Since time immemorial, believers in a loving and just god have looked around at the world we live in, filled with toil, strife and suffering, and have pondered how to reconcile their belief with the facts at hand. The solution which most religions have adopted is to assert the existence of another world, beyond this one, to which the souls of the good will fly in order to receive their due reward.
Poets and dreamers throughout history have filled their scriptures with rapturous visions of this distant promised land. The Hebrew Bible’s imagery of a land flowing with milk and honey and of wolves and lambs lying down together in peace has been interpreted by believers to refer to the world to come. In the New Testament, the apocalyptic Book of Revelation pictures a vast cube-shaped city of gold and precious stones, while the Qur’an promises faithful believers a garden flowing with rivers of wine and a harem of perpetually virginal beauties. Most other religions of the world have heavens of their own as well. In recent years, these escapist desires have been taken to an extreme by Christian believers in the Rapture, who expect to literally be sucked out of the world and into heaven in the twinkling of an eye.
What all these heavens have in common, though, is that they are far off, hidden from our sight. Preachers and scriptures tell us that this life is a vale of tears and none can change that, but if we bear suffering with good cheer and humbly obey the religious authorities, we will receive pie in the sky by and by. Although most religions have edicts commanding their followers to aid the poor, none have any expectation that their followers will succeed at alleviating want, or even that such success is even possible. Jesus, for example, is reported as saying that the poor will be with us always (Matthew 26:11). Instead, most religions teach that misery and suffering will persist until God returns to establish his kingdom on Earth, and of course they all teach that converting the poor is a higher priority than supplying material needs. (“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”)
At first glance, it may be hard for religious people to see how belief in heaven could possibly do any harm, but the fact of the matter is that it can and it does. The most obvious example is that of fanatics who are willing to throw their lives away in suicidal acts of terrorism, but this is just the most dramatic symptom of a more subtle and insidious trend: when one believes in heaven, one inevitably begins to view this life as poorer by comparison.
For this reason, while belief in heaven is surely comforting to those who are suffering with no relief in sight, it also has – and cannot help but have – the deleterious effect of discouraging others who have the power to help from doing so. It may even cause the sufferers themselves to passively accept misery as their lot in life, rather than demanding reform and justice. As Ed Weathers wrote in his masterful editorial “The Empty Box“, “If you would have your slaves remain docile, teach them hymns.” There is more than a little truth to this maxim, if one looks to history to see how religion has historically been taught to the oppressed.
There are more recent examples as well, such as the world-renowned Mother Teresa. Famed for supposedly dedicating her life to alleviating poverty and suffering among the poorest of the poor in India, in actuality she did almost nothing whatsoever to ease their pain. In fact, she wanted the downtrodden to suffer, out of the belief that they would be “perfected” for the next life by it. On one occasion, she said, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”
Mother Teresa is thoroughly saturated with a primitive fundamentalist religious worldview that sees pain, hardship, and suffering as ennobling experiences and a beautiful expression of affiliation with Jesus Christ and his ordeal on the cross. Hitchens reports that in a filmed interview Mother Teresa herself tells of a patient suffering unbearable pain from terminal cancer: “With a smile, Mother Teresa told the camera what she told the patient: ‘You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.'” Apparently unaware that the response of the sufferer was a put-down, she freely related it: “Then please tell him to stop kissing me.”
—”The Illusory Vs. The Real Mother Teresa“, Freethought Today, August 1996
Mother Teresa’s exaltation of suffering is perhaps the most dramatic example of how belief in heaven tends inevitably to degrade and devalue this life, but it is not the only one. Throughout human history, theists who believe in an otherworldly paradise have been willing to throw their own life away in pursuit of it, chasing the ever-receding mirage of salvation and neglecting the good they could have been doing for themselves and for others as a result.
It is time to set aside these fantasies, comforting though they may be; it is time to recognize that they were never anything more than the hopeful dreams of men. Though they may give hope and meaning to some, if we fixate on a fantasy we miss out on the very real opportunities for happiness in this life, the only one we know for sure that we have. In truth, there is a better way, another target at which to gaze. The truth is that heaven does not exist yet, but it may someday. It is not a world existing in parallel with our own, but a potential future state of our own world; not a place, but a goal.
However, this heaven will not be brought into existence in a flash of divine power. It must be, and it will be, built up brick by brick by our hands, our labor, our effort. We must work to ensure justice, to end poverty and suffering, and to establish a community that fills all its citizens’ lives with contentment and joy. If we want to live in heaven, then it falls to us to bring it into existence.
This is not the religious heaven where “every tear will be wiped away”. There will doubtless always be sadness in even the most perfect humanly attainable utopia, for the suffering of the past if for no other reason. But this just means we should be realistic; that we should have the wisdom and maturity to set aside unattainable fantasies and aim at the best that is within our power.
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