Sunday evening my group, Morgantown Atheists, had an evening at the local UU church to talk about heaven and hell around the world throughout time. We had a good turnout, including a Christian and a WVU professor of history, both of whom had never been there before. We all thought it was rather funny that the heater had been turned on in the church sometime before, so it was 99°. At least it was a dry heat. So we were sort of practicing in case we were wrong.
One of our regular members, Jason, brought his wife, Alise, who is a Christian. I actually met Alise in the blogosphere when she wrote that excellent article awhile ago called Surviving a Conversation With An Atheist, about what stereotypical assumptions not to make when you talk to one of us. So it was really neat to meet her in person then go out to dinner afterward with everyone and talk a bit more.
Unfortunately we didn't do much more than scratch the surface of what Alise believes, but my main goal was to make sure she was welcome and that she had an opportunity to at least share what her church teaches. (I should also note, Alise is extremely well spoken and seemed perfectly capable of handling her own!) But sometime over coffee I'd love to know more about what Alise believes herself, which she says is "complicated".
Anyway, she sent me a message this morning saying that she had blogged about her evening out with us heathens and it was so well-written I wanted to share it with you. Here it is, in its entirety:
Heaven and Hell with Atheists
by Alise Write
I've been meaning to attend a meeting of the local atheist group with Jason for a while now, but I've been unable to make it work due to conflicting schedules. When he told me that the group was going to be discussing heaven and hell this week and in light of some of the reading I've been doing recently, I thought it would be interesting to go and see what these folks had to say (the 99 degree temperature in the church where we met was cause for much mirth throughout the evening!).
The conversation was primarily about different religions' views regarding the hereafter. It was fascinating to see similarities and differences among various faith traditions regarding where one ends up when they die. I'd heard a number of them before, but some were new to me or explained in more detail. It was also interesting to see how geographic location factored into versions of heaven and hell (i.e., if the climate was hot and dry, hell was more likely to be even more hot, whereas if you lived in a cold climate, hell was seen as even more cold and barren).
There was a history professor from WVU at the meeting as well, and he was able to share a bit about how different religions used heaven and hell as a means to have more clear class delineations. Most are familiar with the caste system in Hinduism, but he also shared how something like election in the Christian faith was used as a means of separating the wealthy and the poor, particularly in the 16th century. Those who were wealthy were that way because they were among God's elect, and those who were poor were that way because they were not, therefore the elect had no reason to help those who were bound for hell anyway. These views of heaven and hell became a means for carrying out that very thing here on earth (and sometimes still does, though less directly, in the health and wealth circles).
Within the Christian tradition (which, for obvious reasons, interested me the most), we discussed the Roman Catholic idea of heaven, hell and purgatory. We also talked a bit about how the idea of hell has changed through Christian history from a place of punishment and torture to more of an idea of separation from God and what that might mean. There was also some discussion of when the idea of a punishing kind of hell originated within Christianity, since the Old Testament seems only to refer to Sheol which isn't really a hell at all.
Overall, the tone of the meeting was respectful of the various religions, even while rejecting them. Certainly people were respectful toward me personally. While I'm used to holding differing views from a number of my Christian friends, we still agree on things like the existence of God, so it's very different to be the only person of faith in the room. When we went to Panera after the meeting, I was disappointed that we had to leave pretty quickly because I would have loved to have more time to converse with the folks there. Talking about my own complicated views about eternity and bouncing thoughts off of a completely different set of folks was fascinating and I'm glad I had the opportunity to attend the meeting.
Have you studied other afterlife traditions? Are there any that stand out to you? Are there any books or resources that you would recommend for further study on the issue of heaven and hell?