Visiting Heaven


Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a inactive to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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104 Responses

  1. Avatar John Howard Griffin says:

    Certainly, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Something that the god-fearing forgot most of the time.

    However, about this:

    religion worth its salt is marked by broken hearts, fear and trembling, and the will to carry on. It may provide occasions of comfort, but these are not its primary fruit.

    I’d argue that, for most people, comfort is EXACTLY the primary fruit of religion. For some religions, it is the only fruit.

    For those who have studied, or thought extensively about, religion, an expanded or alternate view (such as yours) is possible. But, this deeper understanding is not common (or even possible) for the masses that believe in religion.

    The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also. I would not interfere with any one’s religion, either to strengthen it or to weaken it. I am not able to believe one’s religion can affect his hereafter one way or the other, no matter what that religion may be. But it may easily be a great comfort to him in this life – hence it is a valuable possession to him.

    – Mark Twain


    • Speaking descriptively, yes, I agree that religion provides comfort, which is why Marx was not entirely off base to call religion the opium of the masses. I submit, however, that religious people really ought to shun this use of religion that prioritizes comfort and neglects the hardships of love. It’s unhealthy, psychologically and spiritually, and socially corrosive. Atheists like Sam Harris are right to criticize it mercilessly.Report

      • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        While I agree that people should look beyond the simple balm of religion as comfort, I also think that people should look beyond religion as anything deeper than a simple comfort. Occam’s razor shows that religion is unneeded to venture where you want them to go.

        However, regardless of that, I honestly don’t think that most people WANT to look beyond the child-like view of religion as comfort, nor are they capable of it. There are no religions that do not claim the superiority of their god and the inferiority of all others. This firewall is needed, or every belief is in danger.

        There is still much certainty in the face of no proof in your beliefs, I expect. How are your feelings of god any different from the doctor’s feelings during his near death experience? Particularly, how does it jibe with this:

        Consciousness is unreliable as a sure access to reality.

        I prefer to wait for the proof before believing in giant father figures in the sky and the everlasting love and peace of a fictional place called heaven. I think it’s braver to face reality without these child-like beliefs.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        Why should they shun this? Wat is your argument that they should shun this?Report

  2. Avatar George Vogt says:

    Read the same article a day or 2 ago (mind smog). It failed to move me either. And I completely agree with wariness of a supernatural purpose which seems to suggest “Do what thy wilt”.Report

  3. Avatar James Hanley says:

    If his cerebral cortex was totally shut down, how did he retain memories of his time in heaven?Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Surely there were folks who died temporarily in other parts of the world and who came back.

    What did they talk about? How much overlap is there with, say, a Vedic Hindu from the sub-continent dying and a follower of American Christianity?

    Now, of course, even this wouldn’t demonstrate much of anything… goodness knows, it would make sense that we’d “remember” something we couldn’t comprehend at all in the only words we had available to us and it might make perfect sense that, in Reality, Dream would appear to you and me as a skinny Robert Smith kinda guy and appear to J’onn J’onzz as Lord L’Zoril. If you know what I mean.

    But I’d like to do some cross-culture comparisons anyway. If only to have them collated and ready for cross-reference.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

      Well, of course, there is always the argument that heaven is different for everyone person and, thus, the Hindu’s heaven is going to be quite different than American Christian’s heaven, even if they went to the “same” heaven.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      You know, honestly, if one person ever came back and said, “Yeah, fire and brimstone, tortured souls- I totally went there. Better clean up my act right away!” I’d be more convinced.Report

    • Avatar Matty in reply to Jaybird says:

      I seem to have lost the book but I’m sure I read just such a compilation and yes there were differences between the Hindu and Christian accounts. There was also one story of a man who apparently came round screaming “don’t stop (the CPR) I’m in hell, every time you stop I go back to hell”.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    “I believe in heaven, in an eternal community of love, but I draw little comfort from this belief. On those occasions that I contemplate heaven, it doesn’t envelop me in cozy sheets and covers; it kicks me out of bed, onto the hard floor, into the cold air and out into the dark night, reminding me how poorly I love, how undeserving I am to share in such a community.”

    Kyle, as a fellow Catholic, I have felt this same thing. People joke about Catholic guilt, but it is cleverly designed to make us always feel unworthy, thus never resting on our past achievements. Unlike some other faiths where an annual mission trip or afternoon at the soup kitchen seems to convince them their soul is saved for the rest of the calendar year.Report

  6. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    I’m in heaven
    And my heart beats
    So that I can hardly speak
    And I seem to find
    The happiness I seek
    When I’m writing cover
    Stories for Newsweek

  7. Avatar Derp says:

    I can’t help but chuckle when believers say that the idea of cheating death isn’t the primary fruit of religion. That’s like saying winning a jackpot isn’t the primary fruit of gambling. You might make friends at the blackjack table, but that’s not why you went to the casino.Report

  8. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    To Hanley’s point, one other thing the guy was trying to claim was that conciousness is not an emergent property of biological processes, but rather is mapped onto them and not dependent.

    His time being concious, despite not having the physical processes required to be medically concious, is his evidence that conciousness is not linked to grey matter in the way that materialists would claim.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      Of course as Neuroscientist Dr. Steven Novella points out, with any coma, there’s a transition period at the start and end that resembles a dream sate. During this transition he would have no real sense of time, so the best explanation is that he was dreaming and thinks it happened during his coma because his sense of time was messed up.Report

  9. Avatar Shazbot3 says:


    “Religion done well is… No, religion worth its salt is….”

    How did you determine what constitutes a religion that is done well, i.e. a good religion? Where did you get this information that a good religion (a “well done” religion) shouldn’t be too soft and comforting?

    Isn’t it possible you are wrong and good religion should be exactly the opposite of what you think? If you believe you are not wrong, what are your reasons for believing you are not wrong?

    “I believe in heaven, in an eternal community of love, but I draw little comfort from this belief. On those occasions that I contemplate heaven, it doesn’t envelop me in cozy sheets and covers; it kicks me out of bed, onto the hard floor, into the cold air and out into the dark night, reminding me how poorly I love, how undeserving I am to share in such a community.”

    Huh? I get that your preferred account of heaven is a less happy place than this Newsweek dude’s. (He has rainbows and unicorns. You have good things, but you feel guilty about getting them. BTW, Freud and Nie. would have a lot to say about the irrationality of your guilt, as much as much as this dude’s cartoon of heaven.) But wouldn’t you prefer to go to your heaven instead of ceasing to exist entirely? If you would prefer your heaven to non-existence, then your heaven is a comforting belief, as it allows you to be less afraid of the inevitability of non-existence.

    Maybe you don’t disagree. You say “little comfort.” But I think you are underestating how much comfort you get from your religion, and you heaven,even if there are no unicorns and rainbows in your account.Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      I measure and judge religion based on whether or not and to what extent it gives order and structure to our love of others. Years of thinking about religion and the human condition have led me to this conclusion, but, admittedly, I could conceivably be all wrong on the subject. I may be wrong about my own religious belief, deluded into taking it as legit when it’s really the manifestation of some subconscious irrationality or trouble.

      Do I hope there’s heavenly existence after death? Sure. I do enjoy living and loving, usually, and would gladly except an offer of immortality. So, yeah, it’s possible that I approach my faith as a comfort more than I realize or consciously want to admit.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        “I measure and judge religion based on whether or not and to what extent it gives order and structure to our love of others.”

        I don’t know what this means. What is the structure and order of love (of others)? (To me this is word salad, so you’ll have to help me and explain it.) Can you give examples of the love others that are structured and examples that are unstructured? Are order and structure different properties of the love of others or are “order” and “structure” synonymous in this context?

        “Years of thinking about religion and the human condition have led me to this conclusion.”

        What was it that you learned in these years that led you to this conclusion. I was asking what your argument was for the claim that religion is not “well done” (is not a good religion) if it is too anodyne or too…, well, too whatever you were saying. (I don’t want to state your conclusion about which religions are well done. I want to know your argument for the claim religions that are X are well done.

        I think well-done religions are religions that don’t make false claims or make them very rarely. My argument is that a person should always try to hold true beliefs, so they should only hold religious beliefs if they are true. Thus, the best religion is the one that is true or most likely to be true or some such.

        Call me old fashion with my preference for true belief.Report

        • Avatar Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot3 says:

          Why do you hate salads? 😉

          First, let’s define “love.” I mean by “love” the desire and the will to work for the good of someone. Parents rear and educate their children. Spouses care for one another. Friends help build one another up. Each of these social arrangements give order and structure to love: they each, in unique ways, provide a path for doing good for others. Religions have shared in this purpose: they can be means of expressing love and building large communities of love because they can establish ways for seeking the good of others, both individually and collectively. They can also be feel good clubs. As I believe that love is the greatest of virtues and the most important of human acts, I’m partial to religiosity that directs people to love in effective and socially edifying ways. To the extent that religion falls away from this purpose and instead becomes an opium, I call it bad religion.Report

          • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

            By “love” you mean working for the good of people. By structure you mean “helps a loving person bring about the good of people.”

            So, when you say that a religion is a good religion iff it is structures the love of others, you mean that a religion is a good religion iff it leads to the good of people.

            That’s a truism. And a particularly empty one at that. A good bicycle is a bicycle that leads to the good of people.

            I’m tempted to say that you’re some kind of kind of consequentialist about the goodness of others, but you didn’t say the good for others is the happiness or pleasure of others, so you’ve effective said nothing except that good religions are the ones that help lead to more goodness for people.

            So now we reach the question I’ve been asking again. What is your evidence that the non-anodyne religion you believe in leads to more good for people than an anodyne one? Answering this question, it seems to me, should be what your OP should’ve done. You keep hinting that you have an answer to this question. And maybe you do, which would be interesting, IMO. But you don’t ever state the answer.Report

            • Avatar Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot3 says:

              Your rephrasing of my definitions miss some of the conveyed meaning, so let me try a different track. My approach to religion is largely teleological: religion serves a purpose. For many people, that purpose is comfort. For me, its purpose is harnessing the energies of love. Why? To further the multitude of human goods, both material and spiritual. Of course, religions differ on what exactly those goods are and exactly how they seek to institutionally bring them into fruition, which is why I’ve kept the terminology fairly broad. Religions differ in their basic tenets and practices, so it’s difficult to get specific. Anyhow, we have on the table two teleological understandings of religion: one sees it primarily as a means toward feelings of comfort; the other primarily as a means toward acts and communities of love. Call me old fashioned, but I side with the latter as the morally superior purpose. “Feel good” religion focuses on self-satisfaction and self-empowerment; “community of love” religion focuses on making people’s lives more meaningful and better. Take a glance at the history of religion to see how these purposes have played out. Consider also other social arrangements like the family and ask which would be a healthier arrangement, all other things being equal: 1) a family made up of members focused on their own comfort at the expense of others in the family or 2) a family habitually disposed to care for one another and sacrifice for one another. There’s your evidence.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                “we have on the table two teleological understandings of religion: one sees it primarily as a means toward feelings of comfort; the other primarily as a means toward acts and communities of love.”

                My question is this: What is your evidence that the “feel good” anodyne religions don’t do as good a job or better bringing about these “goods” (defined as vaguely as you’ve defined them, which is as vague as it gets) than your preferred religion? It is conceptually possible that the anodyne religions do a better job or at least as good a job at “maximizing” goodness and love and whatever else we toss in a happy sounding word salad. What is your evidence that this conceptual possibility is not how things really are? Indeed, I can imagine someone saying happy, anodyne believers will be nice and loving to each other, so therefore Cupp is wrong. How are those critics wrong.

                You do say this, again hinting that there is evidence: “Take a glance at the history of religion to see how these purposes have played out.” I am too busy to find your evidence. You are the one who has a belief. I am asking for your argument for that belief. (If you have no argument, that’s fine. I have hunches on lots of things with no evidence either. But I admit my lack of argument when I can.) What do you see, specifically, in the history of religions that proves your point?

                You then ask me a question about 2 kinds of families and call the question your evidence. Maybe this is some analogical argument. I don’t get the analogy at all. Suppose one family believed more anodyne things and the other believed less anodyne things. Is that necessarily a bad thing for the one family and not the other. I don’t know. If this is some kind of analogical argument, it is pretty awful, especially in that families and religious belief are distinct in a lot of ways that could spoil the -very vague- analogy.

                I think anodyne happy nonsense (and less anodyne nonsense, too) about heaven is not true. Therefore, I don’t believe it. You seem to think the happy, unicorn and fairy nonsense is pernicious, at least in so far as it precludes holding a less anodyne set of beliefs about heaven that are really beneficial for people. Maybe this is true, but you aren’t coming anywhere close to an argument for it. First you had word salad. Then you gave some very basic stipulative definitions of “love” and “religion”, and as you surely know definitions alone will never be sufficient to create a sound argument that is supposed to prove an empirical statement. (Or maybe you have a medieval view that we can prove empirical matters with definitional axioms.) And whether certain religious beliefs are pernicious is an empirical question. You need some data, even common sense or anecdotes or something.

                I won’t hassle you anymore, as I feel like I am being too aggressive.Report

              • Avatar Kyle Cupp in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                And here I thought I was making a “common sense” argument. I’m not relying simply on definitions here, but the consequences of effective focus and purpose. Like family, religion is a kind of community. If it’s focused on producing comfort for its members, then it won’t be focused on works of justice or mercy. You can’t be focused on more than one thing at a time. So if we posit that a given religion as a rule prioritizes the production of comfort above all other things, and posit further that it’s effectively ordered toward this end, and also note that this religion does in practice focus on comfort at the expense of all else, then, guess what, you’re going to see a religion not all that devoted to feeding the hungry or instructing the faithful in the virtues. Oh, you may see members engaged in these activities, but, if their focus is really on comfort, then these activities will be done only to the extent that they bring comfort to those who do them. As works of charity mean involving oneself intimately in the messiness of life, they are not as a rule the most comforting endeavors. They’re stressful and nerve-wracking, rewarding, but not a comfortable way to be. Not in the least. So, yeah, I put my money on religion that actually prioritizes the corporal and spiritual works of charity and does these deeds of love effectively over a religion that seeks to make its members feel all cozy inside. I’ll take the prophet who cares and calls us to care for the dying leper over the preacher who talks of heaven as an inevitability and how I ought to feel good about myself regardless of everything.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

                ” If it’s focused on producing comfort for its members, then it won’t be focused on works of justice or mercy. You can’t be focused on more than one thing at a time. ”

                Why can’t a religion bring about justice with a set of beliefs that are more anodyne? How do you know the anodyne beliefs don’t lead to justice? What is the argument for this claim?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Shazbot3 says:

                This is a fascinating discussion, and I find myself – surprisingly! – on Kyle’s side of things. He’s not arguing for a possibility here, but describing an actuality: a community of people built around a shared caring for others. His argument, if there is one, is that religion is a vehicle for expressing that shared sense of care. It’s not a belief, but an emotion people act on. Of course, it can be verbally expressed as a belief. (And that leads to a request for an argument justifying that belief …). But it doesn’t need to be rationally justified. I’m not sure it can be rationally justified. What would that look like?Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        This colloquy made me realize that a deaf man sometimes sees the rhyme, but will never hear it.Report

  10. Kyle,

    I think I agree with much of what you write in this post. And one thing that bothers and has for a long time bothered me about the I-died-and-went-to-heaven-but-came-back experiences is that the death may have been a “medical” death, but not death in the very permanent sense of the word (at least for temporals like you and me).

    That said….

    ….maybe the guy really did get a glimpse of heaven. I don’t know, and I didn’t read the article. But while I’ll keep most of my eggs in the same basket as you seem to, I might put one or two in the other, just to wonder if it might’ve happened and if so what it might’ve meant.

    I’m not really talking about Pascal’s wager (no offense, BlaiseP); but I just don’t know and am not quite ready to declare what another person really experienced.Report

  11. Avatar Ramblin' Rod says:

    The interesting thing I find about these kinds of tales is that from my understanding of Christian theology, they simply can’t be true. Saint Paul wrote that “our hope is in the Resurrection.” Meaning that you when you die, you are well and truly dead in the cold, cold, ground. And then the next thing you will experience will be the resurrection and judgement with no experience of the intervening passage of time, however long that may be, because you truly don’t even really exist in that intervening passage. And then that afterlife will just be an immortal existence on the renewed Earth.

    A counter to that view is based on Christ’s convo with the thief on the cross, who is told that “Today you shall be in heaven” (paraphrase, liberally). But even that doesn’t really change things since from the experiential perspective of the dying thief, death would be instantly followed by resurrection so it would indeed happen “today.”

    Anyway, it seems to me that this vision of a heavenly afterlife sitting around on clouds, etc. is kindergarten theology.Report