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The pull of 'heaven': Even some atheists believe in afterlife

The pull of 'heaven': Even some atheists believe in afterlife

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Michael Shermer has written a number of books about science, rationalism, pseudoscience, superstitions, Darwin and evolution. The publisher lists “Heavens on Earth” under the category of science, and indeed, Shermer takes a skeptical view of human life after death.

As he notes in his introduction, 108 billion people have lived and died on this earth between 50,000 B.C. and last year, and not one has come back to tell us about the afterlife. (He doesn’t get into the New Testament story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.)

A reader who believes fervently in the existence of God and the reward of an afterlife for a life well lived probably will not be moved by Shermer’s research and extended argument, which is, basically, that one’s happiness in one’s lifetime is all the reward one gets.

There is no afterlife, no heaven, no payoff for good behavior, no punishment for bad behavior. Not pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. No flaming pit of hell.

Shermer calculates that 7 percent of all human beings who have lived are alive today.

“Of those 100.5 billion people who have come and gone, not one of them has returned to confirm the existence of an afterlife, at least not to the high evidentiary standards of science,” he writes. “This is the reality of the human condition. Memento mori — ‘Remember that you have to die.’”

Many of us can be quite uncomfortable with this fact. Yet this book is filled with interesting surveys and anecdotes that delve much more deeply into the matter of life after death.

Shermer quotes various polls (Gallup has been polling on this question for 20 years) that show between 72 percent and 83 percent of Americans believe in heaven. A Pew poll, he notes, found that 95 percent of Mormons believe heaven exists.

Even atheists and agnostics, at least some, want to live on after their mortal life is spent. Shermer refers to a 2014 survey by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture of 15,738 Americans between the ages of 18 and 60 that found 32 percent of those who called themselves nonbelievers thought “there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death.”

He cites this tidbit: 6 percent of atheists and agnostics also believe in the bodily resurrection of the dead (compared to 37 percent overall). He concludes that one “may believe in an afterlife but not God. Or both. Or neither.”

This is fascinating stuff, and by scientific standards, there are grounds upon which to dispute them.

Shermer tackles the so-called near-death experience.

Such events, he reminds us, are by “people who are not actually dead. They’re only near death, a state in which the brain may undergo stress, be deprived of oxygen, release neurochemicals that can mimic the hallucinatory trips of drug users, or any one of the dozens of anomalous neurological anomalies, abnormalities, or disorders that have been documented by neurologists and neuroscientists. ... the brain is capable of a wide variety of experiences depending on the immediate conditions and one’s personal life trajectory, all of which are necessarily unique but no less caused by internal brain states.”

So goes this book, with many reputable sources cited.

Even death row inmates in Texas, facing their final hour, refer to life after death and their belief in Jesus. This reveals much about the human spirit.

“I love you Renee, I am gonna carry your heart and always carry my heart in your heart. I am ready,” wrote Richard Masterson, who was put to death on Jan. 20, 2016.

“Into your hands Oh Lord, I commend my spirit. Amen.” — Peter Miniel, Oct. 6, 2004.

And this parting thought from Troy Kunkle, executed Jan. 25, 2005: “I love you and I will see all of you in Heaven. I love you very much. Praise Jesus.”

We are left where we began: those fundamental questions about why we live, why we die and what does it all mean?

Shermer likes the words of Diana Nyad who, on her fifth try, swam from Cuba to Florida when she was 64. She was talking about keeping on after failure.

An atheist, Nyad explained to Oprah Winfrey what kept her pushing on to persist in her final effort.

She referred to the billions of people “who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.”

Shermer has plenty of advice for nonbelievers and skeptics. The essence of what he writes, though, is that life itself — experiencing life — is its own reward.

“Given all we know about the universe and the laws of nature,” he writes in conclusion, “that is the most any of us can reasonably hope for. Fortunately it is the soul of life. It is heaven on earth.”

Repps Hudson is a St. Louis writer and an adjunct journalism instructor.

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