This World Is My Home

A famous Christian gospel hymn titled “This World Is Not My Home” sums up how religious views of an afterlife shape believers’ views of this life:

This world is not my home,
    I’m just a passing through,
My treasures are laid up
    somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me
    from heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home
    in this world anymore.

For millions of people, this verse is more than a metaphor. Huge numbers of religious people sincerely and fervently believe that this life is just a proving ground, a temporary way station on the road to a far more important destination. And when a person truly believes that, their actions cannot help but follow suit – treating this life as if it was unimportant, feeling detached and disconnected from this world, and missing out on all the richness and wonder it has to offer.

For instance, C.S. Lewis espouses this view in The Problem of Pain. In it, he writes of how God deliberately withholds lasting happiness from his followers, granting them at most brief and occasional flashes of merriment, so that they do not become too fixated on this world:

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world…

I’ve written elsewhere about the most pernicious manifestation of this belief, namely theists who eagerly anticipate the apocalypse. But even in more mundane ways, this belief drains the brightness and color from life. Believing that this world is just an imperfect reflection of what is to come inevitably engenders the desire to get it over with, to get on to the real thing. And those who perpetually look forward to another life, those who think of themselves as “just passing through,” are far less likely to seek or value happiness for themselves here and now.

This world is our home. Our species evolved here; we grew up here. We are all inextricably part of the fabric of nature. This life is the only one we know for certain that we have, and those who reject or downplay it are throwing away a certainty for a mere possibility. This world has more than enough intricacy and beauty to fill our lives with richness and meaning. Why dismiss it all for the mere unfounded hope of something even better?

Kendall Hobbs writes in “Why I Am No Longer a Christian“:

But, much to my surprise, I have found life, the universe, everything to be much more wondrous and beautiful without God. When I was a Christian, I considered this world to be just a sign of the next world, the really real world. The beauty of this world was merely a reflection of some other world. The beauty I experienced in this world was derivative. Now, however, I see that this is the real world, this is the source of all the beauty, as well as all the misery, the joy and the sorrow, the fulfillment and the frustration. It is not derivative. It is all here. That allows me to appreciate this world in ways I could not as a Christian.

Brenda Peterson sums it up in an editorial from 2005, “I’ll gladly stay behind“:

My neighbor looked at me, startled, then fell very quiet as we watched a harlequin float past, his bright beak dripping a tiny fish. Happy, so happy in this moment. The Great Blue cawed hoarsely and stood on one leg in a fishing meditation. Wave after bright wave lapped our beach and the spring sunshine warmed our open faces.

I put my arm around my neighbor, the driftwood creaking slightly under our weight.

“Listen,” I said softly, “I want to be left behind.”

Left Behind to figure out a way to fit more humbly into this abiding Earth, this living and breathing planet we happily call home, we call holy.

Slowly my neighbor took my hand and we sat in silence, listening to waves more ancient than our young, hasty species, more forgiving than our religions, more enduring. Rapture.

About Adam Lee

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

  • mikespeir

    That old song still brings a tear to my eye. I was programmed that way. But emotion is a sorry foundation for a world view. If the Christian religion wants me back, it won’t drag me in by my heartstrings.

    I like the Brenda Peterson piece. It’s probably largely fictional, but the message is right.

  • Martin

    Well this is certainly food for thought. An interesting moral question might be: Should people who don’t value live on this planet as much (or even despise it in favor of a (imaginary or not) “better afterworld/life” have the same right to influence live on this planet as people who do value this live more ?

    While this may sound a bit stupid, think for a moment. Let’s say, your’re e.g. living in a small community, a small village e.g. and there’s a community meeting to decide if certain changes to the community infrastructure or politics should be made (e.g. a if a road is to be build or if some common land shall be given away or somesuch).
    Who’s oppinion will you take more seriously? The one from the guy who like’s living there and plans to continue living there as long as he can ? Or the one from the guy who grumbles all the time how everything about this community is crap and everything is much better in the next community (he has only heard about but never seen, actually) and who plans to leave as soon as possible for his glorious new live in the other community ? Whose oppinion is more likely to benefit the community as a whole?

    Well, maybe this would be a better place if the afterlife idiots oppinions wouldn’t be valued as much as the one’s of people who actually enjoy living here.

  • Aethertrekker

    As a Christian, I did not like the idea of the Apocalypse. It was preached so often in our church that I feared that I would never get to grow up, get out on my own, attend college, or find love.

    When I got older, I began to choose my own beliefs/fiction about the afterlife. I hated the idea that this life as the “fleshly realm” was inferior to some sort of “spiritual realm.” I hoped that the afterlife would me more like this world, and I found lots of Christian books that stated the things I wanted to hear. I did really enjoy living this life and did not spend time thinking about how much “better” heaven was supposed to be.

    The real problem was hell. Once, I attended a political rally filled with people who were questioning the value of having the Christian religious right on their side. Some thought that any political support was good support, but one man said, “Why ally with people who are waiting for Jesus to come back and kill all of us?” In church those scriptures are not really preached that often, and I was horrified that they saw it that way. The constant thought that any non-Christian I knew would be killed and tortured forever because of their beliefs really shook my faith in the goodness and justice of the Biblical account. To quote Isaac Asimov: “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

  • Brock

    `Aethertrekker:
    “As a Christian, I did not like the idea of the Apocalypse. It was preached so often in our church that I feared that I would never get to grow up, get out on my own, attend college, or find love.”

    I used to feel the same way. I wanted to be Raptured, but Wait a bit, Jesus, I haven’t had my fill of life yet. I didn’t realize the irony of this attitude until after I got unsaved.
    A few years ago, I had a bumpersticker that said “Come the Rapture, can I have your car?”
    I don’t believe that the Rapture is actually in Revelation, only in First Thessalonians. It was explained to me that the Rapture is not the second coming, becuase JC merely skims throught the upper atmosphere, and he doesn’t actully set foot on earth. My belief is that this entire Rapture-Tribulation-Second coming timeline is a result of Biblical Literalism. Paul and John described differing versions of the Second Coming, and because of the differences, the literalists have to jump through hoops to make the accounts agree.

  • Christopher

    Early on in my Christian life I awaited the apocalypse: I wanted to see the sinners cast into Hell and the “righteous” take up their own kingdoms in Heaven. As I was in high school I began to ask myself a number of questions about the logistics of this eschatology – why would an omni-being need other kings? Could it be possible for these new kingdoms to say “no” to “god?” What would stop these kingdoms from competing?

    I actually deconverted for other reasons (I realized that “god” doesn’t exist independent of those that conceptualize its existence), but reflection upon these old thoughts showed me what i really wanted all along: I didn’t want a kingdom in Heaven, I wanted a kingdom right here and now! Today, I consider my property to be the only kingdom I’ll ever have – and value it all the more because of that.

  • Nate

    Perhaps this is the reason the world is in such bad shape? It doesn’t matter? But, of course, we are trying to fix it. If the world mattered so little, why would we execute people who make it worse? Why would we elect leaders to help solve these problems?

  • Christopher

    Nate,

    “If the world mattered so little, why would we execute people who make it worse? Why would we elect leaders to help solve these problems?”

    The anser to both questions: we don’t – society just maintains the status quo…

  • jack

    Sorry I’m a bit late in commenting on this post. On the day it was posted, my wife and I were enjoying a great hike, taking in the beauty and wonders of this life as best we can. We had the thrill of having a road runner dart across our path!

    Hindus, Buddhists and some flavors of New Age spirituality denigrate this life in an even more extreme way. They maintain that this world is just an illusion, a dream from which we will one day awaken. I suspect that theology of this kind appeals most to folks who have had a hard time in life. If you are suffering in your daily life, wouldn’t it be nice if this life turned out to be just a nightmare from which you will soon wake up? Comforting, perhaps, but not necessarily the best strategy for the alleviation of suffering.

  • http://www.literati.net/Peterson Brenda Peterson

    I just discovered this fascinating and insightful website and the discussion about my editorial, “I’ll Gladly Stay Behind” from 2005. That essay evoked such worldwide discussion that I’ve gone on to write a spiritual memoir, “I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth” that is due out in FEb. 2010 from DaCapo Press in Boston. I thank all of you who commented on this site and hope the book continues this conversation. It is being hailed as “fundamentalism meets deep ecology” and it is written as a bit of a dark, divine comedy of faith, family, and country. Good reviews are just coming in and there is a lot of info, including the expanded essay referred to in this blog published in Orion and Utne Reader magazine. You can read the first chapter on my website. Thanks again for your wonderful and thoughtful comments!
    Brenda Peterson, author http://www.literati.net/Peterson