The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Why do atheists believe in heaven?

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

All faith groups have sects to be ashamed of, the ones who want to string up gays, stone women taken in adultery, that sort of nonsense. Let’s not get into one of those complacent debates about how it could be that faiths based in love can spawn such hatred. We might, though, consider drawing the line against outlawing fundamentalists by using anti-terrorism laws. Did you see that the edict issued by free speech-loving Mr Johnson against Islam4UK extends to a proscription against insignia and clothes. Clothes??!! Talk about taking a sledgehammer to crack a nutter.

Rectitude breeds contempt, that we can say. But in one faith group it breeds anger to an intriguing degree. Atheists. The Dawkinistas.Terrifically cross lot. No one is safe from their yelling, even old maids cycling to church through the morning mist. Is there something essentially silly about preaching a negative, getting all hot under the collar about Nothing? I don’t have a view on this myself. I am a bystander, merely; a quizzical commentator.

Anyone who believes anything has problems with the doctrine. Those who don’t are the ones to watch. How many atheists fervently believe in Nothing? Not that many when the chips come down to it. When you shine the interrogator’s light into the eyes of their faith you’ll more often than not elicit this anomaly: “I don’t believe in god…but I do believe in heaven.” This is the point when my friend Richard, an exuberantly faulty Catholic, quotes Chesterton: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.”

This is a problem for humanist funeral celebrants – an acute embarrassment. Members of their flock are always wanting to sing from a hymn sheet and lift their eyes to a hereafter. It’s not so much an aspiration as a supposition. Belief in a heaven of some sort seems to be ineradicable from the mind of humankind, a heaven which needs no whitebeard concierge.

Lifestyle gurus are always telling us to live in the present. Ever tried it? People with a death sentence can do it, and some meditators, perhaps, but most of us are too busy using the present to assess our past or plan our future. In our heads, the future is where most of us do most of our living. We defer a lot of pleasure in the sure and certain hope of that future. This is why we have pension plans. And this is why the death of a young person is so much more painful to us than the death of a very old person: the young person has been denied so much more future.

Even a completely clapped out body cannot rid most of us of the habit of living in the future. Sure, we can at this stage easily see that an earthly future is out of the question. That’s when our minds leap lightly into the hereafter. And that’s why atheists believe in heaven.

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