The bottom line for everyone

I am one of those congenitally rude people who prefers — nay, needs — to carry on conversations with casual acquaintances about the great taboo topics, religion and politics. Luckily, many other people these days share this flaw, so I can usually find an outlet for this urge.

At work we have a few topics of conversation around the lunch table that we return to over and over. Movies, television, celebrity gossip, celebrity sightings. Two people are knowledgeable enough to talk about sports while the rest of us sit and stare. We get a lot of mileage out of politics, since there’s just the right amount of disagreement around the table for interesting discussions but not enough for serious heat.

And we’ve done religion. We have a secular-raised Jew who now is into some kind of New Agey self-help stuff, a couple of somewhat committed Catholics, a Korean evangelical, an agnostic, and me, the atheist who was raised Mormon. This is actually a situation in which even I am wary of misunderstandings and hurt feelings, so I prefer it when we keep things light: the Joseph Smith episode of “South Park”; someone’s dad’s recent conversion to Catholicism, which he treats with the enthusiasm of a new hobby; memories of mean nuns or getting drunk on Communion wine.

The other day, though, New Age Guy was in the mood to stir up controversy, so he started asking everybody about their beliefs about an afterlife. Actually, he didn’t ask everybody. He asked me and the Korean evangelical. She’s a very sweet person and very religious, and she said she believes in heaven, which is a beautiful place where her dead grandparents are building a mansion for the whole family. New Age guy said (perhaps disingenuously, since I remember him saying a while ago that he believes in some kind of reincarnation business) that he doesn’t know what happens after death, but he definitely believes our spirit or “energy” continues on after us.

I don’t pull punches when I’m asked what I believe, although in this context I was sure to keep my tone level and unaccusing: I believe that your thoughts, emotions, memories, personality, consciousness — all the stuff that makes you you — are all products of physical processes that happen in your body, mostly in your brain, and that when those physical processes stop with death, you (in the relevant sense of the term) cease to be.

New Age Guy knew this would be my answer. He and I have an ongoing argument, in which he tries to convince me that I need to realize that we each create our own God who in turn imbues our personal world with spiritual significance (or something like that) and I try to convince him that I’m enjoying things just fine without all that, thank you very much, and besides it sounds solipsistic and incoherent.

What was interesting in this lunch discussion was that New Age Guy, assuming (probably correctly) that the audience generally favored the side of the Afterlife against the side of When You’re Dead You’re Dead (the agnostic only comes in two days a week and was absent from this discussion), began to press his argument by offering evidence of the existence of some thing besides the body that is responsible for consciousness.

“How do you explain the differences between small children, even babies, who have such distinct personalities when they are born?” I’d actually heard this one before. Mormons believe in a pre-mortal existence as well as an afterlife and often attribute the personality quirks of young children to this pre-existence, as they call it.

But of course the genetic and pre-natal endowments of babies are quite different and can easily account for differences in personality and temperament — without resorting to positing some kind of spirit that enters the body with a ready-made personality. “Your evidence doesn’t count for your theory because it can also be explained perfectly well by mine,” I told New Age Guy. If the only evidence we had to explain was personality variations among small children, we’d have no basis for deciding between the spirit theory and the it’s-all-physical theory.

He then switched tacks: “How can you enjoy life if you don’t think there’s something after death?” This struck me as an odd question. I responded that of course I enjoyed life — that all the wonderful things of life, from pleasurable sensations to lasting relationships, happen in this life, not in some great beyond. Maybe he meant to ask how I could enjoy life with the looming threat of my own complete annihilation — and it’s true, I’m afraid of my own death, although I’m getting over that and it certainly doesn’t keep me from enjoying life.

But I think he meant something that many people seem to believe, that somehow the fact of an afterlife gives meaning to life, and that life without this kind of meaning is bleak and unenjoyable. It’s true that I don’t believe there’s any particular meaning to life, but I also fail to see how an afterlife would give life meaning, unless by “meaning” you mean something like the goal of getting into heaven. But this seems pretty weak — the meaning of life is to get some geezer’s approval at the Pearly Gates? — and in any case, New Age Guy doesn’t believe in a literal heaven, so I have no idea how he thinks an afterlife gives life meaning or makes it enjoyable. But it’s a common belief, I think.

What was interesting about the conversation for me was how the two of us could look at the same set of facts and see them indicating completely different conclusions. Years ago I wrote my senior thesis about the difference between religious believers and nonbelievers in terms of the different ways they spoke of significance and evidence, the different rules they had for warranting claims. I made an argument heavily indebted to Wittgenstein that to a large extent it is accepting and using these different rules that makes you a believer or an unbeliever. And here we were, me and New Age Guy, having a discussion in which the very rules of assertability and warrant were unstable. He saw significance where I saw none; I saw evidence where he saw “science turned into its own religion.”

This is me being charitable. Being uncharitable, I’d say he had a very poor grasp of what it means to give evidence for an assertion and also an extremely poor grasp of the basic scientific evidence for a physical basis for the mind — like, for example, how when someone gets a part of their brain taken away in an accident, their personality changes or they lose a certain set of cognitive faculties or whatever, but if you take away someone’s soul, they’re pretty much the same as before, just better at playing blues guitar or fiddle or whatever. But I suspect that he was so bad at providing evidence in part because it was so unimaginable to him that his vague New Age spirit-energy theory was wrong and the it’s-all-physical theory was correct.

I suppose we need another lunch table conversation.

24 responses to “The bottom line for everyone”

  1. Scotty says:

    I so with I had the ability to believe in something that extends past me writing this on a laptop while sipping my morning coffee. Congratulations to all that can; you are the big winners in life, as I see it. I just don’t have the imagination, nor do I think we’re interesting enough as a species to warrant our own deity.

    UFOs, now we’re talkin’.

    …but if you take away someone’s soul, they’re pretty much the same as before, just better at playing blues guitar or fiddle or whatever.

    This line made me laugh. Thanks.

  2. Scotty says:

    Sorry, the ‘with’ should be ‘wish’.

  3. I just read it with a lithp, Scotty.

  4. ks says:

    I’d love to think through a response more fully but I don’t really have time right now, so I’ll just offer a quick comment to this highly thought provoking post. First, I’d have to say that we are pretty much on the same page about all of this religion/belief stuff. I find that I take great comfort in learning that other people share my general lack of need for beliefs in the what-comes-next-there-in-after-heaven-vs-hell issue. That said, do I (and possibly also you, Dave,) possess some sort of need to have my own lack of faith reaffirmed by a similar lack of faith in others? Hmmmm. Well, anyway, it’s good to know others are annoyed that people care what they believe (and don’t believe), and wonder why others believe what they believe while they themselves remain perfectly happy to live free of structured guidelines for a mortal, and a post-mortal, existence.

    Perhaps too off topic or too personal, I am curious about the role you think your Mormon upbringing had on your atheism. (For all Jack- and former Mormons out there…)

  5. lane says:

    “but if you take away someone’s soul, they’re pretty much the same as before, just better at playing blues guitar or fiddle or whatever.”

    This was a great line.

    I think Scott is right about the imagination being a key element in belief. I was saddled with “faith” for years and years, and to some degree still am. Now it’s more like a longing to believe rather than belief itself.

    It all stems from the way religion, any of it, organized or not, really is just a HUGE act of imagination.

    Imagination is a great thing. It’s one of the finest of human characteristics. But so is rational empiricism. Mingling the two makes people uncomfortable.

    But that’s all we’ve got.

  6. Ruben Mancillas says:

    From a Kirk Douglas interview:

    Maybe when you die you come before a big, bearded man on a big throne, and you say, “Is this heaven?” And he says, “Heaven? You just came from there.”

  7. LT says:

    Nice, Dave…Keep practicing your Vipassana.

  8. Dave says:

    ks, I talked about how my Mormonism turned into atheism in another piece, “Respecting Believers,” I think.

  9. Dave says:

    Also, you make a good point about how it’s good to know others share a similar outlook on these kinds of issues. One reason I personally talk about this kind of stuff with people is that it’s simply interesting to me. But most of my friends have a similar secular outlook, and I suspect it’s partly just because we understand each other and can learn from each other’s perspectives because they’re similar but not identical. I was telling the story I relate in the post to A White Bear the other day and she started talking about an author she teaches who advocates a kind of decadence in the face of mortality. I don’t share that author’s views completely, but we both face the problem of what to do with your life if you believe it’s finite, and I was happy to discuss the problem with AWB.

  10. ks says:

    Dave, I just read your piece, “Respecting Believers,” and found it equally interesting and moving. Thanks for the reference. My favorite line segment: “If I were a Calvinist sort of atheist…” Brilliant.

  11. Jeremy says:

    As a non-believer, I’m always annoyed by the (believers’) argument you mention here: that, somehow, my life would be more meaningful if I believed in an afterlife. In fact, isn’t the opposite more likely? Isn’t life more meaningful, more interesting even, if this is all I’ve got, all I have to look forward to? Shouldn’t I enjoy it more, knowing that there’s nothing better coming along? And isn’t it also more selfless to be a good person (not that I am) in spite of the fact that there is no looming threat of divine retribution keeping me in line?

    This debate makes me think of Wallace Steven’s poem, “Sunday Morning,” in which the narrator debates these very ideas, the narrator concluding that we can only really experience beauty and love and life if, at the same time, we also know that these things are all fleeting, that death, “the mother of beauty,” is inevitable and, indeed, final. As Stevens says, “Why should [we] give [our] bounty to the dead?”

  12. Jeremy says:

    Also, I wanted to say that I’d hate to be the believer attempting to debate Dave B on the idea of an afterlife… seems like a losing battle right there. While I was reading this post I was all, sigh, poor New Age guy.

  13. trixie says:

    dave is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to debate.
    we differ on the afterlife and jens lekman, but far be it from me to attempt a discussion of either.

  14. lane says:

    To Jeremy’s point.

    To me, Stevens is writing about the transformative nature of art, or any creative act. Kristeva writes about this in some essay “The Black Sun” (perhaps?)

    In the Adam Phillips book “On Flirtation” he deals with Kristeva’s views on depression, loss and the acknowlegdment of death, and their connection to creativity.

    “The mother of beauty” strikes me as connected to Kristeva’s idea.

    I really like that, “why should we . . .”


  15. Dave says:

    Jeremy, that line is awesome. “Why should we give our bounty to the dead?” Beautiful. I’ll read the whole poem when I’m less tired — I have a hard enough time with poetry anyway. (A subject for another post — why I can’t read poetry.)

    I brought the topic up again at lunch today, although we’d spent most of our time hearing from another guy who only comes into the office from time to time and who is afraid of Obama because he thinks Obama is secretly a Muslim and Muslims can’t be trusted to defend the United States.

    It turns out the two Catholics don’t have a strong belief in an afterlife, but they are dualists (believe in some sort of spirit apart from the body). New Age Guy claims to be agnostic about an afterlife but “open minded,” and is definitely a dualist. New Age Guy was again strangely impervious to arguments about the physical basis of thought. Muslim-Obama-Fearing Guy took the opportunity to tell us that Jesus was the only way we could be saved from Hell.

    Yes, this is New York City.

    Jeremy and Trixie, I’m actually not that good at debate. Especially about music — you could school me on Jens.

    Lane, you know I love Adam Phillips. I need to borrow that book.

  16. Natasha says:

    I was raised as a Pegan-Orthodox by home and an atheist by school. After graduation from school, I entered a Christian college for no reason really other than what the current fashion dictated. The school leaders were so extreme in their believes and the execution the believed principals that our not truly formed teenage minds got messed up and most of us either became really religious after school or really screwed up in the head. I personally flew off the handle and promised myself to find the truth on my own. I studied every theory and religion I could get my hands on — from Fuzzy Logic and Objectivism to Islam. I will not bother you with my conclusions of this ten year quest, but there are some things I learned which helped me along the way:
    1.Each believe, religious or not, should be based on solid evidence and the validity of personal experience.
    2.Life is an incredibly amazing gift in every aspect of it.
    3.A human being is a lot more powerful, amazing and intelligent than most people think; and most religions, unfortunately, deflate a person to a mere slave to God Almighty
    4.The desire to be a good person should come from within, trying to be a good person for the sake of getting a ticket into heaven is hypocrisy in its best expression.
    5.Ayn Rand is wrong, not everyone can be self-sufficient, children and elderly people will always need help.
    6.Respecting all believes and believers in all of their denominations and quirks is probably the best thing to do as religious debates rarely lead to valid conclusions… Well, back to my mischievous self, Dave, why didn’t you meditate with your New Age guy? You missed a chance to contact your higher self and, possibly, the knowledge of Akasha which would have told you everything you needed to know about afterlife of the lack thereof :)

  17. Scotty says:

    West Coast What’sup, is more like it.

    Perhaps Tuesday was more ‘super’ for some than others. I am truly embarrassed.

  18. Sam says:

    This discussion reminds me of the quip “God created man in his own image, and man has been returning the favor ever since.”

    Atheists dismiss millions of people’s experiences as “imagination” or “wish fulfillment” while believers denounce atheists as deeply in denial because of guilt, pride, control issues, insecurity, etc. Which side has the better claim? Neither. It would seem agnosticism would be the sweet spot, but somehow no one is content to remain there long.

    It seems best for believers to admit that they choose to believe based on something sketchily personal, and for nonbelievers to admit that they choose their beliefs just as sketchily and personally, and neither to seek to annihilate the other. Religion leaves much to be desired, but so does secularism. Both are mired in personal experience, a thing we do not trust unless its our own, and sometimes not even then.

    I will say that religion claims to offer a personal experience that can be duplicated, “you can know for yourself if this is true” whereas atheism doesn’t hold out any offer of certainty. You do meet people who say “I am certain there is a God, because he spoke to me” but I’ve yet to meet an atheist who says, “I am certain there is no God, because he hasn’t spoken to me.” Atheists must forgo certainty, which makes them agnostics, really and not atheists in the strict sense.

  19. Dave says:

    I will say that religion claims to offer a personal experience that can be duplicated, “you can know for yourself if this is true” whereas atheism doesn’t hold out any offer of certainty.

    I think that’s a particular type of religion — that line sounds specifically Mormon, actually, and plenty of traditions don’t ground religious belief in personal experience. (Maybe all actual believers do, but I doubt that as well — can one of our literature people tell me if Samuel Johnson would be a good counterexample?)

    But yes, religion tends to offer certainty, and the kind of atheism I favor doesn’t give any such assurance. At the lunch table discussion, I was careful to say that I believed an afterlife was “highly unlikely.” To me, it counts in favor of this kind of atheism that it’s comfortable with uncertainty and the absence of meaning — the ascription of meaning and grand structure to the cosmos being, in the end, a particularly grandiose form of wish-fulfillment.

  20. PB says:

    Wow, what a fantastic conversation.
    Dare I say “Great Post!” amid such interesting debate – both in and out of the post.
    I really enjoyed it – near and dear to my agnostic-tinged-with-Mormon-orderly-and-Catholic-mystical-tempered-by-intellectual-cynical heart.

    Our family has recently become completely addicted to this show called Torchwood (I might most certainly write about it at some point), a BBC sci-fi show that is populated by international actors and set in Wales but feels very British. They had two episodes last season where a particular character was either coming back from the dead or dead already but hanging out as a ghost. In both cases the message was: there is nothing after, enjoy it and then it is over. Afterwards we all stared at each other, never having really heard something this definitive on (American) TV. Then we just shrugged. It felt strangely affirming to hear something that would seem so heretical in certain conversations (i.e. family) treated so matter of factly. I agree with what others have said, so many people are waiting – my father calls it, “waiting for their ship to come in” – and in waiting for heaven, waste their lives. As I get older, I get increasing less interested in what may happen and more interested in what is happening now – at least that is what I hope.

    btw, Ayn was wrong?

  21. lane says:

    I was thinking about this post today and it reminded me of the Woody Allen scene in . . . Annie Hall? or Hannah and Her Sisters where he tells the joke:

    “Life is like that joke about those old ladies in the Catskills. One is complaining about the food and the other one says ‘yes, and such small portions!’ Life is like that, full of pain and misery, and it’s all over much too quickly”


  22. Sam says:

    Maybe in the end, being “comfortable without certainty and in the absence of meaning” is the ultimate in faith. What gets a person off those nagging questions once and for all? Maybe its its own form of faith to lay the questions permanently aside and resist seeking for meaning in our being and experiences. To just say “its all a vast meaningless unknowable nothing and hey, I’m okay with that” probably qualifies as a supreme act of faith, or something like faith, if perhaps faith isn’t exactly the right word. Conviction, maybe?

    It seems at least like a major act of self-discipline to stay on that spot without straying into the endless explorations or final destinations most choose. In times of tragedy or trauma, peoples’ beliefs tend to shatter. Believers lose their faith, non-believers “meet Jesus” etc. Do “non-seekers” have something more durable, or are they just as susceptible to tumult I wonder. Can a person stay an open-minded skeptic forever?

  23. Swells says:

    John Banville nails it beautifully: “Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him.”

  24. Dave says:

    Sam — I don’t buy it. Faith has content, as does conviction. “Faith that…” or “conviction that…” Comfort with uncertainty doesn’t have content — it’s an attitude, a lack of angst. Sure, non-seekers sometimes become seekers, or converts. Conversion can happen to anyone when there’s a need — William James was pretty clear about this. But to say that comfortable skepticism is just another form of belief ignores some really important differences, I think.