The Keys to Heaven

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

—Matthew 16:18-19 (RSV)

Temptation’s strong
(Salvation’s gone)
I’m on my way
To Hell’s half acre
How will I ever
(How will I ever)
Get to Heaven now…

—The Dixie Chicks, “Lubbock or Leave It”, from the album Taking the Long Way

The most startling coup of every religion, in every era, has been its ability to leverage imaginary power into real power. Virtually every organized religion throughout history has arrogated to itself the sole right to determine who will get into Heaven, and what the criteria for admission are. Not surprisingly, these criteria almost always include donating substantial amounts of one’s money, time and effort in this world to the church making the claims.

In previous eras, these claims were more blatant. The most infamous example was the medieval Catholic church’s selling of “indulgences”, which were alleged to lessen the time a soul would have to spend suffering in Purgatory to be cleansed of earthly sin. (Johann Tetzel, a 15th-century papal commissioner selling indulgences to finance the repair of St. Peter’s Basilica, is reported to have said, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.”) Needless to say, this was a very lucrative enterprise for the Church: they were paid for doing nothing whatsoever; they claimed to have a monopoly on the market; and since the length of a soul’s stay in Purgatory was said to be hundreds of years, there was a potentially endless number of indulgences that needed to be sold. After all, who could tell you if your deceased loved one had been released from that spiritual prison, other than the very priests and bishops who were marketing the indulgences?

Today, the exchange of money for salvation is no longer so brazen (with possible exceptions such as the cult of Scientology, which often demands tens of thousands of dollars to cleanse a member of their “body thetans” that are allegedly preventing ascent to a higher state of consciousness). However, it still occurs, just in slightly more subtle ways. Though the fabulously wealthy televangelists that dominate Christian broadcasting these days rarely make the connection between sending them money and earning merit with God to be explicit, it is more than strongly implied. Paul Crouch of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, for example, is reported to have said on one occasion: “If you have been healed or saved or blessed through TBN and have not contributed… you are robbing God and will lose your reward in heaven” (source). Most churchgoers are subjected to endless appeals about how God wants them to tithe 10% of their paycheck and to donate generously on other occasions.

But of course it is not just money that churches ask for. It is time, effort, and most importantly power. At least in the West, the days have long passed when religious leaders could directly control affairs of state, but the churches have done their utmost to make up that gap by turning their followers into a reliably servile voting bloc. And the modus operandi is the same: implying, if not stating outright, that receiving eternal salvation depends on blindly following the decrees of religious authorities.

The Roman Catholic church waged one of the most egregious examples of this tactic during the 2004 American presidential elections, when prominent bishops and other officials threatened to deny communion to Catholics who did not fall in line with the demands of the church hierarchy. Communion is one of the Catholic church’s most sacred rituals, and church leaders attempted to use it as a form of spiritual blackmail, exploiting lay Catholics’ belief that only church leaders can perform transubstantiation as a way of coercing those Catholics to vote as the church leaders demanded.

As outrageous and cynical a move as this was, it is important to notice that only the beliefs of ordinary Catholics made it possible. The idea that a human being, by attending a school run by the church, gains the ability to utter some magical words and thereby transform ordinary wafers and wine into the literal – not symbolic – flesh and blood of a man who died two millennia ago, while at the same time they retain all outward appearances of being wafers and wine, would seem too ludicrous to countenance if not for the fact that millions and millions of people actually do believe it. And this irrational belief in the supernatural, because it is held widely, gives church authorities a very real and tangible power in this world.

Catholics are not the only church that does this, either. The influential Protestant groups of the religious right similarly proclaim that obeying their political decrees in this world is essential to one’s fate in the afterlife. Since they do not have a rite as important to them as communion is to Catholics, however, these leaders usually go straight to the top and declare that God wants people to do as they say and will punish those who do not. They would have people believe that God is wholly and unequivocally on the side of one particular political party, and that to vote in any other way – regardless of one’s own personal religious convictions or the strength and sincerity of one’s faith – is to be an enemy of God. Here and here are two articles that demonstrate this belief in action; or consider these examples from Internet forums:

The republicans stand for what is right in America. Good christian values and moral rightness. I, for one, am proud to be a republican and support our president no questions asked. Mr. Bush is a decent and great American. You people should respect the office of the presidency. The democrats are a party of pansies and left wing radicals. The democrats are a bunch of wimpy liberals. A party saturated with homosexuals and other deviates of societies norms. Weed out the wimps, vote republican Nov. 7. It is in the bible, Jesus himself was a republican. Now what more credibility do you people need? (source)

Since [Rick Santorum] is a Republican I have every confidence that he is a man of God since the Republican party itself is the true party of God. (source)

This belief exists only because it has been tirelessly encouraged and promoted by the chief theocrats of the religious right – the belief that they hold the keys to Heaven and that receiving salvation requires doing their bidding. It is such a transparently obvious scam that it is amazing anyone falls for it: “I can guarantee you endless happiness – in an unseen, unknowable, unverifiable future life – in a way that coincidentally just happens to produce vast wealth and power for me in this life!”

No rational person would accept such an obvious deception if it was foisted upon them in any other area of life. No one would tolerate a job that required grueling, difficult work in exchange for nothing but the verbal promise of a huge paycheck sometime in the indefinite future. Why, then, do so many people tolerate it from religion?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Secular Planet

    Regarding the refusal of communion, as a deconvert from Catholicism, I still appreciate the church’s perspective on this matter. If you truly believe that all abortion is murder, then you cannot simply ignore a politician’s vote to keep it legal and pretend everything is OK. There is a major conflict between the politician’s votes and the church’s teaching which must be addressed in some manner if the sacrament is to mean anything at all. The church is saving you cannot be a pro-choice and a “good Catholic.” It’s just a simple matter that if do things directly contrary to church doctrine, then don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms.

    I often read criticism that the church did not excommunicate Hitler, i.e., that the church didn’t interfere in politics. I then read criticism that the church does threaten pro-choice politicians with excommunication, i.e., that the church does interfere in politics. This shows me that for most people, it’s not a matter of principle whether the church interferes; it’s whether they agree with the church.

  • Joe Hardwick

    I suspect that anyone who was tested for knowledge of “every religion, in every era” would be found wanting.

  • O. Wolcott

    To expound on what Secular Planet wrote and in the spirit of election day, as a Catholic deconvert I have seen first hand exactly what SP points out. Jennifer Granholm the incumbent Governor of Michigan, whom I believe was re-elected, found herself in such a compromising position several years ago. She was a member of the Catholic church I grew up attending (in my home town) before I became an apostate/atheist. Long story short, Granholm came under fire for her outspoken support of abortion – picketing and protests naturally ensued. When all was said and done she left the parrish (voluntarily or not I’m not sure, though the outcry was palpable) and one of the priests who vocally supported her soon left for another parrish. On a side note the afformentioned priest is one of the most rational thinking believers I’ve ever met. To this day there is still a huge cognative dissonance for my part as to how he is a believer. In any event the sitting Governor of Michigan left the congregation over the abortion issue. In that case even one of the most powerful political figures, if not the most powerful, essentially lost her good graces over one issue. I agree with SP; you can’t truly be a “good Catholic” if you’re “pro-choice”, ecclesiastically speaking.

  • Infophile

    I often read criticism that the church did not excommunicate Hitler, i.e., that the church didn’t interfere in politics. I then read criticism that the church does threaten pro-choice politicians with excommunication, i.e., that the church does interfere in politics. This shows me that for most people, it’s not a matter of principle whether the church interferes; it’s whether they agree with the church.

    Here’s what it looks like to me:

    Politician 1: Murder all the Jews!

    Church: You’re good.

    Politician 2: Fund stem cell research!

    Church: Murderer! You’re excommunicated!

    That’s why I have a problem. They don’t speak out against genocide, but do speak out against scientific research which kills no more human lives than a blood test.

  • The Ridger

    I guess God abandoned Rick and the GOP today, though.

    Now what? Has God’s will be thwarted by evil men, or did (different) evil men misinterpret that will?

  • Secular Planet

    That’s why I have a problem. They don’t speak out against genocide, but do speak out against scientific research which kills no more human lives than a blood test.

    Yes, that’s exactly my point. It’s not that you object to the church being active in politics in principle; it’s that you don’t agree with church’s politics. If you don’t like the church admonishing its members for being pro-choice, then frame your criticism as objection to their particular policies, not their activity in politics itself.

  • Ebonmuse

    Regarding the Catholic church:

    I would point out that the church has also gone on record as opposing the death penalty and the war in Iraq; yet no candidate’s support for either of those policies was ever cited as even a potential reason to consider denying them communion. Similarly, although the church also supports humanitarian work in Third World countries and elsewhere and claims that they consider helping the poor to be a divine mandate, no candidate’s opposition to progressive social legislation got them labeled a bad Catholic. On the contrary, it seems that their policy of spiritual blackmail is being wielded exclusively against liberal political factions, and that is why I called it a cynical tactic.

    Yes, I’m aware that the church considers abortion a “more serious” issue than the war. That doesn’t undermine my point, but reinforces it: while Catholicism apparently considers a two-day-old embryo to be a full human being worthy of all possible protection, the widespread destruction of actual grown human beings does not seem to arouse their opposition to the same degree. I maintain that their underlying policies are constructed to favor a specific set of political causes, and I do not think it is at all unfair to say that those causes tend to be the ones that will most directly and tangibly benefit the Catholic church.

  • lpetrich

    Great point, Ebonmuse. Why is the Church so selective in its condemnation of those who disobey it?

    And as to Nazism, the Church had never excommunicated Catholic Nazis, even Hitler himself, though it had excommunicated Communists. And this is even after how the Nazis treated France and Poland and other Catholic countries; the Pope is supposed to be the Pope of all Catholics, right? And even after the Nazis were defeated, though one might expect a Church that celebrates martyrdom to relish an opportunity to advertise itself with some new martyrdoms.