Thursday, April 22, 2010

Watch out for this mistake

From a review of All About “Heaven”: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, by Lisa Miller, Newsweek's religion correspondent
...[T]here is an unthinking "respect" automatically accorded to religious ideas that throttles our ability to think clearly about these questions. Miller's book – after being a useful exposition of these ideas – swiftly turns itself into a depressing illustration of this. She describes herself as a "professional sceptic", but she is, in fact, professionally credulous. Instead of trying to tease out what these fantasies of an afterlife reveal about her interviewees, she quizzes everyone about their heaven as if she is planning to write a Lonely Planet guide to the area, demanding more and more intricate details. She only just stops short of demanding to know what the carpeting will be like. But she never asks the most basic questions: where's your evidence? Where are you getting these ideas from? These questions are considered obvious when we are asking about any set of ideas, except when it comes to religion, when they are considered to be a slap in the face.

Of course there's plenty of proof that the idea of heaven can be comforting, or beautiful – but that doesn't make it true. The difference between wishful thinking and fact-seeking is something most six-year-olds can grasp, yet Miller – and, it seems, the heaven-believing majority – refuse it here. Yes, I would like to see my dead friends and relatives again. I also would like there to be world peace, a million dollars in my current account, and for Matt Damon to ask me to marry him. If I took my longing as proof they were going to happen, you'd think I was deranged.

"Rationalist questions are not helpful," announces one of her interviewees – a professor at Harvard, no less. This seems to be Miller's view too. She stresses that to believe in heaven you have to make "a leap of faith" – but in what other field in life do we abandon all need for evidence? Why do it in one so crucial to your whole sense of existence? And if you are going to "leap" beyond proof, why leap to the Christian heaven? Why not convince yourself you are going to live after death in Narnia, or Middle Earth, for which there is as much evidence? She doesn't explain: her arguments dissolve into a feel-good New Age drizzle.


The probligo said...

I think that I can sympathise with Miller, and at the same time suggest that it is also why there must be some caution in reading this, and for that matter any other similar, book.

Rather than the reviewer's use of "unthinking respect" as the basis for his criticism I would have given a whole-hearted "YEA" if he had described the "respect" as "cultural conditioning".

I find myself doing it from time to time, and I admit that it is a very difficult thing to avoid.

I was raised in a Judeo/Christian centred community; my family were "kind-of" Christian by default rather than espousing another belief; the law is based on "Christian" principles; and so on...

The consequence is that anything I write or say on religion, whether about Christian or any other belief, is to some extent beggared by that up-bringing.

Even worse would it be if Miller has used her "slant" on the book's subject to give it appeal and sell to a wider audience. That is just commercialisation of her belief.

On reflection, I think that reading the review has been sufficient to reveal the "truth" of the book. So, it is one I shall not be reading.

Al said...

The interesting thing is, Amazon wouldn't let me attach my money-making code to the book. Apparently they don't believe in "just make sure you spell it right."

I probably just breached the TOS.

T. F. Stern said...

Dan Brown's book, The Last Symbol was a lot more fun.

Al said...

Does he have another book out? I was just at the book store last night and didn't see it.

The probligo said...

"The Lost Symbol" appeared last year. Reviews down this way rated it an even bigger waste of time and money than "Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons".

If you like mysticism, conspiracy and are anti-freemasons it should be right up your alley.

I don't think he has written his last symbol yet :D

Al said...

Oh, it's all BS, but it's fun BS.