Why Even Atheists Can Believe in Heaven

The universal experience of death gives rise to the universal belief in heaven — even for non-religious people like me.

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.

MacKenzie Neeson
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  • cmac

    It’s not intellectually inconsistent, it’s intellectually lazy.

  • FA Miniter

    “We believe in heaven because it is necessary. We believe because the alternative is too painful to confront.”

    Nonsense. Utter poppycock. The idea of a never-ending existence, one that cannot ever, ever be stopped, even if it is pleasant, is appalling. It is much less frightening to imagine oblivion. If you have doubts that many people feel this way, read His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

    The author should examine her own needs and their sources more closely.

    • sderamus

      Yup. The idea of eternal life makes this life meaningless. Who cares about your first 80 years of existence after you’ve lived even a few million years. After 200 trillion years of existence I would have done everything imaginable. Life would be boring and utterly devoid of any meaning. What makes life great is knowing that it will end, and thus packing in as much as possible now before that happens. About the only form of eternal life I would be content with would be reincarnation. Hopefully next time on a planet where sentient beings are a bit more advanced than here.

  • RocksCryOut

    I believe in ultimate justice, therefore I believe in Hell. For me, the penultimate meaninglessness of existence would be if atrocities committed, in whomever’s name, went unpunished. Similarly I believe that suffering has meaning and purpose, therefore I believe in Heaven.

    Lives lived by those such as Mother Teresa, or Ghandi are at best futile if our existence is merely the result of random chemical accidents and many small changes over long periods of time. If so the highest good is to murder as many of those outside our gene pool as possible in order to further only our own progeny and promote survival of the fittest, and the height of stupidity is to live a selfless life that attempts to minimize the suffering of others.

    Existence without Hell, or Heaven, makes life meaningful–for me and for many others. Judging by the comments of the many who find these concepts to be “poppycock,” well I guess much of their purpose is wrapped up in being annoyed with and ridiculing those of us who do.

    • Tom from North Carolina

      Why would the highest good be mass murder? And why do you need the stick of hell and the carrot of heaven to make your life meaningful? Those are sad, bordering on pathetic statements.

      Many of us find meaning in our jobs, our friends and our family. To me, hearing a belly laugh from my granddaughter is about as close to heaven as I need.

    • FA Miniter

      You utterly fail to understand the humanistic approach to life. Purpose is a human concept. Our minds seek order in what we perceive, and, even if it is not there, we impose it. That is the way our minds work. So we are most content when we have purpose in our lives. That is just a psychological fact.

      As to what form purpose takes, that is a philosophical issue. As Socrates points out in the Symposium and Phaedrus, all humans seek some form of immortality. As Tom from North Carolina points out, many find it in jobs, family and friends, wanting to make their lives, especially the lives of our offspring, better. Socrates goes on to say that higher forms of wisdom come with the love of laws and love of poetry, but the highest form of immortality is found in philosophy, the love of wisdom itself. Consider the immortality that Socrates and his pupil Plato have achieved. They have done this not by committing evil, but by committing good.

  • Mark van Niekerk

    All Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam — have a similar notion of the afterlife.
    With all due respect nothing could be further from the truth than this statement. It may be accepted as a universal “truth” by those who have never read the Bible or Quran, but in today’s age it beggars belief that such a assertion can be considered, let alone made. The writer has zero common sense insight let alone spiritual insight into what is ultimately a very serious issue.

  • Madame George

    So heaven is the needle she uses to cope with death? Believing in an afterlife despite there being no evidence for it is silly and, generally, a dangerous way to think. Many people are perfectly capable of accepting this without it being ‘too painful to confront’.

  • HildyJJ

    I can understand being afraid of dying but not being afraid of death. Dying often involves suffering; sometimes long, sometimes severe, sometimes both. But death is just an endpoint (and a cessation of suffering).

    But why heaven? For someone who is not required to believe in it because of their religion’s dogma, I think it’s unnecessary. Before there was a concept of souls, Yahweh told Adam “dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19, although Cranmer put it better in the BCP: “ashes to ashes dust to dust”. What more do you need? Ask yourself: “where was I a century ago and why should I believe I’ll be in a different place a century from now?”

    We do live on after our deaths – in the memory of those who knew us. Those memories are shaped by our actions, for good or bad, and we can only act while we are alive. Carpe diem (which is in no way equivalent to YOLO).

  • janeway

    I believe God gave men their “free agency” to choose. Atheists have the right to choose to reject God. It is not for me to impose upon them my faith in God or heaven but they do not have the right to resent me or impose their views on me. Many atheists and agnostic seem to feel superior or smarter than religious people – fine, if it makes you feel better. I would love to be there when they wake up somewhere else and they learn truth. On the other hand, if they are correct, I will never know I was wrong. I think I like my choice the best as my faith in the Savior, Jesus Christ, has given me much in my life. I am sure many Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc feel the same about their faith. History is full of one religion imposing their views upon another religion by force from the rack to burning people, war, etc. I guess Atheists now want to get in on the action by talking us the death. God is not dead but He must be really disappointed in his children and how they have used their agency as believers or non believers.