I Hate to Break This To You, but Your Dog’s Not in Heaven

Over at Dogster, Kelly Pulley explains how her pets taught her to believe in god. Because if you *really* hope for something, then it automatically becomes real…

My dogs have taught me about faith, particularly about faith in the unknown. They taught me how to take a leap of faith with their undying trust in me. They also introduced me to unconditional love, which encouraged my mind to wander and my heart to seek this amazing thing, whether in the form of God, gods, Buddha, angels, a guru, or anything or anyone you see it in. They taught me how to be persistent to get what I wanted, and to know that prayer can be a powerful thing. Just consider a dog sitting at your elbow at the dinner table, watching each bite you take, never moving, almost in a meditative state as he silently asks for a piece of meat to drop.

The very existence of dogs also gives us a reason to believe in something or someone beyond our realm. I saw myself as agnostic for many years until my beloved dogs started succumbing to old age. At the third dog’s passing within about five years, I found that my grief was not being assuaged by any agnostic thoughts of comfort (“She lives on in your memories” and crap like that). It made no sense that I loved these creatures so much but would never see them again once they died. So my return to a concept of God was from a need to picture myself in some sort of heaven, surrounded by my dogs and maybe a few humans, too.

There’s religious thinking in a nutshell: I really hope I see my loved ones again after they die… so I’m going to distort reality and pretend that a heaven exists where we can be reunited. Who needs evidence? Not me. I’m just going to let my imagination run wild…

I’m not mocking Pulley — she’s not saying anything millions of other religious people haven’t said before. I sympathize with her losses. But it’s still delusional to think you’ll be reacquainted with your pets (or relatives or friends) in the future. Some people just need false hope to get through tough times.

Even though Pulley thinks it’s “crap,” I would get more solace out of the fact that the pet or person made my life better and I’ll have them in my memories forever… even if that doesn’t bring them physically back to life.

Side note: As I write this, several commenters completely agree with her… while one atheist basically trashes her. It’s not compassionate and it comes off as dickish — even if it’s honest. Is there a better way to respond? A way in which she could still find comfort in a dog’s passing, without invoking the supernatural?

(Thanks to Julie for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Aliceedale

    I think she sums up religion pretty well: “a need…”

    I wonder if she *consciously* knows it’s wishful thinking?

    • Kevin_Of_Bangor

      That is the scary part in my opinion, I highly doubt she does.

    • Michael S

      “It made no sense that I loved these creatures so much but would never see them again once they died.”The way she “makes sense” of the world seems to have a lot to do with getting what she wants or loves.

      • Mairianna

        Isn’t it great that since she is suffering, she gets to “make up” an afterlife just to ease it?  It sounds very self-centered.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1138249843 Jennifer Allen

    There are many things we wish to be true but that doesn’t make it so. I feel better knowing that my family/friends/pets were loved in their lifetime and loved others as well. They lived good, happy lives. When it’s done, it’s done. 

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine

    She says in the piece that she’s a taoist. I have never dealt with a taoist so it’s hard to respond to them in a meaningful way.

    • Carmen

      There are really two kinds of taoism, religious and philosophical (though some would disagree).  I see it more as a philosophy, a way to live (it literally means “the way”). 
      Taoism is extremely un-institutionalized and beliefs range pretty widely.  They do believe in a pantheon of deities, but I do not think they really worship the deities to a significant extent. 

  • ortcutt

    I would really like to have won the Powerball jackpot, so I’m just going to believe that I did.  Sorry, suckers, not all of you can be as lucky as me, as I enjoy my imagined millions.

  • Lauren

    She also misses the main reason the vast majority of incense is burned on college campuses….it has nothing to do with any religion except for maybe Rastafarian.

  • Jules

    I just went through the loss of a very beloved pet, and the hardest thing was definitely knowing that I’ll never see him again. But wishing I could see him again doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, and I’m not going to lie to myself about reality just because I miss him. Even Pulley’s wording should make it completely obvious that she is just tricking herself into feeling better. 

    • carmen

      Exactly. 

      It’s not easy knowing you won’t see a loved one again.  But they live on in our hearts and in our memories.  The way to cope is to remember and talk about them with you other loved ones. 

      Losing my father made me really want to have religion…it is comforting to think he is somewhere else, happy and healthy and not suffering from dementia or other old age problems.  But it doesn’t make it true.   It was comforting to think he is no longer suffering.  The same was true for me when I had to put down my last pet.

  • Ronlawhouston

    I sort of hope my dog doesn’t got to heaven.  I think he’s still pissed at me for neutering him.

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      If it’s any kind of heaven worth going to, he got back what you took, and has unlimited opportunities to use it.

    • Nazani14

       What if all the animals we’ve eaten or inadvertently killed were waiting for us on the other side?

  • Ian Anderson

    A “better way to respond?”  I don’t see why this needs any response other than “I’m sorry for your loss.”

    There is a time and a place to confront believers with the illogical and potentially harmful nature of their beliefs.  This is certainly not that time or place.  I can hardly think of an expression of belief that less invites a philosophical debate than this.

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

      Some of us see irrationality, in any form, as harmful. This is no exception.

      • Neil

        And some see badgering people during an emotionally stressful time as irrational.
         
        Honestly I’m not all that sympathetic to the problem….one of the best things about having pets is that you learn about death at a young age before it becomes a big, highly emotional part of your life, a lesson that seems not to have sunk in, in this case.  But I’m sympathetic toward people who feel that being a pompous ass and upsetting people’s personal emotional state just because you can is not in itself a commendable act of rationality.  Some people think rationality includes more than just being right all the time and going out of your way to make sure everyone knows it. 

      • Ian Anderson

        To the extent I agree that this woman’s wishful thinking is harmful, it certainly does not help matters to point fingers and call her stupid, or to attempt to compound her grief.

        That behavior is absolutely no better than the type of emotional and spiritual blackmail that nonbelievers rightly object to when it comes from proselytizing believers.
        Rationality is a virtue, but it isn’t the *only* virtue.  Rationality untempered by compassion is just as destructive as anything else.

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      It does not seem that the author is grieving the recent loss of a pet. Her article is about how their deaths over the years led her to believe in an afterlife. If she were grieving a recent personal loss in private, then obviously that would be a terrible time to tell her there’s no afterlife.

      But you can hardly refrain from criticizing the idea of an afterlife just because someone has, in their past, suffered a loss. We all have suffered losses, so unless someone is actively grieving, I don’t think it’s out of line for atheists
      to point out the fact that there’s no evidence of an afterlife.

      Plus, she’s spreading and promoting these supernatural ideas to her readers, so she’s putting her thoughts out in the public square. It’s not a private belief that she’s keeping to herself, to help her get through the day. She’s put her beliefs out there and explicitly invited readers to share their beliefs, so other people should be able to respond without fear of being called insensitive. I do think atheists should be tactful, but honest.

  • JudyV

    Here is some more evidence that the Bible was fabricated by human beings.  The human beings who wrote the Bible did not have pets.  The animals they had were strictly utilitarian, used for transport and for food.  Had the Bible been written in modern times, I’m certain there would be provisions for animals who are members of our families to have souls, so that we could reunite with them in heaven.

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    The very existence of dogs also gives us a reason to believe in something or someone beyond our realm

    Man is the reason for the existence of today’s dogs. Not some magical sky wizard.

    Also, how does a dog become saved if it cannot accept Jesus?

    • The Other Weirdo

       If it bites an atheist without being told to?

  • Facepalming Atheist

    “while one atheist basically trashes her. It’s not compassionate and it comes off as dickish ”

    Stuff like this is what makes people fear us and hate us.  Also, the atheist was probably waving his own mensa badge while he said it, just reassuring himself and easing his own insecurities.  Look, it doesn’t help that merely saying, “I don’t believe in God” offends some people.  We have to be twice as diplomatic, and why?  Because they are the majority, and the last time they got cranky with us, people burned at the stake.  When we get militant, dogmatic and even evangelical about it, how are we any different from those annoying missionaries who come by your house in the morning?  Flies may prefer vinegar, but people tend to prefer honey.

    • Andrew B.

       Flies also prefer shit.  Who cares about flies?

      • Andrew B.

         Sorry, responding to something else I *thought* you meant.

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    This is why atheism will always be a minority view. It is not just that people are irrational, it is that people want to be irrational, that people are desperate to be irrational, that for some vast majority of human minds the comfort of their irrational beliefs is many times more valuable to them than the truth.

    If you could strip every artifact of human religion and every notion of the paranormal out of human civilization and the human mind tomorrow, within 10 years there would be a whole new circus of irrational beliefs, cults and religions littering the landscape.

  • Annie

    I would refrain from answering at all, as I think she sounds ridiculous… and that would be very rude of me to point out while she is mourning the loss of a pet.

    Billy Collin’s wrote a poem about his dog being in heaven, but I don’t think it would be very comforting to most people who believe in heaven and that their dog might be there.  I, on the other hand, found it hilarious.

    http://www.billy-collins.com/2005/06/the_revenant.html

    • Annie

      Collins…

  • Jim Thomason

    Here’s something that many atheists don’t really consider – you don’t need an invisible man in the sky to have life after death for everyone that’s ever lived. Science is totally sufficient.

    So here’s the center of my atheist thought that’ll keep me just as immortal as any religious person. My assumptions are as follows:
    A) 1,000 years from now, medical science will advance to the point that people are immortal. Barring catastrophic accident, all medical ailments can be cured, and aging is halted.
    B) 5,000 years from now, dealing with the extreme overpopulation caused by the medical advances in (A), humanity create additional living space. I don’t care how – we terraform Jupiter or build a ringworld or colonize another solar system. It doesn’t matter.
    C) 10,000 years from now, humanity is sufficiently advanced that we develop time travel.

    Here’s how we all get to be immortal – There have been the occasional deaths over the millennia. There are also the very oldest members of society that remember their parents who died before the medical breakthroughs. Using the time travel from ( C ), people go back in time to the moment of death of anyone and replace their bodies with an exact inert duplicate. The original person is brought forward in time, cured through medical science, and rejuvenated. Gradually, this process resusitates everyone throughout history (well, except for people deemed undesirable for the process, like Hitler). Sure, it’s a bit of a bureacratic mess and can take a few years for a loved one to be retrieved, but the system works. Nobody comes back without a filing for them, so it also ensures that at least one person wanted you back. Same process is used to retrieve beloved pets.

    When will this happen, you ask? Surprise! It already is. Your grandmother that died yesterday is already happily living in the future because you filed a request to revive her 11,000 years from now. From her perspective, no time at all has elapsed. Magic of time travel, it’s already rippled back to us and is actively happening.

    Ta-da! I live forever and so does my dog. My dog, incidentally, have about as strong a grasp of quantum mechanics as they do of religion, so I don’t expect him to aid me in bringing about ths utopia and it’s clearly up to the people to do it.

    And no, of course I don’t believe a bit of that. Wishful thinking doesn’t make it so. But if I’m going to believe in a pipe dream where I’m re-united with all of my past pets, I’m going to believe in one that humans made possible.

    • http://www.facebook.com/scott.weitzenhoffer Scott David Weitzenhoffer

      Read the book “Riverworld” by Pilip Jose Farmer

  • TheAnalogKid

    If she doesn’t hurt or oppress anyone because of her beliefs; if she doesn’t hurt herself, I can tolerate her beliefs. But it seems like most believers can’t do that. They can’t keep it to themselves; they can’t keep it private.

  • Kris_in_Texas

    I can sympathize with her a bit. After being an Atheist, or at least Agnostic, for most of my life, I tried to believe in some kind of afterlife/spirit world after I had to put my dog to sleep 5 years ago. I’ve lost family members and friends that did not come close to that pain. Within a few days, I began to think rationally again. I had buried him near a small grove of trees, in a spot that would likely not be developed anytime in the near future. The trees had a nice supply of organic fertilizer for while (maybe they still do? Not sure how long it takes a couple trees to use up a dog carcass?). Along with the memories, that’s actually what gave me the most comfort. He “lives on” as part of the trees and ecosystem, not as something I made up about him waiting for me to die while he sits on a cloud looking down at me.

  • Alun

    I think about my dog every single day and that is comfort enough for me.

  • The Captain

    She also doesn’t understand Dogs very well. They don’t just have “unconditional love” for you out of nowhere, they have a conditional love for you because you feed it! Because they where bread by humans to accept humans into their pack mentality, but they do so by “evidence” you give them. I guarantee some of Michel Vicks dogs didn’t love him unconditionally. She seems to think her dogs like her because of magic to start with.

  • http://twitter.com/SugaRazor Razor

    I find the concept of heaven to be completely and utterly ridiculous, yet I have absolutely no problem believing in doggy heaven. That’s probably because I like animals better than people though.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    Has anyone else come across that horrible “Rainbow Bridge” poem?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_Bridge_(pets)

    It’s all over the place; anytime a pet dies, you’re sure to hear someone reference it. Not only do I find afterlife fantasies not comforting in the slightest, this particular one is intellectually insulting, even more than many of the others.

    At least children are indoctrinated into believing in heaven and hell. But the Rainbow Bridge didn’t even exist as a concept prior to a few decades ago. I suppose this is a wonderful example of how fiction can morph into reality for a lot of people. This poem, written by human beings, seems to have led to this mythological place being considered real.

  • Marguerite

    “It made no sense that I loved these creatures so much but would never see them again once they died.”

    I can sympathize with this. It’s hard to admit that someone or something you love so much will actually die dead, and not be resurrected somehow. As I journeyed from Lutheran to atheist, the last hurdle for me was accepting I wouldn’t see my dead husband again. I finally had to admit to myself that just because I WANTED to see him again didn’t mean there was a heaven; it just meant I was indulging in wishful thinking.

    I will say that if by some wild chance there IS a heaven, my dogs deserve to go there more than most people I know:-). 

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    “So my return to a concept of God was from a need to picture myself in some sort of heaven”Even within the range of religious insanity that’s a massive non sequitur. It’s perfectly possibly to belief in an afterlife without invoking someone to run it. It’s amazing how blinkered someone can be to think that being agnostic involves considering only two possibilities – the whole of Christianity, or none of it.

    • Neil

      I’ve often thought that religious sentiments could be a great tool of imagination, if people were really honest and personal in their ideas…but so few seem to want to use much imagination.  I guess for those that really believe(or really want to believe), too much freedom of self ruins the recipe of groupthink that makes it all seem real to them.  

      I’d love to see a photoshop contest of various people’s truly PERSONAL gods. 

  • LifeInTraffic

    If anyone deserves an amazing afterlife of chasing birds, lying for hours on end in the sun, and getting endless scritchin’s, it’s my furbabies. Both of my cats were pretty horribly abused, and one has continuing health issues from it almost 9 years later; yet, both are incredibly loving and gentle. Really, they deserve a heaven of some kind far more than almost anyone I know.

    But that’s not reality. Reality is they don’t get an afterlife. So I spoil them rotten in this one, give them all the love and attention possible, and try to make their lives as wonderful as I can. Because the reality is, this is all they or I have, and I want it to be as amazing as possible. My comfort, when they’re gone, will be that they were here, that they had a good life, and that they made my life richer in return. I don’t need an afterlife for them–just a really good this one.

  • Nakoma_jngx

    What erks me about her comments is that keeping someones memory in your heart and mind is bull. What kind of bull is she trying to pull? What better more poetic, romantic and honorable way to keep someones memory then remembering them with fondness and kindness? what better way to honor a pet but to not forget them and all ways remembering what joy they brought to your life.

    I think its very rude to just say ah fuck it I will see them again and forget about it after a week basically.

  • machintelligence

    Since no one else has linked to this, here is a version without annoying music:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmusaUad0sI&feature=related 
    I know it’s all photoshopped, but enjoy it anyway. 

  • cipher

    Life is hard, and I don’t like to take away whatever someone uses to get through it – unless she’s condemning billions of her human siblings to eternal suffering, or trying to get creationism into the public schools, or commandeering women’s reproductive systems, or telling people (as do most New Age people) that they created the blueprint for their lives and therefore their suffering is their own damn fault… essentially, unless she’s a douche. THEN I like to take it away from her.

  • Elena Zuk

    I can’t help but find the first paragraph amusing. I imagine humans staring at god with The Dog Stare for hours while he’s trying to go about his business until he gives in and goes “For fuck’s sake, FINE! Have your wish! Just leave me alone for a while.”

  • The Other Weirdo

    Your title is perfect, her dogs aren’t in heaven. Instead, they reincarnated as the chickens I’m having for dinner this week. Dog die, chickens are born. Nobody can explain it.

  • http://www.akhnatonsjournal.org/ Dan

    I have experienced plenty of pets getting old and dying.  The last few months of life is not easy. They slow down, love their spunk, and sometimes suffer pain and misery with arthritis and other ailments.  I don’t understand why people can’t see comfort in the fact when a dog (or person) dies, it will no longer feel pain because of their lose of consciousness.  That’s certain a lot more comforting then most of world’s population suffering eternal damnation.

    If you are afraid of dying, try remembering what your life was like before you were born. Since that wasn’t so bad, death can’t be all that bad either.

  • Thegoodman

    Pets seem to put me at odds with many fellow…humans. I know no one asked for my opinion on the matter, but I will give them freely :)

    I have felt, for a long time now, that many people have “relationships” with their pets that are similar to their “relationships” with gods. Many justify this by knowing that a pet is a living tangible thing. No matter how hard you want to believe your pet loves you, they are not capable of love as humans are. They are animals that have evolved and been breed traits that make them enjoy socializing with other animals, particularly humans.

    I too think it is cute when one animal befriends a different species (these make the news often, cat/bird, dog/bird, dog/pig, dog/elephant). But I will not deceive myself into believing these animals “love” each other. They are simply confused or have rationalized some sort of advantageous relationship with said animal. No doubt many animals need companions, I just think a human filling that role is childish at best. Pets are great for kids because they are a companion they can play make-believe with.

    The owner (I also think it is creepy to “own” another creature) often creates an emotional attachment to the pet in order to feel safety, companionship, dependability, etc. But what do they get in return? They get to play pretend with the pets sometimes when they get their face licked. They call them “a member of the family”. They have to feed/bath/clean up after them. It is a permanent toddler that will never grow up and never challenge you. You get to keep it simple forever until they die, then you get to go buy a brand new “friend”.

    This is not to say I don’t respect the lives of animals. Quite the contrary, I love animals. I enjoy zoos a great deal and even feel a lot of empathy toward the animals caged there. I hope they are happy in their little habitats. I also have a lot of respect for animals, so much so that I claim no domain over them. I have no desire to be the master of anything. I wish all things to live free and happy lives, and not as little emotional play things that I can toy with to make myself feel like a big strong human.

    I have found I am in the outrageous minority when I say I simply don’t get it. Pets will likely always be an enigma to me.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    Reading the article reminded me why it’s such a bad idea to teach children to believe in an afterlife. I think it does a terrible disservice to them. Eventually, they’re going to have to confront death. And if they grow up steeped in afterlife mythology (the author was raised in a Bible Church), that makes it harder for them to transition out of supernatural thinking. The author was unable to leave her wish for an afterlife behind, even after leaving Christianity, and came back to it because agnosticism didn’t provide her with the kind of comfort she wanted. Well, of course, it didn’t. Nothing could compete with a happy-sunshine-rainbow afterlife fantasy. All of that could have been avoided if she simply hadn’t been taught those things to begin with.

  • Beau Kelly

    Who are you to question another persons faith.

    Question your own faith in atheism. After all religions of all doctrines have questioned beliefs of themselves and one another since the awakening of mankind, however atheists have not and continue to dismiss a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human.
    What you question is in ignorance having never walked a mile in another’s shoes. Not you nor Dawkins nor Hitchens nor anyone.

    Live and let live.

    The word is sick of Atheist zealots. As it is of religious zealots. Facts are you and your ilk label yourself as atheist for a belief system not unlike organised religions to convert people to your understanding.

    The Cult of Atheism. The world is not blind.

    Do yourself a favour before you do yourself harm.
    Live and let live.


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