Today, in my local newspaper, there are a couple of puff pieces (here and here) about Heaven Is For Real, the latest "non-fiction" bestseller written by an evangelical pastor here in Nebraska (along with the co-author of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue).
Both articles were written by the same free-lance writer - a woman who clearly reveals her own bias with "It's because he is a child that Colton is a credible witness," and "There is a heaven, and it's a beautiful place with a big God and people who love us and are waiting for us." (And that's in her book review!) Yes, it's clearly no coincidence that these articles were published on Easter weekend.
But all I could think of, when I read them, was... how can anyone be this gullible? I hadn't heard of the book before, but apparently I'm in the minority, since 1.5 million copies are currently in print. Yeah, that's a real economic incentive to come up with something sensational, even if this pastor's religious motives weren't enough.
Of course, the scary thing is that he probably believes all this nonsense himself. And the really scary thing is that so many other people do, too. Yes, it's easy to believe what you want to believe, but... is there actually no limit to what ridiculous stuff you're willing to swallow, then?
Well, I won't repeat the comments I made at the JournalStar. Check out the articles for yourself, if you're curious. But if you want an antidote to the pablum in those articles, you might check out Susan Jacoby's post about the book.
Here's an excerpt:
No doubt the boy’s memories are as vivid and sincere as the memories of all of those preschoolers, coached by adults and “recovered memory” therapists in the 1980s, who claimed that they had been sexually abused en masse in nursery schools by teachers practicing Satanic rituals.
This book, and its commercial success, remind us again of the effectiveness of religious indoctrination early in life. They recall the truth of the Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” Can there possibly be any child raised by devout Christian parents who does not, well before kindergarten, have images of winged beings and puffy clouds embedded in his or her brain? Small children believe in Santa Claus for the same reason--because their parents, whom they love, teach them to believe in Santa. The difference is that, at an appropriate age, parents admit that the Santa story isn’t true. They never admit, however, that heaven is the same sort of story.
What is truly disturbing about this book’s huge commercial success is that it attests to the prevalence of unreason among vast numbers of Americans. (The book is way down in the ranks on Amazon.com in the United Kingdom.) The Americans buying the book are the same people fighting the teaching of evolution in public schools. They are probably the same people who think they can reduce the government deficit without either paying higher taxes or cutting the military budget, Social Security and Medicare benefits. In this universe of unreason, two plus two can equal anything you want and heaven is not only real but anything you want it to be. At age four, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is charming. Among American adults, widespread identification with the mind of a preschooler is scary.
Jacoby brings up the big problem with religion. After all, does it really matter if foolish people believe a pleasant fantasy like this? What does it hurt if gullible people want to believe what they want to believe.
The problem is that, when you abandon rationality with something like this, you're likely to abandon it where it counts, too. If you don't use reason and evidence here, will you ever use them? In particular, will you use them when the results aren't something you particularly like?
Or will you refuse to accept the scientific consensus about global warming, for example, or evolution, because you want to believe something different? Where does believing in a pleasant fantasy cease to be just an unimportant quirk and become a serious problem for America and the world?
We already know that the scientific method is the best way we've ever discovered of distinguishing the truth from pleasant-sounding falsehoods. We already know that reason and evidence, together, are the most reliable way to determine the truth, and that we must never stop questioning what we think we know.
When you abandon them once - because, after all, what does it really matter? - why won't you abandon them the next time the truth isn't what you wish it was? In religion, faith is a virtue. In science, faith is a vice. If you decide to use faith for some things and science for others, how will you decide when you'll use which?
I'll tell you exactly how you'll decide: Whenever science tells you something you don't want to hear, you'll choose faith, instead. If you use faith for anything at all, that's how this will turn out. Your religion and your understanding of science may not conflict now, but when they do, which will you choose to believe?
If you understand why faith is not a reliable way to determine the truth, then why use it for anything? If you don't understand that, then inevitably you're just going to pick whatever you want to be true. We're seeing this everywhere in America right now (not just on the right, either). And that's the big problem I have with religion.