Recently I saw atheist Richard Dawkins being interviewed on Bill Maher's television show, and Dawkins declared that he wanted to have his own death videotaped. Asked why he might contemplate such a strange thing, Dawkins replied that he was sure religious believers would spread rumors that he had converted on his deathbed, and he wanted to make sure there was a record to show he did not.
Equally insistent about maintaining his unbelief in the face of death is philosopher Daniel Dennett. A few years ago, Daniel Dennett went in for a serious nine-hour heart operation that could well have been fatal. It was, Dennett admits, a "harrowing experience" which tested his atheism. In an essay published after his recovery, Dennett wrote his atheism emerged quite intact and in some ways strengthened.
Reviewing these episodes, I am intrigued that these two leading atheists seem willing to go to their deaths without taking seriously the possibility of life after death. In other words, they act as if they know that there is no such life. And this is the "knowledge" that Dawkins and Dennett are disseminating in their books and articles. So what do they know that we don't, and how did they come to know it?
The atheist confidence that there is no afterlife is, of course, matched by the religious believer's confidence that there is. Ask a Christian if there is survival beyond the grave and he or she will answer, "Of course there is." Pretty soon you are getting the full details about what such a life will be like in the good place and the bad place. When you demand sources for such a thorough account, you find that they are the familiar ones: The Old Testament, the gospels, the Book of Revelation. When I raised this issue with a member of my church, he pointed to a sticker in the parking lot, "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it."
Evidence of this sort makes atheists apoplectic. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris writes, "Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever."
Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, wryly comments that no one has ever met a dead guy who came back to report on the afterlife. Lots of people have died, and none have filed reports or presented themselves for television interviews to give us the riveting details about what we can expect on the other side. Shermer's contention is that the believer has no good arguments for asserting that there is life after death. The believer's view is held in the complete absence of evidence. It is an assertion not of reason but of faith.
Shermer makes a good point, but it can easily be turned around. What does the atheist know that the religious believer doesn't? Nothing at all. Atheists haven't interviewed dead people any more than believers have. Nor have any atheists themselves crossed the river in death's boat to discover what lies on the other side. Death remains, as Hamlet tell us, the undiscovered country, and even the ghost tells the young prince, "I am forbid to tell the secrets of my prison house."
The bottom line is that the atheist has no better proof that there isn't life after death than the believer has that there is. Both groups are claiming knowledge that neither group actually possesses. For the atheist, no less than for the believer, it is entirely a matter of faith.
This equivalence between atheism and belief might seem equally damaging to both positions, but in fact it poses a much bigger problem for atheism. First, the faith of the believer at least has a plausible source. That source is divine revelation as expressed in a sacred text. So the believer is trusting in what is held to be an unimpeachable source, namely God. From where, by contrast, does the atheist get his faith? Who or what is the atheist trusting for the determination that there is no afterlife?
To this, the atheist typically replies that he is trusting in reason. Sam Harris writes that the truly rational person makes "the same evidentiary demands in religious matters that we make in all others." Richard Dawkins writes, "I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence."
In this case, however, Harris and Dawkins have rejected the afterlife on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. How, then, do atheists convince themselves that they know things when they actually don't? The answer, surprisingly enough, has to do with a profound misunderstanding of science. In a famous incident a few decades ago, a group of Soviet cosmonauts returned from a space mission with the triumphant announcement that they had searched and searched but not found God. On this basis the cosmonauts affirmed the Communist doctrine that there is no God. I suppose by the same evidence the cosmonauts could have declared that there is no heaven.