There’s a new religion debate online featuring Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Bradley Shavit-Artson. It’s framed as a discussion of the afterlife. I have watched a lot of debates about religion, but this is really one of the best. This is because what we actually have here are two atheists, Hitchens and Harris, debating two men who don’t have the slightest idea what they really believe in or don’t believe in.
In fact, as far as I can tell, the rabbis actually reject every traditional idea about God and religion. Instead, they substitute them with partial textual readings, a smattering of skeptical Jewish precedents, vagaries uttered by the sages in their more cantankerous moods and their own emotions. And they’re not too successful, I should add. Frankly, I can’t see how they manage to keep it up without becoming strained by intellectual exhaustion.
The core of their convictions (to the extent that they can articulate a conviction) is that they are certain that we are all made of more than “stuff.” The source of their discomfort is that they are unable to cope with the reality that we’re made of the same stuff as leaves, bugs and bacteria. And when we die, our fate is more or less that of leaves, bugs and bacteria. I guess they feel that this somehow demotes humanity.
Watching this debate while knowing that Hitchens needs the comforting reassurance of a happy afterlife right now more than the rest of us, reminds me that we don’t have to give up our intellectual integrity in the face of death. We’re all going to die. Everything that has ever lived will fall to death. We humans don’t have a special essence that protects us from this. Our mind (which is our brain which is our “soul”) isn’t going to survive this life in any form whatsoever. We’re not going to heaven and we’re not going to become one with any kind of super-consciousness present in the universe.Wolpe spoke about shoveling dirt in his father’s grave and finding solace in the fact that what was in the coffin was not really his father. It’s true that he experienced his father as more than just a human shell. But that was his father in the box. His father is nowhere else, except (and from this he can take some comfort) in his own memories. Like all forms of life, humans are recycled right back into the environment. Until the day comes that our consciousness can be downloaded into a sophisticated artificial environment (and that’s only speculative science fiction), when we’re gone we’re really, really gone.
This is why secular humanism proposes that we seize each day of our extraordinary lives. We have already won an against-all-odds lottery by coming into this world and we should enjoy it and infuse it with our own unique meaning. We should also work hard to elevate the dignity and well being of all human beings so that they can enjoy their lives, too.
As I mentioned above, the only plausible afterlife is the memories we create with our loved ones and others. Especially since I have had children, I have made it my goal every day to earn that version of the afterlife. I won’t be the one enjoying it, but I’m certain that it will provide some measure of consolation for my daughters.
Maybe this is not as cheering as the idea of a posthumous personal existence, but it has the merit of being true.