In February, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris debated rabbis David Wolpe and Shavit Artson on the topic “Is there an Afterlife?” The moderator was Rob Eshman. The 97-minute debate can be seen in its entirety here and a summary by Landon Ross who attended it can be read here.
It was an interesting debate. Hitchens and Harris are seasoned debaters and seemed very much at ease. Wolpe is quick-witted and has a good sense of humor and an engaging manner but Artson had a pouty expression that is off-putting and he seemed to not be happy at being there at all but made a couple of good points. Although the two rabbis (especially Wolpe) got some applause, most of it was reserved for sallies by Hitchens and Harris, despite the fact that the venue of the debate was the American Jewish University, which should have given home field advantage to the rabbis.
Ross’s summary captures the main points and I want to focus on a couple of things. Harris pointed out that the idea that we have some form of consciousness that separates from our bodies and floats off intact after we die is simply not tenable in the light of modern science. We know from studying people who suffer brain damage that different types of damage to different parts of the brain result in changes in people’s personalities. Apart from the normal changes in brains (and thus personalities) as we age, brain tumors or diseases like Alzheimers can dramatically accelerate that process. So when we die, what exactly is it that continues into the afterlife? The personality/soul that we had at the moment of death, even if it is terribly debilitated? Or some earlier form of it? And if the latter, how does the soul reconstruct itself at the point of death into another earlier, and presumably better, form? At what age does this soul decide, “OK, that’s it. I am going to stay this way and make my escape when the body dies.” Or does it mean we have two souls, one that grows along with us and dies with us, and the other that at some point reaches perfection and goes into hibernation and awakes just when we die?
In fact, if you believe that life begins at conception and the soul enters the body at that time, then the afterlife is going to consist mostly of the souls of miscarriages, which occurs in about 15-20% of recognized pregnancies, or the souls of fertilized eggs that didn’t even get implanted, which occurs about 30-50% of the time.
The same problem arises for those who believe that our physical bodies are resurrected after death, either immediately or at the second coming of Jesus. Which body? If it is the body at the point of death, then the afterlife is going to have a bipolar distribution in ages, with almost everyone being either very old or very young, mingling with lots of fertilized eggs. The remaining few bodies will likely be ravaged by disease or mutilated because of some terrible catastrophe. When evangelist Billy Graham was asked what we will look like in heaven, he said that when we are resurrected we will have glorious bodies that never grow sick or old. Does this mean that heaven looks like Fort Lauderdale during spring break? This hardly solves the problem since it is not clear when we were at our best. Is it when we were children? Young adults? Older adults? Who gets to choose how we look? (I should add that Harris did not go into nearly as much detail as I am on this question.)
The two rabbis are sophisticated people so the approach they took was quite predictable. They disavowed all aspects of religion that most people believe in, effectively becoming what I call ‘religious atheists‘, insisting that they believe in something supernatural while rejecting any concrete form of that belief. Whenever Hitchens and Harris dissected some religious belief, the two rabbis would immediately respond by saying that “That is not what I believe” and that they agreed with the criticisms, while at the same time avoiding stating clearly what they actually do believe. They wandered around in what I have called the fog of religious language. Artson went so far as to say that his god was not omnipotent and was powerless to overturn the laws of science and only had the power of persuasion! Judaism seems to be particularly malleable when it comes to beliefs about god and the afterlife, allowing for far more official disavowal of what we commonly understand than Christianity or Islam. It reminds me of the joke that so many Jews are secular that the Judaic creed seems to be “There is but one god and we don’t believe in him.”
For example, Artson said how the thought of seeing his grandmother again in the afterlife gave him great comfort. Then a little while later, when he was asked whether he believed in an afterlife in which he and his grandmother would exist as recognizable people, he backtracked, saying that after death we would exist as packets of energy and of course, no one could deny that energy exists! How he, as one packet of energy, would recognize another packet of energy as his grandmother was the key question left unexplained. I think that Hitchens and Harris either did not want to skewer him or felt that his absurdity was self-evident. I must say, though, that I get annoyed when people invoke scientific concepts in such a facile way to gloss over the problems with religion. At least no one brought up that perennial favorite, the uncertainty principle as the loophole by which god evades detection, for which I was thankful.
This debate illustrates why religion is faltering so badly. Its most sophisticated apologists are on the ropes. They know enough of science to realize that the traditional beliefs of their faith traditions are completely incoherent and simply do not stand up to scrutiny. They are thus forced to abandon the concrete core beliefs of the vast majority of their fellow believers while being unable to offer anything in return except content-free metaphors that are meant to parry the criticisms of atheists while presented to the gullible religious folk as deep insights. The creator of Jesus and Mo accurately captures the deliberate ambiguity that is being explopited.
Religion is now brain dead. It has lost any intellectual power that it may have had in pre-modern days. Its body, in the form of religious institutions, is still functioning but just barely and is on life support. And it has no soul that will live on after its death.
Good point about religious atheists. Frankly, I prefer an honest up front Creationist to a wishy washy liberal.
But as to your remarks about the debaters personal characteristics, that is of course irrelevant and borders on the Ad Hominem.
By the way, when atheism wins, and religion is gone, with there then be world peace?
JamesD—If religious belief and practice shapes individuals the way the Torah and Bible promise, wouldn’t observations about personal characteristics be of interest to the critic?
What is it you prefer about the creationist?
Mano Singham says
Ad hominem refers to the attempt to dismiss a person’s argument by attacking the person. Can you point to where I did (or nearly did) that?
Also, whether there is world peace depends on how much we are willing to work for it. Atheism is no guarantee to world peace but the absence of religion will definitely remove a major source of conflict.
Seeing how there is conflict in the ‘animal’ world I expect war to continue long after god is dead and gone.
While removing God from the human equation will not guarantee world peace, it’s clear that religion has always been a strong component of nationalism and patriotic aggression, at least in the modern era. The problems facing the world today (overpopulation, resource depletion, global warming, etc.) cannot be resolved within the political boundaries imposed by the nation state system.
Resolving these issues will require some kind of globally planned economy that can allocate material and intellectual resources in a rational fashion. Such a system is impossible in a world still dominated by religious superstition. In this sense, religion is a genuine barrier to the full development of our species. We cannot move forward until we rid ourselves of it.
Jeff Hess says
How fascinating that it should be two rabbis involved in the debate since Judaism says nothing definitive about an afterlife and routinely responds to the question with, “the text doesn’t tell us.”
I feel conflict is a part of human nature. People with different beliefs use this as a reason to engage in conflict and disputes. If all religion were to cease, humans by their very nature would find other reasons to fight.
(South Park summed this up great with their futuristic athesist wars. “The God we don’t believe in is better than the God you don’t believe in”)
Mano Singham says
No one is saying that religion is the ONLY cause of conflict and so we would not expect all conflict to cease if religion disappeared.
But it is a major source of conflict and eliminating it would help.