A strange article from Brian Thomas: “Evidence of Eternity in Our Hearts?”
People believe what they do for a wide variety of reasons, but it seems that some beliefs – politics and religion being being perhaps the most famous – may be in some way “hardwired.” Studying children from Ecuador, a recent paper (pdf, press release) looked at the belief in a “pre-life” of people from indigenous rural and urban catholic society. Thomas explains:
Natalie Emmons and Deborah Kelemen of Boston University conducted two studies on 283 children from Ecuador. They reasoned that survey participants from the jungle lived closer to life and death events and would have biologically based ideas about pre-conception existence, while the Catholic student participants from the city had more exposure to religious teaching that life begins at conception and therefore would “reject the idea of life before birth.” Surprisingly, both groups of students maintained that a core aspect in each person lives even without the body.
According to the paper the indigenous Shuar culture doesn’t have a belief in a pre-life, and neither should Catholicism. I don’t know if the phrase “life begins at conception” – which seems to be more of a political slogan these days, but let’s not go there – is the evidence for that, but the paper does note such beliefs are absent “from the vast majority of Christian and Jewish faiths.” But they are common among many other religions:
Nevertheless, the notion that persons spiritually preexist their earthly, corporal forms has recurred in religious and philosophical traditions for thousands of years. Such notions are usually embedded in belief systems that include the concept of a life–death–rebirth cycle, wherein the eternal aspects of persons are said to transmigrate between earthly and spiritual realms (see Talmage, 1915, for the Mormon Church’s linear concept of prelife existence). Cyclical belief systems have been documented among the ancient Celts (Siculus 60-30 BCE/1935) and ancient Greeks (Plato 380 BCE/2006) and continue to persist in several present-day religions including, but not limited to, Hinduism and Buddhism.
But, apparently in spite of the beliefs of the culture in which they grow up, children do seem to have prelife beliefs, which decline in scope as they age. That may mean that they are indeed hardwired, but are they true? You probably shouldn’t argue that they are (or aren’t) because they are hardwired, that would be dumb. I’m sure you could run a similar study asking different questions – about the nature of light, for example – and come up with a whole load of equally “hardwired” answers that we know to be false.
But that isn’t going to stop Brian Thomas, who has apparently spotted an opportunity to stick it to those horrible atheist scientists. This is particularly strange considering how this isn’t really a Christian belief, but one held in the modern world by people of the Hindu and Buddhist persuasion, along with many others. So the first task is to claim that Hindus etc don’t really believe that:
Buddhism and Hinduism do not teach that a person exists after death, but instead hold that one’s soul loses personal identity when it eventually merges with the universal “all,” which some call god.
I don’t think that’s right, somehow.
I’m going to rearrange Thomas’ article slightly: the next thing he needs to do is claim that prelife is actually a Christian belief, which he only gets around to later. The entirety of that section – which includes the conclusion – reads:
[A]ccording to Solomon’s ancient book Ecclesiastes, when God made humans, “He [had] put eternity in their hearts.” The Complete Jewish Bible translation renders that passage, “Also, he has given human beings an awareness of eternity.”
If God clearly says He put eternity in our hearts, it’s no wonder that sociologists find it there.
Near that same passage, Solomon asked, “Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?,” indicating that, unlike animals, our human souls last after bodily breakdown and rise to meet our Maker. It appears that scientists are just now confirming what Scripture has said all along about our knowledge of eternity.
He is, as you can see, grasping at straws here: those verses might show that the afterlife is biblically supported, which was never in dispute, but but say nothing about a prelife.
Now, back to where we were: after claiming that Buddhists shouldn’t believe in a prelife, Thomas says:
Though secularism is a popular religion among scientists, it is materialistic so its adherents believe that when the material body ceases, so do all of its immaterial aspects like volition, intellect, emotions, and desires.
Nice word salad: like many Christians Thomas is conflating secularism with atheism, and treating it as a religion. Without getting into specifics, none of that makes sense. But sure, plenty of scientists don’t believe in an afterlife – you’ll note how Thomas is also conflating prelife and afterlife beliefs – or a prelife. What of it?
Lead author Natalie Emmons said in a Boston University news release, “I study these things for a living but even find myself defaulting to them. I know that my mind is a product of my brain but I still like to think of myself as something independent of my body.” She clearly feels this conflict: Her secular doctrines affirm that her immaterial aspects are merely a product of brain chemistry and thus would not survive after bodily death, but it seems her innate awareness of her own everlasting soul keeps manifesting itself.
That’s from the press release I previously linked. But what are “these things”? The previous paragraph to the one that contains that quote says:
Why would humans have evolved this seemingly universal belief in the eternal existence of our emotions? Emmons said that this human trait might be a by-product of our highly developed social reasoning. “We’re really good at figuring out what people are thinking, what their emotions are, what their desires are,” she said. We tend to see people as the sum of their mental states, and desires and emotions may be particularly helpful when predicting their behavior. Because this ability is so useful and so powerful, it flows over into other parts of our thinking. We sometimes see connections where potentially none exist, we hope there’s a master plan for the universe, we see purpose when there is none, and we imagine that a soul survives without a body.
The paragraph that includes the Emmons quote describes these beliefs as “nonscientific” but “natural and deep-seated.” The following one reads:
“We have the ability to reflect and reason scientifically, and we have the ability to reason based on our gut and intuition,” she added. “And depending on the situation, one may be more useful than the other.”
We seem to be talking about these beliefs as specific cases of general intuition, which we all have but which may or may not be correct. Thomas wants to use this, somehow, to prove that his religion must be right. I shouldn’t have to point out how that doesn’t work.
This article is pretty unusual, as I said, but not because it abuses the science so much: that’s typical behaviour from the ICR. Nor is it how Thomas misrepresents the beliefs and practises of religions that are not his own, for that too happens on a regular basis. Instead, Thomas has this time gone so far as to twist his own doctrine so as to score a petty and illusory point against atheist scientists. But these articles are read by a good number of his co-religionists and I don’t think they’re all going to be happy about it. Particularly interesting is the supposed contradiction of the “life begins at conception” mantra, which I doubt that everyone will be on board with.
The ICR’s facebook page may be a pretty interesting sight in the morning. In the highly unlikely event that they try to pretend that it never happened and vape the article however, here’s a screenshot of the page as I see it now to prove I’m not delusional.
Time for some housekeeping: I went through the settings earlier today and pulled some levers that I thought might be interesting. Here’s what I remember doing:
- I enabled star ratings for posts, but not comments. As I’m sure many writers would agree, some things I write seem better in my own eyes than others, but this doesn’t always match the reception they get when published. But viewer and comment counts aren’t terribly reliable indicators either, so in the interest of actually knowing where to improve I’m going to try gather some statistics.
So feel free to scroll down and give me a 1-star rating because you’ve always hated the colour of hyperlinks on this theme, and have never felt you could express that until now. Or perhaps there is a favourite number you want to nudge it towards? If you want to rate somebody’s comment though you still have to put that in words and post it below.
- That brings me to the next thing, which is that I reduced the ability to nest replies in the comments down to 1 level from 10 – I may remove it altogether. Thoughts?
- Also, the number of links that automatically sends any comment to the moderation queue has been raised to 10 from 5, so feel free to provide citations as to how terrible the comment you are replying to.
- This month there’s an option under settings to “Protest NSA Surveillance,” apparently tied to an event that happened yesterday (I think). The NSA are douchebags, sure, but I ended up deciding against adding the banner for aesthetic reasons. Just pretend I did and click here.
- Also, though I actually added it a couple of days ago, there’s now a list of the most recent comments in the bar at the right, though only when you look at it on the main page. Very confusing, I know, but I don’t want to make that bar too long.
So yeah, rate, comment, and review on itun- no, that’s for podcasts. Try hitting one of the share buttons below instead then.