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!