Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Aug/12

21

A Little Bit of Heaven

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I did publish some reviews and columns during my absence, but probably the only such item that is much of a “fit” for Secular Right was my contribution to a symposium published in the June issue of The American Spectator.

The symposium was actually a group review of Peter Kreeft’s best-selling book about Heaven.  That is to say, myself and two other invitees ─ one Christian believer, one Jewish believer ─ all submitted reviews of the book, after a brief introduction by Bob Tyrrell, TAS editor.

My contribution is here.  Of the others, I liked Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s the better.  Very Jewish:  “Heaven, schmeaven ─ God wants us to be busy on Earth!”

I’m afraid I was not very kind to Kreeft’s book, which I described as warmed-over C.S. Lewis.  Which it is.

My review inspired a couple of spirited responses from Christians.

First came Roger Clegg, in the Letters columns of the July-August TAS.  His letter and my response are here.  My response is rather flippant: but then, Roger was impertinent and illogical.

Impertinent: He opens a window into my soul and asserts that: “Mr. Derbyshire, poor soul, is trying very hard not to believe.”

How does he know that? This is a standard Christian trope: That the atheist, poor fellow, is a believer really, but, like a naughty child, just won’t admit it.  Sooner or later the Hound of Heaven will get him!

My own religious history, hinted at clearly enough in my review, is precisely the opposite. For many years I tried very hard to believe, but just couldn’t. At last I sank gratefully into unbelief, which I found much more psychologically relaxing ─ better suited to my temperament ─ and not at all the agonized “trying very hard not to believe” posited by Roger. But then, I guess he knows my inner life better than I do.

Illogical: “Mr. Derbyshire demands ‘evidence’ of God and Heaven, but since there is plenty of evidence what he really seems to want is proof.”

No, it’s evidence. I describe myself plainly in my review (ninth paragraph) as “a rather severe empiricist.” If what I really wanted was proof, I would have described myself as “a rather severe rationalist,” wouldn’t I?  But again, perhaps Roger knows me much better than I know myself.

In the June TAS, not yet online, I get another scornful letter from L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center. Brent fixes on my dismissal of C.S. Lewis’s famous “trilemma,” which argues that:

[Jesus of Nazareth] either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

To which I had responded, in my review: “Why couldn’t Jesus just have been mistaken?” Brent replies that anyone who mistakes himself for God Almighty must have been a lunatic. Jesus plainly wasn’t a lunatic.

I agree that the Jesus of the New Testament doesn’t seem to have been a lunatic, though it’s not impossible he was the kind of psychotic who’s terrifically good at faking sanity.  Not impossible; and way more possible than that Jesus was related by blood to the Creator of the Universe.

The things one might believe about oneself without being mad are many and various, though, and highly dependent on one’s time and place; and the limits of ordinary non-insane human self-deception are very wide, in my experience. My best guess is that Jesus really believed he was divine, but was mistaken. (This was also Martin Gardner’s opinion.)

I note, very incidentally, from my recent reading, that Abraham Lincoln seems not to have believed in an afterlife.  At any rate, I read this on page 56 of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals:

When his New Salem friend and neighbor Mrs. Samuel Hill asked him whether he believed in a future realm, he answered no.  “I’m afraid there isn’t,” he replied sorrowfully. “It isn’t a pleasant thing to think that when we die that is the last of us.” Though later statements make reference to an omnipotent God or supreme power, there is no mention in any published document, the historian Robert Bruce observes ─ except in one ambiguous letter to his dying father ─ of any “faith in life after death.” To the end of his life, he was haunted by the finality of death and the evanescence of earthly accomplishments.

The notion of an afterlife ─ a “metaphysical Disneyland,” Thomas Metzinger calls it ─ seems to me the most extravagantly improbable of all theological concepts.  On this I agree with Lincoln, whose religious convictions are chewed over here (and no doubt in many other places).

Whatever he believed, Lincoln was undoubtedly a great-grand-master of “Ceremonial Deism” ─ but that’s an oratorical style, not a confession.

 

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6 comments

  • CJColucci · August 22, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    A simpler and more obvious solution to Lewis’s trilemma: He probably never claimed to be God. If memory serves, only one of the four gospels attributes this claim to Yeshua ben-Yusuf. That gospel’s author does not claim to have been an eyewitness, has no likely source who would have been, and wrote decades after the putative fact. Not to mention having a clear theological agenda of his own not shared by the authors of other sources, which make no such claim.

  • Florida resident · August 22, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    The comment by esteemed CJColucci reminds me the question:
    How Many Devils Can Stand on the Head of a Pin?
    See
    http://biltrix.com/2012/08/19/how-many-devils-can-stand-on-the-head-of-a-pin/

    Respectfully, Florida resident.

  • Marco · August 22, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    No chance that I’ll buy Kreeft’s book, and almost none that I’ll check it out of the library. I do think that Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”, which Bradlaugh mentions in his review, is worth a look. Not that it would persuade any reasonable person, but for a non-believer, it’s an interesting insight into how believers think.

    And yes, I’m surprised that more people don’t answer the trilemma the way CJ Colucci does. We simply don’t know what the presumed real figure behind the biblical Jesus believed, said, or did. I’m not sure that Lewis was unaware of this objection. He was using the trilemma to answer people who thought, on the basis of the Bible, that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but could not have been divine. He assumes (or I assume that he assumes) that such people are taking the words of Jesus in the Bible as things he actually said. His point was that if you accept the value of the moral teachings, then it doesn’t make sense to believe that the teacher was a lunatic or a liar.

    To which one could answer again, that some of the reported words of Jesus could be accurate, and others not. Or, as Bradlaugh says, it’s not always clear what “non-insane human self deception” may lead us to believe.

  • Roger Clegg · August 23, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Just two points: First, I want to take this opportunity to say that, most of the time and on most topics, I am a great fan of Mr. Derbyshire (or, as he now prefers to be called, Mr. Bloodaxe). Second, what I wrote was a response to what Mr. Derbyshire wrote, and I don’t think my reading of what he wrote was impertinent or illogical — but readers can read Mr. Derbyshire’s essay and my letter responding to it and make up their own minds, and I encourage them to do so.

  • Author comment by Andrew Stuttaford · August 24, 2012 at 4:02 am

    Lewis’s trilemma also presumes that the Gospels contain an accurate record of what Jesus said and did. That is, to say the least, debatable.

  • meh · August 24, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    The world is full of people who believe seemingly crazy things (alien abductees, for instance) without themselves being crazy or otherwise abnormal. Therefore there are more than three choices. Also note that the trilemma is based on one’s seeming reluctance to conclude that Jesus was crazy or worse (he may well have been; who knows?). It’s a subtle game of cultural/religious bluff that Lewis is playing.

    Likewise we know nothing about Jesus that isn’t derived ultimately from the Bible, the historical accuracy of which is wildly improbable to say the least. So in addition to the fourth option of believing crazy things without being crazy (or worse) we have the additional options of Jesus never having said what he is alleged to have said, ie Jesus was either legendary (a real person or persons totally obscured by the Biblical story) or Jesus was mythical (a mythical person created by the Biblical story without being based on a real person or persons).

    Lewis’ trilemma is for people who already want to believe and who want a rationalization for their belief. Once you realize that there are more than three options the game is up; the trilemma is a false dichotomy (trichotomy?).

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