The Atheist in Heaven

My son couldn’t sleep last night.  I was singing my daughter her bedtime song, mere seconds away from swapping Mommy time for special adult Mommy and Daddy time.  I was almost there, already running up the stairs in my mind.  “And if that golden ring turns to brass…”  I sang loudly, rushing the song.  Then I heard Dax sniffling in the hallway.  He was clearly very upset.  I had just tucked him in only minutes ago and he was fine.  I quickly finish singing my second identical bedtime song and blew a kiss to my daughter.  I shut the door and faced my son, who was trying to keep it together and not cry.   Seven year olds aren’t crybabies anymore he’d told me more than once.  “Mom I was just thinking about death and it disappointed me.”

My heart just ached.  I hugged him and took him back into his bedroom to snuggle him and talk it out.  We had this talk before.  Dax is a deep thinker.  I always tell my kids that there are lots of different beliefs and we can’t know who is right and who is wrong.  Some people believe in God, some people believe in many gods.  But, the important thing in life is to be a good person to other people.  It’s hard being a Humanist.  It’s much easier to believe in some benevolent guiding force in the world.  But I don’t.  I came to that conclusion a long time ago.  Now my son is struggling with it.  I have always tried to give my children the option of God even though I am an atheist.  I answer their questions as honestly as I can.  Even if that answer is often I don’t know.  I tell them what Great Grandma believed and what Buddhists believe.   Sometimes I even throw in some Scientology for humor.  “Then the alien overload Xenu came down from space!”

Last night he wanted to know about the afterlife.  And I didn’t know what to tell him.  I don’t believe in an afterlife.  It’s a hard, sad concept to face.  We all want to believe in Heaven.  It sounds like such a nice, happy place.  And that’s what Dax was wondering.  He wanted me to tell him that Heaven is real and that after we die we will all be together again just like we are today.  I told him that I hoped so.  And I do mean it.  Heaven sounds like so much fun.  I like to imagine my Grandmother in heaven, reunited with her siblings and friends, hugging and laughing and catching up on the last few decades.  I wonder if people smoke in heaven, I always imagine my Great Aunt Martha smoking.  If it’s heaven then don’t we get to do what we want all day long?  Dax wanted to know if we would be young and healthy in heaven.

I told him that we don’t know what happens after we die.  It’s a sad truth that we all have to die someday.  That’s why we need to live today fully and thankfully.  Nobody can know what happens when you die until you do.  I told him that some people believe in Reincarnation.  I told him that if he wasn’t a good boy, he might come back again as a brand new person or maybe a caterpillar!   He told me that he didn’t really think that would happen.  I told him that I didn’t either but since I didn’t know for sure, I tried to live my life like it was.  Be good to each other.  It can’t hurt to hedge your bets by being nice!

He wanted to know if there were spirits and angels.  Again, I could only answer him with, “I don’t know.  But I hope so.”  I told him that I was more of a practical person, I needed proof to believe.  So until things were proven to me, I could hold them to be plausible.  It’s possible that there are spirits with us.  But I don’t know for sure.  I told him that lots of people believe in angels and that I like to think that my Grandmother is still close by.  It’s a calming thought.  I also told him what I truly believe, which is that as long as we are alive, our ancestors will always be with us.  They stay alive in us.  They made us.  If it wasn’t for Great Grandma I said, we wouldn’t be here today!  We both smiled at that.  And I told him that Great Grandma was always with us when we thought of her or did something she taught us or when we looked at something she gave us.  She is always alive in our memories.

Death and religion is confusing to all kids, but I think it’s more so when you get to decide what you want believe instead of being told.  I tell them that the world is a wonderful place and there’s so much beauty that we can’t explain.  Maybe God did make it all, so intricately crafted.  There are lots of people who believe that I tell my children.  I tell them that there are lots of books to read.  Once you learn a few more words, you can read the Bible if you want or the Koran or Lao Tzu.  I am not opposed to any religion.  Whatever works for you.  I have seen various beliefs work wonders for various people.  I’m okay with that.  “Jesus is just alright by me.”  I think there are a lot of good messages to be learned from Jesus even if I don’t believe he came back from the dead.  I can’t tell my kids that I do believe it, I don’t want to lie.  But I can let them decide if they believe it or not.  I try to teach them to respect everybody else’s beliefs even if they are not your own.  (Except for a few crazy cults, you can disrespect them a little bit.)

My daughter’s Girl Scout troop meets in the local Catholic Church.  It was the church that I went to sporadically as a child.  I still find peace in churches, quite places of deep thought and reflection.  Recently, after I picked her up, I felt compelled to go in and say a pray for my Grandmother.  She would have liked that.  I don’t know if prayer works, but I do know that it doesn’t hurt to pray.  I genuflected and whispered The Holy Mary.  I had prayed that over her body as she died only a few months ago.   She would have liked that too.  I take solace in that fact that she died at home with her family praying over her.  It is what she wanted.  I know that is true as well as I know myself.  They aren’t my beliefs, but I am happy that I got to pay homage to her beliefs.  “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, Pray for us now and at the hour of our Death.”

Dax wanted to pray and he asked what to do.  I said to just say something to God or Great Grandma.  I taught him the Hail Mary.  I showed him how to make the sign of the cross with the Holy Water.   My daughter wasn’t interested and I told her that she could go wait outside in the sunshine.  Perhaps she will find God in Nature someday.  That would be fine too.

Dax told me last night what he had prayed that day in the church.  He prayed that Great Grandma was in a better place.  I cried.  I told him that she was.  She was so old and in pain, she really didn’t want to live any longer.  It hurts to know that, but it was true.  My Grandmother believed in Heaven and she was ready to go.  She had just met the new Bishop, the second Bishop to meet her.  He blessed her for her service to the church and the community.  She was at peace.  She was tired.  She was ready to be freed from this miserable mortal coil.

I told my son what I tell myself, “She’s not in pain anymore.  She lived a long good life.  And we will always have her in our hearts.”  Fat tears rolled down my face.  I hope that there is a heaven for her, even if I don’t believe.  And if I’m wrong and there is a heaven, I will be happy to see her there someday.  Because if there is a God, I believe that s/he will forgive me for not believing blindly if I live a good life and treat people well.  Because that is what really matters.  Love and kindness.

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2 Comments

Filed under Essays

2 responses to “The Atheist in Heaven

  1. Rebecca Trocki

    Katie, I completely understand your situation. Children are God’s children. I grew up with religion but I believe mostly in the catholic and understand its ins and outs of what heaven is and its origins. I must say that I look in heaven in a truly academic way. Heaven is a comfort for those left behind to see that people are more spiritual beings. We are all part of the earth. I agree with Grandma that people need religion but remember, we live in a world of paradox. Paradox in the fact that sometimes things do not always go our way and suffering does exist. You don’t have to agree on a religion but remember, we are all God’s children. God in the esoteric sense is everywhere, nirvana is what we are to achieve. Knowledge is power and death can be explained in so many different ways. Heaven is different for everyone, your idea of heaven is one way and Dax’s view may be different. You should tell him that the world has beginning, middle and end. It is how you live life now how you do die. We live alone and we die alone but life is about people not posssessions. Friendship and family are what matter, especially for young children. I hope I was not too esoteric for you. The earth, sky, water and air are our nature, things live and die daily. Life is what you make of it and how you are remembered. Thanks for bringing this up and I love you for tackling difficult issues with your children. Love YFC.

  2. nirile

    Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

    Quantum entanglement.

    Its science!

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