American Heaven


As a North American Jew, I’m accustomed to reading the endless kvetching of Jewish traditionalists about how American Judaism is inauthentic, assimilated or corrupted. It’s our default position as a community. We often bewail each other’s creativity and spirituality in the process. What I like is learning that all the other religions in the United States are similarly Americanized, unruly and individualistic, and similarly annoying their religious authorities. It makes me think of Whitman’s Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass.

When I read Charles M. Blow’s New York Times column, Heaven for the Godless, it lit me up inside. Here’s a good summary:

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. […] [They] complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And that’s not all. Nearly half the respondents thought atheists would go to heaven, and most thought that people with no religious faith could also go.

What do you think that means? Blow thinks it means Americans want to see goodness rewarded.

His commenters had other, some equally compelling, ideas. One commenter said,

I think this story reveals something very basic about the American people: we believe in fairness. We believe in the concept so deeply that we can’t see God being unfair.

Coming at this from my own Jewish subcultural perspective, I of course think everything is about belonging and being connected. This little statistic about American Heaven makes me, as a member of a religious minority, feel embraced. Heaven would not be heaven to Americans if people who were not like us had to be excluded.

Thinking about heaven isn’t my thing — life after death as a concept isn’t that important to me. When I think about the world to come, I think about this world, the one my child will live in. I want to live in a world where other people can’t imagine heaven without me.

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