I may not be religious, but I do believe in heaven.
While this belief is intellectually inconsistent, I can’t help but find comfort in the idea of heaven. Yes, I’m unsure that a man named Jesus rose to this place to sit at the right hand of his father. All I know for certain is that I believe it exists.
In the fall of my sophomore year of college, I lost a friend. He died in the middle of the night from a heroin overdose. The death simultaneously reaffirmed my dismissal of God — how could he let a 20-year-old die, or ignore the way he valiantly fought his addiction — but it also mercilessly displayed my unquestionable need for heaven. The thought of heaven was the only thing that brought me solace.
My roommate, who is likewise irreligious, comforted me. “He’s in a better place.” At least now he is at peace.” The words made me feel better, and I did believe that he was somehow better off. I believed he was happy, sober, and smiling. In my image of heaven, there are no needles.
All Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam — have a similar notion of the afterlife, and most other religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. — imagine what happens when we die, whether it’s a change of form, a rebirth, or an eternal destination.
By the time I went to college, I had more or less abandoned God altogether. But I never felt my disconnection with faith to be synonymous with heaven.
Heaven, as I have come to understand it, is celestial. It’s somewhere above us, “up there,” maybe just out of reach of the Hubble Telescope, or some other fancy stargazing technology. When I think about my friend who passed last fall, I picture him climbing up a staircase alongside the stars and meeting all the people he’s ever loved and lost, I’ve heard rumors that in this specific afterlife, you get to be your favorite age: 17 and free, 30 and newly married, 58 and holding your grandchildren.
I grew up in suburban Connecticut where church was more hierarchical and social than anything. By the time I went to college, I had more or less abandoned God altogether. But I never felt my disconnection with faith to be synonymous with heaven.
And apparently, I’m not the only one.
Ten years ago, only 8 percent of Americans did not believe in heaven. Now, amid rumors that faith is declining in America, 68 percent of U.S. adults still believe in heaven. And according to the Harris Poll, for those who do believe in God, they believe in heaven more readily than Jesus Christ, the survival of the soul after death, hell, the devil, the virgin birth, or Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Almost the same percentage of people between the ages of 18-36 believe in heaven as in God and miracles — 62, 64, and 65 percent respectively. Many people in this demographic, which contains the lowest percentage of people of faith in the U.S, appear to believe in heaven even if they didn’t believe in God.
We go to great lengths to believe in heaven, often abandoning our personal theology or preexisting circumstances to indulge in its comfort.
And this isn’t just an American phenomenon. In the 1970 British Cohort Group, of all subjects aged 44 now, half of said they believed in an afterlife, while only 31 percent believed in God.
We go to great lengths to believe in heaven, often abandoning our personal theology or preexisting circumstances to indulge in its comfort. Neuroscientists, chemists and doctors have come forward with personal memoirs to explain their unwavering certainty of its existence, regardless of everything their fields of study suggest to the contrary. We, in turn, make those memoirs best sellers, adapt them into full-length films, and do whatever else is necessary to promote the idea of heaven against all odds.
Most of all, we choose to neglect hell in doing so. For most of human history, one idea has not existed without the other, but in our time we have come to overlook the hell part almost effortlessly. That may be part of how heaven became a sort of general societal feature rather than an exclusively religious phenomenon — these days, it seems you can get one without the other, no matter what you believe (or don’t) about God.
So what drives our commitment to — or obsession with — heaven?
The simple answer is that you have to die to get to heaven, and death is what makes us most vulnerable. The prospect of death is unsettling to imagine, even though it’s a natural part of life. People we love die, and eventually we all think about what would happen when it’s our turn. I think about my dogs, or my grandmother, or my friend who passed, and all of the sudden the dichotomy between the existence of heaven and non-existence of God doesn’t seem of any major consequence.
We believe in heaven because it is necessary. We believe because the alternative is too painful to confront.
Death is not religious — it’s human. It is the most human component of our entire existence. It’s universal. It’s mortal — perhaps the only thing every human — non believers and believers alike — have in common. And because it’s the most human, it’s also our weakest spot. After 9/11, David Levithan said, “What separates us from the animals . . . is our ability to mourn people we’ve never met.” When we are most vulnerable, we look to heaven. It was unsurprising to learn that belief in heaven reached its highest level in 2001.
We believe in heaven because it is necessary. We believe because the alternative is too painful to confront. We believe because on the bleakest of days, heaven is our anesthesia.
Many of whom I’ve shared this with say that at best, it’s a convenient truth. Stephen Hawking once said that heaven is a “fairy tale” for people who are scared of dying. Even adamant believers are critical of the human obsession with heaven. And perhaps parts of these claims are true — maybe the idea of heaven is just a myth. But if it is a myth, I have no problem believing in it. I will always believe there are no needles in heaven. I need to.
Image courtesy of Daniel Pascoal.