A mundane Sunday sermon on the nonexistence of the afterlife

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While driving back from the grocery store (I shop early), I was forced to listen to Krista Tippett's "On Being" show on NPR. It's the show I love to hate, and because my radio dial is set on the local public radio station, I have to hear her on Sunday morning drives.  What I love best of all is when she nearly reduces herself to tears with the depth of her own profound utterances. She always sounds like she's on the verge of sobbing.

Today Tippett broadcast an old interview with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who read some of her work at the end of the show. One of the poems that struck me was about mortality (Oliver died of cancer). The poet asked whether, when she died, she would vanish forever or live again in some form.

When I heard those lines, I thought, "You're not having an afterlife, for we're evolved beings."  This sentiment now comes naturally to me since I've studied evolution for so long, as well as religion and theology and their penchant for wish-thinking.

Although theologians have tied themselves in knots trying to show that evolution is perfectly compatible with God and an afterlife (see Faith versus Fact), these apologetics always have the air of desperation. First, you have to reject the stories of Genesis (or, in Islam, the Qur'an) about the creation. One is forced to say, as did Andrew Sullivan, that they were just metaphors, adding perhaps that people of those times could not have understood the idea of evolution. That's why God had to put it in the form of a fairytale.

But that has its own difficulties. Why, if the Bible is the word of God, wasn't he able to discuss evolution? "'Verily, all ye men came from a long process in which animals changed slowly,' spake Moses."  Well, we can leave that aside, but then you have to take issue with church fathers like Aquinas and Augustine the Hippo, who believed the Bible literally.

And if you think creation is a metaphor, then you have to explain why, if you're a Christian who thinks we have souls, at what point the soul "evolved" in humans (actually, Catholics think that the soul is an exception to evolution: God stuck one in us instantly at some point, but left out all the other birds and beasts).  Further, you have to explain why, if we really did evolve, genetic calculations show that we could not all have descended from just two progenitors—Adam and Eve.  A Sophisticated Catholic (or evangelical Christian) would then have to say that Adam and Eve are in some sense also metaphors. You can see the sweating theologians trying to deal with this over at BioLogos. (The Catholic church leaves no wiggle room here: the Catechism states clearly that you cannot not accept Adam and Eve as the literal progenitors of all of us.

But you must explain as well that if we really didn't descend from Adam and Eve, whose actions got us all the Original Sin, then how did that sin get into us all? Again, theologians have answers, but they're ludicrous and make me laugh. For if the Original Sin is just a metaphor, then the whole Christian story of sin and redemption falls to pieces.

Many Muslims just reject the idea that the Quran'ic story of creation is a metaphor, and deny evolution altogether. This is why Turkey has banned the teaching of evolution in schools below the college level, and why I had such trouble getting Why Evolution is True published in Muslim countries. (It's now said to be out in Egypt, published by the government press, but they've made it almost impossible to get hold of.)

Edward Feser, cocksure in his delusional theology, has declared that no animal beside humans go to heaven. (Say goodbye to Fido and Fluffy!) But if there's any lesson from evolution, it's that this form of human exceptionalism is bunk. Not only aren't humans be the special objects of God's creation (we have 4-million year old fossils of our ancestors, for crying out loud), but if at some point we were given an afterlife by some unevidenced act of God—and that's connected with our "immortal soul"— and other species don't live on after death, at what point was the afterlife graciously bestowed on us? At the same time we got a soul? Or, you can aver that contra Feser, every creature goes to heaven (including rotifers?), but I don't know anybody who thinks that.

We have to face it: if you accept evolution, the most parsimonious hypothesis is that we're part of a stream of genes extending back to the dawn of life, and there's no evidence that we have features that couldn't have evolved but were instilled by gods. And that rules out the possibility of souls and afterlives.  Those, of course, were already ruled out because there's no evidence for them—they are wish thinking, pure and simple.

When theologians babble and blather, explaining how exactly God inserted his finger into the evolutionary process to ensure that we'd live on after death, they are trying to make a virtue of necessity. The afterlife is wish-thinking, pure and simple—something that Freud tried to tell us decades ago. Nobody, not even an eloquent poet, is going to live on after death.

But you knew this all already, right?

Amen.


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