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Hitch in Heaven?

Christopher Hitchens's death has led to a predictable eruption of religious hostilities. For some Christian fundamentalists it's along the lines of 'that nasty atheist will have got a terrible shock'. For his part sceptic PZ Myers 'takes joy in discomfiting the godly'.

'We find our hope and joy in our lives, right now...not in an imaginary world, sight unseen, that we only get to enter after we're dead and unable to come back and tell everyone that the priests lied to us.'

It's hard not to wonder what a deeply committed atheist might feel on finding himself conscious after his death. Initial confusion and puzzlement, certainly, but gloating over a miscreant getting his come-uppance is surely misplaced.

Hitchens was praised for holding fast to his beliefs, even under the pressure of illness. I'd have expected no less. Even so, according to a BBC report he told an interviewer that if it turned out he'd been wrong he would be surprised, but that was OK, because he liked surprises. That sounds characteristic. I don't think he would feel any guilt. Like Bertrand Russell, he would say there hadn't been enough evidence. During life, the curiosity upon which he set such store just didn't stretch to psychic phenomena.

But perhaps all this is beside the point. I agree with the Huffpost's religious editor, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, who thinks Hitchens' thoughts about his own death, and death in general, deserve respect.

His fierce atheism was determined to yank our thoughts away from any future place and time after we die, back to the world that is present to us in this very moment. Take, for example, this arresting passage from The Portable Atheist:

'Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.'

This emphasis on the present may feel incomplete to some. But concentrating on what we know -- our own experiences, senses and rational mind -- does not, in fact create a void; rather, it fills these precious moments that we have on earth with intensity, urgency and inherent meaning. An atheist perspective on the afterlife eliminates the option of patient endurance in hopes of rewards in the sweet by and by; rather, it insists that any hopes and desires must be realized in this life, or not at all.

A powerful disbelief in afterlife might be seen as an affirmation the value of life - one of humanism's more attractive qualities. If we're sure this is the only one we have, we should live it to the full, and not go 'gentle into that good night'.

But could the opposite be true? Does a belief in afterlife actually weaken one's commitment to life. Do we value it less if we look forward to the kind of existence described for instance by near-death experiencers?

It's possible. I sometimes wonder if Frederic Myers, who died relatively young at 58, might have lived longer if he had fought against his last illness. He looked forward to the next life so much he seemed happy enough to let go of this one. But then Myers was powerfully immersed in the idea of survival of consciousness. He was deeply romantic. He believed he was in communication with the married woman he had fallen in love with, and who taken her life in tragic circumstances, and that she was waiting for him. He couldn't wait to move on.

So perhaps his case is exceptional. One certainly can't generalise, and say that religious people don't value life. What one thinks about that surely depends as much on temperament and circumstances as metaphysical beliefs.

Hitchens had a good life, doing what he loved, surrounded by friends, and well cared for at the end. Someone in his position doesn't need to find consolation in the idea of an afterlife. But concepts of 'loving life' and 'living it the full' are not so much of an option for peasant farmers struggling with floods and famine, wage slaves in dystopian urban hells, African child soldiers, the homeless and the chronically long-term sick. The slaves labouring in American plantations found solace in the Christian message of a better future life, and could they be blamed for that?

Jonny Wilkinson's Search for Truth

WilkoI don't much associate rugby players with spirituality, so it's interesting to see what is being said about Jonny Wilkinson on his retirement from the game. Wilko was no common or garden sporting star. There was something oddly religious about his quest for perfection on the pitch, especially the obsessive practising at drop-kicks and conversions, that paid off so spectacularly in the 2003 World Cup. He seemed always, as Donald McRae says in his send-off piece, to "delve within himself in an apparent search for purity and truth."

That unflinching mentality was complicated by a puritanical streak that meant Wilkinson imagined every minute of his day was recorded by a hidden video camera. At night, he pretended that the instance of which he was least proud would be screened back to himself and the people he loved most. "I follow this ethos because, when I go to bed, I want to feel I've done absolutely all I can to move forward in my life. I need that intense self-scrutiny."

Was this determination to excel behind the perpetual injuries that eventually blighted his career? In another life Wilkinson might have been an ascetic hermit or a Jesuit, pushing himself to the limits. He seems to have a philosophical bent: he read up on quantum physics and took to Buddhism and meditation to help him moderate his obsessive perfectionism. People "scratched their heads in confusion" about it, McRae says.

Sports interviewers did maybe, but many other people will understand where Wilkinson is coming from. The remark about the hidden video camera recording his life is particularly interesting, being suggestive of the near-death experience. It got me thinking, because it's pretty much what I feel also, although without focusing on it particularly. I've become so convinced by the logic of psychic phenomena in general, and the near-death experience in particular - the materialist dismissal of the phenomenon as a hallucination seems to me to be scientifically incoherent - that I'm bound to pay attention to the implications. That means I take it for granted that everything I do and think is being recorded in some sense, and that one day I'll have to review the whole thing from start to finish. And quite possibly to have to keep on doing so. My past life will be my 'project'.

So the image has become part of the framework that governs my mind and in a certain sense acts as a restraint or as an incentive, as the circumstances require. In my case this has little to do with concepts of 'religion' or 'faith' or 'belief'; it's simply a logical step to take. If I'm going to be stuck with my life, as a product, so to speak, I'd ideally like it to be a class product, not trash.

Now since the near-death experience is so well known, it seems likely to me that a great many people allow themselves to be guided by it in the same way. In which case, the idea of a judgement at the end of life, powerfully present throughout the Christian era, remains equally present now, in a modified form.

I'm not sure how well this is understood by those people who long for the "death of religion". Richard Dawkins is on typically crowing form today in the New Statesman, pointing out that the latest Social Attitudes study published last week paints an increasingly grim picture for religion in Britain. In 1983 one in three did not have a religion, but by 2010 this has become one in two.

[The study] clearly demonstrates that religious affiliation, religious observance and religious attitudes to social issues have all continued their long-term decline and are now irrelevant to all but a minority of the population. When it comes to life choices, social attitudes, moral dilemmas and sense of identity, religion is on its deathbed, even for many of those who still nominally identify with a religion.

One could argue that if 50% of the population said 'yes' when asked if they had a religion this is quite a high figure, in a society that is usually described as secular. The concept of 'having a religion' is a rather vague one anyway: it doesn't imply actual belief. I'd also query what we are actually measuring here. The real decline is in traditional church-going, especially in the Anglican Church, which has apparently halved since 1983 to 20%. But church-going really only correlates with religiosity, not with inner beliefs.

What surveys like this seem to ignore is the growing interest in spirituality. According to Penny Sartori's Hereafter Report last January, in a poll of 3000 Brits, 66% said they believed in some form of afterlife and almost all believed their actions in this life would affect their circumstances in the next. I'd say this is a pretty high number, and not particularly indicative of increasing secularity.

So what Jonny Wilkinson talks about - and what sounds outlandish in the context of a sports interview - is quite likely what a large proportion of the population actually thinks. We may no longer require religion in the traditional Dawkinsian sense of the term to help us make life choices and sort out moral dilemmas. But things have moved on, and there are other models that we can use, that are not exactly secular.

Sceptic Balloons (by Phil Brisk)

[Thanks to Phil Brisk for this therapeutic technique to help cope with sceptics.]

I've been thinking lately about storylines - or 'narratives', if you prefer a posher word - and how they shape our understanding of the world.

For example, take just two of the storylines that emerged recently in attempts to shape opinion on the UK's public sector pensions strike.

There's the narrative of the Daily Mail, presenting that action as an insult to hard-working private sector workers who can only gaze with envy at the privileges enjoyed by molly-coddled public sector staff. Then there's the contrasting version of the same events wheeled out by the other side - a version that portrays the strikers as brave champions of the right of all citizens to a well-funded, secure retirement.

These are only two examples, but they illustrate how narratives work. They take real life and package it in a particular way. They simplify, stripping out nuance and complexity. They boil things down to just a few key ideas - the ideas the inventor of the narrative wants us to focus on.

When you stop and consider, it's not hard to see why storylines are so seductive. After all, who's got time to do their own independent thinking and research these days? Much easier to grab a quick, convenient narrative - a pre-processed, off-the-shelf version of reality whisked up by somebody else. By a politician, say, or an ad man, or a tabloid editor - or any one of a thousand others with an axe to grind and position to push.

Of course, there's only one problem. Narratives aren't reality. As I said, they're only someone's selective and simplified version of it. The narrative might seem to be anchored in fact. But that connection will almost certainly only be a loose one. And storylines, in my experience, are a bit like balloons. The moment they get a bit of wind behind them, they want to take flight. They want to slip their anchors and soar. That's fine when you're talking about balloons. But with narratives, it's different. If you're not careful the narrative soon floats free, with no one to notice it no longer has any kind of connection with fact.

What's this got to do with the concerns of Paranormalia? Actually, quite a lot. Because the closer I study the work of the self-appointed "de-bunkers" of psychic phenomena - James Randi, Chris French, Susan Blackmore, et al - the less I see these people as sober scrutinisers of hard evidence and the more I see them as sellers of balloons. The balloons they're selling are all versions of the narrative of scientific materialism - a highly selective, oversimplified version of the world that, increasingly, is losing connection with the available facts.

In my imagination, that's not a scientist's clipboard I see in their hands, it's a big red balloon. Personally, I find this image rather useful. It encourages me to smile when I think of them, rather than snarl. And that's good. Because, as Robert reminded us in his recent post on Chopra and Dawkins, "spirituality in action" has got to mean remaining non-snarly and kind-hearted in response to the dogmatic scientific materialists - no matter how provocative they may sometimes be.

Here's a case in point. Last night I was listening to something quite irritating by Susan Blackmore - a rather muddled attempt to pour cold water on the fascinating and well-attested phenomenon of NDEs. For a moment I wanted to hit her. Then I closed my eyes ... and just pictured her holding her big balloon. (It was a lovely yellow and pink one, if you must know.) Then, I just wanted to give her a hug.

It's a visualising technique that works for me. Maybe it will work for you.

Sheldrake and Dawkins

I talked recently about Deepak Chopra describing how he was 'ambushed' by Richard Dawkins for his 2007 Enemies of Reason films on Channel 4. The film makers hadn't told him it was Dawkins he was going to be talking to.

Another putative 'enemy of reason' was Rupert Sheldrake, who in his new book describes a similar encounter. He talked about it at the time, and Greg Taylor published it here. But it's so extraordinary it's worth repeating.

Sheldrake was emailed by a Channel 4 researcher to say that Dawkins wanted to talk to him to discuss his research on unexplained abilities of people and animals for a new TV series. Sheldrake wasn't keen, because he knew it would be one-sided. Not so, said the researcher - they were now much more open minded: 'We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry.'

So Sheldrake agreed. Dawkins duly turned up with a film crew and the exchange started. Dawkins said they probably agreed about many things, but it worried him that Sheldrake was prepared to believe almost anything. Sheldrake replied that it worried him that Dawkins was so dogmatic, giving people a bad impression of science.

One all. Dawkins then said he would like to believe in telepathy, but there just wasn't any evidence for it. He complained that if it really occurred it would turn the laws of physics upside down, and added , 'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.' Sheldrake pointed out that most people have experienced telepathy, and suggested that the claim that they are deluded about their own experience is itself extraordinary. Where was the extraordinary evidence for that?' Dawkins took it for granted that people want to believe in 'the paranormal' because of wishful thinking.

They agreed that controlled experiments were necessary and Sheldrake started to talk about the work he had been doing on telephone telepathy. The previous week he had sent Dawkins some of his published papers.

I suggested that we actually discuss the evidence. He looked uneasy and said, 'I don't want to discuss evidence.' 'Why not?' I asked. He replied, 'There isn't time. It's too complicated. And that's not what this programme is about.' The camera stopped.

Sheldrake pointed out that he had made it clear that he wasn't interested in taking part in another low-grade debunking exercise. 'It's not a low-grade debunking exercise; it's a high-grade debunking exercise,' said Dawkins. The director asked to see the emails Sheldrake had been sent. He read them 'with obvious dismay' saying that the assurances Sheldrake had been given were wrong. So they packed up and left.

Sheldrake says

in no other field of scientific endeavour to otherwise intelligent people feel free to make public claims based on prejudice and ignorance. Yet in relation to psychic phenomena, committed materialists feel free to disregard the evidence and behave irrationally and unscientifically while claiming to speak in the name of science and reason. They abuse the authority of science and bring rationalism into disrepute.

I suppose a certain amount of subterfuge is needed if you want to get your opponents to open up to you on camera. Although as I recall from the film, his various 'enemies' - Christian evangelists, alternative healers, etc - seemed only too happy to talk to him, perhaps not knowing who he was, and caring less. But he surely can't have imagined that Sheldrake would passively submit.

I often find myself defending Dawkins, as an original thinker and fine writer. I rather dislike the caricature of him as a zealot. But God, does he ask for it. This sort of behaviour is so childish and grubby. Sheldrake is a trained biologist pursuing evidence-based science and it's hard to forgive Dawkins for treating a fellow scientist with such disrespect.

Horgan on Buddhism

Science writer John Horgan has reprised the anti-Buddhism critique that he first published on eight years ago. Slate has reissued the original article, and Buddhists are again berating him for his ignorance. So he wants to have another go at explaining his misgivings.

Horgan's recent book Rational Mysticism looks at attempts by scientists to account for mystical and religious experience, from a materialist perspective. As part of his research he checked out Zen Buddhism and attended meditation sessions. However meditation never really tamed his 'monkey mind', he says. He was also distracted by a classmate who kept asking 'unbearably pretentious questions'.

There were intellectual qualms:

One of Buddhism's biggest selling points for lapsed Catholics like me is that it supposedly dispenses with God and other supernatural claptrap. This claim is disingenuous. Buddhism, at least in its traditional forms, is functionally theistic, even if it doesn't invoke a supreme deity. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation imply the existence of some sort of cosmic moral judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with nirvana or rebirth as a cockroach.

Horgan goes on to point out that research on meditation suggests its effects are variable. Meditation is supposed to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, but it has been linked to increased negative emotions, he says, while brain scans yield inconsistent results.

As for the 'deep truths' perceived through meditation or mystical experience, Horgan complains of a lack of consistency. Some find that mind, not matter, constitutes the deepest level of reality and is in some sense eternal. However he inclines to the view of meditators like Susan Blackmore, who are strict materialists and deny that mind can exist independently of matter. (Blackmore even rejects the concept of free will, holding that there is no self to act freely.)

Then there's the claim that contemplative practice will make us gentler, more humble and compassionate:

Given the repulsive behavior over the past few decades of so many gurus-including Chogyam Trungpa, who was an alcoholic womanizer and bully-you could conclude that mystical knowledge leads to pathological narcissism rather than selflessness. Instead of shrinking to a point and vanishing, the mystic's ego may expand to infinity. Did Buddhism deflate the ego of Steve Jobs?

...Like an astronaut gazing at the earth through the window of his spacecraft, the mystic sees our existence against the backdrop of infinity and eternity. This perspective may not translate into compassion and empathy for others. Far from it. Human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial. Instead of becoming a saint-like Bodhisattva, brimming with love for all things, the mystic may become a sociopathic nihilist.

Horgan also thinks some 'bad' gurus have 'fallen prey to mystical nihilism', corrupted by 'that most insidious of all Buddhist propositions, the myth of total enlightenment'.

This is the notion that some rare souls achieve mystical self-transcendence so complete that they become morally infallible-like the Pope! Belief in this myth can turn spiritual teachers into tyrants and their students into mindless slaves, who excuse even their teachers' most abusive behavior as "crazy wisdom."

A final misgiving is about the glorification of male monasticism. Hogan notes that the Buddha himself started on his path to enlightenment by abandoning his wife and child. For him, by contrast, 'spiritual' means life-embracing. So a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexual love and parenthood is 'not spiritual but anti-spiritual'.

It's Christianity that usually gets atheists hot and bothered, with only the barest of nods to eastern mysticism. So I was interested in Horgan's complaints, some of which I've had to deal with myself. The last one, for instance. It must be tough on the families when the breadwinner goes off to find God. It seems true too that spiritual practice can lead people in the wrong directions, inflating their egos.

But over the years I've come to realise that the insights of Buddhist psychology are timeless, and essential to a healthy mind. Nor are they culture-dependent. The writings of Jack Kornfield have been particularly influential. He understands the obstacles, both practical and intellectual, that bother newcomers, because he has experienced them himself. At the same time he has seen people get past them to them to turn their lives around.

It's easy to be misled by archaic thinking. For instance anyone who becomes immersed in spirituality literature, or who just listens to what near-death experiencers say, should eventually recognise that the 'cosmic moral judge' idea is a misunderstanding. We judge ourselves: our future experience will be determined by what we are now and what we have made of ourselves. That may not have been obvious to our ancestors, but in our age we can transcend their ideas - if we choose to.

So why does someone who, on some level is open to spiritual ideas, close the door on them? Why does he gravitate so firmly to the negative aspects of religion?

It must be hard to avoid, if you spend your time interviewing top scientists and are firmly embedded in materialist culture. Then there's the traditional religious upbringing. Mine was no big deal, and it did not take much to break from it. Even so, I was well into my thirties before I was able to consider any kind of religious thinking on my own terms. I guess Horgan's experience with Catholicism was more intense. Atheists who had to fight to win their freedom of thought don't willingly surrender it.

However there's a sense in this sort of reasoning that, in order to keep resisting something, one has to keep reminding oneself of its worst aspects. Otherwise one might give in. Horgan's complaints have a certain truth, but they are the exceptions not the rule. He can't really believe that mystical truth seeking typically turns a person into a sociopathic nihilist. And why meditate if it makes you more anxious, not less? But if he allows himself to think these things, it's easier to justify turning his back on the whole thing.

Chopra and Dawkins

I wonder what Richard Dawkins makes of this profuse and lengthy apology that Deepak Chopra has just made to him on YouTube.

Chopra says 'sorry' about comments he made while appearing on Bill O'Reilly's show on Fox News a few weeks ago. O'Reilly had previously had a spat with Dawkins. When the professor talked about 'the Judao-Christian myth', he interjected that it wasn't a myth, it was reality. Myth, insisted Dawkins. No, reality, said O'Reilly. And so on.

Later O'Reilly got Chopra on his show, ostensibly to talk about his new book, War of the Worldviews, but began by asking, what did he think of people like Dawkins? Well, Chopra began, he had once been ambushed by him. Channel 4 had called to ask him to contribute to a documentary, without telling him that it was being made by Dawkins; it was later shown under the title Enemies of Reason.

'Very dishonest guy. Did you kick his butt? I kicked his butt,' said O'Reilly.

'I did kick his butt - for three hours. But only three minutes was used,' said Chopra. 'He uses his scientific credentials to camouflage his bigotry.'

Chopra went on to mention that Dawkins had told Francis Collins, leader of the human genome project and one of the world's greatest scientists, that he, Dawkins, was a far better scientist, and that Collins shouldn't dare to question his credentials.

The problem with Dawkins is he thinks we're all idiots, O'Reilly said.

Quite mild stuff, but a month later Chopra has been having second thoughts about this exchange. In his mea culpa he said he had represented Dawkins 'unfairly and mean spiritedly'. 'Dr Dawkins has been critical of my work for the past several years; unfortunately I reacted by being personally offended and was unfair in my criticism of him in my TV appearances and written criticisms.'

They have different worldviews, he said. Dawkins is concerned with evidence-based science, while he himself is concerned with consciousness as a fundamental reality, 'and facts and evidence are more description of modes of human perception and knowing than descriptions of reality.'

Addressing Dawkins directly, he went on:

The purpose of this blog is to apologise for my behaviour. I need to learn to listen to my worst critics without being personally offended. I understand totally where you come from and also how you feel about dogmatic religion, and how dogmatic fundamentalism and religion can hurt and damage humanity and its future evolution. I also want to let you know that I am more aligned with your thinking than with Bill O'Reilly's, although we have fundamental differences.

I don't suppose O'Reilly will have him back now. Perhaps he'll ask his next guest, 'hey, what do you think about that Chopra guy?'

Sceptics' reactions to the apology are along the lines of, Dawkins was never going to lose any sleep about what Chopra thinks of him.

Quite so. But this is more about Chopra than Dawkins.

When I first became interested in Buddhism, some years ago, the first lesson I learned was about slander. You don't sound off about people behind their backs. This struck me as completely true, and also quite novel. I wondered why it wasn't an equally strong part of Christian culture. Ever since then I have tried to practice it, with occasional lapses but for the most part successfully, I hope.

But it's challenging in a field like this, which is deeply polarised, and when people are constantly bitching about those with opposite views. I have to be on my guard all the time. Particularly sometimes when I'm invited to talk on radio and I feel the host sort of trying to get me to trash the Dawkins and Randis. It just makes me uncomfortable.

So I can see how Chopra got into a jam with someone like Bill O'Reilly. He wanted to be agreeable and do what was expected of him. Weak and reprehensible. But perhaps he was intimidated. For me, being in a Fox News studio would be sort of like being summoned by Darth Vadar: I wouldn't dare antagonise them.

But of course afterwards he felt deeply uneasy about it. The answer is to fess up - publicly and unequivocally. Which is why, in his clip, Chopra doesn't seem discomfited by his very public confession of wrongdoing - on the contrary, he seems relieved.

This is spirituality in action. As I say, I wonder what Dawkins makes of it.