked by floods and wildfires caused by human-made climate change.

If you don’t believe in an afterlife, you necessarily value this life more. Women freethinking writers have made this point for a long time. Helen H. Gardener, a freethinker and suffragist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wrote: “I do not know the needs of a god or of another world . . . . I do know that women make shirts for 70 cents a dozen in this one. I do know that the needs of humanity and this world are infinite, unending, constant and immediate. They will take all our time, our strength, our love and our thoughts, and our work here will be only then begun.”

Lucy Parsons, who was a Chicago radical and probably had been formerly enslaved, gave a speech called “The Religion of Humanity,” in which she said: “We have heard enough about a paradise behind the moon. We want something now. We are tired of hearing about the golden streets of the hereafter. What we want is good paved and drained streets in this world.”

And let’s get real about eternity. Writer Susan Ertz pointed out in her novel, Anger in the Sky, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

However regretfully, we nonbelievers face up to the fact of death. We individuals will all die, but we can find comfort that the human race continues. Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who was an honorary FFRF director, penned a column poignantly announcing he had terminal cancer: “When people die, they cannot be replaced — they leave holes that cannot be filled, for it’s the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.” Bertrand Russell wrote, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”

A fool’s paradise is no paradise; it’s willful self-deception. While the fallacy that death is not final may offer band-aid comfort to some, in fact, it cheapens the loss.

As Emily Dickinson beautifully expressed:

That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.
Believing what we don’t believe
Does not exhilarate.

Religion’s preoccupations sadly keep the human race from making a paradise of this, our only world. And that’s a tall order today in this time of frighteningly rapid human-made climate change, and so many difficulties getting the human race to change so we can mitigate global warming. A reminder is in order: Two-thirds of evangelicals, aka Christian nationalists, deny human-made climate change, but nine-in-10 atheists accept it. In many ways, it’s up to us nonbelievers to make sure that religion isn’t allowed to get in the way of true salvation — saving our planet for future generations.

Humanism postulates our real purpose in life: to take care of each other. The “tribe” of Nones knows that the only afterlife that ought to concern any of us is leaving our descendants and our planet a secure and pleasant future.

Please share this article:

4 Responses

  1. Excellent essay by Gaylor.
    More essays that encourage thinking about details of life in Heaven might help believers see the absurdity of life after death. My “Questions for God” have been popular among freethinkers here in Tallahassee.

  2. While I agree with the article almost in it’s entirety, I am not so concerned with the survival of our species. While I certainly care about the future for my children and grandchildren, I also believe the human race have been a blight on the planet, other species, and themselves. Consequently, as a species, we do not deserve to continue infinitely, but should go the way of the dinosaurs, a much more successful species than our own.

  3. I’ve never heard an explanation from a Christian for a scenario such as this. Two people love each other dearly. After their deaths one of them gets admitted into heaven, although barely. The other goes to hell after having come close to making it into heaven, just not quite close enough. The one in heaven enjoys eternal bliss, apparently never experiencing sorrow or anguish or anger over the unspeakable fate —suffering without end—which has been meted out to the other one. For me, true love does not perish instantly like that. I could never find this acceptable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.