What Do Atheists Believe
About Heaven and Hell?
HI. I just had a question that I thought you may be able to answer. I am supposed to teach a five-day class on Atheism. If you can, would you please tell me what Atheists believe about Heaven and Hell.
From: "Positive Atheism" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: December 18, 2003 4:33 AM
please tell me what Atheists believe about Heaven and Hell.
The short answer is that we don't.
The better answer first needs for us to examine some important background information:
Atheism does not consist of any positive beliefs, such as "There is no Heaven" or "There is no Hell" or "There are no gods." True, many atheists carry their atheism this far, but being an atheist doesn't mean you carry things that far.
Atheism, by the classic definition used by most atheistic philosophers, is simply the absence of theism, the lack of a god-belief. Thus, an atheist is anybody who does not have a god-belief, that is, anybody who is not a theist. Notice that for the sake of this discussion we divide humanity into two distinct classes: those who have a god-belief (theists) and those who do not (atheists).
Be aware that the vast majority of atheists rarely if ever ponder even their own atheism: we simply don't care! Religion is something that some people believe in, and they are welcome to their beliefs. We don't go along with their claims; for the most part, neither do we go about antagonizing theists about their beliefs. We are widely seen as doing just that (antagonizing theists) only because those are virtually the only atheists you will ever recognize as atheists. The majority of us -- well, you would be surprised, shocked, to learn just who the atheists are in your life!
One aspect of this discussion that is tough to understand is the fact that for theists, their theism generally makes up a substantial part of their lives. For some, their theism is almost all-encompassing. Sometimes you will find theists who do not care much about their theism, although when the topic comes up they will raise both fists in order to defend their theism! However, most theists do more than simply give lip-service to theism.
(Here's an interesting twist that not very many people have considered: I can make an excellent case that it's atheists who give lip-service to theism, not theists. The reason they do this is so they might avoid the ravages of antiatheist bigotry! If theists would cease their almost universal disdain toward atheists, they could empty their pews of virtually all the hypocrites! We would not feel the need to pretend in order to get along, to keep our stations in society, to keep our jobs, our families, our freedom, our lives, our dignity.)
God-Claims? What's a God?
We consider gods to be the objects of any claims that supernatural beings exist, which include angels, ancestors, saints, and so forth. All such alleged beings were thought to be gods at one time or another, and were promoted or demoted as various fluctuations in world view affected entire classes. One very important series of fluctuations along these lines were the various instances of the onset of monotheism, when the various polytheistic deities had to be demoted to (for example) Christian saints, when Christianity overtook Roman culture and religion.
See our FAQ essays on the distinction between "paranormal" and "supernatural." Atheists would not recognize claims of the supernatural as valid or truthful (otherwise they would not be atheists, we'd be theists). However, it is not inconsistent for an atheist to recognize claims of the paranormal as valid or possible.
The first piece, an earlier work, is called, "Atheists, The Paranormal, And The Supernatural." The later piece, "Paranormal, Supernatural, Ghosts, And Atheism" (in two parts), includes "The Paranormal and the Supernatural, as Each Relates To Science," and "Ghosts and the Afterlife: Paranormal, Supernatural, or What?"
Your Specific Question: Heaven and Hell
We do not have any beliefs about Heaven or Hell. Most of us, if asked, would say, "There is no such thing" or "It's all a state of mind: Heaven and Hell are here on Earth." But the precise way to state how we believe is to say that we do not hold any beliefs concerning Heaven or Hell as actual (literal) places.
Both Sides Agree Upon This One Point:
The notion that Heaven and Hell exist are claims made by the Christian religion, and many others (although the names often differ).
Christians (and others) claim that Heaven and Hell are real places to which people are sent after death.
The key word here is claim: the Christian (or other theist) is making a claim that two places exist. Heaven and Hell are the subjects of a specific claim, an existential claim, to be exact. An existential claim is a claim that a thing exists.
This cannot be overemphasized in any discussion of The God Question (or any related questions, really).
Where We Part Company:
Contrary to the popular thinking, the atheist is not necessarily making the counterclaim that such places don't exist (although some do make this counterclaim). Most atheists, as I mentioned above, are indifferent to the entire subject of theism and atheism, they don't care and they don't pay attention. Naturally they don't care about such side-issues as Heaven and hell!
If you can imagine a concert violinist who does not care for professional sports, and if you can then imagine quizzing that violinist on the strengths and weaknesses of the players for the Chicago Cubs' and assess their chances to take the Series this year, then you can imagine how most atheists feel about religion.
Or -- if you can imagine a professional ball player who later became a renowned sportscaster, but who never cared for Classical music, and if you can then imagine asking him about the techniques of tone and intonation that Itzhak Perlman introduced into his performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, then you can imagine how most atheists feel about their own atheism, which is really a reflection of other people's religion more than it is of the atheists views on anything.
But whether an atheist cares about the subject has no bearing on that subject's worthiness of our assent! Is the claim true? Is the claim likely? is the claim unlikely? In other words, does the atheist (or anybody have any business believing the claim? That is the bottom line.
Atheists say they have been given no valid reasons to grant assent to those claims. In other words, the Christians need to make a convincing argument that they are telling the truth when they talk about Heaven and Hell (or gods, etc.).
This is the concept of the burden of proof, which demands that the person claiming that a thing exists is responsible for proving that it does. If no proof is forthcoming, we don't have to believe the claim. Were it not for this, then any cockamamie claim could be made and we'd be forced to believe it. Why? Because we could not disprove it. Never mind that it is impossible to disprove an existential claim. And never mind that the claim is so ridiculous as to defy even understanding what it is actually saying, if the claim were unassailable in any respect, then we'd be forced to believe it!
We have a modest write-up on the burden of proof in the work, "Reason And Faith: Apples And Oranges" with Todd Smith.
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