Dear Mr Harris
I was encouraged by a friend to watch your lecture on Death and the Present Moment at the recent Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. Your topic is very close to home for me, as I’ve been battling a stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the lung for the past 6 months. I understand it was also especially pertinent for you, and many in your audience, following the death of your good friend, Christopher Hitchens. Your lecture has provoked me to consider a number of issues and to write a few words in response.
For me, the most provocative words in your talk were the following:
Atheism appears to be a death cult, because we are the only people who admit that death is real.
When I heard these words, I had to stop and hit replay. You didn’t really say that, did you? Surely, this is hyperbole for the sake of impact! I’m a theist, not an atheist, and I firmly believe in the reality of death. I’ve visited morgues, been on the scene at fatal accidents, attended funerals, and sat beside lifeless bodies in the hospital. Strangers, friends, and family. No breath, no movement, no heartbeat, no consciousness, no life. I’m not an atheist and yet I affirm that death is very very real. It seems bizarre to claim otherwise.
I suspect it’s what you call the ’gospel of atheism’ - that nothing happens after death - that’s really at issue here. You admit that atheism doesn’t offer real consolation in the face of death and you claim that religion creates a fictional hope, that’s really no hope at all. Thus, while people might feel better that their deceased daughter is ‘now with Jesus’, you don’t believe they have any reason to believe. I think this is a question worth putting on the table and exploring:
Is there, or is there not, any reasonable evidence for life after death?
There may be a number of ways to answer this question, but it would appear to me that a fruitful starting place is the Christian claim that Jesus, the first century carpenter, died and subsequently rose from the dead. I’d start here because Christians base everything on this being true. The claims that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb and that he had been seen alive are foundational to Christian beliefs. Scrutinise them, consider the explanations, explore the alternatives, look at the impact on people at the time. Evaluate the counter claims, conspiracy theories, tampering of documents, and challenge the evidence. Public scrutiny and debate are a good thing if they’ll help us get to the truth of the matter.
You also seem to assume that religion is all about faith, whereas atheism is all about reason. This assumption needs to be challenged. They’re not opposing pairs. Faith can be based on reason. I’d say that good faith must be based on good reasons. Let me illustrate. I have faith that my wife loves me. Why? Because there is good evidence that this is so. I sit on a chair, showing my faith in the chair to hold my weight, only because it is reasonable. I take a step of faith (trust, dependence, practical belief) because there are good reasons to exercise that faith. Dare I say it, atheism is a step of faith – faith that there is no God and no life after death – based on reasons. What is needed is a non-bigoted, open-mindedness to examine and evaluate the reasons for the faith(s).
There is something else that bothered me about your lecture. You seem to divide the world into two belief systems: atheism and religion. This seems reductionist, disingenuous, and deceptive. It is not meaningful to lump together Muslims and Hindus as being the same. They’re both ‘religious’ and they’re both ‘not atheists’, but one believes in only one God and the other believes in many Gods. In fact, you could group Buddhism and Atheism together as ‘non-theism’ and contrast them with Judaism and Islam as ‘theism’. My point is that speaking of ‘religion in contrast to atheism’ simply muddies the waters. It would be much more productive to evaluate the particular claims of different religions alongside the particular claims of atheism.
I’d like to finish with an observation that you made about people. You intended it as a critique of atheists, and I’d like to claim it as a critique for many Christians also. These are your words:
We spend much of life tacitly presuming we’ll live for ever.
Death is the clearest evidence that life is finite and yet we live as though it isn’t so. You remind us that we waste a lot of time on trivia when things are ‘normal’. Why else would we watch that hopeless movie for the fourth time?! We care about the wrong things. We regret the things we’ve spent time caring about. You call us to live in the moment. You invite us to explore what’s really worth having and doing. I’m persuaded that the answers to these questions are to be found in knowing God and enjoying the life that God gives us, not by dismissing God and reconstructing a world without him.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is evidence to me of what lies ahead. These events in history provide the reasons for my faith. They explain why I’m not religious. That is, I’m someone who has discovered good reasons to put my faith in Jesus, rather than trying to earn my place in heaven (in contrast to many other religions). However, my assurance of a real life beyond death, doesn’t lead me to complacency, but to a renewed urgency and purpose in life here and now. Sometimes I can drift along as though this is not the case, as can we all, so thank you for bringing me to attention once again!