In this recent Whizin Center for Continuine Education program, leading advocates for atheism, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris square off against Newsweek top rabbis, David Wolpe and Bradley Artson Shavit to determine what may or may not happen in the hereafter.
The possibility of an afterlife has challenged believers and atheists alike for centuries. Because its very nature defies conclusive definitions or proof, it remains a heated topic for debate and exploration. This debate is moderated by the Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal, Rob Eshman.
There is a bit of false advertising in the claim that this is a “debate” about the afterlife. It’s not. It’s a beating around the bush with all four speakers dodging the main question.
As a Buddhist I would say that none of the four speak of the afterlife in the terms that are relevant to me. They don’t seem to be speaking from experience, and instead all four are speaking about what they “trust” to be true by their intellectual speculation and dualistic modes of thinking.
In this debate, either the Rabbis didn't do their homework or they decided to stay on the defensive, as neither Rabbi directly challenges the bloodlust for the American Empire espoused by Hitchens and Harris in their written works. My guess is that there was some kind of pre-debate agreement that the Rabbis would not attack Hitchens and Harris directly and in exchange no one would mention how Israel is oppressing and killing people in the name of religion.
The dilemma of dealing with Hitchens and Harris is that they have their soft targets which they attack successfully and then they dodge away from the real issues and hard problems.
Hitchens rightly challenges the immature anthropomorphism and personification of a literal fantasy of God as a person with arms and legs and a long bearded “father” figure. That childish fantasy can be punctured but it doesn’t amount to anything.
Hitchens approaches intellectual honesty when he says, “Survival of consciousness independent of the brain is different from religious belief in a mandated path you can either follow or not follow for reward or punishment.” But if that is so, then he is acknowledging that he is avoiding the real subject of the former when he is attacking the misunderstandings of the latter.
Hitchens and Harris are essentially making a straw man argument by attacking institutional religion as if the religious aspiration in people is responsible for the conduct of the devils running the institution. If so, then that is also a great argument for abolishing democracy because of the devils running the USA today. The two rabbis David Wolpe and Bradley Artson Shavit apparently are not in a position to talk about the abuses, torture, and holocaust committed by our government in the name of democracy, since, as stated above, it might also lead to a discussion of the abuses committed by Israel. The problem of bastards and bullies running the government is a human problem that has nothing to do with whether the institution that controls the government is called democracy, communism, or the church.
Rabbi Shavit is right to point out the “worst compared to best” style of argument used by Hitchens is a rhetorical trick. With the comment that people “hold on to hopes that orient us” the conversation could have turned to the real question of how the symbol-systems, whether religious or not, orient people in a manner that gives them mutual identity and the ability to band together and become a society. The fact that there is an anthropomorphic patriarchal symbol of “God” or “His Majesty the King” or “Uncle Sam” or “Marx” at the center of the symbol-system is more determinative of it becoming and exploitive power hungry government than any religious sentiment. There is no qualitative moral difference in the basic sentiments of Moses, Jesus or Marx but each of their respective symbol-systems became controlled by people who couldn’t care less about the moral sentiments of the men who inspired the symbol-system..
The problem for this program is that the question “Is there an afterlife?” is addressed from very different frames of reference. All four, in their own way, answer the question “We can’t say if there is or not.” Hitchins and Harris reframe the question as “Is the supernatural fantasy of God in Heaven believable?” Rabbis David Wolpe and Bradley Artson Shavit turn the question into “Is belief in an afterlife beneficial to some people and if so then it doesn’t matter if it is true?” Both attempts to reframe the question are dodges.
Since Hitchens and Harris are really on a crusade against “religion,” which they define as belief in a supernatural anthropomorphic God, they always turn the issue to the past misdeeds of totalitarian religions. In other words, Hitchens and Harris dodge the question of “Is there and afterlife” by saying “when religion is in control they are bad, so anything said by those religionists must be false.”
Hitchens and Harris rest their position on the view that “religion is man made” and therefore it is false. I agree with them that piercing the self-delusional veil of those who believe their own religion comes from the “real God” while everyone else’s religion is only “man made” is a worthwhile goal, but Hitchens and Harris themselves go about this crusade with as much intellectual dishonesty and self-delusion of their own. Chris Hedges has written about their hypocrisy in his article “The Dangerous Atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris” with which I largely agree. (There are significant features of Hedges' article with which I disagree, but they are about his own pessimistic view of human nature, not his criticism of Hitchens and Harris.)
IS THERE AN AFTERLIFE?
If I had been on stage, I would have answered the question by saying plainly, “Yes. There is an afterlife and this is it.”
At one point Harris nearly approached this issue when he spoke about sleep to point out that every night we fall asleep into the oblivion of consciousness. However, Harris failed to get to the logical observation that we don’t go around fretting about “Is there an after-day?” Harris and the others missed this essential point.
We are certain of tomorrow because of our memories of yesterday. Yet we have no real certainty of tomorrow since anyone of us may not in fact live to see tomorrow if we die in our sleep, as any of us could were an airplane to fall from the sky. And though we have no absolute certainty of tomorrow, we have the certainty that today is the after-day of yesterday, and upon this certainty we rest our great confidence in the after-day of tomorrow.
Likewise, this life is the afterlife of the previous life, and our next life will be the after life of this life. The only difference between afterlives and after-days is our memory. We don’t remember all of our yesterdays, but we remember enough of them so that we can put together a symbol-system for our expectation of the days to come. For anyone who has accessed the memory of a past life and discovered that this life is the afterlife of previous lives, the certainty of an afterlife after this life becomes as certain as tomorrow is to today.
Yes, the certainty is “man made” but so what? Every bit of human understanding, including science, is “man made” because we are humans who understand by making symbol systems. The question that Hitchens and Harris want to get to by the threshold admission of one’s symbol system being “man made” is then to what degree does the symbol system comport with reality? And here’s the rub. Hitchens and Harris are advocates and proselytizers for the symbol system of science and as such refuse to acknowledge how their “reality” is also “man made.”
They believe that there is an objective “reality” that science is merely describing to the best of its current ability. They think that within this framework, they can hold up their scientific truths against the zany religious truths that have been promulgated and they win. However, as one of the Rabbis in the debate pointed out, there have been many zany propositions in the name of science and that doesn’t make the scientific endeavor worthless.
The fundamental delusion upon which Hitchens and Harris operate their road show is their claim that there is only one reality, the one that they say there is. They do not acknowledge that the reality that religion is attempting to negotiate, describe, and understand is not the physical reality of matter but the psychic reality of what is variously called spirit, soul, mind, consciousness, etc. While I agree that there is only one reality, like the claim of only one God, that reality (and that God) appears very different to the different people who are taking different perspectives.
Our understanding of “matter” is constantly changing and so there is no one view of matter held by science any more than there is one view of God held by religion. The point that we should be able to agree on is that we should not demand that other people take our point of view. To the extent that Hitchens and Harris are asking people with firmly held points of view about their God to let others be, then they have a message I can agree with. But to the extent that Hitchens and Harris ridicule people’s religion today because of the folly of the past, then they are committing the same sin they claim to oppose.
Underlying the quest for the answer to the question “Is there an afterlife?” is the angst caused by the very notion of time existing as past, present, and future. Any religion that wants to help people with this question of an afterlife must address the issue of time. When we look at time as past, present, and future we are taking ourselves out of time as if we exist in relation to time as a thing carried along the river of time. But in fact time is our very being. We are not external to time. We are the embodiment of time and time is another name for spirit, soul, God, consciousness, etc. We are no more outside of time than we are outside of God or mind. When we truly realize this there is a qualitative change in our sense of time and the generalized angst about the future is dissolved. At the same time, the issue of an afterlife is resolved by knowing that we are time itself and so we are the afterlife in this present moment.