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Heaven: A fool's paradise

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-John Lennon urged us: "Imagine there's no heaven/It's easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky." Yet the religious aren't turning to Lennonism any faster than Leninism. Today, according to a new book by Lisa Miller, Newsweek's religion
correspondent, 81 per cent of Americans and 51 per cent of Brits say they believe in heaven – an increase of 10 per cent since a decade ago. Of those, 71 per cent say it is "an actual place". Indeed, 43 per cent believe their pets – cats, rats, and snakes – are headed into the hereafter with them to be stroked for eternity. So why can't humans get over the Pearly Gates?

In reality, the heaven you think you're headed to – a reunion with your relatives in the light – is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. Most of the believers in heaven across history would find it unrecognisable. Miller's book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, teases out the strange history of heaven – and shows it's not what you think.

Heaven is constantly shifting shape because it is a history of subconscious human longings. Show me your heaven, and I'll show you what's lacking in your life. The desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible and the Koran lived in thirst – so their heavens were forever running with rivers and fountains and springs. African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where "the first would be last, and the last would be first" – so they would be the free men dominating white slaves. Today's Islamist suicide-bombers live in a society starved of sex, so their heaven is a 72-virgin gang-bang. Emily Dickinson wrote: " 'Heaven' – is what I cannot Reach!/The Apple on the Tree/Provided it do hopeless – hang/That – 'Heaven' is – to Me!"
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