Heaven and reason, or Thoughts of a Dying Atheist
Sometimes I wish heaven was real.
For all its flaws, The Invention of Lying did give us an incredibly moving scene. With his mother about to die and lamenting the eternity of nothingness that awaited her, Mark Bellison begins to realise that his (heretofore unheard of) ability to lie can be used for good. Instead of letting her die in such a sad state, he tells her that everything is going to be fine; she will go to a place where she will see all of her old friends, where everybody gets a mansion and there is no such thing as pain. Her dying thoughts are of absolute joy. What a gift.
For those who’ve seen it, you’ll probably agree that the film kind of goes off the rails a little bit here with too many contrivances and shoe-horned messages (which I endorse but not in such a forced way). Nonetheless it shows us a portal into the inherent problem of facing non-existence.
Here is where I see the almost overwhelming attraction of religion and belief in the afterlife. One will forego all manner of illogicality and doubt to have this assurance, this promise that things will always be ok. The thought of losing somebody so dear to me is so painful that it’s almost like I’d be willing to let the fortress of my rationality come crashing down in order to process it: in order to let the idea of death become palletable.
But then I step back and I know that I could never believe; that I would never really want to believe. That’s my problem, and I have to deal with it in my own way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against rationality in any sense; the Enlightenment was the best thing that ever happened to our species, and once we come to terms with some harsh truths it will open infinitely more doors than ancient beliefs. But nevertheless these are harsh truths that it is hard to swallow. I think it is better to believe in no afterlife, regardless of whether it actually exists or not.
Blaise Pascal posited the so-called safest way to go about this business of belief. He suggested that the best route is to believe in a god, because that way if he does exist you’re in his good books, and if he doesn’t then what difference does it make? Overlooking the obvious fallacy that if an omniscient god did exist he would see through your gambit, I think that this is also a dangerous technique in how to live your life. I’m not for a second suggesting that believers have a lesser life, but I think at least for me a belief in the afterlife would change this life beyond recognition. If I sincerely believed that death was not the end, I could not live a full life; a life which knows it is the only one and should be explored to its very ends.
The best thing would be a life lived to the full, without consideration of the possibility of afterlife. If it turned out that god did actually exist, and that he frowned upon such heresy, then what kind of god is that to believe in? If you knew there was a profoundly jealous dictator running the place, then what kind of natural life does that leave you with? No no no. If you believe in the same god that poured wisdom into Jesus Christ (eschewing the absurd Old Testament Yahweh stuff), or peace into the Qur’an, then that kind of god would look upon your unbelief as a perfectly reasonable thing and would grant you heaven on the basis of integrity and thought.
The importance is upon one’s character, and one’s ability to endow love and happiness. Is it possible to sincerely believe that the same god who invented love could condemn somebody like Stephen Fry, who is seemingly a being of nothing but love and warmth and wisdom and joy, to an eternity of hellfire simply on the basis of his unbelief – or, at that, his homosexuality? No, this is obviously manmade tosh from the bowels of some bigotry. The existence of heaven as a concept is so patently a manmade thing and yet so beautiful, while the concept of hell is so transparently borne of the urge to control and to exert power. Hell is the worst thing man ever invented – and when I say ‘man’ that is exactly what I mean. Concocting such a dark punishment for disobedience is beyond the capacity for evil and power hunger of woman.
Ultimately what I mean to say is that heaven is such an important thing for so many people, and I can totally see why. After I first started reading Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris et al I was to some extent ‘out for a fight’. I would start what were initially diplomatic discussions with religious friends that would end with angry words and occasionally ridicule. My insolence and short-sightedness routinely fill me with guilt. It wasn’t until about a year ago that a thought struck me. I was lost in thought somewhere and I remembered that excellent film The Green Mile. If you haven’t seen it, there is a character called Eduard Delacroix who is on death row and befriends a mouse by the name of Mr Jingles. He teaches Mr Jingles all kinds of tricks and grows really quite fond of him. Once his number is up and it is his turn to face the chair, he gets worried about his pet and wonders what will become of him. The kindly guards reassure him that they have been in touch with a circus who want to take him on, where he can live a wonderful and exciting life. However, a cruel series of events lead his execution to be orchestrated by the sadistic guard Percy Wetmore. Just as Delacroix is in the chair and facing death, Percy tells him that Mr Jingles isn’t really going to a circus, it was just a lie from the guards to make him feel better. Delacroix goes to his death all hope gone. Naturally we are meant to hate Percy here. What right did he have to tell Delacroix this? What harm did his belief cause? It filled him with such joy and consolation, and in came Percy to burst the bubble. Well this is very much how I felt in retrospect. I was the snivelling little shit Percy, and I had no right in telling people what – as far as logic and objective knowledge suggests – really does or doesn’t happen.
A similar thought must have occurred to Ricky Gervais when his real life mother was dying. The inspiration for the aforementioned scene is taken from this time – and is the reason those tears are so convincing. After she had been fighting cancer for a short time, Ricky started to realise that she would die one day soon and he told himself that, even though she knew he was an atheist, if she were to ask him if heaven existed he would say yes. He understood the importance of this message. Sometimes reassurance is all that is needed. Sometimes when no harm can come of it, the best medicine is simply to be told what you want to hear. He says that that question never came, but he was steeling himself for it nonetheless.
I entirely understand and back the likes of Richard Dawkins by the way. We all know that these beliefs aren’t always harmless, and post-911 the job of spreading rational agnotisticism was a duty, and one which Dawkins and Hitchens – among an increasing number of others – have shouldered admirably. On a micro scale however, these beliefs will continue unabashed and that is no bad thing. George Orwell’s 1984 described the most efficient totalitarian state yet, and claimed that it did so by making its citizens’ toil and subjugation palletable to them. The destruction of goods was made psychologically acceptable through warfare; their poverty and lack of free will were made understandable through the infinite love and wisdom of Big Brother. Well, heaven is a way of making life itself achievable. It’s us poor bastards the atheists who have to suffer the slings and arrows these days. There’s no real consideration of what dreams may come for us, it is more a case of which ones will never arrive.