Near-Death Experiences Without Being Near Death
I've written before about near-death experiences and what they can prove about the existence of the soul. Now another study has come to my attention, one that has an even more potent conclusion. (HT: Boing Boing)
It's long been known that the content of NDEs is influenced by religion and culture. People who have them consistently encounter the kind of afterlife they expect and meet the religious figures they've been taught to believe in. For example, while Christian NDEs often include Jesus or angels, Hindus report NDEs in which they meet Hindu gods, or a clerk in a celestial bureaucracy who says that there's been a paperwork error and someone else with the same name was supposed to die instead.
This suggests that NDEs, rather than a glimpse of another reality, are brain-generated experiences. Like dreams or hallucinations, they're shaped by people's background beliefs and expectations. And there's more evidence for this in a 1990 article in the Lancet, with the wonderfully sardonic title, "Features of 'near-death experience' in relation to whether or not patients were near death". (The abstract is online, as is full text.)
As the article says:
The medical records of 58 patients, most of whom believed they were near death during an illness or after an injury and all of whom later remembered unusual experiences occurring at the time, were examined. 28 patients were judged to have been so close to death that they would have died without medical intervention; the other 30 patients were not in danger of dying although most of them thought they were.
There were some differences between the two groups. People who were genuinely near death were more likely to report perceiving some kind of strong light (whether diffuse, at the end of a tunnel, or emanating from people they saw during the NDE). They were also more likely to report "enhanced cognitive function", including greater speed or clarity of thought or unusually vivid sensory perceptions. However, when it comes to the "classic" NDE elements, the sense of leaving one's body and of experiencing a "life review", there was no difference between the people who were actually near death and those who weren't:
Belief in having left the body and seeing it from above. The two groups showed no difference in this belief. 68% of both groups reported this belief.
Memories of earlier events in life. The two groups also did not differ in proportions reporting memories of earlier events in the subject's life (sometimes called "life review" or "panoramic memory"). 6 (27%) of 22 patients near death and 4 (17%) of 23 patients not near death reported some such memories. Most patients reported only a few memories; only 2 (9%) patients near death and 2 (9%) patients not near death reported a review or replay of his or her whole life.
Some of the patients who were not near death were judged to have no serious illness or injury; others had a serious illness or injury, but not one that put them in danger of dying. Regardless, they believed they were dying or near death, and they had NDEs that seemed indistinguishable from those of people who had serious impairment of vital signs and would have died without medical intervention. The conclusion is clear: NDEs are the product of imagination, of a brain that thinks it's dying, whether it actually is or not. As the authors of the paper say:
The psychological interpretation receives support from the evidence that persons who are not near death (from illness or injury) may have experiences that in all respects resemble those of persons who are near death. It would seem that among those who were not near death their experiences were precipitated by their belief that they were.
The Harm Psychics Do, Continued
You know, I was going to write about the Pastafarian who won the right to wear a metal colander on his head for his driver's license photo - but by the time I got home from work yesterday, half a dozen other atheist bloggers had already posted about it, so never mind. Here's something a little heavier instead.
I wrote a post in 2008, The Harm Psychics Do, about a self-proclaimed psychic who announced on the basis of no evidence that a local woman's autistic daughter was being molested. Thankfully, that claim was conclusively disproved by evidence and went no further. But not all flirtations with woo have such a satisfying ending. Sometimes, people trust the reassuring lies of psychics and pay dearly for it, as this jaw-droppingly horrifying story shows:
Mr Day, 60, revealed he had already planned his suicide as he spoke with Mrs Stack in a session that was recorded on a CD.
She told him: "I would understand why you would do that." She later said: "Well you go with my blessing then" - adding: "If you do die, come back and have a cup of tea and a chat with me."
When a despairing client announced that he was contemplating suicide, this loathsome psychic pretender told him to go ahead and do it - and then encouraged him to come back afterward and have a chat with him from the afterlife. And a few days later, sure enough, he went home and fatally shot himself. He called the police just before he did it, and when they called back, they got a voice-mail message saying, "If you want to contact me, you'll have to get in touch with a clairvoyant."
As I've written before, the religious teachings about an afterlife distort morality by making this life seem less real or less important by comparison. This fraud was no doubt just following her usual line of patter when she told her client that death isn't the end of consciousness, but a mere transition into another world from which he could return at will. And while that wasn't the whole cause of his suicide, it certainly was a contributing factor, as his last voice-mail message shows.
The defense she offered at the inquest was that she was only an "entertainer" - i.e., someone not qualified to help with people's serious personal problems, which begs the question of why she was passing herself off as one. And then there's this:
The ex-Samaritan said her training meant she could not break the confidence of anyone, even if they planned to die.
Even if "psychics" are under the same legal restrictions on disclosure as psychiatrists or real counselors, which I doubt (and, in the U.S. at least, even a doctor can report a client to the police if they believe he's in imminent danger) - there's a cryingly obvious point: She didn't have to encourage him to kill himself! Was she really so malicious to say this to a suicidal stranger, and if so, why? Or, worse, does she genuinely believe that death isn't harmful, in which case she might well give this advice to more people in the future? ("Lost your job? Getting a divorce? Go ahead and kill yourself! Things will be much better on the other side.")
By definition, most of the people who seek psychics' help are either gullible, desperate, or both. This makes the potential harm of bad advice much worse, and this story is a tragic example. Charlatans enriching themselves by telling people soothing lies is bad enough, but causing death and chaos in the real world is far worse. The lesson we should learn is that, whether it's traditional orthodox hate and hellfire or New Age fashionable nonsense, there's no such thing as harmless woo, which makes it imperative to defend reason and expose these con artists for what they are.
The Logic of Genocide
Last month, I wrote about the hideous spectacle of ordinary religious people defending genocide because it's commanded in the Bible - with some of them professing to not even understand why nonbelievers would have a problem with this. Greta Christina also highlighted this horrific mindset in the writing of William Lane Craig, the renowned Christian apologist who thinks that the worst consequence of Israelite soldiers slaughtering women and children would be the suffering it would cause to the soldiers.
In my post, I held this forth as proof of how the fantasy of the afterlife clouds and distorts morality until the worst evils are seen as good. To most of the believers making this pro-genocide argument, it's a harmless thought experiment with no bearing on reality. But this logic can't be easily confined to the realm of abstract theology. Once it's accepted, inevitably it spreads, and the same reasoning that excuses destruction and mass murder in holy books can just as easily excuse destruction and mass murder in the real world. Today, I'd like to report a concrete example of that.
Earlier this month, U.S. federal prosecutors moved to dismiss the indictment in United States of America vs. Osama bin Laden, that particular case now being very definitely settled. But in some of the evidence that prosecutors had gathered to be prepared if the case ever came to trial, there's a very interesting bit of testimony.
According to Wikipedia, the first bombing attack carried out by al-Qaeda was against a hotel in Yemen in December 1992. The attack was aimed at American soldiers, but instead killed a hotel employee and an Austrian citizen. To justify these lives taken in error, another founding member of al-Qaeda, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, considered to be one of the most religiously knowledgeable members, issued a fatwa: the killing of innocent bystanders was justified, because if the person killed was a good Muslim, they would go to Paradise and this was a desirable fate, whereas if the person killed was an infidel, they would go to Hell and this was God's deserved justice.
This information came out in the cross-examination of a witness named Jamal el-Fadl, a Sudanese militant who turned informer for the U.S. government (go here and search for "Tamiyeh"):
Q. Well, in his speech, according to you, Mr. Salim talked about - am I saying this person's name right, Tamiyeh?
A. Mohamed Ibn Tamiyeh.
Q. Tamiyeh. He told you what Tamiyeh had said back in 17 or 1800 about a war with the Tartans... that sometimes in a war civilians get killed, right?
Q. And that that's okay, because if they're good people, they're lucky enough to go to heaven quicker?
Q. And if they're bad people, they deserve to go to hell anyway, right?
Q. And that was his way of saying to you and everyone else listening, it's okay to kill civilians if you have to because I say it and another scholar says it and that scholar interpreting the Koran says it, right?
Q. So that was to mean to say to everybody, it's okay, don't worry if you kill civilians, it's part of what we have to do?
A. Yes, under war.
Does this sound familiar? It should: it's the same nihilistic logic used by William Lane Craig and other Christian apologists to justify the Canaanite genocide in the Bible. The only difference is that here, instead of being used as a thought experiment to defend a mass slaughter that may or may not have happened in the distant past, it's being used here and now to defend the indiscriminate killing of human beings.
Craig, for one, hasn't shied away from the comparison. In an article on his website, he says this:
The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it's that it has got the wrong God.
Like Osama bin Laden and the terrorists of al-Qaeda, William Lane Craig believes that it's a religious duty to commit indiscriminate mass murder if God has commanded it, and that obeying this command would be a heroic and praiseworthy deed. They don't disagree on whether doing this would be wrong; the only difference between them is whether they believe God has in fact issued such a command.
Craig and other professional Christian apologists have so thoroughly deadened their consciences that they see nothing wrong or dangerous about this. But for humanity's sake, we can hope that most ordinary Christians haven't gone so far. The next time someone uses this argument to defend the atrocities of the Bible, point out this comparison and ask them, "Are you saying that Osama bin Laden's theology was correct, he was just wrong about a few factual points?" If the realization that they're endorsing the logic of most the notorious mass murderer in recent history doesn't sway them, then almost certainly nothing else will either.
Another World Creeps In
I'm an atheist, in part, because I'm a moral person.
When I first read the books that are called holy, what I found were countless passages that are abhorrent to the conscience: God drowning the planet in a global flood, massacring the innocent firstborn of Egypt, ordering Abraham to murder his son as a test of faith (and rewarding him for being willing to do it!), commanding the Israelites to wage genocidal war on other tribes, promising to torture nonbelievers in a burning hell forever, ordering the subjugation of women and the killing of gays, and so on and so forth. I find myself unable to give my allegiance to any text that praises such atrocities as virtues, much less to believe that these books were written by a perfectly good and benevolent being.
Liberal and moderate believers tend to deal with this by mythologizing these stories beyond all recognition, but I find this approach to be fundamentally dishonest. However many layers of allegory you bury these tales under, their brutal, violent message still bleeds through. What's worse is that millions of theists go to church every week and read from scripture that still includes these stories unaltered. Why not release a new version of the Bible, one edited to reflect our evolving moral understanding, that omits them altogether?
But whatever the flaws of this approach, at least it tacitly concedes that these stories are immoral, their messages unacceptable. Other believers, some of whom I've been talking to in the last few days, take a different approach. They say that there's another life, by comparison with which everything in this life is inconsequential, and any action God takes - up to and including the violent killing of children - is justified if it ushers souls to a better destiny in this other existence. Here's one shining example from a recent post of mine:
...according to Christianity, death isn't the end of the story. What if, instead of "God ordered the Hebrews to kill the Canaanites", we read it as "God ordered the Hebrews to teleport the Canaanites from the desert to a land of eternal happiness where everyone gets a pony"? Does that change the verdict? Granted, the particular mechanism of teleportation in this case is downright unpleasant, but compared to eternity, it amounts to stubbing your toe while you step onto the transport pad.
The problem with this apologetic is that it has no limits. It can't be contained to the handful of troubling cases where the apologists want to use it; like a river in flood, it inevitably bursts its banks and starts to rise and sweep away all firmly rooted moral conclusions. After all, what act could not be justified by saying that it creates a greater, invisible good in a world hidden from us? What evil deed could this not excuse? The same reasoning that's used to defend violence, killing and holy war in religious scripture can just as easily be used to defend violence, killing and holy war in the real world.
To a humanist who takes this world as the standard of value, morality generally isn't difficult or complicated. There are wrenching cases where real and significant interests collide and force us to make painful choices, but for the vast majority of everyday interactions, it's perfectly obvious what the moral course is. In the light of rational humanism, we can see morality bright and clear, like looking out at a beautiful garden through a glass patio door.
But when you introduce another world, one whose existence must be taken entirely on faith but which is held to far surpass our world in importance, your moral system becomes weirdly distorted. That other world seeps in like smoke, like fog beading on the windowpane, obscuring our view of the garden outside and replacing clear shape and form with strange and twisted mirages. Like a universal acid, it dissolves all notions of right and wrong, and what we're left with is a kind of nihilism, a moral void where any action can be justified as easily as any other.
This is what Sam Harris means when he says moderates give cover to violent fundamentalism; this is what Christopher Hitchens means when he says religion poisons everything. At one moment, these religious apologists seem like perfectly normal, civic-minded, compassionate people. But ask the right question and they instantly turn into glassy-eyed psychopaths, people who say without a flicker of conscience that yes, sometimes God does command his followers to violently massacre families and exterminate entire cultures, and the only reason they're not doing this themselves is because God hasn't yet commanded them to.
These beliefs have wreaked untold havoc on the world. This is the logic of crusade and jihad, of death camps and gas chambers, of suicide bombers detonating themselves on buses, of inquisitors stretching bodies on the rack, of screaming mobs stoning women to death in the town square, of hijacked airplanes crashing into buildings, of cheering crowds turning out to see heretics being burned at the stake. They all rely on the same justifications: God is perfectly in the right working his will through intermediaries; God is not subject to our moral judgments and his ways aren't to be questioned; God is the creator of life and he can take it away whenever he chooses; and if any of these people were innocent, God will make it up to them anyway. These are the beliefs which ensured that most of human history was a bloodstained chronicle of savagery and darkness.
Only lately, and only through heroic effort, have we begun to rise above this. Only in a few rare instances have people come to the realization that this life matters most. And still we humanists, who see morality as a tangible matter of human flourishing and happiness, must contend with the fanatics who shrug at evil, or actively perpetuate it, in the name of the divine voices they imagine that they're obeying. They rampage through the world, killing and burning and insisting all the while that they're doing God's will. And the crowning absurdity of it all is that they insist not just that their beliefs make them moral, but that they're the only ones who are moral, and that we, the ones who value and cherish this world, are the nihilists!
Here's another apologist from the same thread I quoted earlier, the one comparing ancient Hebrews impaling Canaanite babies on spears and chopping them up with axes to the slight pain of a stubbed toe:
What is at issue is that atheism per atheism does not really allow for things such as morals at all...
What in the world is so bigoted about stating the incongruity between atheism and morality?
The black-is-white, up-is-down audacity of this claim shows how severely religion can warp a believer's moral compass, to the point where they're willing to defend genocide as good and condemn those who don't share that opinion as evil. I say again: I'm an atheist, in part, because I'm a moral person, and because I value human beings and the world we live in more highly than the dictates of ancient, bloody fairytales. Come what may, I see the garden of human value in the light of reality, and no apologist for genocide and destruction will ever convince me that I should instead look for guidance in the fog.
Do Near-Death Experiences Prove the Soul Exists?
"A qualitative and quantitative study of the incidence, features, and aetiology of near death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors." Resuscitation 48 (2001): 149-156.
In my most recent post on Case for a Creator, I mentioned that Lee Strobel referenced a February 2001 paper which allegedly provided proof that people had conscious experiences during the time that their brains were not functioning. I have a copy of that paper now, thanks to several helpful readers, so in this post I'm going to dissect it.
The principal researcher, Sam Parnia, carried out a study in which he interviewed all survivors of cardiac arrest at his hospital over one year, asking them if they had any memories and, if so, to describe what they experienced. There were 63 such people over the course of the study. Here's the first important point: the vast majority of those who were revived from cardiac arrest had no memories or experiences of any kind:
During the 1 year period 63 patients survived and were interviewed. Of those, 56 (88.8%) had no memory recall of their period of unconsciousness; the remaining seven survivors (11.1%) had some memory.
Only seven people had any memories at all, and only four of those had enough of the "classic" NDE elements (feelings of bliss and peace, seeing a bright light, the sensation of traveling through a tunnel or entering some other world) for Parnia to classify them as such. The other three had only vague hallucinations (one reported a sense of peace but no other elements, one reported seeing deceased relatives but with no other accompanying experiences, and one just saw "some unknown people jumping off a mountain"). This is difficult to explain under theistic assumptions. If everyone has a soul, shouldn't everyone who suffers cardiac arrest have an NDE?
There's also this part, which must have made Strobel decidedly uncomfortable if he read the actual paper:
All the NDE group were Christians. However, none of them described themselves as practising members and nor did they see a figure during their NDE specifically related to Christianity. One of the four also described himself as a Pagan. [According to a table later in the paper, three described themselves as non-practicing Anglican, while one identified as non-practicing Catholic and pagan. —Ebonmuse]
How is it that non-practicing Christians - one who described himself as a pagan, no less - had the same blissful hallucinations that are the most common kind of NDE? If Strobel's born-again beliefs are true, shouldn't these people have had only the frightening, "hellish" NDEs that are sometimes reported?
Again, please note that every conclusion in this study is inferred on the basis of just four people's experiences. This is hardly enough to draw any kind of firm conclusion, and Parnia and his co-authors say so themselves:
In this study possible physiological causative factors could not be investigated adequately in view of the relatively small number in the study (NDE) group. Nevertheless it was interesting that patients in the study group had higher oxygen levels than those in the control group. This may simply be a skewed result due to the low patient numbers. Alternatively it may indicate that patients who had NDEs had better oxygenation during the resuscitation, allowing better cortical function.... However, it would be unwise, with such small numbers, to draw any significant conclusion from this finding.
Strobel, meanwhile, inflates this noncommittal, tentative statement into a clangingly unequivocal conclusion:
"About ten percent reported having well-structured, lucid thought processes, with memory formation and reasoning, during the time that their brains were not functioning. The effects of oxygen starvation or drugs - objections commonly offered by skeptics - were ruled out as factors." [The Case for a Creator, p.251]
Not only is this a ridiculous exaggeration of what the study claims, it's also factually inaccurate. Parnia says only that "all patients followed a standard resuscitation protocol", which includes the administering of emergency drugs. He says nothing about whether these could or couldn't contribute to an NDE. As for oxygen starvation, of course patients with cardiac arrest experience oxygen starvation! That's what happens when your heart stops. What Parnia says, and what Strobel misunderstands, is that patients who had NDEs had higher blood oxygenation levels while they were being resuscitated, compared to those who had no such experiences. And even though the small numbers don't allow for robust conclusions, this is a very suggestive detail. It raises the possibility that NDEs are the result of neural activity starting up again in the brain as it's being revived.
Despite their small sample size, Parnia and his co-authors do argue that NDEs happen while the brain is unconscious, not at the onset of unconsciousness or during the process of revival. Here's how they defend that conclusion:
An alternative explanation would be that the observed experiences arise during the loss of, or on regaining, consciousness. However, it is unlikely that the NDE arises either when the cortical modules are failing, that is, during the process of becoming unconscious, or when the cortical modules are coming back on line, that is, when consciousness is returning... The EEG data during fainting shows a gradual slowing of the cerebral rhythms with the appearance of delta activity before finally, in a minority of cases, the EEG becomes flat. In the case of cardiac arrest, the process is accelerated, with the EEG showing changes within a few seconds. The transition from consciousness to unconsciousness is thus rapid, appearing immediate to the subjects.
So, their argument is that people suffering cardiac arrest become unconscious too quickly for the entire NDE to take place during that time. But that's a weak argument: We know of drugs that can skew the sense of time, and Parnia himself points out that one of the elements of a classic NDE is a sense that "time [has] speeded up". Why is it not possible that a few seconds of activity in a dying brain can produce experiences which subjectively seem much longer when the person is later revived?
Even if the unconscious brain is flooded by neurotransmitters this should not produce clear, lucid remembered experiences, as those cerebral modules which generate conscious experience and underpin memory are impaired by cerebral anoxia... Experiences which occur during the recovery of consciousness are confusional, which these were not.
Now hold on, there - Parnia is treating this claim as a matter of fact, when clearly it's a matter of opinion. The classic NDE isn't dreamlike or confusional? The feeling that a person has left their body, is entering a mystical realm, and encounters religious figures and deceased relatives? I think an atheist would reply that that's as hallucinatory and dreamlike an experience as you could hope to get.
Furthermore, Parnia's very small sample size may have caused him to overlook the fact that many NDEs which otherwise conform to the standard definition have unambiguously hallucinatory elements. Keith Augustine's essay on the Secular Web, which surveys reports of NDEs, has many examples: people who saw living friends and relatives in the afterlife, people who met talking animals or fictional characters, and in one amusing case, a winged centaur Jesus. Even Parnia's study had one case that he dismissed as merely confusional in nature, a man who saw "some unknown people jumping off a mountain" - but the only reason he dismissed it is that it didn't fit the classic NDE description, even though the man went through a cardiac arrest and revival the same as his other subjects.
And how do we know that his NDE subjects didn't omit dreamlike elements when telling him their stories? Parnia and his co-authors say they didn't prompt their subjects with leading questions, but the possibility can't be overlooked that people who are familiar with NDEs from pop culture prune the discordant elements from their story to make their experience more of a coherent narrative, making it sound more like the way they thought it "should" be.
In sum, Parnia's study, despite Strobel's overblown and grandiose assertions, doesn't prove anything about the timing of NDEs or demonstrate that they occur while the brain is nonfunctional. The only conclusive way to prove that they result from the soul leaving the body would be for people in such a state to gain information they couldn't have accessed through ordinary methods - but as I said earlier, aside from unverifiable hearsay and anecdotes, this never happens. Every careful, controlled experiment set up to prove this has turned up empty.
Rebutting Reasonable Faith: Remembering the Lost
In question #86 of his Reasonable Faith column, William Lane Craig addresses a question from a Christian who's troubled by one of the most wicked doctrines of that theology, the dogma of Hell. Craig's correspondent wonders whether the saved will feel compassion for the damned, but also worries that it would be a violation of free will for God to erase their memories of their lost loved ones.
I would never forget that I had a child and wish to be with them in the afterlife unless God specifically altered my mind... I am just having trouble imagining myself so happy that I just don't think about my child who is burning in eternal damnation.
Craig's response begins:
You object... that God would violate the free will of redeemed persons were He to take such action. I don't see that this implication follows. God's respecting human free will has to do with moral decision-making. God will not cause you to take one morally significant choice rather than another. He leaves it up to you. But obviously God limits our freedom in many morally neutral ways... if God removes from the redeemed knowledge of the damned, including knowledge of loved ones that are damned, He does not violate the moral integrity or free will of the persons involved, any more than if He had removed their knowledge of calculus.
This is just obviously wrong. Stealing people's memories of the suffering of others is a morally neutral limitation on their freedom? By what bizarre reasoning could anyone possibly arrive at that conclusion? Taking away that knowledge stops us from acting in ways that we would otherwise want to, which is the essence of making a moral choice.
It would be as if I had a relative who was dying from cancer, and I went to see a therapist who could hypnotize me into forgetting their existence, so I wouldn't have any desire to visit them in the hospital and comfort them. By Craig's reckoning, this is a "morally neutral" choice. By any rational system of morality, however, this would be an act of supreme callousness and depraved indifference to the suffering of others.
But not to worry, Craig has a fallback answer:
This alternative suggests that the experience of being in Christ's immediate presence will be so overwhelming for the redeemed that they will not think of the damned in hell.
Craig compares this to a wounded soldier having a limb amputated without anesthetic, suffering from pain so intense it drives all other thoughts out of his mind - except, he says, we should substitute happiness for pain to get some idea of what it feels like to be in Heaven. (Great analogy!)
What this comes down to is saying that the saved will be like drug addicts on a permanent high, so wrapped up in their own euphoria that they care nothing for the world outside their own head. Heaven will be like the Land of the Lotus-Eaters from Greek mythology, its inhabitants forever smothered in a blissful haze that leaves them unable to think of or contemplate anything else, for all eternity. Am I the only one who finds this image disturbing rather than appealing?
Craig isn't the first one to suggest this; other Christians have said very similar things. But whenever they try to describe in any detail what people in this state would look or act like, they always wind up painting a picture of Kafkaesque automatons that I call bright machines. Far from being the fullest and most perfect realization of human potential, the imaginary inhabitants of Heaven are less than human. They're lacking in all the emotional depth, all the richness and color that makes our lives real and meaningful.
We do have a glimpse of this vision here on Earth. Certain kinds of brain damage can rob a person of all emotional affect, so that all they ever feel is a constant, all-enveloping bliss - very like Craig's vision of Christians overwhelmed by the beatific vision. But the result isn't an appealing picture:
"He looks like our son and has the same voice as our son, but he is not the same person we knew and loved.... He's not the same person he was before he had this stroke. Our son was a warm, caring, and sensitive person. All that is gone. He now sounds like a robot."
This, then, is the Christian conception of the afterlife - blissed-out robots in Heaven, billions of the damned eternally suffering in Hell. If that's what William Lane Craig and others want to believe, that's their right. But I would hardly call this reassuring or comforting to the worried questioner - much less a "reasonable faith".
Other posts in this series:
Heaven at the Price of Hell
In my essay "Those Old Pearly Gates" on Ebon Musings, I raised what is, to my mind, one of the strongest moral arguments against the traditional monotheist conception of the afterlife:
The point is this. How can anyone enjoy Heaven, knowing that while you have eternal bliss there are people experiencing eternal suffering? Unless you belong to an insular religious community or a cult, it's almost certain that you know someone - a friend, a relative, a loved one, an idol who inspires you - whose religion of choice is different than yours, or who has no religion at all. How will you be able to enjoy Heaven in the certain knowledge that that person is, at the same moment, suffering the torments of the damned? What if it's a spouse, a parent, a best friend, a child? ...How can Heaven be any sort of reward at all if it means eternal separation from the people you care about, all the more so if those people must suffer without release while you are powerless to help them? And will you, a saved soul in Paradise, be content to kneel and worship the same god who, elsewhere at that same moment, is pouring out the flames of his wrath upon your lost loved ones?
Some religious people handle this problem by saying that Hell is not a fiery pit of torture, but a state of darkness and emptiness caused by separation from God - although I don't see how that would make things any better. Others simply dodge the question altogether.
However, the good folks at Rapture Ready have a different solution:
God's Word foretells that the Lord will wipe away all tears and sorrow for Believers --that all the things of the past, sinful world will be removed in some way. We infer from this that all memories that are painful --such as knowledge that we have family and friends who are suffering eternal damnation because of their rejection of Salvation through God's son, Jesus Christ, will be totally erased in the Heavenly dimension.
Apparently, they felt that this apologetic would soothe their worried readers. I can't speak for Rapture Ready's clientele, but it had exactly the opposite effect on me. This is horrifying. In a twisted sense, I have to give these people credit - they've managed to come up with what is possibly the only thing that could have made the idea of Hell any worse than it already is.
I'm not against the idea of Heaven. I accept the fact of death - mine and others' - but that doesn't make me enthusiastic about it. If there was another life where I could be reunited with my departed loved ones, I'd gladly welcome it. But if there was a Heaven, the existence of a Hell would be an unacceptably high price to pay for it. Even if I knew I was one of the saved, I'd rather choose nonexistence than be forced to know that people I care about were suffering eternal torment. That knowledge would be a kind of torture in itself, more than enough to turn Heaven into just another hell.
But the idea of forgetting that my loved ones were condemned? That would be even worse! What kind of happiness is it that must be purchased at the price of being ignorant of the suffering of others?
The authors of Rapture Ready never seem to think through the implications of this idea. What if it's my mother or father that's damned - will I have no knowledge of who raised me on Earth? Would a heavenly soul in that situation wonder why all his friends had their parents with them and they didn't have any? Wouldn't they be driven to investigate, to find out the great secret that's being hidden from them?
It would undeniably be a horrible thought that you were saved while your loved ones were forever damned. That grim knowledge would be enough to overwhelm whatever bliss there was to be had in the afterlife. But as in other areas, the way to fix the problem of suffering is to end suffering - not by making everyone else ignorant of it by some kind of miracle-induced amnesia. The idea that the saved should be induced to forget about the torture of their damned loved ones, so that they can enjoy their heavenly bliss in a state of dumb naivete, is intuitively revolting, and confirms what I said on an earlier occasion about how any attempt to actually explain what Heaven is like invariably reduces its inhabitants to a kind of bright machines.
One of the more important consequences of our society's biblical illiteracy is that many people continue to believe in the Bible only because they think it is a far better book than it actually is. For example, consider this comment from Greta Christina's Blog, in which an offended Christian denies that the New Testament says anything about Hell.
In truth, the Bible has a great deal to say about the horrors and torments of Hell. In the gospels, Jesus repeatedly speaks of eternal punishment, outer darkness, everlasting fire, undying worms, wailing and gnashing of teeth, people being tormented in the flame, and so on. Not to be outdone, the epistles add verses about how Jesus will "in flaming fire tak[e] vengeance on them that know not God" (2 Thessalonians 1:8) and speak of "the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude 1:7).
But one thing I've always noticed is that, despite its lurid depictions of the underworld, the Bible has very little to say about what Heaven is like. There is a rich vein of ore to be mined here regarding why Christianity seems to consider the tortures of Hell a more potent inducement than the pleasures of Heaven. But there is another reason, I think, one which the biblical authors probably knew: damnation can be described, but salvation cannot. It is all too easy to conjure up nightmarish visions of endless agony and despair, but any attempt to describe something as ineffable and personal as eternal bliss is bound to come out sounding flat, washed-out and colorless.
Through the ages, many Christian authors have tried to describe Heaven, and the fruits of their effort prove my point. The residents of Paradise as portrayed in fiction invariably seem depersonalized, stripped of their individuality and humanity in a disturbing, Kafkaesque way - more like bright machines than like the fully realized, truly fulfilled human beings we are always told by theists that the saved will become.
Take Dante's Divine Comedy, which supposes Heaven to be divided into spheres based on the planets, its residents ranked according to their chief virtue. Dante tells us that the lowest sphere of Paradise is reserved for nuns who took vows of chastity which they were forced to break by being raped. As a result of their defilement, they can never enter the higher spheres. With his heavenly guide Beatrice, Dante asks one of the spirits there if she is not unhappy over being denied deeper bliss over something that was not her fault:
"Yet inform me, ye, who here
Are happy; long ye for a higher place,
More to behold, and more in love to dwell?"
She with those other spirits gently smiled;
Then answer'd with such gladness, that she seem'd
With love's first flame to glow: "Brother! our will
Is, in composure, settled by the power
Of charity, who makes us will alone
What we possess, and naught beyond desire:
If we should wish to be exalted more,
Then must our wishes jar with the high will
Of Him, who sets us here; which in these orbs
Thou wilt confess not possible, if here
To be in charity must needs befall,
And if her nature well thou contemplate.
Rather it is inherent in this state
Of blessedness, to keep ourselves within
The Divine Will, by which our wills with His
Are one. So that as we, from step to step,
Are placed throughout this kingdom, pleases all,
Even as our King, who in us plants His will;
And in His will is our tranquillity:
It is the mighty ocean, whither tends
Whatever it creates and Nature makes."
In short, God "plants his will" within these women to make them content with their lot, and takes away their ability to wish it were otherwise. Is this really an appealing vision of the afterlife - to be transformed into a smiling automaton, one's own desires and freedom to choose taken away?
For a more recent example, take the Spirits in C.S. Lewis' novel The Great Divorce, about which I have written at length. In other books, Lewis writes that "merely to over-ride a human will... would be for [God] useless". Yet that is exactly what passages like the above depict him as doing, and that is how this book depicts him as well.
In my review of The Great Divorce, I focused on a particularly disturbing scene where a saved woman tries to reach out to her damned husband, and then rejects him without a second thought when he will not go along with her:
"Where is Frank?" she said. "And who are you, Sir? I never knew you. Perhaps you had better leave me. Or stay, if you prefer. If it would help you and if it were possible I would go down with you into Hell: but you cannot bring Hell into me."
"You do not love me," said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.
"I cannot love a lie," said the Lady. "I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go."
There was no answer. The Tragedian had vanished. The Lady was alone in that woodland place...
And then, having just accepted that her husband will spend an eternity in Hell and she will never see him again, she walks away, accompanied by an angelic choir singing joyously of her victory. According to Lewis, this is the best outcome we can possibly hope for, and we should not be troubled by it. On the contrary, he argues, the fact that the saved souls do not care about or miss the people in Hell is the only way to make Heaven an enjoyable and desirable place.
Finally, there are Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the legendarily badly written Left Behind series of Christian fundamentalist fiction. The sequel to the Left Behind books, Kingdom Come, is set in a literal heavenly kingdom on Earth personally ruled over by Jesus. Yet the characters seem, if anything, even more bland and interchangeable than in the previous books. To judge by the excerpt posted online, the most important aspect of Christ's return is how he's gotten rid of all that icky sex stuff:
And strange about Cameron and Chloe's relationship was that they still loved each other, but not romantically. Their entire hearts' desires were on the person of Jesus and worshiping Him for eternity. In the Millennium, they would live and labor together with Kenny and raise him, but as there would be no marrying or giving in marriage, their relationship would be wholly platonic.
"It's bizarre," Chloe told Cameron. "I still love and admire and respect you and want to be near you, but it's as if I've been prescribed some medicine that has cured me of any other distracting feelings."
The choice of words here is quite revealing - LaHaye and Jenkins apparently consider romantic and sexual attraction to be "distracting" feelings, things that lead away from God and should be suppressed. Instead, members of the heavenly kingdom can look forward to a glorious, non-sexual eternity of "praising Jesus with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" and eating "steaming piles of fresh produce, drenched in butter" (yes, that is their actual description of the garden of delights now to be found on a rejuvenated Earth, in its entirety). Of all the Christian descriptions of the afterlife, this one must surely be the most stultifyingly bland and conformist ever committed to paper. The idea of living forever in LaHaye and Jenkins' conception of Heaven strikes me as an existence with the same freedom and opportunity for personal growth as the clockwork people that shuffle out of antique timepieces every hour, ring a bell with their tiny hammers, then turn and plod back inside.
This parade of sterile, Kafkaesque heavens populated by emotionless bright machines may indicate something about the plausibility of an actual such place. Beyond the endless cliches and the vaguest wish-fulfillment fantasies, it seems, human beings are not actually able to imagine a changeless eternity, not without it rapidly becoming a torture of monotony and tedium. For all that religious apologists accuse atheists of promoting a cold and mechanical view of the world, their alternative, as described by their own hand, seems even worse. However, I think there is another reason why all these heavens are so unfulfilling.
Recall again C.S. Lewis' Spirits spurning the suffering of the damned, or Dante's extensive trip through the Inferno before his ascent to Paradise. Witness, too, this scene from the last of the Left Behind books, in which the main characters watch Jesus condemn a majority of humanity to the lake of fire despite their having realized - just one moment too late - his omnipotence:
"Jesus is Lord!" the condemned shouted. "Jesus is Lord!"
Gabriel stepped forward as Jesus returned to the throne. "Silence!" Gabriel commanded. "Your time has come!"
Rayford watched, horrified despite knowing this was coming, as the "goats" to Jesus' left beat their breasts and fell wailing to the desert floor, gnashing their teeth and pulling their hair. Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed and all was silent when the earth closed itself again.
It is this basic moral disconnect that makes these heavens so unsatisfactory. Christian writers want to have it both ways: they want to depict the saved as happy, loving and compassionate, but they also want them to be unperturbed and untroubled by the miseries of those lost and suffering in Hell. The only way to achieve these two contradictory goals is to craft residents of Heaven as we have seen - eerily passive, deprived of their own will and desires, and lacking any concern for the majority of humanity inevitably depicted in these fantasies as eternally lost.
Popular Delusions IV: Hauntings
John Knott, the owner of Quadrille, a fabric and wall coverings company based in Manhattan, expected surprises when he bought a weekend home in the country, an 1839 Greek Revival house in Kinderhook in Columbia County, N.Y. Inconveniences were bound to crop up — a leaky roof, problematic plumbing, boiler issues. But he was not expecting ghosts.
—Kathryn Matthews, "This Old House Has Ghosts". The New York Times, 13 October 2006.
Aside from belief in God and the associated religious trappings, one of the more widespread superstitions of society is the idea that spirits of the dead can return to haunt their former places of residence. A 2005 Harris poll found that 40% of Americans believe in ghosts, which would constitute tens of millions of people if this result was valid. (Incidentally, notice the number of people who believe in God according to this poll as compared to the same number from another Harris poll two years earlier.)
Reading the Times article, I noticed a significant attribute that the overwhelming majority of ghost stories have in common. See if you notice it as well:
A French guest was roused from a deep slumber at dawn — despite wearing earplugs — by repeated rapping noises on his bedroom door, though no one had knocked.
A visitor staying in an upstairs bedroom awoke to a startling vision of African slaves working in fields.
...a close friend, the New York florist Helena Lehane, cut a visit short after being beset by torturous nightmares; her screams — described by Mr. Knott as bloodcurdling — sent everyone running into her room.
Then a guest, Bill Placke, a banker from Summit, N.J., was dozing off in the guest bedroom, lying next to his sleeping wife, he said, when a smiling skeletal apparition robed in a white gown and ruffled collar appeared at the foot of his bed. It bobbed toward him, then vanished.
The majority of ghost sightings took place in people who were either asleep or drifting at the edge of sleep. These are the very conditions most suited for sleep paralysis. During REM sleep, though the brain is active, the body is paralyzed, an adaptation that prevents us from physically acting out our dreams. However, sometimes the mind becomes partially awakened while the body is still paralyzed and in its dream state, leaving a person with the frightening feeling of being fully conscious but unable to move or speak. More significantly, sleep paralysis is frequently accompanied by vivid hallucinations and the strong sense of a presence in the room. Sleep paralysis is a universal human phenomenon and has given rise to numerous cultural superstitions blaming demons or witches for its occurrence. In modern times, it has also inspired tales of alien abduction, as old myths are given a pseudoscientific slant, and it is very likely responsible for many ghost stories as well. It is not hard to see how a person in a twilight state between waking and sleep, experiencing the sensation of a looming presence, might come to believe that they have experienced a ghostly visitation - especially if that sensation is accompanied by vivid auditory or visual hallucinations produced by a brain still dreaming while awake. Cultural conditioning and expectation also plays a role; an experience that might have been shrugged off as no more than a nightmare in other circumstances, when it occurs in a supposedly haunted house or in a region famed for its spooks, will soon become further "evidence" for the existence of ghosts.
There is another relevant phenomenon that may explain a considerable number of ghost stories: infrasound. This is sound waves with frequencies below 20 hertz, too low-pitched for the human ear to perceive. Nevertheless, though we cannot consciously hear infrasound, it seems to have a subconscious effect on us. The linked article concerns a study undertaken at a concert in which some pieces of music were laced with inaudible infrasound. A substantial percentage of people hearing these pieces reported chills and feelings of anxiety, uneasiness and fear, as compared to the control group. Infrasound can occur both naturally and artificially, produced by phenomena such as ocean waves, wind and earthquakes, as well as by human artifacts vibrating at the appropriate frequency. It is quite possible that vibrations in old houses, caused by wind and weather or by the house itself creaking and settling, may generate infrasonic waves that can explain at least some reports of hauntings.
As with many popular delusions, however, the belief in ghosts lacks not just external evidence but internal coherence as well. For one thing, if hauntings can happen, why does everyone who dies not become a ghost? Why is every hospital, nursing home and old house not crowded with noisy poltergeists? Even if we restrict the list of potential ghosts to people who died violently or with unfinished business, the number of potential ghosts should scarcely decline. There have been millions of violent deaths throughout human history, after all, and probably the majority of people who die have unfinished business of some sort - death not generally being an event one can schedule. (The Times article quotes a home buyer who found that her allegedly haunted house was the site of at least two murders in its two-hundred-year-plus history. This breathless statistic seems less impressive, however, when one considers that most old houses have had people die in them.) If hauntings can really happen, we living humans should be outnumbered by the dead.
Another relevant question is this: Those who believe in ghosts often say that a restless spirit can remain for decades or even centuries, rattling its chains or giving people chills or doing whatever else it is a ghost does in its spare time. But any manifestation that has a physical effect on the world - even if the claimed effect is no more than moving air molecules - requires an expenditure of energy. This is the second law of thermodynamics, a basic physical principle. Living humans get the energy which we use to affect things in the world from the consumption of food. Ghosts are not known for eating, however, so where do they get their energy from? What is the power source that permits them to remain in the world for such long periods of time? Ghosts, it would appear, are doubly improbable: not only does the idea itself lack logical coherence, but any actual ghost would have to be a perpetual motion machine!
And on a related note, what is the substance that composes a ghost? In other words, what is a ghost made of? Everything that exists is either matter or energy, but neither is a suitable candidate for a spirit. If it is matter, then that means that ghosts, in some sense, have bodies like ours, and could theoretically be killed (again?) by the disruption of that material structure. But if it is energy, the prospects seem even poorer. For one thing, this would make haunting impossible, because energy does not stay in one place; it is always in motion, propagating from place to place at the speed of light. Rather than remaining to haunt the house of its death, any ghost in this circumstance would soon either be absorbed by nearby objects and cease to exist, or would be speeding off into interstellar space at 186,000 miles per second.
True believers may mock me for attempting to apply the laws of physics to ghost stories, asserting that ghosts are pure "spirit" or some other such thing not subject to the principles upon which the rest of the universe runs. Such comments betray a profound isolation from reality. These beliefs are relics of a superstitious past, and fail to accord with everything we have learned in the last few hundred years about the way the universe works. Talk of "spirit" is just the old wine of superstition and magic poured into new bottles of vaguely scientific jargon. (Here is one typical example of the genre, an alleged explanation of ghosts that really just consists of randomly selected scientific terms pasted together in a meaningless hodgepodge.) As with many popular delusions, these beliefs have stayed the same while the world has moved on around them. They may still be valuable for a brief and entertaining jolt of thrills, but we should cease pretending that they have anything at all to do with the real world.
This seems a good place to debunk a related conceit; the self-proclaimed "ghost hunters" who spend countless hours poring over recorded white noise until they happen to hear a snatch of static (or a stray radio broadcast) that sounds a little like a voice, or who claim to detect spirits in photographs that are really just optical flaws in the camera or light reflected from dust or precipitation. This activity has all the value and relevance to reality of claiming that there really are dragons and crabs and sailing ships in the clouds: it speaks volumes about the human mind's ability to find patterns in noise, but says nothing at all about what exists in the external world.
In closing, and lest I forget: Happy Halloween, everybody! May you walk with confidence in the knowledge that there is nothing in the night more fearful than our own imaginations.
Other posts in this series:
Designing the Afterlife
In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis puts a challenge to those who condemn the doctrine of Hell as immoral: "What are you asking God to do?"
The apparent reasoning behind this question is that even those who think the idea of Hell is monstrous would be unable to come up with a superior afterlife scenario in which justice would be done. I am happy to take up this challenge. In this post, I will sketch an alternative scenario, one which I believe any reasonable person would agree is morally superior to Lewis' conception of the afterlife. In so doing, I intend to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that Lewis' conception of the afterlife is morally unacceptable, and that if there exists a benevolent deity, the afterlife cannot be as Lewis and Christians of like mind have historically pictured it.
For the purposes of this thought experiment, let us assume that the Earth is exactly as it is now (though I am not claiming I could not improve that as well, if given the chance), save for one difference. In this alternate world, each person possesses an immortal, conscious soul as theists have historically conceived of it. Upon the death of the body, this soul separates from it and travels to the afterlife, where the scenario I imagine begins.
In my afterlife, there wouldn't be a Hell, but there would be a Purgatory. Every person, upon their arrival, would undergo a review of their life. They would be shown both the best and the worst things they ever did, and would have explained to them, in a way that was impossible to deny or misunderstand, both the good and the evil that they caused by their actions. It will be explained to them precisely why their evil actions were wrong, and what they should have done instead.
After this would come the purgatory, less a place than a state of being. Each person would have to relive snippets of their life, not from their own perspective but from the perspectives of others whom their actions affected. All the happiness they caused in others, they would feel it as if it were their own, and likewise all the anger, sadness, pain and fear they caused. Each person would feel happiness equal to all the happiness they created during their life, and would suffer an amount equal to all the suffering they created during their life. (Naturally, for people such as Adolf Hitler, this process would take a very long time.)
Upon completion of this process, the person would be given a chance to express their sincere apology for the suffering they caused. If they refused (although I can't foresee that ever happening), they would be sent back to repeat the process as many times as it takes. Since it is possible that the person will repent at the end of each cycle, and since all things that are possible will happen eventually given an unlimited amount of time, no one will be condemned to suffer forever.
The people who complete purgatory and sincerely repent their misdeeds would be allowed into what we can call Heaven. The physical appearance and characteristics of this place are not especially important; what is important is that it would be a meeting place, where the souls in residence can freely mingle, interact and enjoy each other's company. Even aside from the enormous potential in a meeting of history's great minds, I envision this as a place of good company and fellowship. The purgatory process would not erase the differences that make people unique, but it would ensure that they would treat each other with the respect and kindness that only come from gaining the most profound perspective possible on one's own actions.
There is one potential problem with this scenario that needs to be addressed straight away. One of the major benefits of Heaven in every religious tradition is the hope of being reunited with departed loved ones, but Heaven would be a very lonely and distinctly unheavenly kind of place if one had to wait hundreds of years for friends and loved ones to complete the entrance process. To fix that, upon completing the process of purgatory, regardless of how long it took, every person would be moved to the same time, the "entrance time" of Heaven. Thus, no one would have to wait for anyone else to arrive in Heaven, and no one would be the first or last to arrive; everyone would appear there at the same time.
There would be another, major aspect of this heavenly realm. Each person knows better than anyone else what they themselves would consider paradise, so why not let them create it for themselves? Each person in Heaven would be granted a private reality that was completely under their control, within which they would be omnipotent, able to alter the laws of physics and create or alter worlds by will alone, limited only by what is possible to imagine. The heavenly residents could create private paradises inhabited only by themselves, or shape whole new planets inhabited by people of their own. They could reign over their worlds as gods and direct their unfolding from above, or enter them as one more mortal resident. They could even shape a storyline and suppress some of their own memories to better fit in, if they wanted. (Imagine being a character in a story you created yourself!) The saved would also be able to freely visit each others' home realities, though they would not be able to affect anything there without the owner's consent.
The possibility of creating a world with its own living inhabitants poses some special difficulties. I do not expect any of the people inhabiting Heaven to want to create a world where others would suffer, but I can recognize that an interesting world might involve conflict. To solve this problem, I propose that two options be open to world-creators: create either "zombies" that would behave as the creator desired and that would be practically indistinguishable from ordinary people under most circumstances, but that would lack any true subjective experiences and hence could not suffer, or create true, conscious free-willed beings that could learn and grow and would not be fully predictable. (And yes, the created free-willed inhabitants of these worlds could, in the fullness of time, gain admittance to Heaven on equal status with any other resident and become creators of their own worlds in turn. Why not?)
Finally, if anyone grew tired with even this degree of variety, residents of Heaven would also be able to reincarnate themselves and live another human life on Earth. People who had been through at least one life already would be able to control, to an extent, the location and circumstances of their next birth.
The only problem I can see with this scenario that I have not yet worked out is the problem of boredom. Given infinite time, even the limitless diversity possible within this conception of the afterlife could grow monotonous, and Heaven would not be Heaven in that case. It could be possible to allow the souls in residence to annihilate themselves, but that would raise problems of loneliness and grief among those who remain, two emotions that would seem inappropriate for Heaven. I do not know how to solve this (although, I should note, I do not think the traditional conception of Heaven avoids this problem or offers a superior answer to it). If anyone has an idea that respects the freedom of all involved and does not threaten eternal monotony, feel free to suggest it.