Why Are Americans So Credulous About Heaven?

Johann Hari reviews Lisa Miller’s Heaven:

In Heaven, Newsweek’s religion correspondent, Lisa Miller, has written a fascinating millenniums-long history of the idea of heaven, spliced with some surprisingly mediocre reporting on present-day believers. At its core is a (very politely administered) slap to the American consensus. The heaven you think you’re headed to—a reunion with your lost relatives in the light—is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. Most of the believers in heaven across most of history would find it unrecognizable.

Heaven is constantly shifting shape because it is a history of subconscious human longings. Show me your heaven, and I’ll show you what’s lacking in your life. The desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible and the Quran lived in thirst—so their heavens were forever running with rivers and fountains and springs. African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where “the first would be last, and the last would be first”—so they would be the free men dominating white slaves. Today’s Islamist suicide-bombers live in a society starved of sex, so their heaven is a 72-virgin gang-bang. Emily Dickinson wrote: ” ‘Heaven’—is what I cannot Reach!/ The Apple on the Tree—/ Provided it do hopeless—hang—/ That—”Heaven” is—to Me!”

You can read the whole review on Slate.

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  • LRA

    How very insightful! So if we want a reunion with our relatives and friends, then perhaps this suggests the alienation that is so commonly explored in contemporary literature that depicts society.

  • Custador

    Perhaps because Americans recognise that they are citizens of the riches nation on the planet and have resources expended on them thousands of times greater than a lot of other humans on this Earth. It’s what leads to the concept of American exceptionalism and, I suspect, what leads to the new vision of heaven as a kind of USA in the sky.

  • Fentwin

    I think the band Traffic said it well also;

    “Heaven is in your mind”.

  • George

    Everyone is trying to get to the bar,
    The name of the bar, the bar is called Heaven.
    The band in Heaven plays my favorite song,
    Play it once again. Play it all night long.

    Heaven is a place.
    A place where nothing,
    Nothing ever happens.

    • JohnMWhite

      “The band in Heaven plays my favorite song,”

      The first line of which happens to be “Imagine there’s no heaven…”

    • CoffeeJedi

      If I die before I wake
      At least in Heaven I can skate
      ‘Cuz right now on earth
      I can’t do jack
      Without the man up on my back

      Now Heaven would be a DJ
      Spinnin’ dub all night long
      And Heaven would be just kickin’ back
      With Jesus packin’ my bong

      And if you don’t believe in Jesus
      Or Muhammed and Buddha too
      Then while the world is warring
      We’ll just sit back and laugh at you

    • Len

      I hope there’s a (well stocked) bar there. Otherwise I’m not going. And if I’m there, then it won’t be a place where nothing happens.

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    “African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where “the first would be last, and the last would be first”—so they would be the free men dominating white slaves.”

    Oh give me a break. Why does a desire to be free from slavery become a desire to enslave others?

    • Jasowah

      I imagine they might have resented being slaves.

      • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

        Sure, but the conclusion reached by this author doesn’t necessarily follow.

    • faithnomore

      That is a good question. I was thinking the same thing.

    • JTFC

      I would say that the “first is last, last is first” is actually an external concept embedded into the black slave consciousness, as a means of maintaining order and preventing uprisings. If the slaves believed that, because they were the ‘last’ in this world, they would therefore be ‘first’ in heaven, they become more willing to put up with quite a bit of suffering.

      • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

        And you would say it based on what evidence?

        • JTFC

          Amama & Naomi Doumbia’s The Way of the Elders: West African Spirituality & Tradition documents pre-Christianity African religion quite well. Christopher Ehret’s The Civilizations of Africa: a History to 1800 provides a solid background into the influence of Christianity on African religion. Both of those titles offer ample evidence in both primary and secondary sources and should give you the evidence you are looking for.

          • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

            Thanks JTFC. I’ll put these on my reading list.

      • Michael

        That idea is actually quite Biblical. You will find it in Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Corinthians, for example, and I think Jesus said something about it in the gospels, too.

      • Jerdog

        Isn’t that the point of the article itself?

    • Mark Mukasa

      I think the author adopted her own bias into this. It would make no sense for them to believe in a reversal of status quo when you consider that the Priests who were teaching them were saying while on Earth they’d be subjugated, in heaven they would be equals.
      Also, from what I’ve read in some slave narratives and other things, they don’t really seem to be into wanting exchange so much. Heaven is pretty much where everyone would be free. I’m guessing from a Xtian perspective they wouldn’t be the masters in heaven but they would however be exalted for all their suffering. At least that’s what I’ve deduced from the narratives. Precise definitions of heaven are always vague.

    • http://www.thecityoftides.com/ Advocatus D.

      Forgive me if I misunderstand your objection. Are you saying you don’t think there were black slaves who believed they would become owners of white slaves in heaven? Or are you suggesting they don’t believe this is because it’s what they wanted? In other words, is your point of contention regarding the evidence or the conclusion?

      I interpreted the statement that some slaves believed this as a statement of recorded observation, not mere conjecture. If this book is a good work of scholarship, it should provide adequate sources to justify the claim. In this case, instead of merely demanding evidence, you’re quite free to open up the book and find out what Ms. Miller’s sources were. Please let us know what you find.

      • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

        I don’t necessarily object to the conclusion, I just doubt its veracity. I need some proof that this was actually how slaves envisioned Heaven; and not just the presumption of the author. As far as my reading the book, the review was not impressive, and I doubt that I will be reading it or letting you know what I find.

  • Jasowah

    I always wondered that as a Christian too!
    “My heaven isn’t YOUR heaven. So how does that work?”

    • CoffeeJedi

      When I was younger I figured that every person got their own little pocket dimension that they had control over. You could interact with each other in some sort of “hub” area where Beethoven played concerts with the Beatles, or you could invite friends over for tea and exotic sportscar racing; but you essentially had your own planet that you could re-shape at your will.

      ‘course I don’t believe any of that silliness anymore. Now I know that we will all descend into the great pasta dish in the sky while we look down upon the unbelievers burning in the sauce forever. Ramen.

      • Jasowah

        Blast! Your heaven sounds sweet! Exotic sports car racing and tea!?
        I wish it was real… curse my critical thinking!

    • random guy

      I recall a joke I once heard,

      A Man dies and is greeted by St. Peter who lets him in, but instead of a pearly gate it is an elevator door. St. Peter takes the man up a flight and says “This is Baptist Heaven” and the man sees many people in fine clothes singing and dancing. The door closes and they go up another floor “This is Catholic Heaven” and the man sees many Irishmen and Mexicans drinking and conversing with various saints. As they continue to go up St. Peter says “Now I need you to be very quite for a moment”. The man freezes up unsure of whats going on, and after a minute or two St. Peter says “That was Mormon Heaven, we let them think they are the only ones here.”

      • CoffeeJedi

        Did you hear about the Unitarian Universalist who died and went to heaven? He was faced with a dilemma, 2 directional signs marked-
        Heaven –>
        <– Discussion about Heaven (free coffee)

        Or how about the guy who died and met St. Peter at the gates, just outside was a group of people milling around. He asks St. Peter "Who are they?" Peter replies, "Oh, those are Unitarians… they're debating whether they're actually here or not."

        I always assumed that the second joke was a sort of sequel to the first.

        • Elemenope

          How do you know the Unitarians are mad at you?
          They burn a question mark on your lawn.

        • random guy

          I like how the sign implys heaven might not have coffee, or at least not for free.

          Honestly that might be a deal breaker for me.

          • CoffeeJedi

            I just figured it meant that any normal UU might think, “Well, I’ll get a cup of coffee inside then come back out for the discussion.” This just makes sure that they don’t detour on the way.

  • Marc Forrester

    Interesting. It seems that heaven is slowly moving up the heirarchy of needs, which I think is encouraging. “I wish there was no death” is way more sophisticated than “Thirsty!”. Hopefully the next heaven will simply be a world that never limits your personal growth.

    • Custador

      I wasn’t aware that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs included such a postmortem concept as “heaven”. I know that spiritual well-being is in there somewhere.

      • Togii

        Presumably “I wish there were no death” is a key factor in even the most basic concept of heaven, if the idea is a place in which you exist after you die.

        I suppose if we’re making an argument that it’s moving up Maslow’s hierarchy, though, thirsty desert-dwellers are concerned about their Physiological needs, slaves wanting to be free/equal are concerned about their Safety needs, and people wanting to be forever with their loved ones are probably thinking about Love and Belonging, if it had to be categorized.

        I guess the author saying that ‘heaven is what you’re missing in life’ kind of illustrates the hierarchy in a poetic way.

    • http://www.thecityoftides.com/ Advocatus D.

      Interesting insight, Marc!

      I guess, if we buy the author’s conclusions, we should expect a society’s conception of heaven to reflect the condition of its people. So as a society develops and the condition of its members improves, their unmet needs would continue to climb up the pyramid, until heaven becomes a place of self-actualization. I’m interested in seeing how this fits the evidence. Hypothetically, we could use Maslow’s Hierarchy to predict what heaven will look like for each stage in a society’s development.

      • Marc Forrester

        Yeah… So Heaven tends to hover somewhat ‘above’ real conditions on Earth, and provides something to reach towards and build for your descendants. A psychological place for goals that are fantastically valuable to civilization, but will never benefit the vast majority of individuals who die working to fulfil them?

        Hey, that suggests a way to end the War on Terror(tm); Pour massive resources into assisting all female equality movements worldwide.

      • Marc Forrester

        Research Topic: Do cultures without a hedonistic concept of heaven (eg: Buddhist) tend to stagnate?

  • Siberia

    Explains the whole mansion in the sky and perfect bodies on gold streets going on the likes of rapture ready…

  • Yoav

    The fundie Xtian heaven with the eternity of singing the praise of that celestial version of Kim Jong-il broken by viewing of somebody else being tortured doesn’t sound so heavenly to me.

    • Mark D

      You forgot the all you can eat buffet.

  • faithnomore

    This could be a really good way for folks to sit down and discover what their values are and what they need to do NOW to make their lives more meaningful and happy. I used to imagine that heaven was going to provide me with TONS of free time to craft and create (knit, sew, paint, etc.) So, obviously these activities are very important to me and I don’t feel I get enough time to do them. Now that I understand this is all we get, I make a point of finding time to engage in my hobbies. Happiness found.

  • Jerdog

    Shouldn’t “Show me your heaven, and I’ll show you what’s lacking in your life” be
    “Let me invent for you a heaven that contains what’s lacking in your life”?

  • Chris P

    The story I use now goes something like this:-

    Information in your brain is stored physically at synapses. Your head gets run over by a train – kaplooey. There is no way that information can be rebuilt. The memory of Aunt Annie is GONE.

    • faithnomore

      That pretty much sums it up!

  • nazani14

    Isn’t the idea of a merit-based (or social class-based) afterlife yet another thing Jews got from the Egyptians? It only makes sense that pie in the sky would be stressed by political/religious leaders when the times called for war.

  • http://none Noodlyjames

    sigh, yet another hot lesbian I won’t get.