Our Evolving Hopes for Heaven

There is perhaps no better way to demystify something than to perform a genealogical operation on it.  The intellectual genealogy was pioneered by Nietzsche (On the Genealogy of Morals) and used to great effect by Foucault (The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things).  Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Harvard, employs this technique in The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics.

In one of the more piquant reviews I have encountered in some time, Johann Hari over at Slate discusses Lisa Miller’s new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, but never actually names the book or provides a link to it.  This oversight was probably deliberate, for Hari seems none too impressed with either the book or the 81% of Americans (and nearly all Muslims) who believe in heaven.

Hari appreciates, however, the limited extent to which Miller’s book genealogizes the concept of heaven, which unsurprisingly has changed over time and appears to be a form of wish fulfillment:

At [the book’s] core is a (very politely administered) slap to the American consensus. The heaven you think you’re headed to—a reunion with your lost relatives in the light—is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. Most of the believers in heaven across most of history would find it unrecognizable.

Heaven is constantly shifting shape because it is a history of subconscious human longings. Show me your heaven, and I’ll show you what’s lacking in your life. The desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible and the Quran lived in thirst—so their heavens were forever running with rivers and fountains and springs. African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where “the first would be last, and the last would be first”—so they would be the free men dominating white slaves. Today’s Islamist suicide-bombers live in a society starved of sex, so their heaven is a 72-virgin gang-bang.

While the concept of heaven can be personally comforting, it also is used by religious authorities for control:

[Heaven’s] primary function for centuries was as a tool of control and intimidation. The Vatican, for example, declared it had a monopoly on St. Peter’s VIP list—and only those who obeyed the church authorities’ every command and paid them vast sums for Get-Out-of-Hell-Free cards would get themselves and their children into it. The afterlife was a means of tyrannizing people in this life.

This use of heaven as a bludgeon long outlasted the Protestant Reformation. Miller points out that in Puritan New England, heaven was not primarily a comfort but rather a way to impose discipline in this life. It still gets used that way. For example, Mormons order women within their ranks who try to argue for full equality to recant—and if they don’t, they are told they will be sent to a separate afterlife from their families for eternity.

Hari praises Miller for recounting these historical aspects of heaven, but unloads on her for getting sidetracked by credulity:

[Miller] describes herself as a “professional skeptic,” but she is, in fact, professionally credulous. Instead of trying to tease out what these fantasies of an afterlife reveal about her interviewees, she quizzes everyone about their heaven as if she is planning to write a Lonely Planet guide to the area. But she never asks the most basic questions: Where’s your evidence? Where are you getting these ideas from?

She gives plenty of proof that the idea of heaven can be comforting, or beautiful—but that doesn’t make it true. The difference between wishful thinking and fact-seeking is something most 6-year-olds can grasp, yet Miller—and, it seems, the heaven-believing majority—refuse it here. Yes, I would like to see my dead friends and relatives again. I also would like there to be world peace, a million dollars in my checking account, and for Matt Damon to ask me to marry him. If I took my longing as proof they were going to happen, you’d think I was deranged.

Today is probably not the best day to be asking such questions, but they seem reasonable to me.  Happy Easter!

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