Last week, I took a break from all the news and cares of this life to spend a couple of hours thinking about the next one.
My role was to serve as moderator in a discussion titled “Is There an Afterlife?” featuring two rabbis, David Wolpe and Bradley Shavit Artson, and two atheists, Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith,” and Christopher Hitchens, author of “God Is Not Great.”
The event, called for 7:30 p.m. at the Wadsworth Theatre, was sold out, all 1,200 seats. Already at 3 p.m., a line had formed at the ticket office and around the theater.
Hitchens was the big draw. In June 2010, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. These days he looks a bit more thin and drawn than he once did, his once unruly hair all gone. Here was a 63-year-old man who has devoted much of his later career, and gained most of his popular fame, arguing against God and religious belief in all its manifestation. Now that the question of the afterlife might seem more urgent and less hypothetical, what did he have to say?
This was my second opportunity — privilege — to share a stage with Hitchens. The first time was in November 2008, when the same event organizer, American Jewish University, pitted Hitchens against Wolpe to debate “Is Religion Good?”
That disputation ended without a K.O. Hitchens, heavily self-medicated on Johnnie Walker, insisted on arguing against an extreme version of religion that Wolpe neither represented nor defended. Taken to extremes, of course religion is bad for you — but you could say the same about most anything, even scotch.
To my mind, the afterlife is an even more challenging topic. Not one of the speakers held to a traditional belief in it. So my job as moderator was to get them to be as precise as possible in their degrees of disbelief.
Wolpe, himself a cancer survivor, said that while it is hard to comprehend the afterlife as “something we can imagine and understand … not entirely material,” he spoke of placing dirt on his late father’s casket, knowing down to his core that his father’s spirit was already elsewhere.
Artson said he conceives of the afterlife as part of “oneness of which we are an expression.” Without being specific, he said he believes we continue to exist in some form beyond the grave.
“For many of us, hope in an afterlife grounds us and gives us direction,” he said. “And the notion that my grandmother and I are not eternally separate is a source of great and abiding comfort to me.”
“Do you believe you’ll see her?” I pressed.
“We are packets of energy, and I don’t think those packets of energy are limited,” Artson said.
In his book “The End of Faith,” Harris, who holds a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA, has written of the possibility that consciousness can be separate from the brain. That sounded to me like what Artson and Wolpe were saying.
“Science is not in principle committed to the idea that there is no afterlife,” Harris elaborated on stage. “Or that the mind is endemic to the brain. Science is completely open to whatever, in fact, is true, and if it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain by virtue of ectoplasm, or something else we don’t understand, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding, if, in fact, it could be discovered, and there are several ways it, in fact, could be discovered. The problem is there are very good ways to think its not true.”
Hitchens stuck to what for him is the most obvious truth.
“The reality is, we don’t know, so we don’ t know,” he said.
He argued that the belief in an afterlife is a clear function of wish fulfillment, and has also been twisted over the centuries by religious despots to control and condemn others. He threw in an English Calvinist ditty to prove that point then pivoted to quote Hamlet at length — from memory — to show how death amounts to “annihilation.”
And he dismissed the idea, which Wolpe defended, that the thousands of reports of near-death experiences point to a spiritual realm beyond this one.
“I would say that was almost wrong by definition, because it’s a near-death experience. It means he didn’t die,” Hitchens said to raucous applause. “If someone is reported dead on Tuesday, and you see them on Friday, the obvious conclusion is that the initial report is mistaken.”
As the debate wound down, Harris seemed to converge with the rabbis in his understanding that there is no proof of an afterlife, but good reason for believing in it.
“There needs to be an afterlife,” Harris said, “or at least a profession of belief in the afterlife, to give us something to say at the most difficult moments in life to others who are losing someone or who have lost someone, to give us something to say that the atheist doesn’t have.”
Hitchens resisted to the end. “When I speak of annihilation,” he said, “I mean just that: The screen goes blank.”
To conclude, I decided to ask a question for which there would be an answer. I asked Hitchens how he’s feeling.
“The short answer is it’s a bit too early to say,” he said. “But who can’t say that? No one’s ever a breath away from the end. And we’re born into a losing struggle, and we all knew that, or we should have from the beginning. It’s just that I have to think about it a bit more.”
Video files of the conversation, will be posted shortly. Below are selected quotes:
David Wolpe on Religion and Fact:
“All religions see human beings as having a sacred destiny. And these are truth claims, but they are outside the realm of science. Science can’t decide whether there is in fact a sacred desitiny to your life. It doesn’t ask those kind of questions or give those kind of answers. Religion does. The day that you say that all of religion is all for nothing because it says in Genesis the world was created in seven days and we know that’s not true, then you throw out the very serious and comprehensive shared questions of human life and meaning that really really matter to the way people live, and that you ought not to do.”
Christopher Hitchens on Past Lives:
“People always seem to think in their past lives they were a princess or a charioteer. It’s always as real to them as the rest of their pathetic lives are. [near death experiences] is subjective and it’s wish fulfilling and it doesn’t count.
“I’m surprised we haven’t got to wish fulfillment yet. Freud in The Future of an Illusion says that the connection between our desires and our beliefs in the case of the afterlife is so obvious, it’s mankind’s oldest and most common dread. Maybe we could duck the fate that appears to be in store for us. It’s unlike any belief that Sam and I can offer you. We cannot promise you things of this kind as religion always has to people. It doesn ‘t make us morally superior. And we’re not particularly happy with what we propose, which is overwhelmingly likely that annihilation and extinction await us. It’s just that the weight of evidence seems that way.”
“[Diniesh deSouza argues,] ‘I can see why people would want heaven, but why would they want hell?’ In other words why would a wish fulfiller invent the inferno? Well, I think that’s pretty obvious: It’s for other people to go to. There a very old rhyme among English Calvinists: We are the pure and chosen few/ And all the rest be damned/There’s room enough in hell for you/We don’t want heaven crammed.”
“When we talk about wish fulfillment, we’re talking about the very unpleasant primate speciies to which we belong and the self interested fantasies it will continue to generate.”
Brad Artson on the Afterlife:
“For many of us hope in an afterlife grounds us and gives us direction. And the notion that my grandmother and I are not eternally separate is a source of great and abiding comfort to me.’
Sam Harris on the Afterlife and Science:
“Science is not in principal committed to the idea that there is no afterlife, or that the mind is endemic to the brain. Science is completey open to whatever in fact is true; and if it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain by virtue of ectoplasm or something else we don’t understand, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding if in fact it could be discovered, and there are several ways it in fact could be discovered. The problem is there are very good ways to think it’s not true.”
Wolpe v. Hitchens on Near Death Experiences
“Eight million people have reported NDE since 1992 according to Gallup Poll. Many report no longer having a fear of death. Do I say that this is proof there’s an afterlife? My answer is. no…but. u Is there something you learn from experience that is not reducible to intellection? Someone who has had a near death experience is saying to us, I actually learned something from the experience that you can’t reduce to this is some kind of trick that we don’t understand. I’m not willing to dismiss it with a few laughs and say that all the million sof people who’ve had this experience and say that it gave them important information about life are wrong and foolish.”
Christopher Hitchens: “How does the 8 million stand up against the people who say they’ve been inseminated by UFOs?”
David Wolpe: “I suspect there’s overlap. .. Does that mean the experience isn’t real to them?”
Christopher Hitchens: “It means their experience is real to them, all I ask is that thyey keep it to themselves.”
Christopher Hitchens on What Illness Has Taught Him:
” It fractionally increases my contempt for the false consolation element of religion and my dislike for the dictatorial part of it. It’s considered perfectly normal in this society to approach dying unbelievers who you don’t know and ask now have you changed your mind. That’s considered almost a polite question. ….They’ve tried it on me when I’ve been very ill in my hospital bed and don’t have quite the vinegar I’d like to have had. What if Sam and I were to form a corps of people who were to go around to religious hospitals, which is what happens in reverse, and say, ‘Did you say you were Catholic? Well look you may only have a few days left, you don’t have to live them as a serf you know. Just recognize that was all bullshit, the priests have been cheating you and I guarantee you would feel better.’ I don’t think that’s very ethical. I think that’s in the breach of taste. But if it’s in the name of God, it has a social license. Well fuck that.”
Sam Harris on the Need for an Afterlife:
“I think we can concede however that there needs to be an afterlife, or at least a profession of belief in the afterlife, to give us something to say at the most diffocult moments in life to others who are losing someone or who have lost someone, to give us something to say that the atheist doesn’t have. Which we need to say to someone who has lost their child. It is very consoling.”
Sam Harris: “Slipping into death may feel just as satisfying as slipping into sleep.”
Christopher Hitchens: “Half my sex life has been lived when I was unconscious. More than half. When I speak of annihulation I mean just that the screen goes blank.”
Christopher Hitchens on Judaism:
“Someone who has said there is no afterlife has said they’re not a Christian or a Muslim. And I have found that harder to make that sort of blanket remark of Judaism….
Ever since Sonoza it seems to me the Jewish people, having been their fault to develop monotheism in the first place, have become the fist to transcend it. It seems to be latent in the Jewish demand to ask questions.”
Christopher Hitchens on How He’s Feeling:
“The short answer is it’s a bit too early to say. But who can’t say that? No one’s ever a breath away from the end. And we’re born into a losing struggle, and we all knew that or we should from the beginning. It’s just that I have to think about it a bit more.”