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Social Control: Why Heaven is Evil

It’s just now occurring to me, way later than it should have:

Heaven is almost as evil a doctrine as Hell.

I’ve written before on how profoundly screwed-up the doctrine of Hell is. I’ve written about how wildly disproportionate it is to give infinite punishment for finite sins. I’ve written about what a lousy form of punishment it is, since it’s permanent so you don’t have any chance to learn from it, and it’s invisible so others can’t learn from your example. I’ve written about how it makes such a powerfully insidious form of social control: how the threat of infinite, infinitely terrible punishment will make people do just about anything to avoid it.

But a guest post by Christina on the WWJTD? blog is making me realize: Heaven is almost as evil a doctrine as Hell is. Worse, in some ways. And for much the same reasons.

Christina’s post took the form of a short poem, which I’ll just quote here in full since it’s short:

Eternal Reward

Hey.
Will you walk
down the hall, down the stairs
across the street to fetch me a newspaper
and a soda?
No.
I’ll buy you a soda too.
No?
How about five bucks
to go with your soda.
Okay.
The reward goes up
you’re more likely
to do what I ask.
It’s a simple exchange.
yet at some point
The reward I offer
is impossible.

When you offer people a reward, they’re more likely to do what you ask them to. And the bigger the reward, the more likely it is that they’ll say Yes. If I really don’t feel like going across the street to get you a soda, I might not do it for five bucks — but I’m more likely to do it for ten. I’ll almost certainly do it for twenty. Damn sure I’ll do it for a hundred.

Of course, the more that’s being asked, the more you have to offer to get people to do it. I’d go across the street and get you a soda for five bucks — but to get me to go clear across town and buy you this special soda that they only have in this one store, you’re going to have to do a lot better than five bucks. If we’re very close friends and you’re having a bad day and this special soda is the one thing that would cheer you up, I might do it out of the goodness of my heart… but in general, offering a bigger reward is how you get people to do bigger and better things for you.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

The promise of Heaven is the biggest reward of all. The promise of Heaven is infinite. It is the promise that you will get to live forever, and will never have to die. It is the promise that you will get to live forever in perfect ecstatic bliss, entirely free from suffering or fear. It is the promise that you will get to see everyone you most dearly love, forever, and will never have to say goodbye to them again.

This promise is so enormous, it can get people to do just about anything. It can get people to get out of bed early one day a week and go sit on an uncomfortable bench, even though they only have two days off in a week. It can get people to wear ridiculous and uncomfortable outfits. It can get people to stand up when you tell them to, sit down when you tell them to, kneel when you tell them to, say magic words in a language they don’t understand when you tell them to. It can get people to give you a tenth of their income, or more. It can get people to teach their children to believe everything you say. It can get people to fly airplanes into buildings and kill thousands of people. Just because you promised them they’d go to Heaven if they did what you asked.

Now. Think about this for a second.

What do we think of people who promise rewards to get us to do what they want… when they can’t make good on those promises?

What do we think of people who promise rewards to get us to do what they want… without having any good reason to think those promises will be fulfilled? What do we think of people who say, “Oh, yeah, if you drive across town to get me that special soda, this guy Hank will give you a hundred bucks” — when they have no good reason to think that Hank even exists, much less that he’s going to make good on the promises they’re making on his behalf?

We think they’re frauds. Charlatans. Scam artists.

And the bigger the promises, the worse we think they are.

If I promise you five bucks to go across the street and get me a soda, and after you’ve gotten me the soda I look in my wallet and say, “Oh, shoot, I thought I had five bucks but I don’t, sorry”… well, you’ll probably be somewhat irritated, but you probably won’t hate me for the rest of my life. But if I’m your boss, and I promise you a bonus of two thousand dollars if you work weekends on a special project, and then I say, “Oh, shoot, I thought I had two thousand dollars in my bank account, but I don’t”? You’re going to be furious. You might even quit, or sue, or start a boycott against me. As well you should.

When people offer a bigger reward to get us to do what they ask, our expectation that they be able to make good on that promise goes up. In fact, when people make really big promises, we generally enforce those promises with contracts, to legally compel them to make good. And we get much, much angrier when it turns out they were bullshitting. We understand that bigger promises create a bigger enticement to get people to do what we want. So our moral obligation to make good on our promises, and to only make promises we know we can keep, goes up in proportion to how much we’ve promised. And when people don’t make good on their promises, when they make promises they can’t personally keep and have no way of knowing will be kept by others… our anger goes up in proportion, not only to how much was being asked of us, but to how big the promises were in the first place.

So when people offer an infinitely huge reward to get us to do what they want… without having any good reason to think this reward will happen?

We should be furious.

And that’s exactly what the doctrine of Heaven does.

We often think of Heaven as the nice doctrine. We criticize Hell all the time: atheists, skeptics, even many progressive believers, are eager to say that the doctrine of Hell is a terrible form of fear-mongering and manipulation and social control. But Heaven, we tend to give a free pass on. Even if we think Heaven is a lie, we often think of it as a pretty lie. We think of Heaven as the comforting doctrine, the doctrine that gives pretty dreams to kids and makes Grandma happy on her deathbed.

We shouldn’t.

The doctrine of Heaven is every bit as screwed-up as the doctrine of Hell. It is every bit as insidious a form of social control. We should give it every bit as much hostility and scorn as we give to Hell.

Comments

  1. says

    Oh, of course I’m going to be one of the first people to comment on this post.

    There is another issue – if you offered me $100 to go get you a soda, I’d look at you like you were a nutbag. I’d have a hard time believing that 1. Me getting you a soda is worth $100 to you 2. That you’ll make good on your promise 3. You weren’t offering as some sort of trick or for some other nefarious motive.

    But that’s only $100. I bet most Christians would approach the offer of $100 with the same skepticism, yet they’ve all probably at least SEEN $100 in their lifetime. They know $100 is real.

    Heaven is so much more than $100 by orders of infinitude, yet they accept the reality of heaven without ever seeing it.

  2. says

    Now you’re just two steps away from nihilism. Congratulations. Eventually you’ll get there. The longer you think about it, the closer you will get.

  3. Tony says

    I wonder if Christina’s post would work on billboards. I don’t know how successful the Atheist Billboard Campaign is, but this post could fit in (maybe with one or two tweaks only to draw a more direct link to religious criticism). Some people might just say ‘screw it’ if they don’t feel like thinking about it too much.

    Greta:

    It is the promise that you will get to live forever, and will never have to die.

    This is another thing about some religions I can’t fathom. Who the heck wants to live forever? Why would you want to? I wouldn’t mind having a few extra hundred years of relative youth so that I could go places, meet people, do things…et al. Heck, maybe even a few thousand years would be ok (though having all your loved ones pass away would probably become unbearable in just a few hundred years). But all eternity? Where’s the benefit? What are you supposed to do for all that time? Knit stockings? Eternal games of Scrabble? Ride on segways? What about all the loved ones that don’t make it to heaven? Is there a Divine Facebook where The Faithful will be able to stay in touch with The Damned? What good would it do to be in heaven for all eternity if *none* of your loved ones or close friends are there?


    We think of Heaven as the comforting doctrine, the doctrine that gives pretty dreams to kids and makes Grandma happy on her deathbed.

    We shouldn’t.

    After my best friend passed away in 2010, I found myself wishing I could believe in heaven, just so that he could be in a better place. As I thought about it more I started realizing that I don’t want him or *anyone* to go to heaven. Even if heaven existed, I wouldn’t want anyone to have to sit at the foot of throne of the murderous biblical deity.

  4. SallyStrange: bottom-feeding, work-shy peasant says

    Now you’re just two steps away from nihilism. Congratulations. Eventually you’ll get there. The longer you think about it, the closer you will get.

    Think about what? Nihilism? Does thinking about nihilism inevitably make you a nihilist? Or does thinking in general make you into a nihilist? Is the only way to avoid becoming a nihilist to turn off your brain entirely?

    Interesting.

  5. Toni says

    I’m a new fan to your blog, and I must say that you are an amazing person. I’ve been in and out of churches my whole life but what I find degraded them all was they had the same promise they couldnt promise. You have inspired me greatly. Why do we need heaven? Why arent people just good people because it is decent? I just wanted to say that your thoughts help me shed light onto mine and I am thankful. So please continue to be amazingly awesome!!
    Thank you Greta,
    Toni

  6. Mr.Kosta says

    Now you’re just two steps away from nihilism. Congratulations. Eventually you’ll get there. The longer you think about it, the closer you will get.

    As if believing in reality wasn’t enough. Oh well, trollin’ trolls gonna troll.

    As always, excellent post. I hadn’t thought of the doctrine of Heaven in this way. I thought it was bullshit, of course, but not as pernicious as the doctrine of Hell.

  7. Tony says

    myatheistlife @3:

    Now you’re just two steps away from nihilism. Congratulations. Eventually you’ll get there. The longer you think about it, the closer you will get.

    I can’t tell if you’re being snarky or serious with this post. I’m leaning towards serious, which is why I decided to look up nihilism, just to make sure it meant what I thought it did (turns out, I didn’t know what the word meant).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihilism

    Nihilism is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.[1] Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived.

    By this definition, I’m completely a nihilist. I most definitely do NOT believe that life has any intrinsic meaning, purpose, or value. I believe that what we do with our lives is what gives our existence meaning.
    So I’m happy to say I’m a nihilist.

  8. says

    I’m not sure the concept of Heaven in general is evil. You’re right that telling someone “do this and you’ll go to Heaven” is seriously wrong, but that’s not the only (or even the major) way the concept is used.

    What would you say to somebody who, beat down and hopeless, reached out for the idea that at some much later time they would, despite all appearances, be happy? I mean, sure, they’re wrong, but the evil is in what drives them to embrace the idea of Heaven, not in the idea itself.

  9. Matthew Hodson says

    WWHAKD?
    I’m not sure there would be weed in either heaven or hell so they are both terrible.

  10. chrisdevries says

    @9: Accepting that happiness can only come after death is an excuse to not seek happiness in this life. I can accept that in some extreme cases there is no chance of a happy, fulfilling life for an individual (and would not try to convince such people that there’s no heaven), but in many (maybe most) cases there are solutions to the problems that make people miserable.

    But more generally, accepting that the real reward is in death and that you only have to let Jeezus into your heart and believe in his loving sacrifice for your sins has two additional (very related) problems, even if you concede that most people care about their lives enough to try to attain some level of happiness in it.

    1) There is no incentive to making anything bigger than the individual more successful and prosperous. Once your life is taken care of, from a conservative Christian point of view, your priority is to convert others so they too can focus on the afterlife (although recently, these people are also trying to make Earth a bit too much like Heaven for a secular nation). Leaving your community in better shape than you found it through “social engineering” projects that seek to reverse alarming trends in income disparity and social mobility is decidedly against the conservative Christian philosophy. After personal salvation is assured the only thing that matters to them (on Earth at least) is making God happy by living by his laws (even the wacky ones) and gaining more souls for him. But both of these only make you a better Christian; once you’re saved, everything else is optional.

    2) Because the only Earthly thing that matters to the conservative Christian is that xe finds the Lord and accepts Jeezus into hir heart, and because being washed in the blood of the Lamb makes your sins disappear, there is no incentive not to sin. The reason you find so many Christians engaging in private displays of immoral behavior (let’s keep this discussion to real crimes, not “only immoral to Christians” behavior) is because they know it doesn’t matter in the eternal picture. They’re saved. And not only that, but there is a surprisingly high amount of forgiveness in their community for all sorts of transgressions: being saved is all that matters…the sin magically disappears (if God can forgive hir, why can’t I?). Earthly consequences may be unpleasant, but not unpleasant enough to have a meaningful chance at rehabilitating offenders who aren’t invested in their society’s health and well-being. How can you rehabilitate someone who thinks that what happens in this life is irrelevant?

    tl;dr: the lack of meaning in this life except as a ticket to heaven, contingent on accepting Jeezus as your Lord and Savior, gives conservative Christians an excuse to both not improve their society however they can, and to actively hurt it.

    It’s no wonder these people hate government: it’s the government’s job to improve all its citizens lives (ideally). The US government (and state gov’ts too) has lost its teeth due to these nutcases. Its primary job now seems to be to enforce the status quo. Fairness, equality, respect for all points of view…God never mandated these principles so why should conservative Christians pay taxes to a body that works towards them?

  11. sminhinnick says

    Another thing that would make heaven pure hell, is the endlessness of it. I do not think this is grasped by believers when they make it out to be wonderful.

    The Universe is 13.7 x 10^9 years old. The time to the hypothetical heat death of the universe is at least 10^100 years (based on the decay time for a supermassive black hole of roughly 1 galaxy-mass (10^11 solar masses) due to Hawking radiation).

    So we are only about one 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th of the way through the life of this universe based on a death-death scenario.

    And that is not even an eye-blink on the road to infinity.

    Heaven better have a few good novels and a stack of decent movies, because it’s going to get boooooooring!

  12. David Evans says

    Your argument is a good one for those of us who believe there is no evidence for the existence of Heaven. But in arguing with Christians or the uncommitted it makes sense to concentrate on the evils of Hell. If Christianity were true, Heaven would at least be something to look forward to, but Hell would remain a moral evil.

  13. Gordon says

    I think heaven sounds worse than hell, psychological torture in heaven in place of the physical torture in hell.

    You need to spend forever singing the praises of a needy tyrant? No thanks

  14. says

    Thanks for this post.

    There seems to be a human tendency to put up with living in a shithole, as long as they think that it’s only temporary. This would not be so bad; but the promise of a better tomorrow can actually deter people from making an effort to improve things for themselves today.

    So, if you promise people they are going to be happy in Heaven, then they won’t mind so much about life on Earth in the meantime. Meaning, you can shirk any responsibility that may be incumbent upon you to do anything about improving their lives.

    I first saw this demonstrated in a 2007 reality TV social experiment featuring people living on a rubbish dump. Some of the campers were quite adamantly opposed to rebuilding the shelter (although it was evident that they were not enjoying themselves); yet when they were outvoted, they clearly liked the improved shelter afterwards — even despite having been made made to get involved in carrying out the improvement work.

  15. says

    As others have mentioned, it’s eternal. You’d get bored over time. I mean, I really like cookies! Omnomnom and all that! I think, if I could, I’d love to eat nothing but cookies! It’d be so freakin’ awesome.

    But then I’d start to get bored of cookies. Yea, chocolate chip is good, but chocolate chip for days straight – boring. I can switch it up with a bunch of different kinds of cookies, a nice oatmeal, sugar cookie, or Thin Mint – but even after that, I’d get bored of those cookies too. Eventually I’d get sick of cookies and it wouldn’t be fun anymore. And it wouldn’t even take that long.

    Maybe God can rewrite your brain chemistry so you never get bored! That would just suck though, you’d lose a key part of yourself. Boredom is what encourages people to try new things. It’s a means to become creative, spontaneous, adventurous! If God can just flick a switch and you love cookies again, what’s the point?

    It’s similar to that whole idea of loved ones in Hell. If your loved one is a nonbeliever, Heaven would suck for you. Imagine your loving husband or wife – who you’ve spent half-if-not-more of your life with, sharing feelings, intimate moments, having arguments, deep conversations, fun, sorrows and frustrations. Imagine they’re a nonbeliever and they die and go to Hell. Now Heaven is a place of torment for you because you can never see them again, never touch them, never have those heavenly moments again.

    Sure, again God could just rewrite your brain and tell you that “you don’t miss this person.” But the loss of those memories would be horrible, it would be Hell even more than Hell would be. If God could snap his fingers and remove memories from your head, what would Heaven be? Memories, the good and the bad, would be gone. You’d lose a sense of torment, but at the same time you’d lose your loved one.

    On that part, there’s a manga I read called Chobits. It’s about relationships – although the main plot is the guy and his relationship with his robot companion, the other relationships IMO are more important (a young man with his teacher who is a battered and betrayed woman, an older man with his teenage sweetheart, a boy and the memory of his sister.)

    One of the characters is a baker who married his robot companion because he found himself in love with her personality. His wife started developing sort of a robo-alzheimers, and when he took her in to get her repaired, the repairman said he could replace her hard drive, but she’d lose her personality and her memories. The baker decided to let her live her life with her corrupted hard drive, because even though she’d forget things and even though she was losing her memory, there were those sparks of recognition and the times she’d be able to remember who he was and what their relationship was. (She ended up getting killed by a truck after shoving him out of the way.)

    The point is, our memories make us who we are. If God could rewrite our memories and make us forget things – we’d no longer be “us.” We’d be some automaton in Heaven, praising God and never suffering – because we’d be little perfect robot puppets.

  16. machintelligence says

    Always keep in mind that religions are not selling eternal life. They are selling the promise of eternal life.

  17. Tony says

    Katherine @16:

    You have officially won an internet. And if I can quote Bob Barker: You just won a new car!

    In all seriousness, that post was totally awesome. The cookie analogy is the perfect illustration of how quickly even something we love would become boring. The manga you mentioned sounds like it delves into some deep issues that I’m not sure many people have thought about. Certainly any great thought about how long eternity is and what we’re supposed to do every single day forever hasn’t really developed among many believers. Perhaps cognitive dissonance at work?

  18. Nicole says

    I’ve always wondered at what age do you get to be in this heaven? The age at which you die? I’d probably rather be the age I am now, 31, than go on for eternity at 90. At least then I could still run half marathons in the clouds and shit.

    That’s not to say 90 year old aren’t awesome, but if I have to be somewhere for-ev-er it better be on my terms.

    And I’m just thinking that it would not be on my terms even if it really existed.

  19. says

    @Tony:

    Yay! A sniny new Internet! *puts it on a shelf*

    Thank you very much for the compliment. It’s funny when you look at the different religions, how few of them take into true consideration what “forever” means. Forever means for-ever. You’re never going to stop doing things. I think it’s just… egotistic, to want an eternal afterlife. You’re saying you’re so special you deserve to live forever. How many bad guys in so many movies are after the secret of immortality? And they’re the bad guys! It’s the height of selfishness, and I think a sort of major fear of the unknown and death.

    It’s time we do away with the selfish, fearful attitude and embrace reality. Sure, reality is scary sometimes, and sure, no afterlife is a very frightening idea. Living this life the way you want to is what makes it interesting though.

    Oh, and for the reference, Chobits is a great manga – though it’s a bit on the fanservicey side of things. If you ignore the main plot (Hideki and Chii) and focus on the meanings of the relationships of the other characters, you’d see it like I do. It’s not about Hideki and Chii, it’s about the other characters and their relationships. It’s about how we don’t have any “normal” relationship type. If they’d added a same-sex relationship, I think it would be a very powerful story.

  20. John says

    It’s already been touched on by Katherine, but the truly disturbing thing about Heaven as a Christian Concept is that it removes your Free Will.

    In Heaven there is supposed to be no sin, sorrow, or suffering. If you knew of someone in Hell, while you were in Heaven, then you’d be suffering – but it’s OK, god will make sure you don’t suffer. So that’s removed.

    But sin, in its essence, is going contrary to the will of god, if there will be no more sin in heaven, you the individual can no longer go contrary to god’s will, meaning you lose your own free will, or rather it will be somehow supernaturally restrained such that “you will freely never do anything against god’s will”.

    In which case, the question to the theists becomes “Why create beings with free will if the end-game is a situation where said free will is removed?”

  21. Sensemaker says

    You are absolutely right. If I say “do what I say or you will be shot” it is an illegal threat, enslavement, terror, armed robbery or some other felony (depending on exact circumstances) regardless of whether the threat is real or even particularly realistic, regardless of whether it is the person issuing the threat or someone working with him that is supposed to be the person pulling the trigger. Why should it be legal to say “do what I say or you will burn in hell forever”? It is clearly a threat intended to intimidate, cow and enforce compliance with your rules.

    If you say “do what I say and you will be made healthy” is fraud if you cannot or will not fulfill your part of the bargain, regardless of whether the person issuing the promise is supposed to be the one delivering on his promise. Why should it be legal to say “do what I say and you will live forever in paradise”?

    This is just another case of religion getting a free pass to do thing that we normally do not tolerate, that we shouldn’t tolerate. We have got so use to this nonsense that we stop noticing it. Thanks Greta, this is one area where your clear-headedness really shines.

    Sensemaker

  22. says

    Excellent post, Greta.

    The thing I’ve never liked about Heaven is the idea that there’s one group that gets to go to Heaven and everyone else can’t. It’s the ultimate form of segregation. I remember that a while back at Daylight Atheism, there was a guest post by Scotlyn called “Naming Activist Fallacies: The Separatist Paradise” and I remember commenting that I think of Heaven as the ultimate separatist paradise, with people thinking that things would be so wonderful if only they could live in a place where only members of their own religion are allowed.

    When I stopped believing in God, it was the idea of Heaven which was the most difficult to let go of, because by that time I believed in a form of Heaven that allowed people in based on their goodness, not based on religion. I can understand what Philboyd (#9) is saying, and I take seriously the fact that there are people in such dire circumstances (for different lengths of time) that Heaven is their only form of hope, but too often I feel like people who do have other forms of hope and could handle not believing in Heaven still use the argument anyway. And then there are times when it seems odd for someone to use the argument. For example, there are people who make other people’s lives worse (like the conservative Christians who chrisdevries (#11) mentioned), but then when you criticize them, they go on about how Heaven gives people hope. It sounds disingenuous for them to accuse others of taking away hope for an afterlife when they make others’ lives miserable.

    Also, the idea of a Divine Facebook (Tony at #4) made me smile.

  23. says

    When my wife and I were first dating, she wasn’t really a religious person but she had grown up with it and hadn’t really thought about it in years. She had this background belief “sure heaven exists, everyone knows that” but had never really questioned it. “Everyone know when I die I will get to see my grandparent again” that sort of thing.

    At some point when we hadn’t been dating long I mentioned that I don’t believe in any of it including heaven. I explained my reasoning and after talking about it for just a short time it made sense to her and she basically agreed with me, but it was a bit of a blow to her that I never meant to deliver. She was pretty bummed out about it for a while, I felt terrible for making her feel so bad.

    It’s another way that the idea of heaven is so insidious.

  24. leftwingfox says

    It’s interesting that even christians are starting to find the concept of an eternal afterlife in Heaven (or even hell) to be _not enough_. I have heard a few popular-fiction versions of heaven recently begin to slip in the concept of reincarnation: that Heaven and Hell are both pit-stops before another spin on the mortal coil.

    Here’s a thought: Perhaps the hope that “we” (as in our souls) are eternal is common throughout humanity regardless of religion. Religion simply tries to shackle that hope to it’s own ends.

  25. AsqJames says

    Not thought of the concept of heaven in those terms before, but now I’m seeing the Pope as the ultimate Nigerian 419 scammer.

  26. says

    Back in 2003, when he was 14 years old, my youngest son went on a science fair trip with a group of students. One of the others was a student at a fundamentalist private school, and was prostelyzing. My son asked him why he was pushing his religion. His answer was that he would get a ‘house with many rooms’ if he saved a large number of people. My son quickly and correctly realized that it was about a selfish reward rather than any sort of actual altrusim.

  27. says

    You know how in Narnia, it’s always winter but never Christmas?

    Well in Heaven, it’s always the church service, but never going out to eat afterward…

  28. davidfairbanks says

    Implicit in the eternal reward of guaranteed happiness is the deletion of unfaithful loved ones from the memories of the saved. It’s sadly Orwellian.

    A scripture in Revelation says that there will be no more outcries, no more pain, and every tear will be wiped from your eyes, the former things will not be brought to mind. I no longer believe in any supernatural beings, and as a result my father thinks that I will be denied the chance at a happy eternity. This thought causes him mental anguish. I explained to him that his feelings for me are of no consequence to his deity, because in order for him to be happily living forever, his memories of me will be purged.

    In order for Pop to live happily ever after, the creator of the universe will have to reach his holy hands in to dear ol’ dad’s grey matter and snip out the neurons that allow him to remember me.

    I told him that my existence is of no consequence to his eternal happiness according to his hoped for eternal reward. He said, “Well, it matters to me now!” I told him me might want to reevaluate that sentiment in order to more perfectly align his thoughts with god’s.

    I just reread my comment, and it sounds like I’m being a jerk or harsh to Dad. I love my dad. I’m happy every time I get to see him. He knows so much, and I want to learn from him. I want to be like him. I have a son of my own now (he’s eight months old), and I want to be the type of father to my boy that my dad is to me. But because of this damn Heaven, instead of being happy every time dad sees me, he gets sad. As a result, he doesn’t want to see me as often as he used to. It’s almost like he pushes me away so he won’t have to think about it. I used to just dislike religion, but now I’m starting to hate it. It’s dysfunctional. Maybe if I started living a lie, I could enjoy the years my father and I have left.

  29. Rieux says

    I was going to make the same point that Christina @1 did: the credibility of the promise is a crucial factor. If I offer you $100,000 to go across the street and get me a soft drink, I predict you won’t do it (or at least not with the hopes of getting paid), because you won’t find my promise credible.

    Given that Heaven is, on its own merits or lack thereof, just about the least credible promise possible, this suggests some ugly things about the belief systems (e.g., the indoctrination they must incorporate in order to get adherents to overlook the blatant implausibility) that are attached to Heaven.

  30. Tony says

    Philboyd @9:

    I’m not sure the concept of Heaven in general is evil.

    -While I see where you’re coming from, I’d say heaven is definitely not good. That doesn’t make it evil either, but it does make it somewhere in that grey area. However, I’d say it leans heavily towards evil. Loved ones in hell, but you’re in heaven? That doesn’t sound pleasurable at all. In fact, it sounds torturous.
    I remember exactly the last time I thought of heaven in a good light. I can’t say Greta will exactly appreciate this story, but given that she’s a cat lover, she will likely understand the sentiment behind it.
    Several years ago, I came home from a vacation to find my sweet, adorable, lovable feline companion, Kara, not eating anything. No dry cat food. Not moist. I knew something was wrong when I offered her tuna and she didn’t eat. It turned out that she had massive kidney problems. The only options were humanely putting her down or feeding her intravenously. Despite not eating, she was still her wonderful self (one of the things I loved about her was how quickly she would run from one end of the house to the other when I called her name; at which point, she’d hop on top of my chest and curl up and go to sleep). I agonized for a few days, but ultimately decided to put her down. I figured that it wasn’t much quality of life for her to continue, and given my schedule, I didn’t know if I’d be able to attend to her regular feedings (which I took to be a bit more complicated than ‘scoop one cup of cat food into bowl’). I opted to put her down. Staying in that room and watching them administer the poison was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I held my loving cat Kara in my arms as she died. I cried in that room for a while (heck, I’m getting teary eyed right now). A few weeks later, the veterinarian’s office sent a condolence card with a bittersweet message. Of course it was religious and said something to the effect that when *I* die, I’ll be reunited with Kara in heaven, and as I’m walking up that golden stairway, she’s going to be outside playing and catch a whiff of my scent and run my way and we’d be together forever (sorry for that run on sentence there). It was touching. It made me cry. Looking back now, it makes me angry though. If there was a such thing as heaven, I wouldn’t even be going since I’m gay. So no, I wouldn’t be reunited with Kara. Since I don’t believe in heaven, then I don’t believe any kind of reunion will happen when I die, so the false hope given by the condolence card kinda pisses me off.
    I already had been an atheist for a few years prior to Kara’s passing, but that was one more nail in the ‘religion poisons everything’ coffin for me.

  31. Wendy Cohoon says

    No religious rule books actually say that a believer’s pets will be in heaven, that I am aware of yet many religious pet owners like to think their pet’s will be in heaven.
    What about the old man who is getting virgins in heaven? Why are those virgins being punished in heaven, if heaven is such a wonderful place?
    Who serves those in heaven, cleans up after them etc? Or, are believer’s going to have to continue to work and slave for themselves and others? Or is everything run by magic?
    What happens if someone expects to spend time with you in heaven but you don’t want to spend eternity with them?
    Seems to me someones idea of heaven is someone else’ idea of hell.

  32. says

    Great post, Greta, and great comments, everyone.

    One way I phrase it if someone keeps trying to offer me the carrot:

    “I don’t take bribes.”

    A bribe is given to corrupt conduct, and religious fundamentalism is a cesspool of corruption because they hand out the greatest bribe imaginable, if you can believe it.

    Though one thing that probably helped me was being raised in a very liberal church that usually treated heaven as a given for normal people. I tended to imagine it as being a lot like regular life with a much lower crime rate. It would have been hard to convince me to act a way in this life that had no place in the next life.

    Of course, being an atheist now, it’s largely pointless to offer me an imaginary bribe, but I still see such offers as an insult to my integrity, whether they’re offering me a metaphorical briefcase full of cash or full of Monopoly money.

  33. Tony says

    AsqJames @26:

    Not thought of the concept of heaven in those terms before, but now I’m seeing the Pope as the ultimate Nigerian 419 scammer.

    -And sadly, there are still people filling his pockets. There are still too many people who blindly embrace the catholic church, despite its vast moral failings (in fact, over at Camels with Hammers, one of Daniel’s old posts about the catholic church wanting women pregnant was resuscitated; one response from a catholic literally shut down any desire I had to continue the conversation; she said she has respect for the church for standing up for their beliefs {wrt contraception}; after reading that, I wanted to go puke; I suppose though, in the catholic doctrine, since you can repent for your sins, even pederasts can potentially go to heaven, but if you’re immoral and going to hell if you use the pill)

  34. Tony says

    I’m suddenly thinking of the part in “The Invention of Lying” where humanity learns that everyone gets a mansion in heaven. Add that to the Occupy protests, and I’m thinking that the 1% won’t be happy in heaven. They’re accustomed to *multiple* mansions.

  35. jaqal says

    well….it’s a good thing, then, that all of your concepts of heaven & hell aren’t biblical, but based on pagan beliefs of the afterlife that infiltrated the Christian church after constantine was converted.

    i really enjoyed all of your posts & many made me laugh (as they were intending to do). i’m going to forward this blog to my pastor & suggest we discuss some of the psuedo-accurate descriptions in our young adult group sometime in the near future.

    cheers.

  36. John Horstman says

    Great post Greta! I’m not a fan of ‘moral’ systems that attempt to coerce the behavior of their adherents, and so I’ve always viewed rewards with the same mistrust as punishments (and specifically with respect to Heaven and Hell, too; also, the criminal justice system, as it’s more focused on behavioral coercion to meet unreasoned social norms than harm reduction).

  37. Art says

    Standard missionary strategy is to start with long wondrous stories about a marvelous place called heaven without mentioning that you have to die to get there. It is often mentioned that anyone can get there. That, yes, even people like you. And it is easy to get there. This draws people in who living in miserable conditions, looking for a way out, and people who are used to thinking and speaking literally.

    Once you get people enthused about going to heaven the missionary, often as an aside, brings up hell and how terrible it is.

    Then, the kicker, how do you get to heaven and avoid hell … and welcome to my nightmare.

    It is progression. Bring them in, make them want it, then scare them, confuse them, then tell them you will guide them away from hell and to heaven. At this point the priest can stop acting so kind and gentle. He can be as violent and disruptive to village life as he wants because he has established himself as the shepherd to the people who is intent of guiding them to heaven. Anything he does is justified to accomplish that mission.

    It is a systematic mind fuck designed for desperate people who are used to thinking literally. It works.

  38. cag says

    I promise to go to church this Sunday.

    When I’m a no show, Mr. Imaginary will be really, really, really pissed.

  39. says


    We criticize Hell all the time: atheists, skeptics, even many progressive believers, are eager to say that the doctrine of Hell is a terrible form of fear-mongering and manipulation and social control.

    For the love of Batman your right! I always thought that the concept of heaven seemed…boring (I, along with others, don’t want to live forever), but even still I always railed against the idea of hell much more than the idea of heaven.

    Even if you ignore the whole “living forever would be incredibly boring” bit, there’s still the problem of “you’ll get to see all of your loved ones again” because they leave off the fine print of “unless they went to hell.” So really, the idea heaven is a way to make sure you never see some of loved ones ever again. I wonder if this plays a role in why so many Christians are so insular?

  40. idonotknow says

    There were two things that I never liked about heaven and hell (a list that is now expanded thank to this post and comments).

    One as mentioned by AJS (#15) was how H&H lead to inaction, because it doesn’t really matter how bad things are in life since god will sort it all out afterward for all eternity. But we don’t get all eternity to be rewarded for good deeds and feel all smug and righteous about those bad folks being punished in hell, or to make right with people we’ve wronged and let loved ones know that they are loved. We only have this relatively short life and we should be trying to fill it with as much good as we can, instead of sitting back and waiting for god to magic everything better once we’re dead.

    Another thing that always bothered me was deathbed salvation, which was allowed in the flavour of church I attended when young. So basically you can be “sinful”, “wicked”, “evil”, etc your whole life to any limit and then say sorry just before you die and have god forgive you and reward you with eternal bliss? How is that fair? One minute of contrition negates a lifetime of murder, rape and pillage? If that rule lets you get into heaven, then god is an idiot.

  41. George W Thrush says

    What an amazing piece. Who ever questions the concept of religious heaven (I was a christian, so their terms are the only ones I know; hence, substitute allah, buddah, ganesh, etc, for “god” and so on)?

    I personally have only ever seen the coin side which says that hell is literally forever and literally unbearable for literally all of that time.

    I have never considered the equal ludicrousnesses of heaven as set aside in this piece.

    This paragraph I will carry in my mind for a long time:

    “This promise is so enormous, it can get people to do just about anything. It can get people to get out of bed early one day a week and go sit on an uncomfortable bench, even though they only have two days off in a week. It can get people to wear ridiculous and uncomfortable outfits. It can get people to stand up when you tell them to, sit down when you tell them to, kneel when you tell them to, say magic words in a language they don’t understand when you tell them to. It can get people to give you a tenth of their income, or more. It can get people to teach their children to believe everything you say. It can get people to fly airplanes into buildings and kill thousands of people.”

    Thanks.

  42. Kemist says

    i really enjoyed all of your posts & many made me laugh (as they were intending to do). i’m going to forward this blog to my pastor & suggest we discuss some of the psuedo-accurate descriptions in our young adult group sometime in the near future.

    That’s it ?

    None of that good old sophitimicated theolomology ?

    *pouts*

  43. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    The Emperor Constantine was supposed to have been converted to Christianity upon seeing a vision of a cross in the sky before a battle. In hoc signo vinces. (“In this sign you will conquer.”) I’ve often wondered if that isn’t a post hoc justification for something else.

    Perhaps this scenario is closer to the truth. Constantine and the boys were discussing how to keep the lower classes and slaves happy. Someone mentioned how the Christians had this idea that if folks were very good, they’d go to “heaven” and have eternal happiness. Then the lightbulb went on. “You mean we can dump on them all day every day but if they follow the rules they’ll make it to paradise? Why are we prosecuting these guys, they’ve invented the perfect social control?”

    Joe Hill’s most famous song, “The Preacher and the Slave”, is about this idea.

    You will eat, bye and bye,
    In that glorious land above the sky;
    Work and pray, live on hay,
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

  44. mnb0 says

    “The promise of Heaven is infinite.”
    That’s exactly why it sucks, even with a positive approach. Anything that is infinte gets boring at some point. Do you want to eat your favourite food all day? Do you want to listen to your favourite music all day, 7 days a week etc.? Do you want to watch your favourite movie all the time?
    That’s where the promise of heaven fails. Eg, I like to play chess. Heaven being perfect it means that I will never lose as losing implies imperfection. The same is true for my opponents, even if they are the strongest imaginable. So every game will end in a draw; we will know in advance; as a result the whole point of playing a game is removed.
    Just consider this objectively. Every single human activity implies or demands imperfection one way or another. As a result I have concluded:

    “We criticize Hell all the time”
    Not me. Given the choice – even it’s a logical fallacy – I’d rather prefer hell. At least it saves me from the eternal torture of boredom.

    “I do not think this is grasped”
    It isn’t. One believer asked me: wouldn’t you enjoy discussing topics with Socrates?
    Well, yes, except that heaven being perfect thus we having perfect knowledge there won’t be much to talk about.

    “But in arguing with Christians”
    I disagree. Asking them wtf is so attractive about heaven gives rise to some silly answers. Try it.

    “deathbed salvation”
    When I heard that explained by Youth for Christ – a classmate asked about Pinochet – as a 13 years old I immediately set my first step towards atheism. Realizing that heaven is not attractive at all was my last step.

  45. says

    If God could rewrite our memories and make us forget things – we’d no longer be “us.” We’d be some automaton in Heaven, praising God and never suffering – because we’d be little perfect robot puppets.

    YEah, that’s one more whole layer of sickness on top of the pathology that is the Heaven fantasy. When the kid you’re trying to indoctrinate asks such obvious questions as “Won’t even the best experience get boring after awhile?” the priest or whoever has to make up shit like this on the fly; and it usually amounts to “If you’re truly saved and truly letting Jesus guide your life, you’ll be happy with what God gives you and won’t want any more…because who can possibly even imagine having anything better than what God gives you (what are you, an ingrate or something?)?”

    And what all this boils down to, is that the people selling this fantasy really don’t want you to be an autonomous being thinking for yourself, and simply can’t deal with you as such; they want you to be a happy Stepford wife to their God.

  46. kemist says

    Anything that is infinite gets boring at some point.

    And considering my very, very low threshold for boredom (and the fact that I get depessed and borderline suicidal when bored), heaven would fit to my personnal definition of hell quite fast. Plus the quite horrifying fact that I wouldn’t even have the option of killing myself.

    I can’t grok how people can seriously give a thought to all this and not think it’s the worse punishment you could possibly inflict on someone.

  47. Maria says

    @ # 50.

    Ha ha ha, yeah, I guess that’s as good a description of heaven as any other! :-)

    Also:

  48. Maria says

    Ooops! I didn’t know that would actually embed the whole video, to only paste the URL in here!

    Please delete if not allowed in the comments!

  49. says

    Didja ever notice that so many individual’s description of heaven–and many actual doctrines have this–include slaves? Beings, creatures, even wives whose sole purpose it is to serve the rewarded?

    Another country club I’m not interested in.

  50. says

    A: Hey, check this out, if you do whatever I say, I’ll let you suck my cock.

    B: Honestly… that’s not very appealing.

    A: Okay, how about this: two blowjobs.

    B: That doesn’t actually make it better.

    A: Okay, I see what you’re saying; not enough blowjob. I’ll let you suck my dick whenever you want.

    B: I don’t think y

    A: AND I’ll fuck you whenever I want!

    B: You’re n

    A: If you don’t I’ll kill you.

    B: What?!

    A: I’ll torture you to death slowly and painfully.

    B: You what?!

    A: I’ll use blood transfusions to keep you alive. I’ll pull your skin off and pull out your teeth and burn you. I’ll cut you apart piece by piece. And I’ll take advantage of your toothless mouth to get those blowjobs I wanted.

    B: What the fuck is wrong with you?

    A: I love you.

    Why do the faithful think their offer is at all appealing?

  51. says

    I just wanted to add – even if hell doesn’t exist and heaven is just “Whatever you want it to be, whatever would make you most happy” as some (many) super liberal barely Christian believers I’ve met think… this anti-heaven argument still rocks and holds true.

    Basically… let’s say heaven REALLY is perfect. And there’s no segregation, no alternative of hell or “other”, no stripping of free will (although technically I don’t believe in pure free will – but that’s another discussion) etc.

    Still. It’s a made up concept that might sound good in theory… but it’s a mean promise to make if you’re not 100% sure it’s true. And no one is, hence the definition of the word “faith” and how much people differ on the details of what afterlives may or may not be – no two people’s concept of heaven is the same.

    I think it’s just… the concept of heaven is evil in a lot of ways, and I never thought of it before. It’s evil because it’s “false comfort” and when a person naturally is afraid of death or naturally is grieving, things we can’t control, they are made to feel like they SHOULDN’T be feeling these emotions because heaven is utopia. There’s zero reason to cry and you’re silly to wish you weren’t joining God and your dead great grandmother or dead best friend or whoever in magic land. It’s not fair and reminds me somewhat of making people who are homosexual, or who have premarital sex/masturbate/watch porn/something like that feel guilty. The concept of heaven in that way CAN be just as unfair as those sex rules religions have.

    It’s also evil for all the other ways mentioned already too though. ;)

  52. Rosemary says

    The trouble with the Christian concept of Heaven is that you get to stop everything that makes life meaningful and worthwhile on earth: love, sex, food, work and creative play. You get to watch and hear your un-saved loved ones screaming in hell, as well as the agony of a whole lot of humans you never knew. You spend all “day” in the close presence of a tryant who will not lift a heavenly finger to rescue these suffering people because he wished to punish them for their inability to believe in his existence.

    That is a description of Psychological Hell. It is equally as tormenting as Physical Hell; it’s just that you would be screaming inside your mind, if you still had one that was recognizable as “you”.

    Heaven or Hell? Not interested in either.

  53. andrewviceroy says

    I guess I thought that this was going to go in a different direction at first, like that the experience or memory of evil and suffering will still be required in heaven in order for secondary, terciary, etc, order goods to exist.

  54. albiefarinas says

    I was asked recently if I believed in a woman’s right to choose….

    I responded that I believed that a woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices…. The person that asked the question advised me, that I would burn in “Hell” for eternity… I promptly asked her, what other public policies I would need to advocate in order to ensure that I would not have to spend eternity in the same place with her….

    The same applies to many of the theists whom deny natural selection… I wholeheartedly agree with them, when they claim, that they did not evolve from the Apes…. It is scientific fact, that it was the apes that evolved from them….

    The fact is, that debate in this area can only be dealt with in the spectrum of ridicule, because, these are not subjects worthy of debate… Religious doctrines and authorities are not worthy of any form of respect or serious consideration… The good news is that both will disappear through the process of attrition and shall be remembered by future generations as comical, cartoonish myths…..

    Best regards,

    Albie

  55. craigipo says

    1. Christianity might be true. (Pascal’s Wager) That’s why we are all on here talking about Greta’s poem.
    2. Would you make an offer to someone that you felt guilty about? (No=You are probably going to heaven…if there is one)
    3. If there is no hell, where does George W. Bush go? (He made offers to a lot of people, many that were impossible)
    4. If there is no heaven, where do the victims go?

Trackbacks

  1. […] The doctrine of heaven isn’t much better than hell. As I said above, heaven can be used to short circuit utilitarian morality by promising infinite happiness against the finite suffering caused by doing evil. Of course, as I implied at the beginning, it also subverts morality by acting as a bribe for the selfish. All too often, heaven is offered to me by fundies as a reward for condoning evil. I would feel ashamed of myself if I accepted it. This bribery attempt often goes hand-in-hand with an assumption that atheists are all selfish Randroids or something, as if every decision I make is based solely on how I would personally benefit. The bribery approach completely ignores any concept of morality. That’s when things turn ugly. […]

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