“They say in Heaven love comes first
We’ll make Heaven a place on Earth.”
Belinda Carlisle, ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’, MCA, 1987,
Written by Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley.
About fifty years ago, I was a geeky (and closeted gay) teenager living in a family that identified as members of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. My father was an elder, and my mother – although equally intelligent and capable – was consigned to women’s duties that were deemed to be fitting given the church’s sexist attitudes. Dad was involved in the discussions between elders of three churches at the time: Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists – who ultimately agreed to form a new church, the Uniting Church in Australia.
I recall Dad expressing frustration over the many meetings that he attended as part of these talks. He recounted arguments by those debating what would happen to expensive church property after the merger, for example: would individual churches keep the property and revenue from private schools, or would these resources be merged and shared?
Often, questions about sharing money were asked in ways that would appeal to the better angels of their nature: “What would Jesus want?”
But the common response was more cynical about keeping it for themselves: “Jesus has nothing to do with this.” – A reply that frustrated my somewhat idealistic father.
Even though I was still a young lad, I also found such hypocritical selfishness to be disillusioning to my naive childhood faith. Here were people publicly proclaiming their belief in a religious figure who, for them, represented lofty ideals – but when it came to walking the walk, they turned away from his principles. Five decades later, I see the same hypocrisy in many religious people today: televangelists, megachurches, homophobes and transphobes, cathedrals dripping with opulence while beggars starve in the streets outside. And their homes – like their hearts and minds – so often remain fortified and insulated against welcoming strangers and sharing their abundance.
This lack of hospitality created another philosophical quandary in my young life – religious folk proclaiming that sodomy was homosexuality and therefore an abomination; whereas the Bible itself explicitly explains the abomination of Sodom: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” – Ezekiel 16:49 (ESV). How many religious people gorge themselves upon their promiscuous materialism and overflowing cups of plenty, while refusing to extend little more than tokenistic breadcrumbs of hospitality to the stranger, the refugee, or the homeless – thereby practicing the true sin of Sodom? By contrast, how few of them open their empty megachurch buildings at night, offering their sanctuaries to those seeking sanctuary? Or donating spare rooms in their manses or parishioners’ homes to those needing shelter from the storms of life? Or gift lovingkindness to victims of domestic violence? Open their hearts and homes and families to members of our wider human family?
Such blindness to their own ethical double standards, and their willingness to seek scapegoats by blaming LGBT+ people for imaginary sins as a distraction, helped to sow the seeds of doubt in my young mind regarding the ethics of religion.
Any philosophy that presumes to explore profundity, deep meaning, or significant cosmic consequence, should concentrate on important matters instead of intellectual detritus. Even today, whenever I walk past a religious street peddler who is distributing religious tracts to passersby, I want to ask them (as I wanted to ask them when I was ten years old): why aren’t they using their time and resources to feed the poor or save lives?
Do theists want to prove their god exists? Then they should go out there and change the world. Stop navel gazing and self-indulgent debating of meaningless rhetoric. Stop showing off your imaginary piety on street corners or from the top of pulpits; get out and walk the walk. Feed the poor. Solve poverty and inequality and systemic injustice. Cure cancer and HIV and a hundred other medical problems. Abolish guns and cluster bombs and nuclear weapons. Resettle sixty million refugees. Solve anthropogenic climate catastrophe. Educate people out of their racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, cultural white supremacy and tribalism, and their worship of gluttonous capitalism. Provide universal shelter and safety. Establish a universal basic income. Provide free and universal education and health care. And what about the orphans and widows and prisoners?
Tear down the divide between western society and the so-called ‘developing world’ – a form of apartheid that is more global than the Berlin Wall, more genocidal than Hitler or Atilla the Hun, and more unethical than the white supremacist attitudes that permitted a division between slaves and slavers.
Build a better world today instead of waiting for some imaginary afterlife. It is not only immoral to ignore the approximately 14,000 children under five who die every day, but it is also akin to people in the 1930s who looked away and chose not to see the Holocaust happening before their eyes. You say you are pro-life? Then get out there and stop killing people through your wilful neglect.
Instead of waiting for some presumed miracle from elsewhere, work hard to be that miracle here and now, today. Be the answer to your own prayers or aspirations. Whatever higher ethical principle you claim to follow, let that principle live today in your life and works.
None of these actions will, in themselves, go one splinter towards providing evidence that a god actually exists, but they will help to demonstrate that maybe a form of heaven is possible, and that maybe certain ethics and aspirations are worthy of some consideration. Are theists promoting a culture that worships death, or one that promotes life, and a more abundant one at that?
These same questions could also be asked of atheists and humanists.
©2023 Geoff Allshorn