“Total Consolation in the Face of Death”

Today I’ll say a little more about Sam Harris’ lecture on death and religion, which is available on YouTube. According to Harris, one reason theists are uncomfortable with atheists is that atheism denies the afterlife. Atheism seems like a “death cult,” he says, because it’s the only view that admits death is real.

I believe the contradiction between theism and atheism is overdrawn, and this is one example. Many naturalistic theists and impersonal theists, as well as some who espouse process theology, deny that our individual consciousness survives death. And I’ve talked with atheists who believe in reincarnation! What’s more, many who believe in a personal God are open to doubt and a sense of mystery. “Yes,” they may say, “I expect that I will survive the grave. But nobody knows for sure, and I realize that this life on Earth may be all that I have.” (See Bridging the God Gap, Chapter Eleven, “God and Mortality.”)

But even if Sam is a bit off base, he’s in the right ball park. In America the vast majority of those who believe in a supreme being also say that this deity will preserve us after death (for better or worse, if you believe in heaven and hell). And Harris is spot-on in maintaining that “the thing for which there is no substitute is total consolation in the face of death.” He does not look to science to provide such consolation, except insofar as science can influence human psychology. We won’t learn to accept death by getting more information. “The answer is a change in attitude.”

To bring about this attitudinal shift, Harris has explored spiritual disciplines with more commitment than most churchgoers. He has gone on Buddhist retreats for months at a time. In his presentation on death and religion, he guides an audience of atheists through a meditation that involves learning “to pay attention to the present moment … not doing anything with it,” just noticing what you experience now … now … now.

[Added on March 1:] How does becoming aware of the present moment produce an attitudinal shift about mortality? The YouTube lecture doesn’t spell this out, but poets have given us some clues:

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.” – William Blake

“Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.” – Robert Frost

Also, my thanks to “Levi” for calling my attention to a 27-minute guided meditation by Harris:

For Levi’s comments on Harris’ book, Waking Up, see:

https://leviathanbound.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/waking-up/ [end of March 1 addition.]

On Monday I’ll be another year older. Changing my attitude about time and mortality becomes increasingly important. I appreciate Harris’ reflections on this issue. For his talk see:

Roger Christan Schriner

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4 thoughts on ““Total Consolation in the Face of Death”

  1. Excellent point about the wide variation of beliefs among theists and atheists.

    I definitely understand what “impersonal theism” is, but what is “naturalistic theism”? Is that more like a Spinoza-esque theism?

    • Hi Howie,

      Naturalistic theists understand God as belonging to the natural universe rather than as a supernatural deity. To elaborate further, I’ll lazily quote what I’ve already written:

      There are two ways to be a naturalistic theist. First, one might believe in a godlike power that is part of the universe but which science cannot currently detect. For example, one might define God as a collective consciousness that connects all minds. Science has not yet discovered such a consciousness, but maybe it will in the future. Second, some naturalistic theists revere something within nature as we currently understand it, something so precious they consider it sacred. For example, some say that God is the power of creativity in the universe, including the forces that generate new stars and the inventive capacities of the human mind. Others are in awe of the same creative forces, but without naming them God. That makes them atheists or agnostics (unless they believe in some other sort of deity). The difference is merely verbal. We all have the right to speak in ways that makes sense to us. …

      “In Reason and Reverence, William Murry lists several naturalistic god-concepts. God could be “the driving force of the natural world . . . the universal self in each person . . . the power for good in the world . . . ‘the spirit’ . . . the spirit of love” or just “mystery.” … And Daniel Dennett has commented that “god” could be used as a name for human goodness. “It’s super, and it’s natural. It’s just not supernatural.” (Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, pp. 81-82.)

      Roger Schriner

      • Hey Roger – those are some cool ideas I’ve read about as well. You may want to read “God’s Debris” (there’s a free pdf you can find online) which has another cool idea.

        I’ve always wondered a bit about what the definition of naturalism really is. I’ve read that it’s not really all that clearly defined and philosophers vary on the definition. For example is a mind that connects all minds together natural or “super-natural”? It may depend on who you ask.

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