Archives For beliefs


Skeptics and vocal atheists across the web fumed when Newsweek published a cover story that proclaimed the afterlife to be real based on a firsthand account of a neurosurgeon who nearly lost his bout with meningitis. His tale is hardly atypical from ones we’ve heard many times before across a wide variety of patients who had one foot in the grave and were revived; lush greenery and white fluffy clouds leading to a wonderful and peaceful place, a companion of some sort for what looked like a guided tour of Heaven, all the pieces are there. Such consistency is used by the faithful to say that there must be an afterlife. How else could the stories be so consistent and feature the same elements? If the patients were simply hallucinating as their brains were slowly but surely shutting down, wouldn’t their experiences be radically different? And aren’t a number of them extremely difficult to explain with what we know about how the brain functions?

It’s not as if people could sense when they’re about to die and are constantly bombarded with a description of how they should ascend to Heaven for eternal peace and rest. Wait a minute, wait a minute… They can and they are. So wouldn’t it make sense that so many near death accounts of an ascension to an afterlife follow the same pattern because the patients who remember their alleged journey to the great beyond are told day in, day out how this pattern should go? Most of the tales we get come from the Western world and have a very heavy Judeo-Christian influence coloring them. There’s also a rather odd prevalence of ascending to Heaven in these accounts and cases of people describing torment or something like Hell, while certainly not unheard of in the literature, are exceedingly rare. This either means that much of humanity is good and could look forward to a blissful afterlife, or that most people experience a natural high before death so they feel peaceful and at ease, dreaming of Heaven, while others still feel pain and see Hell.

And this is when Occam’s Razor has to come into play. The second assumption, while not very comforting or marketable to believers who still doubt the idea of an afterlife, makes the fewest, and the most probable assumptions, and if therefore more likely to be true in the absence of a stronger case for a genuine Heaven. We tend to choose the afterlife version of the story since we’re all fundamentally scared of death and no amount of arguing why death is natural or how it just has to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it makes this fear any less. The stories give us hope that we won’t simply cease to exist one day. But whereas believers are satisfied by anecdotal tales, the skeptics feel that we deserve more than just hope being spoon-fed to us. If an afterlife exists, we want to know for sure. We want empirical data. And that’s why trying to sell a story that tickles those who already believe or want to believe in the worst of ways is so rage-inducing to so many skeptics. We need truth and facts to deal with the real world, not truths that people want to hear and facts they can discard at will when they don’t match their fantasy.

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If you went to college, you certainly remember taking a class in which you didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time on that 23 page paper on the farming techniques of 13th century serfs and the impact of said techniques on feudal agriculture. So you did some browsing around and padded the points you did research with page after page of boring fluff, betting that the professor was going to skim it here and there before giving it a grade. No shame in that, we’ve all done it. But did you know you can also do the same thing with blog posts and books, and make a living from repeating that padding technique? A good, recent example of that is a post by Keith Floor over at Cosmic Variance, in which he spends hundreds of words arguing that science could never be an effective substitute for religion. His thesis summed up in the one sentence it needed to be? People like just so stories and science doesn’t have them, therefore they’ll stick to the stories in which they’re special and important enough to be the children of a deity.

How is this argument new? Why is it so important that the same thing was published in Nature? And even more importantly, how is this a good argument? I would want to hear someone tell me that my AI research is going to get a $15 million development grant from DARPA next year and instead of consulting full time and researching part time, I can flip these roles and do what I love for the next five to ten years. But if it’s not true, maybe I should take note and not make plans on the story I want to hear, and focus on the consulting because that’s what pays the bills? This is the problem with accommodationism and mollycoddling faith in a nutshell. We can’t be nice and say that we’d never dream of challenging someone’s faith because that’s what this person really wants to believe. We tried that. It doesn’t work. We don’t need people to give up on every fun or interesting idea out there and apply Occam’s razor to every thought they have. But we do need them to make decisions based on facts. When people believe that they have the divine right to do as they wish, they can do a lot of damage and make very bad choices.

What we’d be doing if we didn’t advocate for science leading the way would be no different than the extreme of the self-esteem movement. Instead of telling little Johnny or Suzie that they really need to spend more time doing math and unless they do, their GPA isn’t going to get them into any college without years of remedial classes, we’d be telling them that math probably isn’t their strong suit and it’s ok that they got a D in geometry. Obviously the A in English means that they’ll be talented writers and literary critics so they shouldn’t worry about that mean old math. But we know that’s not true and that a D in math is a really bad thing. This is the same reason why we can’t tell the faithful that it’s ok to treat some people as less than equal because we know that a person from a different faith or with a different sexuality is just as biologically human as anyone and therefore, deserves the same rights. And this is why we can’t just let creationists preach their gospel of willful ignorance, because we know they’re wrong, we know they ignore facts, and we know that they’re coming from a place of denial. When we excuse a belief in myth, the faithful will take it as a license to ignore facts. Why should we give them this license?