Yesterday I took the ninety minutes or so that it would take to listen to the debate on the afterlife by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Rabbi Wolpe and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (linked by Stewart over at Butterflies and Wheels). It’s well worth the time. You don’t have to watch it in order to understand the following, but it will help.
One interesting feature of the presentation is precisely the way the names appear on the screen, like so:
Rabbi David Wolpe
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Notice how the clergy get listed with their titles. Had they been Christian, they would have been called Rev or Father, if Muslim, Imam, if Hindu, Pandit, etc., but Sam would have still been plain ‘Sam’ and Christopher would have been plain ‘Christopher’. In other words, it’s professionals against amateurs, officialdom vs. interlopers, insiders and outsiders. That is already to privilege the religious voice, and to give it a sense of presence that is lacking for unbelief. This sense is profoundly deceptive.
The next thing to notice is that the question of the afterlife is never really faced. Oh, yes, the afterlife is mentioned, and there is some vague gesturing in the direction of what comes after, but both of the religious experts agree with the atheists, except that they want to reserve that little space in which they can still say weird things.
The most noticeable feature of the whole “debate” is that it was impossible for the atheists to pin the religious down, so the debate never seemed get going, although at one point Rabbi Wolpe imagined a possible world in which he and Rabbi Artson were winning. The two religious believers kept repeating that they agreed almost entirely with the two atheists, except for one thing — and here followed a series (at different points during the debate) of different “one things”. The way the atheists characterised God was, Rabbi Wolpe said, “very limited and partial.” This is not how any religious tradition conceptualises God. The afterlife cannot be thought of in a literal way. The Jewish tradition doesn’t have the idea of predestination, as, for example, Calvinism does. And if there had been a Calvinist in the debate, he’d have doubtless ducked and dived over what ‘predestination’ meant. And so on.
However, the two religious experts never tell us how they do conceptualise God; nor do they explain what they think religion is, or how the way the world goes is related to God as creator, and so on. God is not, in the Jewish tradition, we are told, all-powerful. But what is God, and how is God? This they never say. They do play a kind of “bait and switch” trick from time to time. Here’s just one example. Not having a concept of God, we are told at one point, communists thought they had to provide the ideal — which the religious push into the afterlife — right here and now, and this led to horrendous suffering and cruelty. But they still don’t tell us what the afterlife ideal is like, nor why it is important to religion. In fact, it is arguable that this can’t be done. Imagination is simply not up to the task of creating anything that could plausibly be tolerable for an eternity; and while we’re never told why the afterlife is important to religion, we are told how the concept can be misused.
At one point the moderator asks Christopher Hitchens:
Do you really believe that dead is dead?
This doesn’t seem to be a very hard question to answer. He should have said yes. But just here Christopher waffles, and speaks of the possibility of the survival of consciousness independently of the brain — about which, he tells us, Sam knows quite a lot more than he does. Which shows admirable epistemological modesty, no doubt, but ends up being simply misleading. This, he suggests, is very different from the idea of survival of the individual after death about which nothing very interesting has ever been said. But could there be consciousness without selfhood? This is simply too complex a question to deal with, but the suggestion is left hanging in the air, and Sam picks up on it talks about Nick Bostrom’s strange idea that we might be digitised ”entities” on a superbeing’s hard drive, and Rabbi Wolpe goes on to mention Galen Strawson’s rather strange pan-psychism, the idea that “the hard problem” — that is, explaining how “stuff” can give rise to consciousness — is really dependent on an inadequate idea of what “stuff” (matter) is, which may be, in some sense, already incipiently conscious — which really runs the debate off the rails for a few minutes.
Strawson’s pan-psychism is simply not a satisfactory answer to the hard problem, since it fails to take into consideration that living tissue, living stuff, is different, in some fundamental respects, from non-living stuff — and we have the DNA to prove it. This may not solve the hard problem, but it does suggest that the answer to the question, “What is consciousness?”, does not, after all, capture something that is somehow latent in all the stuff that is out there, but is, at least, dependent on the kind of stuff in which life is encoded. And Sam’s idea that consciousness may not be dependent upon brains seems to be a bit of mysterian obfuscation unworthy of someone who counts himself a scientist, but raises all the questions that Meera Nanda raises in her essay, “Trading Faith for Spirituality: The Mystifications of Sam Harris.” Harris thinks there is a philosophically acceptable way of postulating that consciousness may survive the death of the brain, and here, I think, he is taking a hike through Never Never Land, and perhaps provides all the purchase that religion needs in order to continue saying weird things and playing odd word games.
And they really are word games. There is never a point at which either of the religious experts in the debate offer us a plausible idea of what eternity would be like. Rabbi Artson hopes that he won’t be resurrected with the flat feet and fat thighs that he has been plagued with in this life, but he certainly doesn’t offer a plausible conception of what an afterlife might consist in, or even why it seems religiously important, whether it consists in a resurrected or reconstituted body or merely in the existence of a disembodied soul — which, as Sam Harris points out, is not the canonical idea of the afterlife in any of the great monotheisms.
However, the response of the religious is that religious belief in the afterlife or in the world to come is not to be taken literally (a word that hides a multitude of sins). Religion is more nuanced than that. Sam Harris points out that Maimonides said that belief in the resurrection is required; but Maimonides also says, Rabbi Artson tells us, that we can be in eternity now. This is, I suppose, what Buddhists would call enlightenment, or (the achievement of) nirvana, which is not a place so much as a state of mind beyond all the cares and illusory self-absorption of life — something like Julian of Norwich’s idea of holding eternity in a grain of sand. But what does this mean except perhaps that we can achieve remarkable states of consciousness? In what way is this particularly religious?
It’s at this point that Christopher Hitchens joins in with the question of justice, and the manifold evils that some people have to endure in life. In what way can there ever be a compensation for these injustices? Religions have devised ideas of how we can be called to account, and how some will be punished and others rewarded in the life to come. But in what way is this a compensation for the suffering that we endure now?
This reminds me that my wife Elizabeth kept a journal for some of the years during which she suffered so badly from MS. At one point she asked herself the question about the afterlife, though she had been, since 17, a nonbeliever. Here are her words:
I have found myself wishing for something very strange; it would be so comforting to think that heaven did actually exist. I find that it would be nice to think that in some strange realm, Eric and I could be reunited. We have only been together for such a short time; we deserve more. (Thankfully, these thoughts are very brief. The thought of all the other nasty trappings that go along with the ‘heaven’ concept positively repulse me. God is dead.)
She spoke to me about this, so I know what she meant by the “nasty trappings”. Her point was that, if there were to be a life beyond this one, then everything about this one must have been intended. And nothing, she believed, could then compensate her for all that she had suffered. If all that suffering was genuinely intended and purposeful, then it would be meaningless. And this is precisely Christopher Hitchens’ point. He thinks that this would make the suffering obscene, and I agree. And this was precisely Elizabeth’s point. There is no way in which an afterlife can compensate for the evils of this one.
You can see shades of this problem in Job. At the beginning Job is a wealthy man with a large family. All his daughters are beautiful, we are told, and his sons dutiful. But part of Job’s suffering lies in their being killed, and then, after undergoing loss and dreadful affliction, all is restored to him. He is granted more children, daughters even more beautiful than before! And yet the writer seems to be unaware of the irony. How are different daughters a replacement for the ones Job had lost? No compensation is really possible, because the replacement life is not a compensation for the lost one. It’s just a different life, the loss is still real, the suffering unredeemed.
The religious response is that religion doesn’t work that way. Religion doesn’t think of life as something that is planned. We have free will. And so many things that happen, happen as a result of the free choices of individuals. Hitler wasn’t part of a plan. He was simply an individual in a world in which individuals can make choices, and the consequences of those choices are sometimes appalling. We have the freedom to do horrendous things, but that freedom also allows us to wonderful things. Thus far Rabbi Wolpe. But Rabbi Artson responds by saying that everyone has great clarity about the god they don’t believe in, and he doesn’t believe in that god either. He doesn’t believe in the nonsense of an Aristotelian unmoved mover who determines how things will unfold. God is a persuasive power, who teaches us to be the best by giving us the vision that we can rise to.
But, basically, what this comes down to is a kind of religion as humanism, a kind of open, free discussion about what it is like to be human within a particular “religious” tradition. The religious participants in the debate keep waffling, agreeing entirely with the non-religious participants, except for … And that’s where we arrive the enigma of what believers believe and why they believe it. In a very real sense they don’t believe anything, because as soon as they’re pinned down to a specific expression of belief, unlike butterflies in a display case they get up from the pins and fly away, and begin to talk about nuance and imagination and the pious agnosticism that religions teach.
And this is just the point. Religions don’t know anything, and in one sense they don’t believe anything either, because they can shape-shift through a whole sequence of transitions from belief to belief as their beliefs are challenged. They will even say, as Rabbi Artson several times says, that they agree with the atheist point of view, except that … — and at this point he says something cute and irrelevant, because there’s nothing definite or relevant that can be said.
He tries to compare religion and science, and falls back on the idea that much of science was motivated by the urge to read God’s book of nature, which, in a world beginning to liberate itself from the Gängelwagen (or child’s walker) of religion (to use Kant’s term), was undoubtedly the case. Artson wants to say that both science and religion have been guilty of egregious mistakes, but this doesn’t discredit science, and should not discredit religion either. But the trouble is, while we can say what science is about, and what constitutes a mistake in science, he can’t say what religion is about (although everything that atheists object to in religion are obviously errors in religion), other than about seeking meaning in the human world — and this is simply to retreat from making religious claims.
At this point Sam Harris makes a very telling point. The rabbis have just said, basically, that religion is an imaginative, creative enterprise. If people read Shakespeare literally says Artson, Shakespeare would appear to be a dunce. (I’m not sure that’s true, but let’s assume it for the time being. It’s simply not clear what could be meant by reading Shakespeare literally.) Sam’s point is simply that, if the Bible is just literature which helps us to understand what human life is all about, then what he and “Hitch” are doing would be unrecognisable, because there would be nothing to oppose. It would be simply to have a discussion about what makes for a meaningful human life. It would no longer be a question of religion at all. If there were not people who made propositional claims, religious propositional claims about the world and about the way human life goes — if it were all just metaphorical and literary — then “debating” religion would make no sense.
And that’s just the problem. When religions do make propositional claims — as when Islam claims that Muhammad was a prophet and recited in the Qu’ran God’s actual words — then religion is claiming things for which there is not a shred of evidence. But when they stop making propositional claims — as happens when they are put on the hot seat — then they are no longer being “religious” in any meaningful sense, and religion becomes something very vague and mysterian, or, otherwise, simply a kind of humanism. So when believers tell us what they believe and why they believe it, they can no longer be taken seriously; but when they back away from belief, it’s hard to distinguish them from atheists. And this, by the way, is inevitable, because there is simply no reason to take religious believing seriously as being about anything at all.
So the answer to my questions? Religious believers don’t believe anything determinate, so no reasons need be given. Religious believers believe what they can, given the context. When they are studying the Talmud, they believe in terms that are available to them in that context. But in another context, what they can say may be entirely different, with a different set of assumptions, and for different reasons. And this, it occurs to me, is just what people do say. They say things like, ”I couldn’t believe in a god like that.” And this just means that belief is a function of what they can believe, what makes sense for them to believe, and not of what exists in any sense ”out there,” independently, which must be simply accepted. And that is why “debates” between believers and unbelievers can go nowhere, because there is nothing for the debate to be about …, unless, of course, the believer is willing to pin himself down, and then, as even believers know, they simply sound ridiculous.