One of the most important tools for promulgating religion is fear, and one of the biggest sources of fear is the inescapable fact of personal mortality: we’re all going to die someday, and we all know people we’ve loved who have died. Religion steps up to the challenge of death in its usual glib and dishonest way, and promises a mysterious “afterlife,” in which you’ll get to go on being you despite the inconvenience of your flesh rotting away. None of the proponents of this belief have the slightest scrap of evidence for their claims, other than an appeal to emotion and desire, and sometimes some really bad experiments and sloppy observations of phenomena that vanish when a little rigor is applied.
Usually, the defense of belief in an afterlife falls along a couple of lines. One is the absence of a defense; you really want to live forever, so go ahead, simply believe this claim of immortality. It’s easy! Most religions simply do that, assert with no evidence but a hefty demand that you take the story on faith…which the believers have no difficulty providing.
The other strategy is to claim evidence while not having any. Without exception, this approach is appallingly stupid; I have never read anyone claiming to have solid evidence of life after death who fails to provide a train of fallacies and distortions. And if you want appallingly stupid fallacies, there is one man you can always turn to to provide: Dinesh D’Souza. He recently took part in an interview in which he defended the notion of a Christian afterlife.
Kengor: If there is life after death, how do we know that the Christian view of the afterlife is the correct one?
D’Souza: One way is to test a uniquely Christian claim: Remember that while all the religions of the world say there is life after death, only one religion says that it has actually happened. Jews and Muslims, for example, believe that there is a resurrection at the end of the world. But Christianity asserts that its founder, Jesus Christ, died and came back to life. No other religion claims that its founder–say Moses or Muhammad–physically returned from the dead. In one of the later chapters of my book, I examine the resurrection as a historical event. I take the facts that the vast majority of historians would accept–the fact that Christ lived and preached, that he made enemies, that his enemies killed him, that he was buried in a tomb, that his disciples claim to have found the tomb empty, that they said Jesus appeared before them several times after his crucifixion, and that this event filled them with conviction and propelled a movement of conversion that was sustained even in the face of Roman persecution and resistance. So these are the facts, and how do we account for them? If the resurrection stands up to historical scrutiny, if it is an historical event by the standards of historical verification, then the Christian view of the afterlife rises above the pack. It is the one to take seriously.
Wow. He’s making a historical argument while clearly utterly ignorant of the history. Resurrections and visits to the afterlife are practically staples of just about every religion. Osiris was killed, chopped into pieces, and resurrected, yet this is not evidence that the Egyptian pantheon existed. Gilgamesh made a visit to the underworld and returned to report on its existence and conditions, but we aren’t worshipping a mob of Mesopotamian deities now. How can anyone claim that Christianity is unique in having a dead god returning to life when it’s a standard feature of many old pagan religions?
The resurrection of Jesus is not a reasonable historical event. There are no primary, contemporary accounts of his existence. The books of the Bible that describe him were written decades after the purported event, and most of the biblical accounts are second-, third-, or distant-hand hearsay written by people with a vested interest in promoting a religion. The accounts we do have are inconsistent or contradictory, or inconsistent and contradictory. By the standards of historical verification, Jesus and his miraculous resurrection are myths. Nothing more. Maybe something less.
This is the kind of idiocy we’ve all come to expect from D’Souza. Another tactic that believers resort to, other than pseudohistory, is pseudoscience. This is remarkably popular, especially among the New Agey set, and the usual science that gets mangled is physics. The quantum is usually involved, too. I’m sure he wouldn’t want to be an exception, so when Robert Lanza asks in the Huffington Post (you already know what kind of fluff you’re going to get from the information given just this far), “Does Death Exist? New Theory Says ‘No’“, you can count on yet more nonsense.
Lanza has respectable credentials as a stem cell biologist, but he’s also the author of one of those all-encompassing, total-explanation-of-the-universe, crackpot theories, which is his, and which belongs entirely to him, called “biocentrism.” We know this because his tag line in the article is “Robert Lanza, MD is considered one of the leading scientists in the world. He is the author of “Biocentrism,” a book that lays out his theory of everything.” I’ve noticed that leading scientists tend not to have to introduce themselves by declaring that they are a leading scientist, but that’s another issue.
Lanza recently lost a sister in an accident, and most of his article seems to be a kind of emotional denial, that this tragedy cannot have happened and his sister really is alive and well somewhere. I feel for him — I’ve also lost a sister, and wish I could see her again — but this is not a reason to believe death doesn’t happen. I’ve stubbed my toe and wished with some urgency that it hadn’t happened, but the universe is never obliging about erasing my mistakes.
But then Lanza goes on to babble about quantum physics and many-worlds theory.
Although individual bodies are destined to self-destruct, the alive feeling – the ‘Who am I?’- is just a 20-watt fountain of energy operating in the brain. But this energy doesn’t go away at death. One of the surest axioms of science is that energy never dies; it can neither be created nor destroyed. But does this energy transcend from one world to the other?
Consider an experiment that was recently published in the journal Science showing that scientists could retroactively change something that had happened in the past. Particles had to decide how to behave when they hit a beam splitter. Later on, the experimenter could turn a second switch on or off. It turns out that what the observer decided at that point, determined what the particle did in the past. Regardless of the choice you, the observer, make, it is you who will experience the outcomes that will result. The linkages between these various histories and universes transcend our ordinary classical ideas of space and time. Think of the 20-watts of energy as simply holo-projecting either this or that result onto a screen. Whether you turn the second beam splitter on or off, it’s still the same battery or agent responsible for the projection.
I have heard that first argument so many times, and it is facile and dishonest. We are not just “energy”. We are a pattern of energy and matter, a very specific and precise arrangement of molecules in movement. That can be destroyed. When you’ve built a pretty sand castle and the tide comes in and washes it away, the grains of sand are still all there, but what you’ve lost is the arrangement that you worked to generate, and which you appreciated. Reducing a complex functional order to nothing but the constituent parts is an insult to the work. If I were to walk into the Louvre and set fire to the Mona Lisa, and afterwards take a drive down to Chartres and blow up the cathedral, would anyone defend my actions by saying, “well, science says matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, therefore, Rabid Myers did no harm, and we’ll all just enjoy viewing the ashes and rubble from now on”? No. That’s crazy talk.
We also wouldn’t be arguing that the painting and the architecture have transcended this universe to enter another, nor would such a pointless claim ameliorate our loss in this universe.
The rest of his argument is quantum gobbledy-gook. The behavior of subatomic particles is not a good guide to what to expect of the behavior of large bodies. A photon may have no rest mass, but I can’t use this fact to justify my grand new weight loss plan; quantum tunnelling does not imply that I can ignore doors when I amble about my house. People are not particles! We are the product of the aggregate behavior of the many particles that constitute our bodies, and you cannot ignore the importance of these higher-order relationships when talking about our fate.
The rational atheist view is simpler, clearer, and I think, more true. Lanza’s sister is dead, and so is mine; that means the features of their independent existence that were so precious to us, that made them interesting, thinking, behaving human beings, have ceased to exist. The 20-watts of energy are dissipating as heat, and can’t be brought back. They are lost to us, and someday we will end, too.
We should feel grief. Pretending that they have ‘transcended’ into some novel quantum mechanical state in which their consciousness persists, or that they are shaking hands with some anthropomorphic spiritual myth in never-never land, does a disservice to ourselves. The pain is real. Don’t deny it. Use it to look at the ones you love who still live and see what you can do to make our existence now a little better, and perhaps a little more conducive to keeping our energies patterned usefully a little longer.