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5.8.02

Why We Need Heaven

The urge for heaven is universal; we need it the way we need love. “It’s threatening to one’s entire sense of self” to imagine the end of life, says Sherwin B. Nuland, author of “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.” “So essentially we have to convince ourselves that there is an afterlife. Even those of us who don’t believe in one sneakingly wish there was one.”


This is a strikingly narrow view of things, and stated high up in a fairly lightweight article that's more musing than actual reporting. But it points out a big problem with the dominance of Christianity in our society, where for most people "religious diversity" means "Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians." People tend to assume that all religion is basically patterned the way Christianity is. Every religion has a holy book, its rules for getting into heaven, its clergy, and its god you have to worship or else. The article makes it seem as if the basic idea of heaven is the same and is equally appealing to everyone. It hints at the salvation by faith versus salvation by works debate, but for the most part disagreements about heaven are presented as questions of its decor and whose side you need to be on to get there.

If all religions basically work the same way, religious differences go from being serious philosophical disputes to being like picking a sports team -- you always want your side to win, but there's no objective standard for why one or the other ought to. This is a nice way to get people to be accepting of diverse religions instead of seeing all others as destined for hell, but in its over-simplicity it ultimately saps the meaning out of serious religious study. Few sports fans go through long periods of soul-searching as they decide what team to root for. We should be able to say that one religion is right and another is wrong, without having to add "for everybody."

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