Barbara Walters on Heaven: An Intellectual Disappointment

July 10, 2012

Recently, Barbara Walters hosted an ABC special entitled, “Heaven:  Where it is?  How do we get there?”  While there were important topics that were sometimes handled fairly, the show was an intellectual disappointment.  In particular, three items were especially egregious.

First, Walters asked how an idea—heaven—could be such a powerful and important notion even though there is no evidence for it.  However, three crucial pieces of evidence were strangely omitted.

(1) The evidence for God’s existence.  There are several theistic-dependent arguments for an afterlife (God would not annihilate beings of such high value as human persons; he would not put eternity in our hearts and thwart those desires; justice is not achieved in this life, a theistic universe will be fair and just, so these values are achieved in the next life; God will achieve his purposes in making those who choose it like himself, and this requires eternity to be achieved).  I cannot defend these arguments here; my point is that the role of theism and theistic evidence was not considered.

(2) The evidence for New Testament reliability, especially the case for Jesus’ resurrection.

(3) The evidence from Near Death Experiences (NDEs).  How can someone say there is no evidence for something when the advocates of that view have presented evidence, yet it is never discussed?  Someone failed to do her homework.

Second, regarding NDEs, while Walters did feature eyewitness accounts of such experiences, she did not present the strongest cases or the best evidence for them. I have in mind, for example, situations in which people learn things they simply could not have known if the NDE were merely a naturalistically explicable event e.g., sometimes people come to learn what is happening miles away, in the hospital cafeteria several floors below the ICU, the number on top of the ambulance not available for viewing from ground level, etc., etc.  Instead, Walters just presented the typical stages of many NDEs, along with the impact they had on the participants.  But this weaker evidence is open to naturalistic interpretations while the stronger evidence is not (see Jeffrey Long, Paul Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife).  When evaluating a viewpoint, the strongest evidence on its behalf should be taken into account, and the Walters special failed significantly in this regard. Someone failed to do her homework.

Third, she allowed to stand the claim by a neuroscientist to the effect that there is a God, maybe even a heaven, a gene which explains why some people find heaven (or God) easy to accept and others find it difficult, and which therefore undercuts the evidential value of various factors in favor of belief in God and the afterlife.  Now besides the fact that this claim is self-refuting—after all, surely we will find a skeptical gene that makes atheism and skepticism easy to accept, yet no one would take this as evidence against skepticism, so why do so regarding belief; and what if we found a journalistic gene that, it should be consistently argued would undermine belief in Walters’s own conclusions—all neuroscience can do is find regions of the brain that are more active when, say, meditative prayer is practiced.  Also, we can find genetic or neurological correlations with certain mental states and beliefs.  But correlation is not causal determination, and this was not noted. Someone failed to do her homework.

These three failures allowed Walters to conclude, basically, that some people believe in heaven, others don’t, and at the end of the day, evidence doesn’t matter.  It’s what you choose to believe arbitrarily, and how that helps you, that matters. But here’s an important lesson:  Be very careful in trusting the work of a journalist, packed into a one to two hour television special, when there is not time to deal with the subject honestly nor does the journalist know what he or she is talking about due to a failure to do his/her homework!

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About J.P. Moreland

J.P. Moreland is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.


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5 Responses to 'Barbara Walters on Heaven: An Intellectual Disappointment'

  1. avatar Steve says:

    Being disappointed that a secularist isn’t able to “deal with the subject honestly” comes as no surprise to me.

  2. avatar Mike says:

    It seems to me that there is a difference between unbiased investigative journalism and personal commentary. Barbra Walters has never struck me as a big fan of the former.

  3. avatar Beth says:

    I watched portions of the same program, and had the impression that Barbara Walters is genuinely seeking answers without knowing where to find them–and looking for answers from a diverse set of sources–in hopes of finding a reason to believe in heaven that makes perfect sense to her. Perhaps she would find the theistic-dependent arguments intriguing if you sent them to her in a letter?

    It seems to me that the evil in this world blinds us to the goodness of God, and we have to know He is good to believe in heaven. Job concluded that the evil in the world demands justice beyond the grave, also based upon the goodness of God and the fact that justice is not automatic in this life. The command to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength is a GOOD command because God is GOOD. Yet it is odd to think one can demand heaven without loving God–so it is reasonable to begin the search for heaven by searching for God–and finding Him IS to love Him.

  4. avatar Razor Swift says:

    “The evidence from Near Death Experiences (NDEs). How can someone say there is no evidence for something when the advocates of that view have presented evidence, yet it is never discussed?”

    It’s sad that most of the skeptics haven’t considered the multiple credible accounts of NDEs. We know there have been cases where people were in a coma -with no registered brain activity- yet knew what was going on in their hospital room. Moreover, so many Christian individuals have had some interesting things to say about heaven during their OBEs which were harmonious to other accounts. ABC’s agenda is showing through, as you already demonstrated.

  5. avatar Bekah says:

    “Correlation is not causal determination” – this seems to be the greatest argument against the consensus conclusion of modern neuroscience that the mind can be completely explained away by physical processes in the brain. Llike Walters, this scientific consensus fails to take into consideration the relative strengths and weaknesses of a theistic versus purely naturalistic philosophy given the evidence from other disciplines like astronomy and philosophy. In fact, they don’t even seem to be aware of the philosophical assumptions that lead them to such a consensus. Who was that said that scientists make poor philosophers? I don’t mean to be rude, but some neuroscientists, in their efforts to understand the workings of the brain, seem to use their brains the least in this area!