2016-06-03

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.

When I mentioned this incident to the atheist writer Christopher Hitchens, he laughed and said, "It's hard to believe those guys were really that naïve." Hitchens understood right away that the Soviets were looking for God in all the wrong places. They were still captive to the medieval picture of heaven "up there" and hell "way down below" and earth somewhere in the middle. But for many centuries now religious believers have asserted that God and heaven can only be found in realms that transcend the universe. Imagine poor Hamlet running around the castle saying, "I've looked everywhere, and I can't find Shakespeare. I'm forced to conclude that Shakespeare does not exist."

In his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, physicist Victor Stenger writes that the issue of life after death is a scientific question. The problem, however, is that "no claimed connection with a hereafter has ever been verified…in controlled scientific experiments." Biologist Francis Crick writes that if religious believers "really believe in a life after death, why do they not conduct sound experiments to establish it?"

The answer to Crick's question is that most religious believers probably don't care whether their belief in the afterlife meets scientific tests; they don't believe in it on that basis. As practicing scientists, one might have expected that Crick or Stenger would suggest some experiments that could help decide the issue. If the claim that "there is life after death" is a scientific hypothesis, then it seems reckless to reject it without even attempting an empirical refutation. Even so Crick and Stenger do reject it, causing me to wonder if these gentlemen routinely adopt opinions in the absence of facts.

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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