A couple weeks ago, I went to an open house for a local Mormon temple about to undergo remodeling. I live in Utah and I have to admit, the Mormons here are dedicated and devout to their religion. They often lead good, upstanding lives and I respect them for that. They are my friends and neighbors.
At the open house, we got to see their temple, a place built just for performing the rituals of their practice of religion, but not necessarily open to the public. It was a beautiful building and everything was just so. Every room is purpose built for a particular ritual. It was also more than 30 years old and ready for an update.
At the very beginning of the tour, they showed us a video that describes the elements of their religion in some detail. The video described a beautiful life rich in ceremony and fellowship. I could almost feel myself slip into a world where I don’t have to think anymore. I could just be like them, all I would have to do is be a good person until I die, then I’d go to Heaven, forever.
That word that kept ringing in my head after watching that video, forever. “You’ll live with your family in Heaven forever. You’ll be with your loved ones forever. You’ll be with ancestors that you haven’t even met, forever.” Hmm. I’m not so sure I want anything forever.
To put this in perspective, I noticed recently that some scientists have come up with a rough estimate of when they think that the universe will end: 10^139 years from now. That’s 10, followed by 139 zeroes, not 10*139. Not even close. Every zero is like multiplying again by 10. Our tiny little brains are just not equipped to comprehend what that amount of time means. Here’s an excerpt from an article I found at Gizmodo to provide some context for that mind boggling number:
The universe is around 10 billion, or 10^10 years old. 10^139 is a completely unfathomable number of years. If you could imagine the entire length of the universe from the Big Bang to now as a single day on Earth, 10^139 years would still be… far longer than the current age of the universe. It’s more than the amount of time it would take to count every atom in the universe, if you had to wait from the Big Bang until now in between counting each atom. That number of years eludes any rational attempt to understand it (Which is probably why it sounds so close — our heads just short circuit and say, threat!!!). It is forever. (emphasis mine)
Back to that video I saw on what we’ll do in Heaven and for how long. I heard the word forever in my head for days after that. As I was reflecting on that word, a key element of their religion, I considered the effort required to just be conscious forever. I’m thinking decision fatigue here. I wake, I write, I work, I talk with my wife, I play with my kids and care for them, then I sleep again. Over and over again.
Do I really want to be conscious, forever? I put that word in bold for a reason. We really have no clue just how long that is. I certainly don’t. I do know it’s a really, really long time — past, present and future.
And then I thought about how kids think. My kids are 5 and 3 years old. I’m 53. In their time scale, an hour is a long time. A day is too long to wait for ice cream, to go to the park, or to watch their favorite show on TV. A month to a kid is forever.
For me, a day is a blip. Weeks feel like days used to feel for me. I suppose that when I’m 95 and walking in the park with my wife, a month might feel like the passing of a day.
I used to work in a retirement home where the average age of the residents was 82 years. That’s the average. I’ve met someone who was 102 years old there for her birthday. If you’re an 82-year old guy living there, you’re gold to the women. If you’re a woman, most of the men you know are dead by the time you’re 80.
But I found something interesting there, at that retirement home. The happiest residents were walking every day and cracking jokes. When you’re 82, having a sense of humor is reason enough to live while watching your body slowly wear out due to DNA replication errors, and lack of replacement of bone, cartilage and just, well, everything. If they weren’t walking, they were in a bed in the 24/7 care facility and that isn’t very fun. So the people who really wanted to live were walking every day and cracking jokes at the drop of a hat.
Now there was one building that housed people with mild to severe dementia. Yeah, I’m thinking of these people when I think of forever. There was one woman there that I used to talk to a lot. I can’t remember her name anymore, but we can call her Linda. I’d tell her a story one day, and she wouldn’t remember it the next. Linda didn’t know what day it was because that didn’t matter anymore. Every day was sort of a blur to her. Are we sure we really want to live forever?
There was one other aspect of this “Heaven” place that also caught my attention. Bliss. It was a state of constant bliss. So in this religion, if I’ve been a good boy on Earth, I’m going to be living with my relatives forever in Heaven. Do I still have free will? Or does God download into my brain, the interpersonal skills that are required to get along along with others, and make Heaven a really nice, blissful place to live, forever?
What if I still have free will, and I don’t have the skills required to get along? Do I go somewhere else? Do I get training? Do I get a second chance?
I choose to be nice to other people not because I want to go to Heaven. I do so because I have peace in my life, on Earth, right now, because I treat people with respect and courtesy. I am not a good person in anticipation of Heaven. It is not a trade to me. I have no expectations of anything from God or anyone else. I just want to live in peace, so I err on the side of peace, without further expectations. If I go to Heaven after this life, that’s a bonus.
So I have to wonder about the motivation of the people who live under this idea of being good in order to go to Heaven. Are they nice to me because they want to be nice, or are they nice to me because they live under the threat of going somewhere other than Heaven after they die? What if they don’t have the interpersonal skills, but just work from memory, following a script? Is that intimacy?
Somehow, that doesn’t seem like an honest Heaven to me. And what I’m saying here, isn’t a criticism of religion. If religion is used to get to know one’s creator, a god, or simply to get spiritual, I’m fine with that.
My only objection to religion is when it is used as a means of social control. I would rather live in a society where people learn the interpersonal skills required to get along with others and experience pleasure in exercising those skills voluntarily, than to live in a society where everyone feels like they must be good or else (!), regardless of their capacity to do good. Forever.