July 9, 2012Clouds gather in the turbulent sky above a sunrise-lit church steeple in Walla Walla, Wash., following a night of thunder, lightning, wind, rain and the brewing threat of more stormy weather to come. Temperatures near 100-degrees over the past three days have marked an abrupt end to the previously cooler than average summer in southeast Washington state.Jeff Horner / Walla Walla Union-Bulletin via AP
I think I speak for many atheists who browse the religion section of bookstores, notice a portion of books set aside for religious fiction, and say to myself, “Isn’t that redundant?”
Apparently authors can usually choose whether to call their books fiction or nonfiction. But we don’t always know the author’s true identity, as with most of the books contained in the Bible. We recognize that some of the biblical writers made up stories as motivation for people to believe or act in certain ways. Some composed nice poetry, some described events that likely occurred, and some wrote “just so” stories to explain what they didn’t understand. I would classify nearly the entire Bible as fiction, especially the God stories. But since many believe the Bible to be factual, bookstores won’t risk community outrage by filing it under “religious fiction.”
I could write a nonfiction book about how I was abducted by aliens who took me on their spacecraft, showed me my past lives, and described my next life. I could write the same book and call it fiction. Were I to write such a book, I would reluctantly file it under fiction even though a gullible public would undoubtedly buy more of the nonfictional version.
This brings me to “Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” a book that climbed to the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 2010, and will soon become a movie. On Amazon.com it has nearly 4,000 five-star reviews.
The book describes four-year-old Colton Burpo’s account of his visit to heaven as he almost died on an operating table. The book was written by his father, a pastor, and with Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter, Lynn Vincent. The most compelling “evidence” for Colton’s heavenly experience is that he met a sister (from his mother’s miscarriage) who his parents had never told him about. Do all fetuses go to heaven? Colton’s sister in heaven looked a lot like his sister on earth.
Colton also met God, Jesus, and John the Baptist in heaven. God is a really big man. How big is he? He’s big enough to hold the whole world in his hands, confirming the Sunday school song. Colton sat on Jesus’s lap and observed his stigmata and sparkling blue eyes. Colton met his great-grandfather, who had wings. Colton had many more adventures in heaven during the brief time he was under anesthesia on earth. Kind of coincidental that Colton’s stories about heaven mimic stories told to children by Christian adults.
Last week I wrote about a Fox TV interview of Reza Aslan centered on why he, a Muslim, should feel entitled to write about Christianity. I said it was fair to bring up an author’s background, but that the focus should be on evidence presented. In a very different kind of Fox TV interview with Colton Burpo and his father, Gretchen Carlson appeared to have no doubts about Colton’s visit to “heaven” and what he discovered there. Carlson was especially thrilled to learn from Colton that there are no old people in heaven because they live there as young versions of themselves.
To give Carlson the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she was uncomfortable challenging an 11-year-old about what he claims to remember when he was four. I empathize, because I try to avoid theological disputes with believing children. During public debates I enjoy a Q&A with the audience, but I dislike it when a youngster, next to a beaming parent, stands and recites a passage from the Bible to confidently show me that I’m going to hell unless I mend my evil ways. In that situation, I don’t tell the youngster what I’m thinking—that I hope he matures enough to discard the childish beliefs instilled in him by his parents.
I’m not surprised at Colton’s beliefs, ingrained from infancy by his pastor father, though I don’t know how much of the pastor’s faith in Colton’s visit to heaven might be inspired by the subsequent fame and fortune. What most disturbs me about the success of the book and likely success of the movie are the countless people who feel such a need for and knowledge of an afterlife that they are willing to believe almost anything—even when it came from a four-year-old who probably still believed in Santa Claus.
Perhaps I can best describe my attitude with a biblical passage, from 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” I couldn’t say it better than Paul.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.