There is a TV show in the UK called The Big Questions. The other week the show asked the question ‘Do people need the idea of Heaven?’ Hungover, I watched the superficial commentary the participants had while trying desperately not to offend anyone; I wrote notes into my phone. I have been busy since then. But I am now going to try and answer it between bouts of gardening (I do not like gardening).
I shall start with advice: try to find assumptions made in questions. On the face of it, there must be some obvious reason we might need the idea of Heaven, else no one would have asked it. Based on the show I watched I am going to make what I think is a pretty reasonable guess at the reasons it seems obvious we might need Heaven: purpose and morality. It is easy to say that you are following God’s will, or following the unknowable* but transcendent rules He’s imbued reality with, but every religion has set up the ‘carrot and stick’ narrative of reward and punishment. Even if God is grounding for morality and purpose, why do you value it over a wellbeing based morality or purpose set up around the needs of society? Assuming that morality and purpose are tied up with each other in the religious narrative (which seems inescapable), do we really need Heaven to value that?
*if you think the rules are knowable then you have to explain how so many people from within the same religion can get so many answers. One set of rules may be crystal clear to you from your reading of a Book or your “relationship” with God, but another person interprets different rules with the same clarity and with the same method.
I’ll start with what Heaven is, and I’m doing to define it in the vaguer sense to include as many religions as I can. Heaven is an immaterial place where a transcendent form of you will go to reward you for having lived a good life. The place will be blissful and tranquil and perfect. No suffering can happen here. I believe that incorporates Heaven and Paradise and Nirvana (if not, forgive me and educate me).
Originally I wanted to hedge my bets and say ‘maybe some of us need this to be good, but most of us do not’. But that felt patronising, and I don’t believe it. I don’t think any of us need it, and I don’t think it convinces anyone that wants to do harm. And if you are wondering what your purpose is; why you exist, I don’t think the promise of living forever will be comforting or answer the question. The suggestion that a religious person could not reason to themselves the wonder and joy of simply being alive, or the need to do good without Divine authorship should be offensive to the very humanity of all of us.
As opposed to being a bad reason, the promise of Heaven is damaging. We relinquish the urgency of justice to the promise that justice will be served out over eternity. No matter what true justice is, we do not need to seek it because we will be dead pretty soon and justice will be dealt with in a top-down fashion by God. So don’t you worry about it.
(As an aside, there is an odd narrative in a lot of religions that calls of the living to take justice into their own hands—stone the blasphemers and adulterers, kill homosexuals and uppity children etc—despite the idea that all transgressions will be exacted in the afterlife. Which is it?)
However, we cannot untie Heaven from the rules that govern it. And that is my last criticism of the idea that we need Heaven. It is hurtful to human progress to make promises about following top-down moral rules. Encouraging humanity to follow arbitrary rules makes us end our own critical thinking. Worse than that, it allows our minds to be infested with arbitrary and non-moral ideas: you must wear a burka**, you cannot read fictions like Harry Potter for they contain witches, keep the Sabbath a Holy day of rest, do not mark your skin with ink, do not express your sexuality outside of marriage and never if you are gay. The moment we accept that rules of entry to Heaven are our purpose is the moment we surrender our right to critically evaluate these rules and with it we hand over our humanity.
** “you must wear a burka” is oppressive, subjugating, creates power inequalities on gender lines and is very different from “a burka is a symbol of being worth more than your appearance and way of being liberated from the leers of other people; you are free to wear it or not”.