Saturday, April 23, 2011

Heaven is for real

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 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.


Chimeradave said...

I loved your comments in the discussion sections of the articles. Some of your best stuff.

WCG said...

Thanks, John. As you can tell, I can't seem to keep my mouth shut about these things. :)

I know that all believers aren't so foolish and so gullible, not at all. But I see this as demonstrating the big problem with faith.

Likewise, not all believers are willing to murder other people, even when their holy texts tell them that's what they're supposed to do. But that demonstrates the problem with relying on dogma at all.

Religion is wrong, not because of what it says about the world, but because of how it determines what's true and what isn't. Even when it gets things right, it uses the wrong path to get there.

Faith is not a valid way to determine the truth. The belief in dogma - the rule of authority - is not valid, irrespective of what that authority says. It's the method that's wrong, not so much the results (which are sometimes very bad, but often not).

Jim Harris said...

I agree with you Bill that believing in religion is bad, but what can we do? The people who believe do not want to listen to reason. They alter the curriculum of schools so reason doesn't get taught. They elect politicians that support their beliefs. And they destroy what they can't understand.

For every reader of The Skeptical Inquirer there are 1 million believers.

WCG said...

Jim, look at Great Britain. Believers are a minority there. That's been a huge change. Here in America, non-belief is growing rapidly, too, though not to that extent.

But when I grew up, I didn't know a single other atheist. Heck, I didn't know a single oher person who wasn't, as far as I knew, a Christian. These days, unless they go to a religious school, young people almost have to know a non-believer, I'd think - or at least be exposed to non-belief to some extent.

I make a point of commenting (online) on articles in the Religion section of my local newspaper, not necessarily to convince anyone - because I think that's unlikely - but just to remind people that there are different ways of thinking.

And in the media - especially online - atheists are far more prevalent than ever before. Check out this channel on YouTube, for example. It's from a television show in Texas. Many of the believers who call in are just dumbfounded at the idea that "because my pastor said so" isn't a good reason to believe something.

These people have never encountered any other way of thinking. It's not that they're stupid - indeed, the hosts of that show are mostly former believers themselves - but that they've never questioned what they've been taught all their lives. They've never even known there was another way of thinking. (Some think that "atheists" are people who worship Satan.)

I hear some of the dumbest arguments sometimes from missionaries who come to my door, because they've just never heard anything that contradicts them. Now, they won't abandon their faith that easily, but they have to hear different views before they can even begin to question what they've been taught all their lives.

So I don't think it's hopeless at all. It's the rare adult who'll change his mind, but young people are more open to new ideas. These days, even the President acknowledges that some people don't believe in God. It might not seem like much, but that's a step forward.

Anonymous said...

1 monkey on a computer banging away, followed by his son, then grandson, then great grandson, etc. will eventually produce war and peace. But only if the time span is infinity. Infinity, a concept beyond most human minds, will produce all possible probabilities eventually. Of course, in real terms, the Sun will absorb Earth before that outcome happens.

Anonymous said...

Why in all reason would one believe a fundamentalist preachers preschool son on the existence or not of Heaven? How many muclear warheads do we have?

Anonymous said...

Heaven is for real, however the choice to accept God's gift of eternal life or to reject it is up to you. Do your own research, don't let sarcasm sway you. I am a Christian and its not because of blind faith but REASONABLE FAITH

WCG said...

OK, Anonymous. Does that mean you have evidence to back up your beliefs, then? If so, what is it?

Do I really have the choice to accept "God's gift of eternal life"? I don't think so, because I don't think that it actually exists. I don't think that either of us actually has that choice.

And I can't believe it without having a good reason to believe. Without evidence, I couldn't believe if I wanted to. So it's really not my choice.