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Cloud cuckoo land


Cycling home this evening I looked up at the sky and saw some beautiful dark grey clouds with glowing white tops that were still caught by the setting sun. Since English is one of the very few languages that makes a clear distinction between ‘sky’ (in the physical sense) and ‘heaven’ (in the religious-emotional sense), it took me a few seconds to realise that religious-minded people might look up at the same thing and imagine not only that their god resides there, but also that – if they’ve played their cards right – they’ll eventually end up there with him (her? it? – no, I don’t think so, given the patriarchal way they seem to think) once they’re dead.

Not being religious-minded, I looked up at the lovely billows of vapour in the wild blue yonder and it occurred to me that the temperature up there must be many tens of degrees below zero and that the air would not be breathable for a mere human like me. Even experienced mountaineers up on Everest or Aconcagua have great difficulty surviving with or without bottled oxygen. I remember finding myself gasping for breath on a mere 2,500-metre peak in southern Poland when I was just 20, admittedly when I had a severe head cold; and on a ski trip to Zermatt in Switzerland, around 500 metres higher on the slopes of the Matterhorn, I stupidly forgot to put on my goggles and was rewarded with incipient snow blindness (which luckily only lasted a few hours, but was pretty scary all the same). In short, it’s dangerous up there ‘in heaven’.

So if I wanted a fairly reliable means of euthanasia, I reckon I’d have myself transported to the top of one of those clouds and then thrown out of the vehicle without a parachute or protective clothing. My lungs, blood and everything else would freeze in seconds, the lack of breathable oxygen would do the rest, and whatever remained of me would return lifelessly to earth – as the saying goes, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. But given the admittedly slight risk that my remnants would land on someone’s head or home and cause collateral damage, this probably isn’t the way I’d choose – for we euthanasiacs tend to be socially minded, for all the accusations of selfishness levelled at us by the usual suspects.

The point I’m trying to make is that heaven and the sky are two totally different concepts. To put it bluntly, the former is imaginary, and the other is not. But if I were to confront a religious-minded person with this, they would invariably reply ‘But of course we never meant this literally‘.

Oh no? So how did you mean it? Why do people point up at the sky when referring to the supposed afterworld (‘heaven’) and down to the depths of the earth when referring to the ‘hell’ their supposed foes will end up in? The great advantage of the sky is that until very recently we human beings had no access to it, and so all kinds of unprovable ideas could be attached to it. It was ‘up there’, ‘the wild blue yonder’ and so on. Until very recently no-one could say they’d been there and seen that it was simply a piece of the physical universe like any other. But in the past half-century people have actually been up there. Unfortunately, the few who have done so almost all come from the USA, where people are less inclined to disbelieve in God than the rest of us. So even the few lucky guys who have set foot on the moon tend to see their achievements as some kind of proof of God’s existence, and his supposed involvement in our lives down here.

The joke book title Sky! my husband! (a literal translation from French) brings all this into hilariously sharp focus – if you’re open to that kind of thing. But if you aren’t, you may think I’m a foul blasphemer. Some toes get trodden on all too easily, despite all the appeals to ‘turn the other cheek’.

Let’s face it, clouds are simply clouds, often lovely to behold, sometimes full of rain, but not – above all – evidence of the existence of a supernatural being. Any belief to the contrary is, quite simply, cuckoo.


From → Religion, Society

One Comment
  1. Monika Sears permalink

    After the rain, the glorious sunsets over the Andes are the colour of William Blake’s hellfire. Your idea for a painless (but expensive ) exit is wonderful and if you do it over the Andes, you may hit a little vicuna when you land; that would be the worst case scenario but with both sky and heaven to lull you to sleep.

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