Essentially, believing in heaven makes those evangelicals impatient with life, eager for death. If you’re inclined to judge this reasoning as dumb on stilts, remember really smart people said it. They are right. You are wrong. Regardless, there is a spectacular demonstration of ignorance at work here.
There should be an algebraic equation to calculate something we experience far too often in the public square today. It would determine the ratio between a person’s absolute brilliance in one arena – their uncontested expertise – and their regularly articulated ignorance in others. This would then be multiplied by the confidence with which they say such things. It would be applied to things like Stephen Hawking’s pontifications on subjects such as religion being, which he called “a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.”
It would also be super helpful in evaluating a recent tweet by Harvard’s celebrated cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. It’s a stunner.
Pinker, riffing off an equally foolish editorial in the Washington Post, makes this whopper of a claim: “Belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier. Exhibit A: What’s really behind Republicans wanting a swift reopening? Evangelicals.”
Yes, we are all too familiar with the hackneyed charge that thoughts of heaven are delusional. But malignantly so? That’s a new twist. What was merely pitiable yesterday is now malevolent.
But is this really so?
Pinker and Abernathy Make Their Case
Donald Brown, a note anthropologist, has made it his life’s work to study human universals, those qualities found consistently across the grand diversity of human cultures. He explains that religion and thoughts of the afterlife are one of them. Curiously, Pinker presents Brown’s universals in the appendix of his book “The Blank Slate.”
Religion, systems for understanding and relating to God (or gods) and the afterlife, is natural to human experience and practice. People move toward it easily with no external prodding. Atheism, not so much. It’s an ideological construct of which a person typically requires convincing. Thus, if serious thoughts about God, the afterlife, and the supernatural are for hapless rubes, then humans are universally hapless rubes. Pinker, Hawking, and Dawkins, please pray for us.
What about the charge that belief in heaven is not only unsophisticated, but inherently malevolent? Does belief in heaven really diminish the value of life? Is it a death wish? This is what Pinker and Gary Abernathy, the Washington Post columnist basking in Pinker’s Twitter praise, are getting at. Their extended syllogism is as follows:
1. Re-opening our nation from lockdown will kill people.
2. Republicans are the ones calling for reopening.
3. Evangelicals who have their eyes set on heaven are the primary drivers of the Republicans.
4. Evangelicals, and thus Republicans, don’t care if people die.
It makes obvious sense to these two men and the editors at the Post. But for giggles, let’s break it down and see how it holds up. The central meat of Abernathy’s case for why evangelicals don’t care if people to die is found this observation:
The National Association of Evangelicals has identified four statements that it says define evangelicals, the last of which is most pertinent for this discussion: “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” This literal belief in eternal salvation — eternal life — helps explain the different reactions to life-threatening events like a coronavirus outbreak.
He then adds, “As far as many evangelicals are concerned, life passes quickly, suffering is temporary and worrying solves nothing. That’s not a view that comports well with long stretches of earthly time spent waiting out business closures or stay-at-home orders.”