Why Do People Love Books About Heaven?

This is a guest post by Kari Hummel. Kari is a student at Shorter University, a Baptist college in Rome, Georgia, working toward a degree in Communication with a concentration in Journalism.

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Simply mentioning near-death experiences now have publishers salivating at the mouth like Pavlov’s dog. A USA Today piece by Craig Wilson begs the question: Are publishers now in Seventh Heaven with these near-death memoirs?

These hot new memoirs, such as Heaven is for Real (a young boy’s journey to heaven and back), Proof of Heaven (A Harvard neurosurgeon’s encounter with an “angelic being”) and To Heaven and Back (a doctor’s kayak accident-turned-celestial journey), have opened new doors for those banking on religion.

As you may have guessed, Christians are gobbling these books up.

Heaven is for Real has remained on USA Today‘s best seller list 111 weeks in a row, reaching #1 on eight separate occasions in 2011. (It is now No. 94).

This book did not sell nearly as well as the one it parodies.

Proof of Heaven peaked at #4 in December (likely with a boost from Newsweek). To Heaven and Back has been in the top 150 for 33 weeks, reaching as high as #14 in July.

So, in a changing world that appears to be shedding its religion, why are these books increasingly popular? Perhaps in poor economic times, people need hope for something better. Carol Fitzgerald, President of the online Book Report Network, agrees:

“In uncertain times, which is what we’re experiencing now, people look for comfort,” Fitzgerald says. “The concept that people have seen ‘what’s next’ and shared what it’s like gives hope and a feeling that life on earth is part of a journey with a greater reward.”

Unfortunately, these near-death memoirs create a false sense of comfort and give others the illusion that all they must do is “wait it out” until they reach paradise and all will be better. Rational, skeptical organizations need to reach out to these people before the churches do.

This would be a great opportunity for the Humanist movement to show others that they don’t need to cling to religion in times of hardship. People can gain hope by improving the world we live in here and now. Instead of relying on the supernatural to fix all of our problems, we should take the initiative. With a little work, we can create a better society for our children, and our children’s children, devoid of the imaginary.

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.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    Thanks, I now have a new book to add to my shopping list. Hell is for real looks funny.

    • allein

      There’s another Hell is for Real:
      Hell Is for Real, Too: A Middle-Aged Accountant’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Hell and Back
      http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/hell-is-for-real-too-skip-shmuley/1111825791

      which I almost bought for my mother for Christmas, but I started to read it and thought she wouldn’t appreciate the joke. (It was funny for a bit but I wasn’t drawn into reading the whole thing.)

  • http://www.sunstonescafe.com/ Paul Sunstone

    Good post! I seem to recall a study done some time ago that found countries with weak social safety nets to be more religious than countries with strong social safety nets. If my memory is correct, that would support the notion that the popularity of these books is related to the uncertain economy.

  • allein

    My mother asked me to pick up Heaven is for Real when it suddenly got big for whatever reason. I wasn’t going to see her for a few days so I decided to read it first. I’m surprised my palm isn’t permanently stuck to my face after that. Though what really got to me was when I saw there was a kids’ version of it. I tried to read through that and I just couldn’t. It bugs me when I go into the bookstore and these books are still on the bestseller bay week after week.

  • Robert Klauka

    As uncertainty increases, the need for assurance increases in proportion. People universally fear death and fear a painful death even more. Religion offer solace, yes?

    • Lee Miller

      You might actually be on to something . . . it’s all made-up shit anyway. Look how popular Joel Osteen’s books are with all their tripe about how good everything is. A book that presented a (made-up, of course) version of heaven with unlimited beer and martinis, sex, fun, entertainment . . . all the good side, no bad (no hangovers, no STDs . . .) could be a huge seller.

  • none

    I should try to write one if these…there’s a lot if money to be made in selling people affirmations of their faith.

    • WallofSleep

      Music, film, literature, you name it. Slap a sloppy coat of Jesus paint on it and you’ll have a built-in audience of Christian rubes begging to shove money at you. It’s depressing to think about, really.

    • http://profiles.google.com/conticreative Marco Conti

      I know how to make a mint: “An Atheist in heaven”. It’d fly off the shelf.
      I know exactly the kind of tripe I would write and on the last page I’d say “Sorry. I made it all up.”

  • Rain

    As my tennis coach once told me, “You are in the wrong racket.” Now I know what he meant. I thought he meant it literally. I thought maybe I stepped on a literal tennis racket or something. But no, he meant a different type of racket.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Well thought, and well written. I wish you well in your journalism career.

    I can imagine the potential for exploiting this appetite for feel-good-and-be-complacent heaven stories. A religious version of a double martini. We hear once in a while about someone who faked their death. If it’s possible to fake one’s near death, someone could contrive a story that has all of the cliche´ elements of the most successful heaven books already out.

    Instead of that, I’d like to see a group of skeptics secretly write a heaven version of Naked Came the Stranger, a hoax cooked up in the late 1960′s by a group of journalists who under a pseudonym collectively wrote the worst sex novel tripe they could possibly write to show how low the American public’s taste had fallen. It truly was awful, and naturally it was a best seller. After they revealed the hoax, the sales improved. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naked_Came_the_Stranger

    • Tor

      Book title: “Heaven is a Double Martini.” It’ll sell millions. The content does not matter, it’s a great title.

  • Tor

    I don’t see how one could write a whole book about his/her so-called near death experience. Maybe a few paragraphs, but an entire book???

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    it’s more complicated than “uncertainty,” a term i sort of hate a lot. for other reasons, but never mind that.

    sure, people are poor and unemployed and afraid. but the publishing industry is a racket right now, in amurka. books and authors are chosen, for political and corporate reasons, and pushed onto the market. actually talented authors with interesting stories are forced to self-publish, when they can at all.

    then there’s the propaganda. on TV, the radio, the newspapers. “you’ve got to read this great book about a little kid and heaven!!!” is on all of them. the newest book by a scholar about the new archaeological evidence that disproves some religious claim… silence.

    there’s also the Network of “writers” who produce popular fiction and “fact” in the name of celebrities and politicians. have you heard? apparently, sarah palin is going to “write” a book about her life. yeah, like she could pay attention to a book project long enough to pen ten pages. a ghost writer (with whom i recently argued) will write it for her.

    combine all this with the death of the erudite bookstore, and its replacement with kindles, amazon and corporate “book” stores that sell little more than pablum and claptrap, and you can understand why most americans don’t read literature anymore.

    it doesn’t help that young americans aren’t getting an education anymore, either. i don’t mean to jump on the “get off my lawn” notion that video games and FB are the Worst Evil ever, but they aren’t encouraging young people and users to spend a few hours sitting down, read a book, and think about it.

    hell, even “long” blog comments like this one are “annoying” to a lot of people. what’s the line? “too many notes.” from the movie about the guy who wrote some music, or something. /sarcasm

  • LesterBallard

    If an afterlife was basically life, except for none, or not as much, of the bad shit, that might be okay. But if it’s just to kiss “god’s” ass, no thanks.

    • baal

      Muslim heaven is a drunken orgy (if you’re male).

  • http://profiles.google.com/conticreative Marco Conti

    Is “because they are idiots” a good enough answer or should I be more specific?

  • A3Kr0n

    I thought atheist banner artwork was bad, but now I know books about heaven are worse.

  • advancedatheist

    Uh,. guys. We have a secular, scientific strategy implementable now for potentially turning death from a permanent off-state into a temporary, reversible off-state. Refer to the Brain Preservation Foundation: http://www.brainpreservation.org/

    And before you throw out your woo accusations, consider that Michael Shermer serves as one of this foundation’s advisers: http://www.brainpreservation.org/content/advisors

    The agnostic neuroscience student Kim Suozzi, who had terminal glioblastoma multiforme, understood this materialist view of the mind and went into cryosuspension last month to set an example for how secular people in the 21st Century should start to deal with death through technological means. I don’t know if what I call her “Kimectome” survives in good enough shape to allow for her revival some day, but she showed more courage and vision than all the other secular people who basically let entropy roll over them and randomize them back into the environment..

    • allein

      Not sure I’d want to wake up potentially decades or more in the future. I would most likely be waking up in a different world where there would be nobody I know or care about there to greet me. And how many people can realistically be preserved in this way (in terms of both storage capacity and who is paying for it…do you put money in trust to pay for your own upkeep? What happens if the money runs out before the technology is available to revive you)? I think I’d rather just shuffle off and leave the future to the future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Baerg/100000827478206 Jim Baerg

    Maybe this would be a good time to reprint Mark Twain’s “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” ;-)

    • allein

      I have a pdf of that on my nook. Started reading it and got distracted. I’ll have to get back to it. (Forgot how much I love Twain…I just finished Letters from the Earth a couple weeks ago.)

  • http://twitter.com/chaser27 Stephen Sponsler

    It is a bit strange so many of them are coming out so much recently. No doubt some of them are true, but suspect that is not the case with all of them, as they in one way produce a false sense of security unless any reader no matter who they are is willing to submit their will rather than live according to the Ego-d drivine selfish self will we are all in some degree accustomed to.. A Rational Christian needs to make sure a gullible invdividual isn’t dependent upon them, but it never hurts to be encouraged. Who is to decide what is encouraging to another after all? Unless one is playing god themselves. There is no such thing as a rational skeptic , that’s an oxymoron. Only an irrational moron.


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