Do atheists go to heaven?

I believe that Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, the pope, my dog, and I will have the same afterlife, and that it will be a pain-free one.

Atheists are the only ones who say unequivocally that atheists don’t go to heaven. Most heaven-believing religions seem to have a clause that allows even atheists to integrate the neighborhood. The road, however, is usually narrow and littered with obstacles.

Mormons, for instance, are known to baptize dead people. Many Jews, myself excluded, are upset that Mormons have sometimes focused on Jewish Holocaust victims (perhaps even my dead relatives) for posthumous baptism. This practice, however ludicrous, is fine with me. It does no harm to my deceased relatives or to me. In fact, I take this as an expression of good will, much like, “I’ll pray for you.” I believe in its positive sentiment, if not its efficacy.

Another positive sentiment recently came from Pope Francis, who spoke of finding common ground with those outside the Catholic faith. He even implied that atheists who do good works are good people and might get to heaven without passing through the “Go” of Christianity.

The pope sounded a bit like the Dalai Lama: “I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.” The pope even came dangerously close to sounding like a humanist. The elevator definition of Humanism is “Good without a god.”

Perhaps Pope Francis forgot to run this concession by the papal censors, because the following day the Vatican announced a do-over. The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that those who are aware of the Catholic Church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.” This sounds like damage control for Francis’ offhand remarks, much as official spokespeople often “clarify” embarrassing remarks made by politicians. So Rev. Rosica is simply reiterating the traditional Catholic position that atheists can go to hell.

Speaking of heaven and hell, I once gave a sermon at a Unitarian Universalist Church, a human-centered religion with which I find much common ground. I began by telling the congregation that I had more in common with Christian conservatives than with them. To puzzled looks, I explained: “Unitarian Universalists believe everyone goes to heaven, Christian conservatives believe very few go to heaven, and I believe nobody goes to heaven. So I’m closer to them than to you.” The audience laughed, since most didn’t believe in a heaven and many had never thought about what the “Universalist” in their name used to mean.

Aside from deciding who allegedly goes to heaven, there have been countless claims by so-called experts about the specifics of an afterlife. How do we determine who the experts are? The number of experts on any given topic is inversely proportional to the evidence available on that topic. And by that criterion, we are all experts on the afterlife because there is absolutely no evidence for its existence. Anyone can make up stuff about heaven or quote stuff from books made up by others.

Unlike, say, biology or geology, there is no academic discipline called “heavenology” or “hellology,” unless such topics are included in a course on mythology. However, there is some fine scholarship documenting what different cultures believed about the afterlife and how such beliefs have evolved. See this, for instance.

Being certified by a religious body gives you no special knowledge of an afterlife. I should know. I am certified as aHumanist Celebrant through the Humanist Society, a religious nonprofit organization. I’ve performed 15 humanist weddings, none of which have mentioned any gods or heavens.

So here’s my “expert” opinion. We should focus on helping our fellow human beings and treating them with respect and compassion. If there is a loving and judging deity or force, perhaps he, she, or it will be with you if you value behavior above belief.

We atheists shouldn’t get too comfortable about Christian love for us. There’s a strain of Christianity that says my dog is more likely to wind up in heaven than I am. See this and this.

The gist of these arguments is that dogs don’t reject Jesus, but many humans do. I’m partly okay with a theology that praises dogs. If more people loved their neighbor as much as they loved their pets, we would have a better and more peaceful world.

I believe that Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, the pope, my dog, and I will have the same afterlife, and that it will be a pain-free one.

 

Image courtesy of Wonderlane.

Herb Silverman
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