While the first half of the title of this essay is fairly straightforward, the second half is unquestionably audacious. “How dare you,” you are almost certainly asking in an offended tone, “make claims about what I believe and don’t believe?” In most cases, I would agree with such an objection. I hope, however, that you will be willing to bear with me through a thought experiment to test out this idea. In doing so I hope that either you will learn something about yourself, or you will be able to point out where my analysis of the thought experiment is mistaken.
Imagine that your best friend has landed her dream job. She is going to be the first person to visit an extrasolar planet. She has been training for such an opportunity her entire life, and this chance fulfills her dreams. Traveling to this other planet will take years of her life, and, because of relativistic effects, hundreds of years of your life. Because of the way such space travel works, you will never be able to speak with your friend again. Try to imagine the morning her spacecraft launches as vividly and realistically as possible. What are your emotions? Please try to answer that question before continuing to read.
If you’re like most people, you will have a complicated mixture of emotions. Pride in your friend is probably one of them, as is sadness that you won’t be able to interact with your friend again. But, again if you are like most people, one emotion that is probably not in your mix is grief. Grief is a distinct emotion from sadness, and while sadness would be quite common in this kind of scenario, grief is not.
Now, further imagine that the day after the launch, you wake up to hear a news report that the spacecraft carrying your friend exploded. Think very carefully. Is grief among your emotions now? Again, if you are like most people, the answer is yes.
Now let’s explore what that change in emotion implies. Whether the explosion happened or not, you won’t be seeing or talking with your friend again, at least in this life, so the direct loss of interactions with the friend has no bearing on the change. Furthermore, however great for your friend the trip would have been, heaven is, pretty much by definition, infinitely better. Your friend is now, in a scenario where heaven exists, infinitely better off.
So why, if you truly believe in heaven, would your emotion change to grief? That is a serious question that I hope you will answer in the comments, because I can think of no consistent explanation. And if that’s right, then I think this thought experiment may have just demonstrated that you don’t, in fact, believe in heaven.
Full disclosure: This argument is taken whole-hog from my new favorite philosopher, Garret Merriam. I am posting it here rather than simply linking to his video wherein he outlined it because (a) I think it is more honest for me to post my own understanding of the argument, and (b) I want to solicit feedback.