An Early Ticket To The Afterlife

Question from Douglas:
Do people who commit suicide go to heaven? Just watched the movie “The Discovery” on Netflix.

Answer by SmartLX:
Obviously The Discovery is a science fiction story, not a documentary, but like all good sci-fi it’s intended to provoke people to think about the real world and where we’re headed. Besides, (MILD SPOILERS) where they go in the movie isn’t exactly heaven so it doesn’t inform this question much.

I don’t think people who commit suicide go to heaven, because I don’t think there’s an afterlife, let alone a heaven, for anyone to go to. The identity is destroyed with the shutdown of the brain and it no longer exists to go anywhere.

Regardless, I’m against people committing suicide in most cases because of its straightforward consequences in this world: your own life ends with no possible chance of improving your circumstances or anyone else’s, and lasting anguish can be inflicted on those you leave behind.

I say “most cases” because I’m also in favour of voluntary euthanasia or assisted/accompanied suicide, when a person has reached a measured conclusion that continuing to live is too painful to justify any potential benefits. Organisations like Dignitas do a good job of making the decision and the action carefully considered, rational, compassionate processes with a minimum of drama.

I’m aware of course that religious approaches to this question are very different. If taking life is a sin, then suicide gives one no time to absolve or atone for the sin of taking one’s own life, so the shortcut to heaven is barred. This has a practical religious purpose in both the religious and secular view. For the religious, suicide prevents one from serving the mysterious purpose one’s deity has for one. For anyone on the outside looking in, it’s a simple way of preventing belief in an ideal afterlife from sending a religion’s followers to an early grave and depopulating the religion.

The exception which gives a religious rationale for suicide is sacrifice. If you get something important done by putting yourself in harm’s way, this might very well be your holy purpose, whether to be a martyr who gathers support or to take a lot of unbelievers with you. So really, there are religious reasons both to die and not to die and you can twist it any way you want, which is dangerous.

What About Judaism?

Question from :
Shalom all, I see that you focus on many religions, but haven’t seen anything on Judaism. I wonder what your opinion might be on it, and, if to someone, if the be Torah divine. To me it is, but I’d like to hear any arguments against it, not that I may refute or debate it, but just to “see” what the other side has to offer.

Answer by SmartLX:
There are indeed only a few articles that involve Judaism, simply because not many people writing in identify as Jewish or ask about specifically Jewish topics.

Very little of my perspective on Judaism is unique to Judaism. It’s a theistic religion, reliant on claims of the existence of an interventionist creator god which I don’t think are justified. Nearly all of the Great Big Arguments for gods that I’ve covered can be used to argue for your god just as well as any other, and they have no additional merit when applied to yours.

My perspective on the Torah, as an ex-Christian, is that it’s a subset of the books in the Bible and specifically the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Many of the discussions I’ve had on the divinity and inerrancy of the Bible can be applied to these five books. To approach them from scratch, I don’t think they’re divine because I don’t think there’s a real god to bestow divinity on anything. To argue in the other direction for the existence of the god based on certain discernible qualities of the books is to argue that such qualities are impossible without the influence of a god, which I don’t think is the case.

If you’re looking for specific challenges to the material in the Torah, I’ve occasionally touched on Exodus, and all the stuff on evolution and cosmology has some bearing on Genesis.

Mopping Up After Fátima

Question from Jacob:
Hello, So I think I am finally starting to get over the miracles thing and I would like to thank you Since you played a large role in it. However, there are still 2 things that bother me and that is the fact that war has declined since the end of the cold war, look at the statistics. And that Russia has become largely Christian since then.

Answer by SmartLX:
We’ve discussed these specific points in other articles, but let’s go over them once more.

Full-scale war between nations has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but this doesn’t really indicate that things are more peaceful. All of the world’s superpowers are now nuclear powers, so even if the same animosities have never gone away everyone’s afraid to act upon them on a large scale in case the world is ended. Ongoing conflicts like that between Israel and Palestine bleed thousands of lives without the “war” label ever fully applying. Many warlords have learned the merits of attacking the superpowers without a nation behind them, so that their actions instead fall under the banner of terrorism and it’s almost impossible to fight back effectively. This geopolitical climate does little to fulfill the spirit of the prophecy. And of course at any moment it could explode into an all-out war that dwarfs anything that came before and completely invalidates the prophecy.

The moment the anti-religious regime in Russia collapsed, it created a huge vacuum where the sudden lack of suppression allowed religion to flood into the Motherland. Surprise surprise, the majority religion among white people won out. The prophecy’s guess wasn’t very impressive since it would only matter if the expansionist regime did collapse.

Whence Came Hell?

Question from Vlad:
Hello, I was told that Dante’s Inferno was written well after the 6th century. People say hell stems from there. Why then, did this Pope from the 6th century also report hell in NDEs?
http://www.spiritdaily.org/neardeathgregory.htm

Answer by SmartLX:
“Well after” is certainly correct. Inferno is the first part of Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and was written in the 14th century. That should tip you off to the fact that the concept of Hell does not originally stem from there; it is not nearly that new.

The first known recognisable concepts of a place like Hell come to us from ancient Greek religion, specifically the regions of Hades and Tartarus. The Christian concept is straight out of the New Testament, written mostly in the 1st century but all well before the 6th. Early translations of it use the names Hades and Tartarus, among others, to mean Hell. The major details like fire, torture and eternity are all stated or implied in the NT (here’s a Christian perspective), and even though some have interpreted it differently the basic imagery was widely accepted before long. Inferno merely built upon that which already permeated Western culture.

To bring it all back to your question: someone in the 6th century, let alone the Pope, would have had plenty of hellish nightmare fuel to draw from without the works of Dante. If his claimed experience is similar to modern claims in ways that go beyond Scripture, the similar physiological effects of the events that brought the claimants near death can go a long way toward explaining this.

A Target of Fundamentalism

Question from Anonymous:
I’m an agnostic-atheist, my mother is insanely Christian. When I came out to her, she became enraged, shunned me and damned me to hell. I told her “Well, Mom, this is your opinion and this is my opinion, I’m still going to have morality.”
I was forced to go to church, I was forced to not read Richard Dawkins and she denied that I read up anything on science or discovery.
They performed exorcisms on me. I get very bad claustrophobia and all of these religious people came up on me, surrounded me and it caused a panic-attack.
My mother kept hitting me (literally) in the face with the Bible, kept hitting me with other things, in front of the church, and they cheered and yelled “Amen! Yes Lord! Get the heathen saved!” I have bruises and I’m severely depressed.
I began to get tired of her hitting me with the Bible to I took it out of her hands, ripped it and through it out of the window. Guess what happened next? They called me the immoral blasphemous one for taking a book and throwing it out the window. Apparently beating is completely moral, but oh, throwing the holy book and not physically harming anyone is absolutely horrendous.
I understand that believing in a deity is a comforting feeling, especially when one lost a loved one, in a vulnerable situation and so on.
I don’t fight people if they believe for those reasons, because I’m an understanding person.
I just think “a religion” is just “an opinion without facts”. It’s unprovable because we cannot scientifically test for a God or deity.
I respect religion, it must be a comforting feeling to believe in a God or deity, and that your passed loved ones are in a place where you’ll see them again.
But, why is it that religion divides people? Why does it turn regular people into a herd of malevolent brainwashed zombies and cause families to be ruined?
A lady who is close to my mother says that her daughter converted to Judaism in order to marry her Jewish fiancé. This lady tells her daughter “You cannot marry a Jewish man because he only resides on the Old Testament, and his people murdered Jesus.” You can see why the daughter hasn’t spoken to the mother in quite a long time. Now her daughter is happily married and the lady is still witnessing and talking bad about the Jews and so on.
Guess what? Another one of mother’s close friend’s son came out as gay. They did the same to him as they did me. They beat him, exorcised him and so on. Now, he’s a happily married man to his husband and they adopted three children, he hasn’t talked to his parents in five years.
My question is, is after so much division, why can’t these mothers realize? Including my mom? Why can’t they self-judge? Why are they like this? Is this a mental condition of theirs? This happens all of the time in her church! Some Liberal-minded kids who do their own research break away from these chains. Either from the religion, or just that particular church (and go to a more liberal church, which I completely respect). So why can’t fundamentalists look at themselves? Why can’t they say “Oh my cult-like way of worshipping a deity is causing my kids to run away, maybe I should re-evaluate what I’m doing.” Why do they not do that?

Answer by SmartLX:
First of all, if you have been physically and psychologically abused by your mother and her congregation and your story can be believed, you do have legal recourse to make it stop, although it may unfortunately be a difficult path itself. Get some alone time with a phone and have some exploratory chats with the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-422-4453) and the The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). Worst case, they give you nothing and you hang up. (Now that I’ve said that, I am very sorry it took me a week to respond to you.)

Anyway, there are several factors at work here. The simplest factor to understand is the doctrines these people take as literal gospel. God is real, Heaven and Hell are real, the only way to reach Heaven and avoid Hell is to accept God through Jesus. If you’re not accepting Jesus you are headed for Hell and eternal torment, and Satan is working through you. No amount of earthly suffering can match eternity in Hell, so any amount of suffering inflicted upon you in order to free you from the demonic influence is worthwhile and will be more than balanced out by eternity in Heaven.

The next factor is hinted at by a word you used, “herd”. It’s all about peer pressure. According to the group, whether stated explicitly or not, if you don’t accept Jesus your mother is suffering an ongoing failure as a parent and as a Christian. As long as she is your guardian, she is bound to do everything she can to “save you”, and the received wisdom is that various kinds of abuse can work towards this end. Once victims of this effort leave home and start their independent lives, as those you mention have done, the parents are entitled to wash their hands of them in the Biblical (Pontius Pilate) sense and shrug off all responsibility, so it’s rare that they will pursue the matter.

Finally there’s the sunk-cost, cognitive-dissonance, look-themselves-in-the-face factor. As soon as your mother began to preach to you years ago she established a firmly defined position, and if she compromised it in any way she might have seemed like a liar, a hypocrite or a fool. At this point after all the effort and abuse, If your mother were to accept that everything she put you through was wrong, then she put you through it all for nothing and she might see herself as a monster. She might already fear that this is true on some level. Her easiest path mentally is to maintain the belief, at any cost to her or to you, that it’s all true and she had to beat and terrify her child. The longer it goes on, the more important to maintain that justification, because her alternate self-image in the event that it all collapses gets more twisted and cruel, like the picture of Dorian Gray. (If this ever does happen it will essentially be an identity crisis, and she will need your help and forgiveness very badly.)

To summarise, fundamentalists often do not look at themselves in a realistic light because they must not. It’s against the laws they live by, their communities would abandon or turn on them, and they would be immersed in a whole new kind of guilt. It’s easy to judge them from the outside, and I’m not saying don’t, but do consider the precarious position they’re in, socially and psychologically. In your case, consider all this after you’ve done what’s necessary to protect yourself. Good luck, keep us posted in the comments if you like.

Bryan Melvin: Another Hell Tourist?

Question from Vlad:
Do you believe this man? Apparently people say they knew him and that he is totally genuine. They say they went to school with him and he was a total atheist until this experience, where he wrote books about it and became a pastor, but I have my doubts. I feel he may have lied to make a profit.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmp3UNjeu0k

Answer by SmartLX:
Bryan Melvin certainly made a profit whether or not he believes his own claims. It doesn’t cost much to put out a book with a Christian self-publishing company, and the above video is on sale too.

Atheists do sometimes convert to Christianity and other religions, so there’s really no problem with the idea that Melvin was once an atheist. What’s important is the reasons why people convert, and Melvin’s reason is a personal experience which he really has no way to establish as supernatural as opposed to generated by his own brain at some stage during his cholera episode. If it was real to him, and as intense as it sounds, objective examination of his own state of mind would have gone out of the window very quickly.

Seen One NDE, Seen Them All

Question from Vlad:
Hello, was indoctrinated into Christian faith since birth. I have a hard time when people ask me what I believe. On one hand, I trust evolution, I have had difficulties accepting the Bible. The whole idea that religion is a man made construct with “heaven” and “hell” used as a mechanism for controlling populations makes sense. However, in my church, one of the priests told us that hell has been proven to exist. He sent us an email with a few written accounts of religious people who were decent, but drank and partied, and were therefore not accepting God. They then either claim that they may have died and had what’s known as a Near Death Experience or NDE or even dreams sometimes where they encounter hell.

I found a multitude of videos where people claim to have seen hell in either a dream or an NDE, and what I realized is that all these reports sound consistent:

– falling through a black hole
– hearing screams
-seeing souls suffering
– seeing fire
-meeting demons who often say “we got you now”
– the demons beat people, and look like reptiles
– then the person calls out to Jesus or God, and a light appears
-this light saves them

There are many of these kinds of videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOhOynR9Jxg
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=II_3H9O4LSo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmp3UNjeu0k
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwFruS4rpdI

All of these sound so similar.

I wonder how so many people could hallucinate/dream the same thing, especially this last link was a mormon woman who didn’t believe in hell, and had no exposure to it. How did she experience what so many experience?

They seem so consistent. Being raised Christian, I always pictured hell as a place with dark rocks that people stand on, surrounded by lava and fire, being burned, suffering, maybe meeting Satan, etc. I never pictured there being demons who claim “we got you now” and attack people while mocking them. All of my Christian friends I asked didn’t picture this either, so what gives? Why do all these accounts report reptile horned demons?

Any rational thoughts on this?

Answer by SmartLX:
Put “nde” or “near death experience” into the search function above to find a positive wealth of articles, because it’s been a popular subject lately. In particular, this piece addresses your specific question about the similarities between claims. Briefly, there can be very good physical or mental reasons why people experience what they do, and they’re all human beings living in the same society.

NDE Claim: Al Sullivan and the Flapping Doctor

Question from Mirek:
Most convincing NDE of all time. I want skeptic atheist opinions.

I feel that if we do have a soul, this NDE describes it best. Perhaps you all have heard of it. Please give me your input, I want honest opinions about this amazing testimony. It sounds great at the surface, could this prove the existence of a soul?

The Case of Al Sullivan. Bruce Grayson.
Al Sullivan, then a 56-year-old truck driver, almost died on January 18, 1998. A few days earlier he had experienced an irregular heartbeat and was rushed to the hospital for diagnostic testing, during which one of his coronary arteries became blocked. Doctors were forced to administer an emergency quadruple bypass surgery. It was at this time that Sullivan felt himself leave his body. In an account two years later, Sullivan would describe what he came to think of as—and some researchers came to label as—his near-death experience, or NDE:

I began my journey in an upward direction and found myself in a very thick, black, billowy smoke-like atmosphere … I rose to an amphitheater like place … I was able to grasp the wall and look over it into the area the wall was blocking. To my amazement, at the lower left-hand side was, of all things, me. I was laying [sic] on a table covered with light blue sheets and I was cut open so as to expose my chest cavity. It was in this cavity that I was able to see my heart on what appeared to be a small glass table.
This beginning, on its own, is a generic-enough surgery scene. It’s one that anyone with a television has likely seen, in high drama and vivid gore, 20 times over. Whether one has had real life experience witnessing (or undergoing) a surgery or not, the stage is set and familiar. Were this all that Sullivan had remembered, it would not be an especially intriguing account. But there was more.
I was able to see my surgeon, who just moments ago had explained to me what he was going to do during my operation. He appeared to be somewhat perplexed. I thought he was flapping his arms as if trying to fly.
Sullivan goes on—his deceased mother and deceased brother-in-law are there, and so is a tunnel lit in a “golden hue,” and so, too, a pervading general sense of euphoria and peace—but, at the risk of sounding callous, it’s that weird part about the arm flapping that really means something. That’s the part that Sullivan, were he as unconscious as one is surely meant to be during a quadruple bypass surgery, should not have been able to see. That was what Sullivan’s surgeon, Dr. Takata, looked like (as he later admitted) before putting on his gloves. He was in the habit of holding his hands to his chest—to keep himself from touching anything—and giving instructions to his assistants, using his elbows to point at various surgical instrument. Sullivan was clinically dead, eyes taped shut, sheets over him. How could he have seen this?

Answer by SmartLX:
The thing about well-known NDE claims is that there’s inevitably been a lot of discussion. A lot of detail is here and here but very briefly:
– The flapping motion could have occurred when the patient was only under a local anaesthetic, before the general was administered. In other words he could have seen it before he went under. The doctor also can’t confirm that he did it at all during that operation.
– No one admits to explaining the behaviour to the patient before or after the surgery. That’s not confirmation that no one did mention it.
– The operation was a complete success without any major complications. The patient was clinically dead in a sense while the heart was stopped, but no more than during any heart surgery. If that’s all it takes, wouldn’t NDEs be far more common? Heart disease is currently endemic worldwide.
– The claim wasn’t made publicly until two years afterwards, and the surgeons weren’t interviewed until nine years afterwards. That’s a long time to let Sullivan get his story straight.

Generally though, the crux of this argument is the rhetorical question, “How could Sullivan have known about the flapping motion unless he was out-of-body?” You’re supposed to accept that explanation if you personally can’t come up with an alternative. Argument from ignorance, right there. This is the problem with any argument for the supernatural which relies on something remaining unexplained: even if an explanation is never found, it’s fundamentally weak, but potential explanations usually turn up. So keep a close eye out for the word “how”.

We’re Looking for a Few Good Mutations

Question from Nick:
How do you refute the argument that it is mathematically impossible for “good” mutations to occur and that evolution is mathematically impossible, and thus not a real theory, but a pseudoscience?

Short answer by SmartLX:
With evidence.

Okay, longer answer by SmartLX:
The idea that beneficial mutations are “mathematically” impossible is based on easily addressed misunderstandings of the process. The fact that the idea is so widely held by creationists despite being so easily addressed speaks to a common reluctance among their number to accept simple facts, if those facts are inconvenient.

A very simple counter to the claim is the fact that most individual mutations can potentially be reversed in subsequent generations. This is an observed and well-known phenomenon straightforwardly called reverse mutation. The list of reversible mutations includes many that would be regarded as “bad” or detrimental to survival and procreation. The reverse of these mutations would by definition be “good”, so there’s no barrier to this whatsoever.

The other effective counter is the set of beneficial mutations that have been observed. You can look them up on Google, or follow up on the short list given here. Most famously, the Lenski E.coli experiment tightly controlled an isolated population of E.coli and documented its acquisition, via repeatable mutation, of the ability to metabolise (eat) the citrate in its environment. The bacteria couldn’t do it, then they could. Creationists did everything they could to discredit this and failed pretty badly. We had our own little argument over it in the comments here (search the page for keyword “Lenski”).

Trying to Cross Off a Couple of NDE Explanations

Question from Mirek:
Here are some arguments against current scientific ideas about Near Death Experiences:

First, Lack of Oxygen to the brain:
Hogan: Lack of oxygen causes stupor without memories of the experience. People experiencing NDEs report enhanced consciousness not stupor and they remember their NDE. “Dr. Fred Schoonmaker, a cardiologist from Denver, had by 1979 carried out investigations of over 2,000 patients who had suffered cardiac arrests, many of whom reported NDEs. His findings showed that NDEs occurred when there was no deprivation of oxygen.” The primary features of acceleration-induced hypoxia, however, are myoclonic convulsions (rhythmic jerking of the limbs), impaired memory for events just prior to the onset of unconsciousness, tingling in the extremities and around the mouth, confusion and disorientation upon awakening, and paralysis, symptoms that do not occur in association with NDEs. Moreover, contrary to NDEs, the visual images Whinnery reported frequently included living people, but never deceased people; and no life review or accurate out-of-body perceptions have been reported in acceleration-induced loss of consciousness.

Parnia raises another problem: When oxygen levels decrease markedly, patients whose lungs or hearts do not work properly experience an “acute confusional state,” during which they are highly confused and agitated and have little or no memory recall. In stark contrast, during NDEs people experience lucid consciousness, well-structured thought processes, and clear reasoning.

Next: Brain activity
NDEs cannot be caused by brain activity during CPR because CPR patients report confusion and amnesia while NDErs report lucid experiences. NDEs often begin before CPR is administered and the quality of consciousness and the pattern of events in NDEs does not change once CPR is started. Also, if consciousness in NDEs is caused by CPR, the patients should remember the pain of compressions and cracked ribs that sometimes occur during CPR, but NDErs do not feel the pain from CPR.

Finally, according to a Neurosurgeon named Greenfield: “”It’s very unlikely that a hypoperfused brain (someone with no blood flow to the brain), with no evidence of electrical activity could generate NDEs. Human studies as well as animal studies have typically shown very little brain perfusion (blood flow) or glucose utilization when the EEG is flat. There are deep brain areas involved in generating memories that might still operate at some very reduced level during cardiac arrest, but of course any subcortically generated activity can’t be brought to consciousness without at least one functioning cerebral hemisphere. So even if there were some way that NDEs were generated during the hypoxic state (while the brain is shut off from oxygen), you would not experience them until reperfusion (blood flow) allowed you to dream them or wake up and talk about them.”

What do atheists have to say about these arguments for an afterlife?

Answer by SmartLX:
The main problem with both of these arguments has been mentioned several times before in previous ATA pieces.

The dream or other experience interpreted as the NDE does not need to occur during the time when the subject is literally near death. If there is a period during which the brain is incapable of synthesising and retaining such an experience – and the person survives to tell the tale – then there is a period of descent from consciousness through normal unconsciousness to the disabled state beforehand, and afterwards a recovery “up” through the same levels. If a dream occurs either side of the interval wherein it’s impossible, there’s no way for the subject to know that it didn’t happen right in the middle. If the event is traumatic enough, the experience could even occur as a dream in a period of sleep after consciousness is regained, and be confused as one that occurred before then.

Arguments based on the clarity and lucidity of an NDE are not very strong, incidentally. As soon as someone begins to think they’ve had one, they start telling the story over and over, to themselves and to anyone else who will listen. Doing that to any experience will soon solidify the memory of it into a repeatable narrative which seems clearer every time you tell it, because you’re reinforcing it (and probably subconsciously altering it) after the fact.

Take a step back, Mirek, and look at what you’re actually trying to do with this latest attempt. You’re regurgitating supposed rebuttals to two – of many – natural explanations for NDE claims. Even if they shut down these explanations, all the rest would still be left. Even if these were presently the only explanations available, that would leave NDEs unexplained, not proven. To think that your belief is certain truth in the absence of known alternatives, as opposed to possible alternatives, is an argument from ignorance, which is an official logical fallacy and invalid in the eyes of anyone who knows about logical fallacies. That’s most atheists of the activist, apostate, academic or “New” variety, and pretty much everyone who reads this site. So your ideal outcome for this argument won’t convince anybody and, thanks to reality, it’s miles away from that anyway. Try to think about what you can actually achieve with the next one.