Magi Mike's Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Theology

The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life After Death

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Heaven may not be what you imagine

Because every one of us will die, most of us would like to know what—if anything—awaits us afterward, not to mention the fate of lost loved ones. Given the nearly universal vested interest we personally have in deciding this question in favor of an afterlife, it is no surprise that the vast majority of books on the topic affirm the reality of life after death without a backward glance. But the evidence of our senses and the ever-gaining strength of scientific evidence strongly suggest otherwise. Until recently emotion and emotional processing have been largely neglected by experimental psychology and neuroscience more generally. Emotion has adaptive and biological value for humans and other animals, and substantial psychological and neuroscientific evidence suggests that each emotion is localized in specific neural structures, and so souls or spirits are not needed to explain emotions or emotional processing held to be distinctive of a soul.

In The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life after Death, Michael Martin and Keith Augustine collect a series of contributions that redress this imbalance in the literature by providing a strong, comprehensive, and up-to-date casebook of the chief arguments against an afterlife all in one place. Divided into four separate sections, this essay collection opens with a broad overview of the issues, as contributors consider the strongest available evidence as to whether or not we survive death—in particular the biological basis of all mental states and their grounding in brain activity that ceases to function at death. Next contributors consider a host of conceptual and empirical difficulties that face the various ways of “surviving” death—from bodiless minds to bodily resurrection to any form of posthumous survival. Then essayists turn to internal inconsistencies between traditional theological conceptions of an afterlife—Heaven, Hell, karmic rebirth—and widely held ethical principles central to the belief systems undergirding those notions. In the last section, authors offer critical evaluations of the main types of evidence for an afterlife.

Fully interdisciplinary, The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life after Death brings together a variety of fields of research to make that case, including cognitive neuroscience, philosophy of mind, personal identity, philosophy of religion, moral philosophy, psychical research, and anomalistic psychology. As the definitive casebook of arguments against life after death, this collection is required reading for any instructor, researcher, and student in philosophy, religious studies, and theology. It is sure to raise provocative issues new to readers, regardless of background, from those who believe fervently in the reality of an afterlife to those who do not or are undecided on the matter.

The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life After Death, Keith Augustine & Michael Martin (eds), Rowman & Littlefield (2015)

Written by mikemagee

13 April, 2015 at 2:01 pm

“Scientifically we can neither prove nor disprove God or any of his actions.”

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Scientifically, or any other way, we cannot prove anything that is imaginary or simply a thought. Centaurs, vampires, werewolves, philosophers’ stones, elixirs of life, fairies, demons, angels, gods, God—such things can be imagined, but cannot be proved because they are purely imaginary, figments, and so do not exist in reality to leave behind any evidence for them. The absence of evidence for them is evidence! It is evidence against them.

A basis of science, a feature without which it could not work, is skepticism, one does not postulate anything for which there is no evidence. Its opposite is credulity, the inclination to believe anything on the least of evidence or none! Related to skepticism is the principle of Ockham’s Razor, or Parsimony, which says that one postulates only what is necessary and feasible—one does not glibly invent things. Using these principles science has no need to hypothesize God. Nor does it have to disprove God, an entity for which it has no need, any more than it has to disprove centaurs or elixirs of life, etc, or needs them.

An agnostic is deliberately wavering, wavering out of choice and not reason. To claim there is no evidence either way, is simply to say there is no evidence, and so to be scientific and skeptical the postulate of God has to be rejected until convincing evidence forces a reassessment. It is impossible to be simultaneously a scientist and a believer in God, so long as science cannot accommodate credulity. Credulous science becomes religion!

Moreover, if God existed and has the effect on the material world that believers think He has, He is necessarily leaving evidence behind. Science ought to be able to detect it. As Victor Stenger shows, nothing so far suggests anywhere in the universe that we have checked out that requires a God to explain it. Science is highly successful at explaining things without the hypothesis of God. So, if God exists, He is not manifestly changing the world in any discernible way. Worship and prayer are having no effect.

Of course, a purely mental God, a purely imaginary or psychological phenomenon, can effect one. It is a form of autosuggestion. That is probably why people are able to convince themselves that God does answer prayers. It is the Placebo God.

Written by mikemagee

5 May, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Whatever happened to loving one another?

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That is the question the Rev Howard Bess (email), a retired American Baptist minister, asks in the Wasila, Alaska, Frontiersman.

He comes to it from a discussion of the 45 pastors of large Presbyterian churches who wrote an open letter with a litany of the problems of their declining church, and their proposed solutions. Besides Presbyterians, United Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Mormons and Baptists of every kind, including Southern Baptists are, Rev Bess says, losing members. Baptisms are down by half from their peak last century, if Presbyterians are typical.

For the 45 ministers who are speaking out, the key issues are about theology and basic beliefs. Princeton Theological Seminary, related to the Presbyterian denomination, from its theological debates gave birth to American Fundamentalism. The Christian Faith was refined into five fundamentals. The 45 Presbyterian ministers seem to be beckoning the entire denomination into fundamentalism.

One aspect of the Princeton debates was the call from modern church scholars that the bible be read and interpreted as a book written by human beings in a historical context. Neither God nor the Holy Ghost sat down and wrote out the bible perfectly in a perfect place, before delivering it into the cesspit of the material world, where it miraculously remained perfect. Whatever role theirs was in the writing of the bible, it was done through imperfect human hands. Any reasonable Christian must agree, but many if not most of them are not reasonable, and they insisted the bible, as the divine word of God, could not be read critically or historically. It just was.

The debaters also considered Darwin’s approach towards a theory explaining evolution. The same unreasoning churchmen, as many still do, saw it to be declaring the biblical creation stories as false, and therefore Christianity itself—dependent as it is on the myth of Adam’s Fall. Howard Bess sensibly writes:

Evolution speaks of the ongoing, developing nature of life, but even more, evolution speaks to our understanding of God. All static understandings of God goes away. Even God is evolving and changing.

He goes on to point out that we all are in the communications age. The internet is bringing more and more people out of isolation. The events in Cairo perhaps demonstrate it best. It means that more than ever…

everyone is our neighbor.

We can all talk to everyone else. The letter of the Presbyterian clergy entered the network and can now be read by anyone interested. These Presbyterian clergymen seem intent on forming their own purer version of Presbyterianism, united in theology and practice. First, though, they have to get some churches. People might swap denominations but the churches themselves, the hardware, belong to the parent denomination as a corporate entity. The dissident vicars therefore include among their proposals that all property be given to the local congregations!

Rev Bess was left wondering how how correct theology and the ownership of church property became so important to Christians, putative followers of the words and deeds of Christ.

I thought following Jesus was about loving, serving, giving, kindness, and peace making.

Maybe the reverend Bess is not saying openly that the God of US Christians is not God or Jesus Christ. But one infers that Jesus is a nosegay to hide the smell of their true God, capitalism—the Mammon of the bible—who has tempted them into the selfishness, greed and acquisitiveness of the age, without their ever knowing. The boiling anger of fanatical fundamentalists is a result of their own unexpressed guilt at their abandonment of the uncomplicated human morality of Christ.

Their rage is to mask their subliminal knowledge that they have abandoned their God and every principle he told them they must hold to, to be rewarded. For Christian belief makes zero sense if salvation is not a reward, but simply an automatic perquisite of those who decide to award themselves it by calling themselves saints!

Indeed, to return to theology, salvation for anyone is not, and cannot be, certain, for if it were, God would not be omnipotent! Even a genuine saint cannot be certain of entering God’s kingdom, and since humility was essential to Christ, according to the gospels, it follows that anyone who expects to be saved is assuredly not. Those people have forgotten that the first are last, and the last first. Reverend Bess seems to be one of the few Christians who remember some Christian principles.

The Evolution of Faith

Written by mikemagee

11 February, 2011 at 8:09 pm

How the Jewish and Christian Religions Separated

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Dr Lindsay Wilson, Academic Dean and Lecturer in Old Testament, Ridley, Melbourne, has briefly reviewed for The Melbourne Anglican The Separation of Early Christianity from Judaism, by Marianne J Dacy (Amberst, New York: $119.99). Dacy is a Catholic.

He says her analysis is largely an historical one. That has to be good, for many Christians think fundamental theological differences between the Jewish and Christian religions were the reason for the separation. It is not so. The Jews, many Christians say, rejected God and murdered His son, so they were the people of the Devil, abandoning God, even though He had declared they were His Chosen Ones. Dacy does not think such theological factors had much, if anything, to do with it, and she puts little emphasis on them. Her thesis is that Christianity became Gentile not because of carefully argued theology, but largely because of the increasing number of Gentile converts, the marginalising of practising Jewish Christians, and the change in the balance of power in the Roman Empire.

Surely she is right. Christ was a Jew, and despite the supposed perfidy of the Jews, all the first Christians were Jews, though many were Hellenized Jews. It was through the increasing preponderance of Hellenized Diaspora Jews in Christianity outside of Palestine that gentile godfearers, mainly women at first, were drawn in, then men once the Pauline faction had abrogated the need for circumcision. Jewish Christians seem to have fought with the Romans in the war of 66-70 AD, and sympathized with the ambitions of Bar Kochba, while refusing to recognize him as messiah—how could they—and being unwilling to actually fight.

Even so it was in the period between the two Jewish wars that the Christians outside Judaea began to separate themselves from Jews generally. When Christianity was accepted by Constantine, things began to get harder for the Jews, as Christian prejudice against them was able to be expressed, and eventually the privileges given to Jews by Julius Caesar were lifted by Theodosius, and Jews began to be maligned like all the other non-Christian religions, and their synagogues smashed just as temples to the classical gods of Rome had been. Dr Wilson truly writes:

One of the striking features of this story was to see Christians, when they rose to political and social prominence (fourth to fifth centuries) using the law to impose Christianity and discriminate against other religions. This is the very practice used by Islam today, and widely condemned by Christians. There is value in reading church history!

Wilson is pointing out Christian hypocrisy, with the appropriate degree of coyness Christians feel is necessary when they ever so politely criticize others of their co-religionists, however objectionable their behavior might have been, or still be!

He continues that the rift between Christianity and Judaism was accelerated by the rise of Christianity to a position of political and social privilege. Once Christians had power, they no longer bleated about persecution like that they had received at the hands of a few emperors anxious that the decline of the empire curiously paralleled the growth of Christianity within it. Now they could mercilessly attack pagans, then Jews, then even each other—over metaphysical, nay mythical, doctrinal matters concerning the nature, substance and body of Christ.

Christianity had already declined beyond a savagery that had not been seen in civilized society for a very long time, but which was to persist for over a thousand more years of Christian darkness, before the glimmers of the Enlightenment were seen.

Written by mikemagee

9 February, 2011 at 7:55 pm

The Principle of Falsification

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The Rev Dr Paul Sheppy of Reading objects to the claim that, while science determines truth from falsehood by experiment and maths by self consistency, there is no basis for determining theology’s assertions. In a letter to the press, he said it is “the sort of knock-down argument that the average first year student of philosophy of religion should be able to demolish in fairly short order”. His reason is that the “verification” or “falsification” principle is itself incapable of verification or falsification and is in it own terms, therefore, meaningless. He continues to say that Wittgenstein showed many universes of discourse exist, each with its own grammar, syntax and logic, and rules cannot sensibly be moved from one such universe to another. So:

the application of the rules of the natural sciences is unlikely to work with disciplines that make extensive use of metaphor. “Bill’s a brick” is not a scientific statement. As science, it is either untrue or meaningless. But Bill is a brick, and very fine member of my congregation. Moreover, I see the truth of what he believes by my experience and observation of him!

The reverend doctor needs to go back to school and study a little more, preferably in a universe that demonstrably makes sense. The principles of scientific method—including the falsification principle—have indeed been verified because they are subject to constant falsification, and have not yet been thus falsified. The criterion is simple, and, indeed, biblical (Dt 18:22). God explained how a false prophet could be discriminated from a true one. The prophecies of the false prophet were not true. They were not verified in practice. It is the same as the principle he attempts to lambast, and, incidentally, on this God given criterion, the Christian god, Christ, is a false prophet.

Science validates itself by selecting hypotheses that can be demonstrated not to be false—they work in practice. It is a criterion that was good enough for God but is not good enough for his theologians whose true vocation is obfuscation and mysticism to keep themselves employed by gullibles who cannot discriminate fact from fiction.

As for “Bill is a brick” not being scientific, we must concur, but there is no reason at all why it should not be. Science is a part of human thought, and each of us builds it up from infancy as a succession of increasingly complex metaphors based on our experience. Science consists of these metaphors, concepts like magnitude as height, understanding as grasping, time as a journey or a landscape, and so on. There is no fundamental reason why “Bill is a brick” should not be meaningful scientifically providing that the metaphors are defined and Bill’s brickness is falsifiable.

What is the basis, then, for the theological claim that we live on when we have ostensibly died?

More on Judaism and Christianity at

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Written by mikemagee

3 March, 2008 at 5:15 pm