Commentary

Do all dogs go to Heaven? How our secular culture views death | Bruce Ledewitz

Americans seem to want the promises and benefits of religion without the rigors of belief and faith

December 28, 2022 6:30 am

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A few weeks ago, my wife and I had to end the life of our beloved pug, Maxine.

I wrote about our love for Maxine in my book The Universe Is on Our Side and people who know us know how much we loved her.

We cared for Maxine, who died at 15, through blindness, infirmity, senility, incontinence and all the rest. But when it seemed to us that life had become hard for her, we knew it was time.

We received many messages of love and support from family and friends. But there was one curious thing I did not understand. Many of these messages referred to a “rainbow bridge.”

I had no idea what that was about until we got a card from the office of our veterinarian.

Our vet’s office is filled with caring staff who were with us throughout Maxine’s decline. Everyone there wrote a personal note to us.

The card also contained a kind of prose poem by an unknown author that is obviously very well-known. It promises not only that Maxine has been rejuvenated and is now playing happily in doggy heaven, but that one day my wife and I will meet her again. 

To someone like me, who chronicles the movement of this culture toward a genuinely secular civilization, and who himself has left organized religion, this episode is noteworthy.

Religion is in decline in America. Church attendance is down. The percentage of “nones”—no religious affiliation—is growing steadily and now comprises about a quarter of American adults. Even among persons formally associated with organized religion, many profess nonbelief.

And even though the U.S. Supreme Court is strongly protecting individual religious liberty these days, public expressions of religious belief—national days of prayer and so forth—are not taken seriously anymore.

Yet, apparently, we still believe in heaven for dogs.

In a way, this is not surprising and is consistent with all the rest of the free-floating supernaturalism exhibited in this non-religious culture. God is dead, but vampires, witches and magic are very much alive.

Heaven for pets is also similar to this culture’s treatment of Christmas. 

Creches are not displayed much anymore. The birth of Christ and its promise of reconciliation with God is no longer even culturally visible. 

If you want to understand what a change this is, just compare the situation today with the public Christian awareness assumed in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” released in 1965. Charles Schultz portrayed a world in which every child knew, and expected to hear every Christmas, the story from the Gospel of Luke of the angel announcing the birth of the Messiah to the shepherds. 

A lot of children today have never heard that story. But just google “the magic of Christmas.” Everyone has heard of that.

Americans seem to want all the promises of religion, and of Christianity in particular—eternal life, miracles, salvation—without any of the discipline and rigor of organized religion and its belief structure. 

Take heaven for our pets. This has been a fraught issue for the Catholic Church for hundreds of years because it raises not only the question of all of the animals in creation — do they all go to heaven? — but also raises the issue of eating meat. Surely a creature that merits heaven should not be killed for food.  

In the 19th century, Pope Pius IX denied that animals even had consciousness. But in the mid 20th century, Paul VI was said to have once told a distraught boy whose dog had died: “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” 

That quotation was erroneously attributed to Pope Francis in 2014, by The New York Times and other news organizations, when Francis appeared to reopen the possibility that all animals could go to heaven. In a correction, Time magazine quoted a Vatican spokesperson as asserting that “this was not the Pope’s intention.”  

But the Rainbow Bridge cares nothing for reason and consistency. Pets are included but surely not flies and mosquitos. And probably most of the people who say we will one day meet our pets are happy to continue to eat meat.

Americans want the reassurances of religion without the hard work of thinking. 

Actually, it’s not only in religious matters that Americans are like this. Heaven for pets is not so different from asserting that tax cuts pay for themselves, or that unlimited deficit spending does not lead to inflation. Or that we are free to do nothing about climate change. Or that vaccines cause autism. 

One piece of nonsense after another in an unrealistic culture.

Why is America so unrealistic, especially in spiritual matters? Why do we abandon church and then cling to heaven, even for our pets?

It turns out that G.K. Chesterton was right: When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything. 

The blame for this, at least in part, lies with secularism. Most of the thinking of the unchurched — humanists, agnostics, atheists and others — embraces a kind of hard materialism. Not only is there no God, but there is no ultimate meaning to existence. Human beings are an accident of nature and our yearnings for truth are illusions.

As an op-ed put it in The New York Times in 2017, The Universe Doesn’t Care About Your Purpose.  

Maybe this is the case, but most people find this account of the universe quite unbearable. We can’t refute it but we cannot live with it either. So, we abandon science and take refuge in fairytales like the Rainbow Bridge.

If we want a more realistic culture, it is up to us to rethink the nihilism of contemporary secularism. What is needed is an account of the universe that is both scientifically credible and humanely sustainable—one in which human beings have a role and a home. 

This is definitely possible but it will take hard work and clear heads. Not the gauzy childishness of the Rainbow Bridge. Our loving memories of Maxine will have to do.

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Bruce Ledewitz
Bruce Ledewitz

Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He hosts the “Bends Toward Justice” podcast. His latest book, “The Universe Is On Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life,” is out now. His opinions do not represent the position of Duquesne University Law School.

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