Less than a month ago my college’s paper, the California Aggie, published a touching opinion piece on life after death. The thesis, which I obviously disagree with: “it’s crucial to believe in a Heaven, whatever that may mean for you.”
The article has become painfully relevant since the Sandy Hook massacre, especially how nonbelievers respond to and support believers who have lost someone.
What good is arguing over the existence of Heaven when no one can prove their opinion one way or the other? Would you really tell a recent widow that her husband’s cremated body is all she will ever have of him until the day it’s her turn to die and cease existing? Can you tell a parent that their child’s death has permanently severed their bond and that no amount of crying or wishing will ever convert memories into their tangible presence?
Heaven gives us hope, allows us to function in the midst of tragedy without going mental.
People seem to forget that nonbelievers can be sociable. We aren’t cold and calculating, lacking emotion to maintain our Spock-like logic. When a friend’s loved one dies, we feel deeply for them and struggle to understand their situation. It is not the time to remind them of the harsh reality of death.
Nonbelievers, with death, do not dwell on the nebulous. We make sure we focus on what we knew, and what was positive: what the deceased accomplished in life, how much they loved them, how we are there for them if they need anything.
The author of the piece, Jhunehl Fortaleza, says that believing in an afterlife gives us a way to cope with death. She is right, only as far as Heaven being your standard coping mechanism. It obviously makes you feel better- we want to believe we’ll see grandpa again, we want to know our pet dog is playing with toys and getting treats all day- but it’s a solid veil separating us from reality. And nonbelievers, even if Jhunehl can’t fathom this, can cope with death without creating an illusion and even extract meaning from life without any supernatural help.
We can be tolerant, and sympathetic, and careful with our words when someone has suffered a loss. But that doesn’t mean we can’t debate the issue, as Jhunehl suggests. She makes the tired mistake of saying we can’t prove either opinion- but there is “burden of proof,” and it’s a burden that paradise proponents ignore. The fact is, every single thing we get from the world is that we die and that’s it. Our brains and body decay, and we are never heard from again. Now, that doesn’t mean there is no meaning to life, which is a leap that the religious make immediately.
The “good in arguing over the existence of Heaven” is that we believe its important to accept reality, and by accepting reality we can truly accept death. However, we know to show tact and respect when someone has suffered something awful.