Dinesh D'Souza on Life After Death: The Atheist Delusion

In this provocative essay, Dinesh D'Souza argues that the atheist critique of life after death is actually irrational. He takes on Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and more to say their arguments lack evidence.

BY: Dinesh D'Souza


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Such a criticism is a bit unfair, however, because as many atheists realize, there are no controlled empirical experiments that can resolve the issue one way or the other. Consequently atheists seek to affirm the rationality of their position by taking a different route. They appeal to an argument offered in the late nineteenth century by William Clifford. In a famous essay, "The Ethics of Belief," Clifford argued that "it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

Clifford offered the example of a ship-owner ship putting a ship to sea without performing the necessary safety checks; he wished the passengers well, but when the ship sank, he calmly collected the insurance money. The ship owner had no regrets, since he didn't know the ship was unsafe. Clifford's point is that the man was a scoundrel. He should have known! He had no right to declare the ship seaworthy without collecting all the evidence. Clifford's conclusion is that we should believe as true only propositions that come with sufficient proof; we should reject as false those that don't. This position can be summed up in the popular atheist slogan, "The absence of evidence is evidence of absence."

Clifford's principle seems praiseworthy for its heroic attachment to truth, but nevertheless there is something deeply wrong with it. Specifically, it confuses "what is known by a given person under the circumstances" with "what is or is not the case." Imagine a fellow living in ancient Greece in the fifth century B.C. As far as he can determine, using all the experience and evidence at his disposal, there are only three continents on the planet, no other planets in the galaxy, and only a handful of stars in the universe. What does this tell us about the actual number of continents, planets or stars in existence? Absolutely nothing. It only tells us that ancient Greeks had very limited information at their disposal.

As a second example, consider efforts on the part of contemporary scientists to find out if there is life on other planets. So far scientists have found nothing. Should we all, therefore, refuse to believe that there is life on other planets on the grounds that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence? Clearly this is premature. The absence of evidence may indicate only that we haven't figured out how to locate what we are looking for. "Not found" is not the same thing as "found not to exist."

These examples show the limitations of the "absence of evidence" principle, but the issue of life after death poses an even deeper problem. To see this, let me offer an analogy between life after death and having a large sum of money in a Swiss bank account. Imagine if I asked you whether or not I have such an account. You declare your firm belief that I do not. As evidence, you cite the fact that you have never seen me go the bank. Moreover, you have observed me shopping and notice that as I spend money my wallet gets thinner. You infer that at some point my wallet will be empty and I will be broke. So clearly I don't have a bank account.

Then I ask you, do you have access to the bank's internal records? You do not. Have you ever been to the bank? You have not; in fact, you have never been to Switzerland. Have you organized 24 hour surveillance of the bank in question so that if I did go there, you would be notified? Of course not. Obviously we can conclude from these facts that you have arrived at a most unreasonable conclusion. In reality you have far too little information to decide one way or another whether I have a bank account. And this is precisely the situation facing the atheist with regard to the afterlife. On the basis of the available facts, not only does the atheist not know what happens after death, he cannot possibly know. The absence of evidence is evidence of nothing.

So what do atheists have to say about all this? Basically, they say that to give up reason and evidence, even in situations which seem outside the bounds of reason and evidence, is to open the door to all kinds of craziness. Should we start believing in unicorns and centaurs on the grounds that there is no way to disprove them? The philosopher Bertrand Russell gave the example of a celestial teapot that is said to rove the solar system but is undetectable by all scientific instruments. Should we believe in such an absurdity simply because it cannot be refuted?

With some glee, Richard Dawkins invokes the example of an invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster that controls the operations of the universe. These way-out examples can't be disproved, Dawkins writes, "yet nobody thinks the hypothesis of their existence is on an even footing with the hypothesis of their non-existence." In other words, the odds in favor aren't the same as the odds against.

A little scrutiny of these examples will quickly show that the craziness here is entirely on the part of the atheists. We have combed the earth without locating a single unicorn, so we seem justified in rejecting unicorns. Centaurs are believed by scientists to be biologically impossible. In these two cases, the odds are clearly against. Celestial teapots are also very unlikely, as are Flying Spaghetti Monsters, but our derision is prejudicially solicited by the particular examples chosen. Teapots do not fly, and pasta is an unlikely ingredient to produce flying monsters.

On the other hand, if we modify the examples slightly to involve matter and energy that is undetectable by scientific instruments and yet is presumed to exist in order to account for the motions of the galaxies, we have just described "dark matter" and "dark energy," widely accepted by scientists today. Here the odds are heavily in favor, even if the phenomena in question are strange and not well understood.

I agree with Russell and Dawkins that even when propositions seem outside the bounds of verifiability, there is no cause to give up reason; I am merely arguing that we should be constantly aware of what reason does, and doesn't, tell us in a given situation. Moreover, there may be things that are outside experience that have features different from what is within our experience, and we should be open to such possibilities and not dismissive of them in advance.

Consider the possibility of aliens that exist in some galaxy far away. Is there anything we can say about them that would automatically count as absurd? For instance, can we reject out of hand the possibility that the aliens each have 10 eyes? No. Can we dismiss the suggestion that they weigh less than a speck of dust, or more than a skyscraper? No. Can we laugh out of court the idea that they don't have hearts, or that they communicate by telepathy, or that they sustain themselves by consuming metal? In each case, no.

So the bottom line is that there is nothing about the possibility of aliens that is prospectively out of bounds; we simply have no idea about what aliens, if they exist, might be like. Perhaps there is even one that looks like a Flying Sphagetti Monster! If atheists wrote about life on other planets in the way that they write about religious claims, their derision would be immediately seen for the ignorant prejudice that it is.

Atheists like to think of themselves as the party of reason, advancing views that are based only on facts and evidence. Here we see that when it comes to life after death, the atheist claim to knowledge constitutes a kind of false advertising. In reality, the atheist is in the same position of ignorance as the believer. Yet the religious believer doesn't claim to be a champion of reason and is content to hold his position based on faith. The atheist is a victim of what may be called the "Dawkins Delusion": he too holds a faith-based position while deceiving himself into thinking that his rejection of life after death is wholly based on the evidence.

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Life After Death: The Evidence