Posts Tagged ‘heaven’

PZ Myers, The Happy Atheist

April 2, 2014

Unknown-1I’ve read the major atheist books – Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens – which might be called “combative.” Some feel the confrontational stance disserves the cause. I’m of two minds. True, telling believers “you’re idiots” is not helpful. But religious thought has been so powerful for so long (with such bad consequences) that assertive dissent seems well justified.

PZ Meyers (that’s how he spells his name), in The Happy Atheist, pulls no punches, laying on the scorn; but he does it in an easy, breezy, good humored manner. UnknownBooks debunking religion go all the way back to Tom Paine, but Myers does it well, not content with just making the obvious points.

For example, it’s clear that ideas of Heaven and Hell are rooted in fear of death and chafing at unfairness in life. Myers, however, digs down to dissect these beliefs, showing how incoherent they actually are. A Hell where people are tortured forever? Myers notes that souls have no bodies and hence no pain receptors. But even ignoring that, such sustained agony would soon disintegrate one’s psyche, and continuing to torture an insensate husk would be pointless. Maybe an omnipotent deity could get around that; but how does this sadism square with the idea of a loving and forgiving God? Unknown-2While punishment as a deterrent makes sense, souls in Hell have no way to get back in God’s good graces, so what is the point? And, as Myers puts it, in your brief earthly life you get to guess which faith is true, and if you guess wrong, it’s billions of years of horrific suffering. “That’s insane,” he writes.

Undoubtedly, “Hell” is the creation of people full of bitterness toward other people; such a belief is an insult to God.

Myers similarly unpacks the idea of Heaven. The problem is that desires and dreams are what life is about. Fulfill them all, and where does that leave you? In “a kind of retirement home where everyone is waiting to die. Waiting forever.” images-1Alternatively, believers might cast Heaven as some sort of “pure bliss, pure joy . . . unadulterated rapturous ecstasy . . . the crack cocaine vision of afterlife.” Tempting, perhaps, but this isn’t any kind of worthwhile existence either.

As Myers says, death is an end, that “deserves all the sorrow that the living bring to it, but the absurd attempts of believers to soften it with lies are a contemptible disservice to the life that is over.” Religion actually makes a mockery of death’s seriousness.

One chapter is headed, “What Dreadful Price Must We Pay to Be Atheists?” Of course Myers is being facetious; but apropos the book’s title, many religionists do think atheists must be miserable misfits with something awry in their heads, unable to accept God’s love and all the happiness it confers. But atheists reject religion for one simple reason: it isn’t true. Trying to make oneself believe lies is no recipe for contentment. If believers get happiness from their faith, it’s a false paradise (I’ll refrain from saying “fool’s paradise”). Freeing ourselves from falsehood, and looking life’s truth fearlessly in the eye, is a recipe for happiness. That’s why atheists aren’t the afflicted lost souls believers think they are.

In fact, I know people who were tormented by their religion, struggling to square all its circles, that no prodigies of ratiocination could ever achieve. Only when they were able to extricate themselves from that briar patch could they finally feel at peace with their existence.

imagesIt’s true it comes to an end. But a fairy tale of immortality doesn’t alter that. I’ve noticed that people who insist they’re Heaven bound are in no hurry to go. However, knowing there’s no afterlife makes me appreciate this one all the more profoundly. In an impersonal cosmos with no god, life is an almost miraculous gift. Disgruntlement at not having more would be absurd. I am happy with what I’ve got.

 

Proof that Heaven is Real?

October 19, 2012

Long atop the NY Times nonfiction best-seller list has been Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is For Real. Burpo is an evangelical pastor whose book tells of his four-year-old son emerging from unconsciousness during surgery with a tale of visiting Heaven, meeting deceased relatives, and seeing angels, Jesus and God, etc. (This is “nonfiction”?!)

Now Newsweek — yes, Newsweek! — similarly headlines “Heaven Is Real,” with no question mark, and the subtitle, “A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife.” Dr. Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon, who spent a week in a coma, during which he says he too visited Heaven. He saw “transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky,” trailing streamers, with whom he communicated by a method transcending language. They told him, “You are loved and cherished, you have nothing to fear,” and suchlike treacle. Then he traveled to an infinite dark void, infinitely comforting, which he believes is the home of God. All this he labels a glimpse of a “reality” which left him a different person. (This is “news”?!)

Of course, religious faith means belief regardless of evidence, yet believers eat up any seeming scrap of supportive “evidence,” especially for that all-important fantasy of life after death. And, like Burpo’s publisher, Newsweek shamelessly panders to that, to boost sales.  

As my wife put it, these people had near-death, not post-death experiences. It was not an “afterlife.” Reports from many who survived similar episodes are pretty consistent about how the brain hallucinates in a particular way when deprived of oxygen and in the throes of what it construes as demise. Often there is some sort of tunnel, and bright light.

We know how the mind can play tricks even during normal consciousness. It’s hardly news that it happens when the brain is undergoing the extreme trauma of the death process. There must be something in the brain’s wiring that, in such circumstances, defaults to hallucinations of the general type so often reported. And of course prior religious belief might cause one to fill in details consonant with that religion.

Thus, in the Burpo case, even if you charitably accept it’s really the kid’s story (unembellished by Dad), with a father like that he’d have been powerfully pre-programmed to imagine just what he imagined. Dr. Alexander says that before his coma, he was a Christian, but not “deeply religious.” Whatever – but it’s neither coincidental nor surprising that his dream or hallucination conformed generally to notions pumped into his brain all his life in church. What would be surprising is if he came back with, for example, a Hindu-like story.

If he wants to believe, like the four-year-old, that his Heavenly tour was reality and not a mere dream or coma-induced hallucination, fine, but the only thing it proves is that even a self-described “man of science” can be deluded. This is no indictment of science. The population of scientists is very large, they are human, and inevitably a few eccentric beliefs will occur. But grown-ups should not treat silly stories like Burpo’s and Alexander’s as though they merit serious attention, let alone Newsweek covers. We all experience wacky dreams, but most of us have the sense not to confuse them with reality.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve just learned that Newsweek’s print edition will cease publication, going to web-only. They insist this is not the magazine’s demise. Apparently Newsweek really does believe in an afterlife!


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