Monday, July 21, 2008

Heaven or Hell?

A Pew survey finds that there are more Americans who believe in heaven than those who believe in hell. Really not that shocking, is it? The results seem to reflect the role of religion in American life, which I think tends to be self-affirming and provides moral justification. Also, hell is icky. No one ever wants to think that someone they knew could possibly end up in a place like hell. It doesn't jive with the ideas of forgiveness, second-chances and benevolence that mainstream Christianity has placed in the American consciousness, for better or for worse.

Religion seems to get distilled down to the things that are easier to deal with. What does that say about religion? To quote a gay character from Futurama who paired same-sex animals together on a reimagined Noah's Ark: "There are parts of the Bible I like and parts I don't."

"At first blush, the idea of a God who rewards good but does not punish evil seems counterintuitive, after centuries in which one of the key benefits of eternal salvation, and one of the promises of conversion to Christianity, was the avoidance of eternal damnation.

But hell experts — and yes, there are scholars who spend this life studying the next one — say the underworld has been losing favor for some time.

Since the Enlightenment, a liberalizing trend in religion has favored conceptions of God as benevolent, rather than judgmental. But also, there are peculiarly American characteristics to this emerging hell gap: an insistent optimism, perhaps a kind of cultural self-contentedness, and a tolerance born of diversity that makes damning the other more problematic."

Frankly, I don't think the idea of an afterlife is a very positive thing. It downplays and cheapens the significance of our current existence, something that we are sure of. The Egyptians spent centuries building monuments to aid the deceased kings in an afterlife no one believes in anymore. Now, we crash into their tombs and say, "Look at these beautiful things that were never meant to be disturbed! Glad we believe in sensible things now!"