According to Michelle Boorstein at the Washington Post, the Templeton Foundation has awarded
… $5 million to create something called The Immortality Project, a sprawling research venture into the implications of human’s expanding expiration dates.
The grant for University of California-Riverside philosopher John Martin Fischer may be one of the country’s biggest investments in looking scientifically at how we view death, what role it plays in our psyches, whether our brains are hard-wired to experience an afterlife.
Friends are divided about this. Some say it’s good because it supports a sort of liberal Christianity.
But what if Templeton ends up making the whole idea sound ridiculous? It’s been done. Seances did that in the nineteenth century.
Never mind that there was a lot of fraud involved. Yes, of course, but that doesn’t prove it was all false any more than quack cancer treatments prove that no cancer treatments work. The big problem, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, is that no medium ever uttered an idea or discovered anything that was of permanent interest to humanity.
So it was a backwater when it wasn’t a fraud.
And yes, it tended to discredit the idea of life beyond the grave by making it sound ridiculous. It was considered an embarrassing fact about Canada’s wartime prime minister, Sir William Lyon Mackenzie King, that he consulted mediums.
No one would have considered it embarrassing if he had simply said that he prayed for the souls of the war dead. Atheists may claim that it is a waste of time and fundamentalists may object to praying for souls, but it isn’t, in principle, embarrassing to reasonable people.
Now, an observant Christian or Jew would hardly be surprised by any of this. Consulting those who claim to traffic in the afterlife is considered a sin, and forbidden as such. (There is an interesting case in 1 Samuel.)
So if people try to do it, and it comes to nothing, there is no reason to suppose that that is because there is no life beyond the grave. Rather that those who insist on trying to know things we cannot in principle know and have explicitly been told not to try to know will waste their time and money on the wrong path.
All that said, some people have had near-death experiences, and one outcome has been long term changes in what they consider important. See, for example, The Spiritual Brain. They emphasize relationships more and acquisitions less. Which makes sense.
But we could have assumed that by reason. Reason can tell us that relationships matter more than possessions and that ethical actions are more reliable guides than unethical ones for the good life.
If our weaknesses require us to have it shouted in our ear by an out of body experience, so be it.
Closing yer religion jaw fer the week, the News desk brings to your attention a beautiful old poem by Robert Browning, about a man who had in fact died and been raised to life again, and the way it changed his perspective.