Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nov. 25 debate - Grant vs. the afterlife - Part 1

On Nov. 25 in Fonthill's St. Alexander's Church I debated Catholic Brock University professor David Goicoeecha on the existence, nature and meaning of the afterlife. We were very fortunate to have Justin Trottier from the Centre for Inquiry moderating the debate and he did an excellent job.

It was a lively event, and fairly well attended. I will post my own recap later, but if you want an overview of the night check out Justin's blog here:

For now I will post my opening remarks and then David's, along with our first rebuttals. The notes presented here were not used in full during the debate because of time constraints, and I actually used little of my own notes by way of a rebuttal, instead dealing with the subject matter as the night progressed. However, even though we both went off script, as there is no recording for the debate, the prepared notes is the best I can present there.

After opening remarks and first rebuttals, Justin invited each debater to ask the other a question. I asked David by what knowledge can he claim his Catholic view of the afterlife is the correct one, rather than any other believe by other religions. (He did not really answer the question, instead talked about his beliefs about the subject.) David in turn asked if I actually deny "emotional" evidence for god and the evidence. (uh, YES!). That was followed by questions from Justin. He asked David what Heaven is like - David's description was fairly vague, describing a heaven in is "pure love", that includes our pets, and maybe even Hitler (whom I was compared to. nice.) and that we, according to David, retain our individuality and can met up and chat. Justin asked me what kind of heaven might actually tempt me, and I was for a moment unable to answer. I had just never thought of such a thing before! I ultimately said that a heaven that was really not much different from our life in the here and now, with all its potential for great achievement learning, would probably tempt me.

I will discuss more about the debate shortly, but for the time being here is my opening remarks.

Philosopher’s CafĂ© Debate
The Undiscovered Country

There is one thing we can say for certain about human beings – we are often fearful creatures. Few of our emotions can motivate us to action, for better or for worse, than fear. Indeed, the seemingly endless of list of what we are afraid of can fill catalogues and keeps psychologists pay cheques rolling in.

Tonight, we are going to talk about what might be our greatest, most primal fear. Death. The inescapable fact that each and everyone us will come to a point, probably not of our own choosing, when our hearts will stop, the electrical activity in our brains will cease and we will grow cold. Life is a fatal condition and as the old turn of phrase goes, no one gets out of it alive.

My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true. Man, in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.
-Bertrand Russell

How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, and tonight I’m going to talk about the manifestations of our fear of death – religious notions of the afterlife – what they mean and what they say about us and what we value.

This is the second in what is a planned series of debates between David and myself. Our first debate, some months ago, discussed religion in a very broad manner. In the future we will lock swords over ideas about the existence of god, why the universe exists, sex and the church and nature of evil. Tonight, we’re examining an idea that lies at the heart of nearly every religion the minds of human beings have created – the afterlife.

When David proposed this particular subject, he suggested an approach that didn’t just examine the idea of life after death, but that it placed in the context of the Catholic Church. This is to say, placed in a broader context of why he is a devote Catholic and why I am not.

If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.
-Bertand Russell

It is, then perhaps worth drawing my line in the sand early: I’m an atheist, which means I don't believe the supernatural claims of religion are true. More importantly I’m also an anti-theist - which is to say that I am rather glad it isn't true. There are atheists who will say they wished they had the faith to believe in a god, or to believe the vision of the world as laid out in holy scriptures where true, but they just cannot believe it. This is decidedly not the case with me. As I say, I am rather glad it isn't true and if it were I am convinced we would all be the poorer for it.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I will address, albeit briefly, the subtitle David put to my talk tonight: Why I am not a Catholic.

Simply put, I am not a Catholic for the same reason I am not a Protestant Christian. Or Buddhist. Or Mulism. Or Jew. Or a Mormon, a Scientologist, a Hindu or Jedist. There is simply no reason whatsoever, once the supernatural claims of religion are held up to the harsh light of scrutiny, to believe any of it. There is not a god we’ve ever dreamed up that has the slightest bit of evidence to support a claim of its existence – never mind the assortment of devils, demi-gods, angels and demons that all these religions would have us believe exist. Heavens, Hells, limbos and reincarnated souls make for great mythological story telling, but they haven’t the slightest basis in fact.

From an evidentiary point of view Jesus stands equally with Thor, with Zeus, and any other god ever believed in. I cannot disprove any of these exist, but then neither can David. He does not believe Thor exists, but cannot demonstrate the thunder god isn’t real. That which can be declared without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Indeed, what should be clear to everyone tonight is that I have the easiest of jobs this evening. The burden of proof lays squarely upon David’s shoulders to demonstrate to us that his notion of an afterlife exists. Evidence matters. Facts matter. Personal affirmations or appeals to ideas that happen to make us feel better do not, in any way, demonstrate the existence of life after death. Either these things are true or they are not and those who wish to make such grand claims about the nature of the universe carry a heavy burden of proof indeed. As the great scientist Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

House: "Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people."
BigLove: "You're an atheist."
House: "Only on Christmas and Easter. The rest of the time, it doesn't really matter."
Big Love: "Where's the fun in that? A finite, un-mysterious universe—"
House: "It's not about fun! It's about the truth."
-House MD: episode #402
Beyond the fact that religion exists in an evidentiary vacuum, there are other considerations that turn me away from faith. They often contain, at their cores, ideas, orders, edicts and commands that are immoral, unethical, and irrational and can be extraordinarily harmful even when wielded by people who do not mean to inflict suffering upon others. I could go on at length about many religions, but tonight’s subject turns up Christianity and its oldest institution, the Roman Catholic Church, so I will limit my comments accordingly.

This is little more than scapegoating and is in direct violation of every sense of justice we possess. The punishment of someone for the crimes of another is regarded, rightly, by our society as one of the most immoral acts possible. At its most basic formulation, our notion of ethics and morals depends entirely upon personal responsibility. Without it, ethical action would be impossible. Yet this is exactly what the Christian scheme of salvation does – it extinguishes personal responsibility in favor a cruel, vicarious redemption. You can be guilty for nothing, responsible for nothing, were this to be true. In Catholic thinking, everyone is “good” regardless of what they have done and can be purified in purgatory – a kind of supernatural processing station where your crimes are burned away before you get to go to heaven.

What then becomes of justice? Of ethics? Are they not then, where this tale to be true, little more than a sham? It is made all the worse because the ultimate crime that Jesus was condemned to torture and murder for was the disobedience of an entirely fictional man and woman an the equally fictional garden. In other words, a man was executed for a metaphor and according to Catholic teachings – one need only read the official Vatican Catechism (sec. 74 to 78) to see it clearly – everyone is born wicked because of said fiction! It strains credulity to take any of this seriously.

Call me old fashioned if you will, the idea of mandatory, compulsory love has always struck me as a rather sickly one, or even a sinister one, especially when it originates as an injunction from a godhead of whom we are also supposed to be afraid. To be ordered to love someone of whom you have to be in dread is a form of sadomasochism. It’s the essence of Orwell’s Big Brother god. It’s not enough to obey, you have to love the obeisance as well. It’s the seedbed of the totalitarian. Love cannot be exacted.
-Christopher Hitchens

A related Christian idea that is no less pernicious is the concept of mandatory love. You MUST love the Christian god. It is not an option. Catholic teaching makes it very clear that if one rejects the love of this god, one will be damned for eternity for it. The catechism (sec. 218 and 219) make it very clear that if you refuse to love god, torture in perdition awaits you.

Consider: what kind of love is this that is offered with this sort of threat? “Love me or else you will be denied happiness and will suffer.” The demand that one love you, that loving you is mandatory and you will be punished if not done, is not any kind of love at all. Love is either offered freely, without strings, or it is a worthless.

Moreover, the bible makes it clear you are also to fear god. This is a god who, despite Christians saying god is “pure love” and the like, spends most of the Old Testament committing or ordering genocides, the taking of slaves, and the butchering of children. One wonders why Christians persist on saying their god of love is the same god of the Hebrew bible who ordered the massacre of the Canaanites and the Amalekites.

There are many other reasons why I pointedly reject the Catholic Church that I will not go on at length about here. Of its sometimes barbaric past of inquisitions, crusades and exterminations of perceived enemies (including the burning of the 17th century scientist Giordano Bruno, the silencing of Galileo or the Vatican ordered annihilation of the Cathars) I need say little. Modern incidents of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and subsequent cover ups and the continuing effort to prevent the use of condoms to fight the spread of HIV in Africa where millions are suffering because of the virus, provides all the evidence one requires of the moral and ethic problems of this ancient institution – problems fueled by a theology divorced from human suffering.

What then, in the light of all this, is a non-believer such as myself to make of Christian claims about life and death? Especially when there is no evidence to accept these claims as true?

Heaven was once believed to be “up there” in the sky someplace. Today we can see in the depths of inter galactic space and no heaven has been spotted, leaving apologists to claim that heaven is somewhere outside our universe and thus forever removed from scrutiny. However utterly convenient; Claim you speak a undeniable truth which, it just so happens, cannot be demonstrated to be true in any manner, which in turn is held up as evidence of its truth. One of my favorite philosophers, Thomas Hobbes, had little patience for this sort of talk and in his famous work Leviathan put this way:

“The universe, the whole mass of things that are, is corporeal, that is to say, body, and hath the dimensions of magnitude, length, breadth and depth. Every part of the universe is ‘body’ and that which is not ‘body’ is no part of the universe, and because the universe is all, that which is no part of it is nothing, and consequently nowhere.”

As I thought about how to approach tonight’s debate, a line from one of the greatest plays ever penned that has stuck with me since I was a teenager came to mind again and again. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character meditates on death and the hereafter. Hamlet ends up calling death “The undiscover'd country from whose bourn; No traveler returns.”

Hamlet was right. We know that we die and for all intents and purposes we cease to exist. To say anything beyond that is simply wish-thinking and mythological story telling. No one has ever come back from the dead with photos of the afterlife, there is no evidence than one exists. In other words, if somehow we do survive our own deaths, we know absolutely nothing about it.

Hamlet was right. We know that we die and for all intents and purposes we cease to exist. To say anything beyond that is simply wish-thinking and mythological story telling. No one has ever come back from the dead with photos of the afterlife, there is no evidence than one exists. In other words, if somehow we do survive our own deaths, we know absolutely nothing about it.

What then of the Christian’s notions of heaven and hell, and specific Catholic notions like purgatory and, the now recently defunct concept of limbo?

In its basic and most primitive formulation, the Christian afterlife is all about obedience to authority and being rewarded or punished for how well one follows orders. Heaven is a place for those who love god and do what he wants and hell, for those who don’t, is often portrayed a place where one is tortured for all time. There is something appealing in this view, particular the notion of a cosmic, eternal justice. Even if you think you don’t posses that dark a side, I think we would be hard pressed to find anyone of you whose skin doesn’t tingle a little at the thought of a place of torture where Adolf Hitler or Paul Bernardo will spend entirety.

However, it’s not as simple as all that, particularly not once you engage specifically Catholic notions of life after death.

Careful reading of the Bible shows that even the most heinous acts of barbarism is not necessarily sufficient warrant to be sent to hell. Even the most horrible of acts can be forgiven if only one believes properly. Indeed, disbelief is held up as the one really unpardonable sin. In the texts it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that is the one thing that cannot be forgiven. In Catholic teachings, everyone gets to go to heaven so long as they follow the commandment of mandatory love.

What heaven is exactly isn’t entirely clear, at least from a Catholic point of view. Some protestant sects imagine a place that sounds like Oz, with gold paved streets and people running about in perfect, ageless bodies. The Catholic catechism describes only a state of being in which one heaps glory upon god – in other words it sounds like the kind of place where you spend all your time telling the boss what a great guy he is.

It is for this reason that Christopher Hitchens describes heaven as a kind of celestial North Korea, where your only ambition is to worship and praise Dear Leader. All notions of human achievement and moral and ethical responsibility are erased and replaced with what sounds rather like a powerful and pleasing bromide. But it’s a non-existence bereft of anything human.

Given that someone had to be tortured to death for your alleged wrong doings for you to even be there, and that are required to spend entirety worshiping an all powerful authority that cannot be questioned or challenged, heaven sounds like the abode of a vain dictator. It’s described as a place or state of being of ultimate happiness, but like the idea of “love” in this theological context, it would be an empty happiness where it to be true.

Still, as prosaic an existence as that sounds, it might still be preferable to being tortured forever in Hell.

Of course Christian apologists, including Catholics like David, often ignore hell these days, no doubt recognizing the how ugly, petty and unjust the concept is. Still, it is worth noting that in on March 27, 2007 in Rome the present pope made it very clear that he believes Hell is a real place and decried the fact that is not fashionable to say so. "Jesus came to tell us that He wants us all in heaven and that hell - of which so little is said in our time - exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to His love,” Pope Benedict XVI said.
Hell consists in the eternal damnation of those who die in mortal sin through their own free choice. The principal suffering of hell is eternal separation from God in whom alone we can have the life and happiness for which we were created and for which we long. Christ proclaimed this reality with the words, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41)…. God, while desiring “all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), nevertheless has created the human person to be free and responsible; and he respects our decisions. Therefore, it is the human person who freely excludes himself from communion with God if at the moment of death he persists in mortal sin and refuses the merciful love of God.
-The Catechism of the Catholic Church

To make the matter plain, let’s review this essential, an absurd notion, of love and what would consign you to hell.

1) You are born sick, with the taint of original sin because of the crime of a man and woman who did not exist committed in a garden that is nothing more than mythology.
2) No matter what you do with your life, no matter the good you might do for your fellow creatures, this taint can only be removed by accepting the “love” and “forgiveness” of god as the Catholic doctrine understands it.
3) Refusal to do so before you die means you shuffle off this mortal coil with your sins intact. As such you are sent to some manner of hell where you are damned for all time.

The (Christian) story, so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it. Who were the authors of it is impossible for us to know, as it is for us to be assured that the book in which the account is related were written by the persons whose names they bear.
-Thomas Paine

So a doctor who is an atheist and anti-theist, who pointedly rejects what Jesus stands for and refuses to love a god, would be sent to hell. The serial killer who repents and loves Jesus gets rewarded. The moral weakness of such a view is obvious.

Even if one gets past all these objections, and can cook up a theology that is devoid of the petty and vulgar vindictiveness of these concepts of heaven and hell, there is still a great objection to answer: by what information, by what knowledge, can David claim his preferred belief accurately reflects what happens after we die?

The fact is that he can no more disprove Valhalla or Hades than he can demonstrate his heaven even exists. And that being so, why expend such energy in worrying about it?

The idea of an afterlife amounts to a waste of our mental energies, save for those ideas that lead directly to the suffering of others. Given that there is a dearth of evidence to even hint at heavens and hells, and the theology irrational to say the least, we can safely dispense with the notion.

What then do we make of death? Perhaps we can take a page from the samurai whose devotion to Zen hinged upon the fact that Zen dwelled heavily upon death. Those who followed Zen Buddhism mediated upon their own death constantly. A samurai was to keep the idea of his own mortality, likely to come in a gruesome manner on the battlefield, on his mind at all times. It might sound a tad grim, but it served to reinforce an idea that death is but a consequence of life. We cannot avoid it and we likely cannot choose the manner in which it comes to us. But we can choose how we face it.

From this point of view, one Epicurus likely would have found some degree of kinship with, death is nothing to us. We die. It’s a fact. But what really matters is not how we die or what we might fancy happens afterwards.

What matters is how we live and the legacy we leave behind.

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