Where Heaven Lies: A (Qualified) Defense of a New Atheist

Sam Harris mocked religion by asking "Where is Heaven?", but his question is a good one that Christians should be prepared to answer.

Recently, Sam Harris, notorious New Atheist celebrity, asked the question, “Where is Heaven anyway?” He then gave what he apparently believes is a witty response: “We have all these satellites in space and no one has even seen it.” This answer naturally and quite rightly drew howls of derision from Catholic Twitter and elsewhere, given its ignorance and lack of seriousness, especially as these have typified Sam Harris’ statements about religion for years now.

Harris was once upon a time the doyen of the New Atheist crowd, and his crude tirades earned him both adulation from his fans but also revulsion, even from fellow atheists. Philosopher John Gray has consistently condemned the New Atheists for their crude approach to religion. And Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton wrote a long essay in the Times Literary Supplement deriding the New Atheist idea of God, as if He were “just another chap walking down the street.” (Eagleton is a former seminarian.)

Perhaps my favorite atheist response to New Atheism is the website History for Atheists, run by Tim O’Neill. O’Neill, an atheist with a history degree, grew so exasperated with New Atheist ignorance about history that he began his website to educate them. (It is quite good, and believers might want to check it out, to get a sense of what a fair-minded atheist thinks about Christian historical claims.)

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Despite all this, I cannot help but think that the pile on of Harris is a bit overdone. It is true that the man is an arrogant prig, and that, given his status as a darling of the liberal establishment and his place in academia, it is unlikely he will ever seek to understand people of faith with an open mind. Academics, given that their status is tied to how well they can project intellectual brilliance to their colleagues, almost never admit they are wrong about anything; their besetting sin is an almost total lack of humility. Therefore, the chances of Sam Harris ever having a road to Damascus moment are very slim. His calumnies against the faith of Christians over the years are evidence that he doesn’t deserve much sympathy in this regard.

And yet, though his answer was risible, I can’t help being sympathetic to his initial question: “Where is Heaven anyway?” The question is more child-like than childish, it seems to me. The obvious retort to this is that Heaven is not a physical place, and that God is spirit, not some Bronze Age sky-god. We don’t worship Zeus. 

But we as Catholics believe God was made incarnate, and therefore visible to us, that His body was resurrected from the dead, and that He, along with His body, went somewhere after His Ascension. We also believe He is visibly present in the Sacrament of the altar. Sam Harris would never accept such answers, but the question he asked is not a meaningless one for all that. And it is one that atheists less dismissive of Christianity than Sam Harris might honestly want answers to.

I once confessed to my Western Civ class that, though I have never had much problem with the idea of human evolution, one concern about modern science had always troubled me: the almost limitless scale of the physical universe in time and space, which seemed to reduce humanity to insect-like insignificance. Several of my students (who made clear to me they were not religious) responded that they agreed with me on that point. 

I recall having nightmares when I was younger about floating through empty space and looking down and staring into a black abyss. I’d wake up in a cold sweat. A line from Pascal’s Pensées well summarizes the reaction of many to the notion of how physically small our human world seems to be compared with the extent of the physical world: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.”

I mention this because I was an atheist before my adult conversion to Catholicism. I only do so because I think sometimes those who grew up in families where Christian faith is taken for granted don’t necessarily appreciate the mental world of those who did not. The world which appears to believers so full of God’s presence can easily appear quite absent of it to those who are not (and even sometimes to believers as well). When Harris asked the question, “Where is Heaven?” I think this is tantamount to him asking, “If Heaven is real, if God, who is all-powerful and omniscient and omnipresent, is real, then why isn’t this obvious to me?” 

Again, I know the Church has answers for this question, and I agree with them. Part of the problem is personal; sin tends to darken our intellect and is often the cause of our inability to sense His presence. The other obvious problem is that Harris treats all reality as if it could be understood only in the manner of the modern natural sciences. Such scientism cannot make sense of literature or art much less the supernatural, given the mistake that it makes of treating all phenomenon by the methods of the natural sciences. 

But Catholics should remember how very different the world appears to those without the gift of supernatural faith. Part of the journey of a Christian life is learning to “see” the world in a radically altered light, as something that is more than nature alone could yieldthat is, supernaturally. For those who do not already possess this gift, for whom the world appears as an empty, indifferent plane of existence, the question “Where is Heaven?” is a real one, no matter how flippantly it might be put. 

Catholics cannot give someone the grace to believe all by themselves; we need the aid of God the Holy Spirit for that. We can, however, be His ambassadors, even to those who, as yet, refuse to accept that there is more to the universe than what appears obvious to them, and so to the possibility of grace. 

So, by all means, mock Harris’ silly answer as is appropriate. My impression of the man is that his moral failings, particularly his contempt for those he considers his intellectual inferiors, preclude him from taking any opinions but his and those of his immediate social circle seriously. Nonetheless, we are under divine command to try. And what is more, his question is a serious one. And besides correcting his errors, Catholic should also try to show him “where” Heaven really is as wellto invite him to make that journey of faith with us. Witnessing to the hope of Heaven is what we are all called to, even if it is not always obvious to those with whom we share it.

  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor teaches history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

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