Do you ever wonder why some people hold so tightly to their religious beliefs? The atheist community by-and-large seems to attribute this fierce loyalty to the three I’s: indoctrination, ignorance, and indifference. With the release and subsequent popularity of feather-rustling publications such as Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Hitchens’ “God is not Great”, the New Atheist movement clearly enjoys taking the fight to these three categories. Can we be blamed? As an unwaveringly-aggressive un-proselytizer, nothing satisfies me more than finding the logical coup de grace to end a facebook debate against someone who defends the goodness of god or the “elegant design” of the universe. It seems quite obvious to me, as it likely seems to you, my clever reader, that rationality is not what sustains the believer’s loyalty. So what is it then? I propose a much deeper, much more primal ball-and-chain, and it is one that cannot be reasoned with.
Let’s take a step back from atheism for a minute and contemplate what truly terrifies us. I am not talking about spiders, bees, or quicksand, as the Washington Sentinels shared with each other during Gene Hackman’s locker-room talk in “The Replacements.” We all struggle with fears much deeper than your run-of-the-mill phobia; as a living creature with the capacity for complex thought, you likely share several deeply-rooted fears with the vast majority of the human race, and they all point to the one master of horror itself… Death. The fear of death reveals itself in many forms: fear of pain and suffering, fear of growing old, fear of losing a loved one, fear of the unknown, fear of cessation. No matter how rich, successful, loved, accomplished, healthy, etc. (ad infinitum) we strive to be, death comes for us all, and with the exception of Thanos (Marvel’s biggest baddie of them all), death will come for you too… unless you believe.
No matter how logical and rational the atheist can be, there will always remain one ultimate trump card, played often by the believer, against which nothing can stand- “I will live forever, infinitely happy, in a perfect body, in a perfect place, knowing everything, with everyone I care about… and you won’t.” You have to admire religion for its cleverness; what better form of recruitment is there than to relieve the target of every single one of their deepest and darkest fears in one fell swoop?! Even I, the passionate un-proselytizer, would struggle to maintain a high level of insistence if my believer-opponent ever recognized and exposed exactly what it is I’m trying to take away from them. It’s no wonder atheists are so scorned across the world! Not only do we remind the believers that their worldview doesn’t make sense; we also threaten to take away “eternal happiness in paradise” and replace it with death. Death for you, death for your children, and in a few measly generations, even death of your memory (unless your time spent alive earned you a substantially memorable reputation), but you won’t even have the opportunity to care about any of that because you’ll be dead. Can you really blame them for sticking their fingers in their ears?
To solidify the promise of everlasting life, one might expect to find a great number of details describing heaven in the holy book. Christianity is the overwhelming majority in my neck of the woods, and most are plenty eager to tell you all about the paradise awaiting them after they shuffle off this mortal coil (as quasi-quoted in the previous paragraph). However, as is often the case, actual biblical verses describing heaven leave quite a bit more to the imagination than your average believer may claim. From the lord’s sacred text, we are able to glean the following:
Heaven will have a capital city (Rev 21:12)
Heaven contains an estate for every inhabitant (1 Pet. 1:4, John 14:2)
There will be no death or suffering in heaven (Rom 7:24)
Inhabitants will shine and wear white robes (Dan 12:3, Matt 13:43)
Heaven is a place of great joy and pleasures, eternal rewards and possessions (Psalm 16:11, 1 Cor 4:2)
Inhabitants will serve, worship and praise God along with the angels and other redeemed people (Rev 4:9, 5:11, 7:9, Rev. 7:15)
Heaven’s streets will be made of gold, buildings of pearls/emeralds (Rev. 21:19)
Heaven has light, water, trees, and fruit (Rev 22:1)
Heaven contains some animals (Isaiah 65:25)
Not exactly a complete picture, is it? As is often the case, the material (and associated certainty) many believers present is, for the most part, sourced from their own desires and fears rather than their respective holy book. In fact, I can think of no better example of how religion prioritizes “desired” over “known” than the pitch and resulting gossip-mongering of an afterlife. As most atheists already know, the bible is without a doubt the strongest weapon we have when making a logical case against religious belief, and exposing the concept of heaven for how it’s actually described is no exception. Just remember, as you wear your audience down with logic and reason, you are also threatening to replace their permanent home in paradise with utter oblivion, so don’t be surprised if they refuse to go gentle into that good night.
How do you cope with your own mortality?