One of the reasons I started this blog was to express some of the ideas that led me to atheism. I’ve done a fair amount of commenting on issues I find important, so I’d like to spend a few posts on some ideas that really sent me running from my devout Catholic upbringing. This post is about a big one: the idea that it is a good thing for a person to die young if he or she is pure enough to instantly go to heaven. It sounds sad, but the theology behind it is well established. In fact, it is an idea that I saw celebrated in Catholic stories a lot as I grew up. I’ll give some examples of those stories here, and then attempt to explain why I have a problem with the idea, and why perfectly kind, sane people come to this conclusion.
I first encountered this idea while watching the Spanish film The Miracle of Marcelino. My parents stumbled upon it in a Catholic book shop and sat us down to watch it as a family. You can find out more about the film here, but to give a quick summary (with spoilers, sorry), there’s a boy named Marcelino who’s an orphan raised by a bunch of monks in a monastery. The monks forbid him from going to the attic, but one day he goes there and finds a huge, life size statue of Jesus on the cross. He talks to the statue, and offers bread and wine to the statue…which then takes the bread. The statue is alive! Jesus teaches the boy things, and offers Marcelino a wish. Marcelino wishes to see Mary, Jesus’ mother–and to see his own mother, too. Jesus tells him he will “have to go to sleep” for that to happen, and opens his arms for the boy to sleep in them. The boy obeys, and the audience understands that he has died and gone to heaven. Oh happy day!
The ending of that movie always bothered me. Why was this boy’s early demise being celebrated? Forget heaven; when a child dies, it’s supposed to be a tragedy! He had so much life ahead of him, and Jesus–of all people–KILLS him! I understood that it was a happy ending because he was going to heaven, but I always maintained some irritation with the ending.
Around the time that I encountered that film, I was involved in a Catholic girls group called “Little Flowers.” They’re meant to be kind of like a Catholic version of Girl Scouts–only, we did pretty much nothing that the Girl Scouts do, to my knowledge, except wear sashes with badges. We earned those badges by memorizing Bible verses, and learning about saints and the virtues they exemplified. (The group is named for St. Therese, and you can learn more here if you’re so inclined.) One saint we studied was St. Rita, whose story definitely relates to this post.
I won’t tell the whole story (more of which can be read here) but basically, St. Rita married into a family that was feuding violently with another one. Her husband eventually renounced the feud, supposedly thanks to her influence, but not everyone in the two families did. Because of this, her husband wound up getting killed by members of the other family in the feud. Rita’s sons, who it is alleged were good Christians up to this point, decided to avenge their father. Rita tried to convince them not to, but when that didn’t work, she prayed to God to take their lives before this tragedy could occur. If they murdered someone, that would damage their immortal souls with mortal sin. Wikipedia explains: “Her sons died of dysentery a year later, which pious Catholic beliefs claim was God’s act to take them by natural death rather than risk them committing a mortal sin punishable by Hell.” Of course, the idea that God killed her sons was stated as a fact in the version of her story I was told. That pissed me off even more than the Marcelino story. At least the Marcelino story could be taken as the boy’s choice, since he asks to see Mary and his mother, (though I don’t think he even fully understood that he would have to die in order to do that,) but this is a mother actually praying for God to kill her sons! I was horrified. Even as a devout Catholic, I openly despised St. Rita.
Years later, when I was a sophomore in college, one of my English professors assigned a number of Flannery O’Connor stories, some of which–you guessed it–contain the theme of this post. Considering her biographical information, I wasn’t surprised to encounter this idea in her work. O’Connor was a devout Roman Catholic who grew up in Georgia. She lived from 1925-64, and was a prolific writer who listed Catholicism as her main reason for writing. Her target audience were non-believers, and those of little faith. There are a few examples of this idea in her stories, but the one I’d like to focus on is the one involving a particularly young child. In her short story titled “The River,” a little boy named Harry, raised by faithless, neglectful parents, is brought by his babysitter to a religious event. At the event, a preacher baptizes people in a local river while proselytizing. For the first time, the little boy learns about Jesus and heaven, and is baptized. He is only four or five years old though, and misunderstands the preacher, who says that the way to get to heaven is through the river. The preacher was talking about baptism, but Harry takes it literally. The next day, thanks to his parents neglecting him again, Harry makes his way to the river with a pedophile on his trail. The pedophile doesn’t catch him though, because Harry throws himself into the river trying to get to heaven, drowning himself. It isn’t an intentional suicide. He doesn’t understand what he’s doing, and he got baptized the day before, so he’s definitely going to heaven! Isn’t that great?
Maybe I was always a little skeptical, but even as a Catholic, reading that story, I didn’t find it to be a happy ending. Famously, however, O’Connor did. He goes to heaven, and escapes a terrible life at the hand of neglectful parents! He also doesn’t get raped! Isn’t that a good thing? While I admit that the rape would have been tragic had it happened to such a young character, I can’t shake my disgust with her for thinking that ending his life at such a young age is a good idea. She’s the writer. She could have found plenty of other ways for him to achieve salvation without him dying, couldn’t she?
I’m not the only atheist who can partially attribute a deconversion to this idea. In Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show about her deconversion from Catholicism titled Letting Go of God, she describes an experience after a retreat in high school where this idea came into play:
I remember after the retreat all of us seniors were in this bus going back to school on these really scary, winding switchback roads, and another senior, Larry…turned to me with this big beatific grin on his face and he said, “Just think, if this bus got into a big accident right now and we were all killed, we would all probably just go straight up to heaven.” We all nodded like “Yeah! Our souls are so clean and pure at this moment, how wonderful would it be if we were all killed in a big bus accident right now, because we’d all fly straight up to Fred!”
(Fred was the name the retreat leaders had decided to use instead of “God.”) As I listened to her story (which is a long but entertaining one that’s available on YouTube at this link, if you’re interested.) I realized I really related to what she was saying. I had thought the exact same thing at various times in my life. I remember walking out of confession, saying my penance, feeling clean and pure, and thinking, how long do I have to stay like this? How long can I keep this up? Keeping my soul spotless felt just like trying to keep my room clean. It might last a day, or a couple of weeks if I was lucky. Eventually the laundry would pile up, my books would get strewn across the floor, and my pairs of shoes would wind up separated by great distances under more dirty laundry. I couldn’t keep it up. What if I were able to die immediately after confession? I’d be spared the torment of purgatory (or worse if I’d been especially bad) and go straight to heaven!
After thinking this, I’d always feel disgusted with myself. I don’t want to die young! I love life. I really enjoy being alive. I enjoy creating things. I enjoy painting, and making music. I enjoy thinking, and writing, and traveling. I enjoy doing community service, and learning more about the world. Even with the belief I used to have in an afterlife that included heaven, I didn’t want to sacrifice a fulfilling life on Earth in order to get a guaranteed spot. I certainly couldn’t expect the characters in these stories to feel that way either. St. Rita’s sons might have wanted revenge, but they might also have wanted other things. I suspect living was pretty high on that list. What about Marcelino? What about Harry? Am I supposed to accept their deaths as what they wanted?
I have a cousin who died from SIDS, and the most important question my parents asked after his death was “Was he baptized?” I think it’s because if he was, and was (as they believed) going to heaven because of that, that would make his death less tragic. So Catholics create stories around this idea, celebrating it in characters who aren’t real (or if they were, as might potentially be the case with St. Rita, we’re far removed from them.) Readers and viewers get to watch from a distance, without the emotional attachment they have to their loved ones, making it easier for them to (hypothetically) see these people’s deaths as a good thing. I was never able to see it that way, though.
This comes back to the idea of belief in an afterlife being a way to cope with death–not just our own impending deaths, but the deaths of those we care about. It probably helps some, but when one follows the possibilities for that train of thought, it becomes very dark. I don’t see anyone arguing for the murder of all babies immediately after they’re baptized, but that would certainly guarantee all children a spot in heaven. Is that a happy ending? I encourage religious people to think about why they feel sad to know that a child has died, even when he or she has been baptized, and why they (I presume) are opposed to the idea of all baptisms ending in infanticide. Don’t tell me the only reason is to keep from committing a mortal sin yourselves. That shows zero care for the children, who would be the victims of such a violent action. For me, what it came down to was that life is worth living, and for God, if he existed, to create life and then take it away abruptly seemed unfair, even if the child is to be rewarded in paradise.
I suppose I never completely bought into the idea that life in this world exists only to prepare us for life in the next. I think life in this world can be pretty darn awesome, and even as a Catholic, I believed that. It just didn’t fit with the other ideas that were being presented to me.
How do you feel about these ideas? Is early death a good thing if it takes a person to heaven, or is it just tragic? Feel free to leave comments. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful of everyone and think things through before posting.