manicstreetpreacher muses on the pros and cons of departing this veil of tears to a big theme park in the sky or to somewhere less pleasant…
I was invited to speak at Liverpool University on 18 November 2009 on an inter-faith discussion panel on the topic of the afterlife, called “Follow My Way 2: Life, Death & Beyond”. Originally, the discussion was to be on the rights and wrongs of religious tolerance. I was amazed that the University of Liverpool Atheist Society (ULAS) had asked me whether I wanted to speak following the disastrous public reaction to my outspoken views on religion in March earlier this year, about which you can about in piece, “More Than I Could Chew?”
I have had to up sticks and move to the opposite end of the country in order to find employment in a recession. To travel to Liverpool and return to my new home would have meant a £100 return train fare and my last two days of paid leave which I had been saving to get home ahead of the Christmas rush. In case you are new to this blog, speaking out against the parties of God is just about my favourite pastime at present and I leapt at the chance. If nothing else, it would have been an opportunity to repair some of the damage done at the beginning of the year and learn to keep a cool head against a hostile crowd and potentially baiting opponents.
However, the topic changed overnight, away from the role of religion in the world and to the rather saccharine topic of the afterlife. With great reluctance, I declined to speak. I felt that I only had a very limited amount to say on the motion which essentially boiled downed to:
- I don’t believe in the afterlife.
- Like telekinesis, Father Christmas and fairies at the bottom of the garden, it would be lovely if we did have a soul separate from our bodies which floats off our brains at the moment of death towards a tunnel of life to be reunited with our loved ones and/ or to wait for our loved ones to join us once their time on Earth is up but there simply isn’t any evidence for it.
- The consequences of certain people believing in an afterlife can be truly sinister for the rest of us in this life whether we share their beliefs or not.
- We ought to stop looking forward to our deaths and make the most of the one life we do have.
ULAS have managed to persuade a member of The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) to speak and I wish him all the very best of luck. If I was still living in or closer to Liverpool, I would probably have still spoken despite the change of topic, but it just wasn’t worth the train fare or the holiday time.
However, as is so often the case, the experience of being asked to speak on a topic has made me think deeper about that topic. I half-regret turning down the opportunity now and present my further thoughts to anyone who cares.
If I was there, I would… apologise for all the offensive things I am going to say
I think it would be best to start off by trying to wash out the bad taste I had left in the mouths of the religious members of the audience after last time by making clear that nothing I say is done deliberately for effect and while I am bound to offend a lot of people in the room, this is not intentional.
I have half a mind to say the most offensive thing I could possibly say right away by quoting Jimmy Carr and saying that it is a shame about all the wounded British soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but at least we would have a cracking team for the 2012 Paralympics.
There’s a more than 50 percent chance of that one going down like a lead balloon…
It would be wonderful if it were true but…
After the apologies and explanation, the first thing to be said would be that there are loads of things that I wish did exist – such as The Force, lightsabres, telekinesis, telepathy and fairies at the bottom of the garden – but there simply isn’t any evidence for them. The religious instinct is informed by the same mentality as astrology and tarot reading: the human tendency to see patterns in everyday events and infer some greater meaning to them.
I blogged on this at length following a lecture given by Professor Chris French of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College hosted by the Merseyside Skeptics Society in September 2009. We are swimming in probabilities; it would be more incredible if these coincidences didn’t happen! There may be some anecdotal evidence for telepathy and reincarnation, but these studies are flawed by what is known as the “Clustering Illusion”, also known as the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy”. Rather like a marksman emptying his magazine at a barn door and then drawing on the target afterwards, if you repeat the same experiment enough times you are bound to see patterns emerge, but the conclusions drawn from them will be false.
American physicist, Victor J Stenger, touches on the search for a world beyond matter in his 2007 book, God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist and describes how the search for a soul, an afterlife, reincarnation and psychic powers has failed miserably.
Professor Susan Blackmore of Plymouth University charts her journey from naïve believer in the paranormal to hardened sceptic after she set out on a mission to prove in the lab that supernatural forces were at work, only to find that the experiments were flawed and the data inconclusive. The story is told in her book, In Search of the Light: Adventures of a Parapsychologist. At the time of writing, I hadn’t read Blackmore’s book myself, but she summarises her journey very eloquently in her debate on religion against Christian theologian Alistair McGrath at Bristol University on 13 November 2007.
A few years ago, thirty of the world’s “top” theologians met at the Vatican to discuss what happened to the souls of unbaptised babies after they die and whether St Augustine’s doctrine of limbo was valid. I am struggling to think of a more intellectually forlorn exercise; did any of those theologians have any actual evidence of what does happen to the souls of said un-baptised babies, or even whether they possess a soul in the first place?
Positing that humans possess a soul separate from our bodies simply commits the philosophical fallacy of begging the question. When did the soul evolve? Do non-human animals have a soul? Why would a deity bother with a mortal life at all and just have the afterlife as the norm so we can all enjoy his or her company straightaway? How can a soul survive the death of the brain? In what state is your soul when it leaves your body for good? It wouldn’t be very enjoyable to be permanently suffering from a stroke for all eternity.
Sounds like hell to me
Most people can’t bear to sit in church for an hour on Sundays. How are they supposed to live somewhere very similar to it for eternity?
– Mark Twain
I suppose my ideal version of the afterlife would be to live in a temple of knowledge and philosophical discussion with a library where you could read any book you chose for as long as you wanted and have discussions with the greatest thinkers of all time from Plato to Hume to Spinoza to Jefferson, one-to-one or in an auditorium. But again, there’s just no evidence for it.
I have to say though that the Christian version of the afterlife sounds absolutely ghastly, as Mr Twain summarises so beautifully above. I’m sorry, but did I miss something? Spending all eternity singing the praises of your maker? And you thought I was going to go for one blog post without quoting Christopher Hitchens, but it sounds like hell to me!
In 2000, Hitchens travelled to North Korea under his guise as a university professor and reported on the abject serfdom endured by the wretched population who are expected to wake up in the morning praising the Great Leader, Kim Ill Sung and his son the Dear Leader, Kim Jung Ill, only to wake up again in the morning and begin the process all over again.
Kim Ill Sung became President of North Korea in 1949, the same year as George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty Four. It is almost as though someone lent the Great Leader a copy of the book challenging him to put it into practice and he gleefully accepted.
According to Hitchens, you will not open a newspaper, turn on a television set or watch a theatrical production, that is not dedicated to worshipping the cult of Fat Man and Little Boy. However, Kim Jung Ill is only the head of the party and the army. The head of state is still his father; surprisingly, since the guy has been dead since 1994. Hitchens dubs the government a “necrocracy”, or a “mauselocracy” or a “thanatocracy”. Indeed, the son is said to be a reincarnation of his father. This should strike a chord with the Christian apologist on the night. It’s just one short of a Trinity.
But at least you can die and get out of North Korea. Under Christianity and Islam at least, it’s only when you’re dead that the real fun begins. Who would want this to be true?
Atheists constantly have the charge levelled against them that they cannot justify why they are moral and altruistic. If we all end up the same way and there is no final judgement for our lives’ deeds, then why should we care what happens in this life? Leaving aside for a moment my stock retorts about the intrinsic satisfaction of doing one of your fellow mammals a good turn without expecting reward or avoiding punishment, the theistic worldview hardly settles matters more satisfactorily.
Perhaps it is too cheap a shot to ask why religious people don’t just commit suicide rather than bothering with this veil of tears. But the question still remains frustratingly unanswered: if there is going to be an in-gathering, if there is going to be a magical place where all tears will be dried and all injustices put right, then why do the religious care so much about what happens in this life? Why do they want to control what people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms?
It would appear that at least Mahatma Ghandi pre-empted my challenge. Ghandi was undoubtedly the twentieth century’s most influential pacifist with his devastating policy of non-cooperation against India’s colonial masters, which sealed independence for the Jewel in the Crown in 1947.
However, it must be remembered firstly that Ghandi’s command to turn the other cheek only worked because the British Empire had by then been crippled by two World Wars in the space of 25 years and secondly, his ideals took a much more sinister side. Ghandi’s remedy for the Holocaust was for the Jews to commit mass suicide because this “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.”
Even if we grant Ghandi’s religious dogma of karma and rebirth, is the suffering and agony of millions of people in this world an acceptable price to secure their happiness and freedom in the next? Ghandi’s world was one where millions of people would have died in order for the German people to doubt the goodness of their Thousand Year Reich. How would a world full of pacifists respond once they became “aroused” to the evil of Nazism; commit suicide as well?
The concern for human souls seems to have trumped the care for human beings when you consider the Bush administration’s denial of funding at the Federal level for potentially ground-breaking stem cell research. Apparently a middle-aged father succumbing to Parkinson’s Disease or a young girl suffering from third degree burns are less important than the souls of three day old human embryos in a petri dish comprising no more than 150 cells. If you think that still sounds like a large number of cells, there are over 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. You inflict far more pain and suffering every time you swat a household insect than if you use a three day old human embryo potentially to save another human being’s life.
You lot may be looking forward to checking out, but don’t demand the rest of us to come with you
Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of the American population believe that Christ will return to Earth someday to judge the human race for 2,000 years of sexual indiscretion. At least 20% think that this event will happen within their lifetimes.
To an atheist, this might seem like a ridiculous belief – particularly when you consider that we have waited long enough following Jesus’ promise to return to Earth within the lifetime of his followers at Matthew 16 among several other instances – but it does not appear to be a potentially harmful preachment. Until you consider that there are fundamentalist American Christians hard at work in the Holy Land to this day attempting to incite the already warring religious factions into nuclear Armageddon.
Ronald Reagan brought in Hal Lindsay and Jerry Falwell – a pair of religious lunatics of the first, second, third and fourth orders – to advise the Pentagon on biblical prophesy regarding the end of the world when it looked like he was going to turn the Cold War hot. Falwell in particular worked hard at inciting the worst and most fanatical elements among Jewish settlers on the West Bank in Israel and was even awarded the Jabotinsky Centennial Medal in 1980 by Menachem Begin.
A former Archbishop of Canterbury (!), Dr Geoffrey Fisher throughout the 1950s and 1960s consistently refused to condemn the apocalyptic madness of Russia and the West during the Cold War. When some observers were proposing all-out surrender to the Soviets in order to avoid doomsday, sheepish Dr Fisher wrote a tract that could have been produced by Ahmadinejad in the present day:
I am convinced that it is never right to settle any policy simply out of fear of the consequences… For all I know it is within the providence of God that the human race should destroy itself in this manner.
There is no evidence that the human race is to last forever and plenty in Scripture to the contrary effect. Though, as you say, the suffering entailed by nuclear war would be ghastly in its scale, one must remember that each person can only suffer so much; and I do not know that the men and women affected would suffer more than those do who day by day are involved in some appalling disaster. There is no aggregate measure of pain. Anyhow, policy must not be based simply on fear of pain.
I am not being unfeeling. Christ in His Crucifixion showed us how to suffer creatively. He did not claim to end suffering, nor did He bid His disciples to avoid suffering. So I repeat, I cannot establish any policy merely on whether or not it will save the human race from a period of suffering or from extinction.
In a later interview, Fisher commented that “the very worst it could do would be to sweep a vast number of people at one moment from this world into the other and more vital world, into which anyhow they must pass at one time.”
As Sam Harris comments in Letter to a Christian Nation:
According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on Earth. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen – the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves – socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the US government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.
I don’t even want to get started on radical Islam’s commitment to Jihad, martyrdom, and three score and a dozen nubiles in paradise, so I’ll again defer to a man who is blessed with a far more eloquent turn of phrase:
The irony here is almost a miracle in its own right: the most sexually repressed people found in the world today – people who are stirred to a killing rage by reruns of Baywatch – are lured to martyrdom by a conception of paradise that resembles nothing so much as an al fresco bordello.
Apart from the terrible ethical consequences that follow from this otherworldliness, we should observe how deeply implausible the Koranic paradise is. For a seventh-century prophet to say that paradise is a garden, complete with rivers of milk and honey, is rather like a twenty-first century prophet saying that it is a gleaming city where every soul drive a new Lexus. A moment’s reflection should reveal that such pronouncements suggest nothing at all about the afterlife and much indeed about the limits of human imagination.
– Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason
A rather less pleasant place
I could not finish a piece on this topic without a reference to the dark side of an afterlife: that of eternal punishment. This is an utterly evil concept that has surely ruined the lives and peace of mind of many children and which some have said is a worse form of abuse than the mildest forms of physical and sexual abuse.
Before the first “Follow My Way” in March 2009, I had read extracts of the Koran as quoted by others, namely Sam Harris in The End of Faith and the excellent treatment by prolific secularist and anti-fascist blogger Edmund Standing on Butterflies and Wheels.
I had also purchased my own copy of Arthur J Arberry’s English translation of the Koran, but I had not read it in full. I have now done so, cover-to-cover, and it was an appalling experience. I am currently in the middle of writing my own opinion on the Koran for this blog, but I can’t bring myself to complete the piece, because the prospect of re-reading the central text in greater detail is utterly unpalatable.
Every time I now see someone wearing traditional Muslim dress or facial hair, I can’t stop myself from wondering, “What do you really think about me as an unbeliever, an infidel, a kuffar? What do you really believe is going to happen to me after I depart this life? Given that it says on practically every page of your holy book – which you claim is a miracle explained only if it were authored by an omnipotent deity – that I as unbeliever will face a painful chastisement in hell, fire or Gehenna for all eternity?”
I have not had the chance to ask this question of a believing Muslim myself yet, but I would certainly ask it of the Muslim apologist were I speaking on the night.
For the one life we do have
How’s this for an ending?
We’re all doomed. One way or another we all end up dead. The party will go on without us and we won’t be able to look down on it from on high. The human race will go extinct one day. Maybe at its own hands. Certainly if the religious fanatics attempting to acquire apocalyptic nuclear weaponry while I write get their way.
But if we don’t finish each other off, then disease, famine or tempest ought to do the trick. And our goose will be well and truly cooked in about half a billion years time when our sun runs out of hydrogen and swells up into a red giant and consumes half the solar system. And if there’s anything left of us after all that, then the Andromeda Galaxy, which you can see now in the night sky on a direct collision course with the Milky Way and will be upon us in [theatrical glance at wrist watch] ooooh… four billion years time.
If that doesn’t do it for us, then maybe I’m wrong and there is a God!
We have but a few short precious years of consciousness. But try to make it count. Try to enjoy the time you have. And above all, try to help other people enjoy their time as well.
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
– Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and The Appetite for Wonder