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When did you ever become less by dying? by Stafford Betty

When Samantha was just shy of her fifth birthday, an age when her delight in every manner of living creature was well underway, she noticed a slug on the sidewalk. This was the same slug she noticed just a few hours earlier, slowly crawling down the front steps of her home. Only now it was smashed on the sidewalk.

“What happened to it?” she asked.
“It looks like it got stepped on, Samantha,” said her mom.
“But why isn’t it moving?”

Her mom looked at her husband as if handing off the conversation. He said, “Samantha, it’s not moving because it died.”

She slowed her walk toward the house and looked puzzled.  Then she looked up at her dad and said, “Will you die, daddy?”

“Yes, Samantha, I will.”
“Will sister die?”
“One day, yes.”
“Will mommy die?”

Tears began to fill her eyes. “Will I die?”
“Yes, Samantha. One day, a long, long time from now, you will.”

Now inside the house, Samantha began to cry uncontrollably. When she calmed down just a bit, her dad continued, “Samantha, I know that makes you afraid. That’s okay. But why are you so upset? Are you afraid that if you die you’ll miss mommy?”
“Are you afraid you’ll miss your sister?”
“Are you afraid you’ll miss daddy?”

She looked up at her dad, eyes swimming with tears, and said, “I’ll miss myself.”

When I first heard this strangely beautiful story from a friend of mine, it almost took my breath away.  Here was a little girl who grasped the human situation in all its sadness.  She hadn’t been introduced to any of the strategies that adults use to drown out the terrifying thought of ceasing to be.  She saw the truth raw—what most of us have felt at one time or another.

In this book we’ll consider the only answer that would have a chance of consoling Samantha—that, while death will certainly mean missing those she leaves behind, it won’t mean missing herself.

Science is king at public universities like the place where I teach.  Too often it steps beyond its boundaries and claims, or at least implies, that human beings are entirely material organisms, nothing more than physical stuff.  Too often students emerge from their classes thinking that belief in spiritual worlds and beings is for the weak of mind. 

But what a forlorn worldview this is, as Samantha precociously saw.  Parents and children all annihilated, reduced to nothingness at death.  As the celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens said shortly before his death,

“When I speak of annihilation I mean just that the screen goes blank.”

Does the screen really go blank?

Hitchens was rightly distressed at the thought of extinction.  So was Woody Allen when he wrote, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” 

Like Hitchens, I’m not capable of believing something just because it’s written in a scripture or promulgated by a religious leader.  I need evidence, and in that way we are very similar.  Why, then, do we come to such different conclusions? My impression of him is that he didn’t make a serious in-depth study of the evidence that’s available to everybody and that you’ll be introduced to in this book. 

The great English historian Arnold Toynbee was, like Hitchens, a non-believer in survival for almost all his life.  But he changed his mind shortly before his death in 1975 and credited research on the near-death experience (NDE) for the shift.  The last book he wrote and edited was titled Life After Death (1976).

Since his death the field of psychical research has grown far beyond anything he could have imagined.  Not only do we get assurance that there is life after death, we even get hints of its nature—a spiritual world more plausible and attractive than any given to us by the world’s religions. 

This evidence might not be enough to convince dyed-in-the-wool physicalists that they survive death, for they are certain that the brain generates consciousness, so when the brain dies, so do we.  My colleagues and I find support for a different view: that the brain works with consciousness as its organ while embodied, but that the brain is not necessary for consciousness to exist when free of the body.

I am confident that Samantha’s tears will dry when she grasps the good news her dad didn’t get around to telling her.  We’ll see why in the pages that follow.

A number of my colleagues at the university where I work assume that my interest in the afterlife comes from disappointments in life.  They assume it is compensation for happiness missed—an escape from the here and now.  They could not be more wrong.  Instead, it grows out of a deep involvement with the here and now.

To put it simply, if a society stops believing in an afterlife where its members are held accountable before God (or Higher Power) for what they do, it will tend to drift from the moral and cultural norms that are crucial to its existence.  As Ivan said in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”  This drift, I believe, is occurring right now in our own country, especially among middle-aged men. 

(Suicide rates for men in their 50’s are up almost 50% from 1999 to 2010.)  I am deeply concerned about this and want to do what little I can to restore for my readers a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, especially their suffering. 

It’s not fashionable to say this, but every society needs moral absolutes.  Nazi Germany didn’t have any.  It was prepared to violate its treaty obligations if they became inconvenient.  And they did.  It was Himmler who asked the question, “What, after all, compels us to keep our promises?” The answer was, nothing.

The influential post-modern philosopher Richard Rorty couldn’t do much better.  He, too, lived without absolutes.  When asked how he defended his sense of moral outrage at the Nazi Holocaust, he could say only that it was based on his “personal sense of revulsion.”  But the Nazis didn’t share that revulsion.  So who is right?  Without absolutes there is no answer, everything is relative. 

The eleventh-century philosopher Al-Ghazzali, widely regarded as the most influential Muslim since Muhammad himself, classically makes the case against all this relativism.  To deny the existence of a surviving soul, to “deny the future life, heaven, hell, resurrection, and judgment” is to invite moral chaos.  He predicted that men and women living without moral absolutes would “give way to a bestial indulgence of their appetites.”

And that’s what’s happening—in government, on Wall Street, in our cities, in our neighborhoods.  How many sacrifice their own interests when no one is policing them?  There are those who say that men and women are capable of policing themselves by using reason.  My experience of people who talk this way is that they are often the first to reason their way out of the policies and standards they helped create when they become inconvenient! 

We need to feel that there are penalties for our inhumanity.  In his book The Devil’s Delusion, David Berlinski, a secular Jew, makes this point.  No fan of the Catholic Church and the atrocities of some of its priests, he nevertheless defends it.  “Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons?  If memory serves, it was not the Vatican.”

Evidence reaching us from the world beyond death has much to tell us about the consequences of immorality.  Anyone who has concluded that hatred, cruelty, cowardice, laziness, and chronic selfishness go unnoticed by the universe is in for a surprise.

Millions of us are killing ourselves as we work our way toward the top of the pyramid.  Unless we rethink what’s truly worth having, we’ll make ourselves miserable as we repeatedly fall short of our goals.  Ask any aspiring screenwriter desperate for recognition or newly minted Ph.D. in English literature angling for a job in her field.  Or, even worse, a “successful” lawyer at a big firm making his half million as he grinds away 70 hours a week and comes home every night dog-tired and depressed.  The higher we aim, the more likely we’ll be passed over.  Too often we feel like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountainside one more time.

Arianna Huffington, in her book Thrive, would have us find joy in things outside our relentless work schedule.  She asks us to “seek a new definition of success that’s more sustainable and more humane.”  “Health is wealth,” she says.  Which is to say that money and investments are not.  Huffington wants to change the way we busy, acquisitive Americans live. 

I’m all for the ideal, but it’s unworkable if most of us believe deep down that money is wealth, and that we’d almost kill for the things that only money can bring us.  The new ideal must be founded on a paradigm shift that assigns greater value to the qualities of the soul.

Huffington sees signs that this shift is underway, but it has a metaphysical side to it that is essential if her vision of a better society is to gain traction. 

In 2007 Huston Smith, America’s leading historian of religions and a sage by anyone’s standards, wrote that “materialism is on the ropes.”  By materialism he meant the philosophy that denies spirit, soul, the Divine, and afterlife.  Brains, yes, but souls, no—that is their motto.  Maybe in the Bay Area where he lives, I told myself at the time, but in Queens or Topeka?  Everywhere I looked, from the editors of the world’s most prominent philosophy and psychiatry journals to my professional friends who styled themselves “progressive,” I could see no sign that materialism was on the ropes. 

But now I do.  All over the place a new spiritual paradigm is emerging.  It comes not from religion, but from psychical research (or parapsychology), a purely secular enterprise.  In the last five years a new publishing niche has emerged: a plethora of books about the near-death experience, deathbed visions, and especially the afterlife are being read by millions of ordinary Americans.  Such works, all growing out of psychical research, and many of them written by professional researchers with PhD’s, are proliferating at an amazing rate.

These eruptions of spirit are being studied by parapsychologists who know how to sift out lunacy and fraud.  What’s left is often impressive and impossible to explain using conventional psychiatric models that deny the reality of spirit.

The new emerging evidence makes the mad scramble for material wealth at the expense of everything else irrational and even ridiculous.  This evidence points to four truths:

1. Our planet is not the only world we will know.
2. The sooner we make our peace with death the less melancholy and frightened we will be as we confront it.
3. The key to success and happiness here is not how many things we acquire but the wellbeing we bring to those around us.
4. The life habits we cultivate here, and not the monuments to ego we build, will determine our starting place in the world to come.

Gandhi said, “The modern or Western insatiableness arises from the lack of a living faith in a future state.”  I could not agree more.  When we as a society reach the conclusion that there is such a state, we’ll stop feeling the need to crowd every pleasure into a single lifetime.  And if we take our spirit friends at their word—they tell us their world is every bit as interesting and rewarding as ours—we won’t feel we are missing out on a joy that can be known only here. 

That feeling of contentment will unleash the energy and time to pursue the things that matter—family fun, enriching friendships, appreciation of the beauty of nature, reading the great books we never got around to, developing talents we never knew we had, hobbies of all types, and volunteer work as we give back to our communities.

But none of this will happen without the necessary underlying philosophy.  I look for the day that our society reaches a tipping point that will stop fueling the drive toward more and more things to clutter our lives with.  The breathtaking advances of psychical research over the last decade are helping to create this tipping point. 

The next eleven chapters are arranged by the types of evidence that, taken all together, should remove reasonable doubt about the reality of an afterlife.  Think of each of these types as a sturdy stick that would require great strength to break.  When you combine them together into a bundle, breaking them would require a force hard to imagine.  But I am understating the strength of this kind of argument.  As you will see, a single well developed case in one or more of these areas is likely to seem unbreakable, and by unbreakable I mean unexplainable by conventional physical standards.  Belief in an afterlife where spirit beings come and go will commend itself to all but the most stubborn defenders of materialist orthodoxy.

Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” That means thinking of ourselves as souls having bodies, not bodies having souls.  It is my hope that as you read along, testing each stick to see if it will break, you will conclude that death, in the sense of non-existence, is an illusion.  As Albus Dumbledore said in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,

“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

We can’t know death in any full sense until it comes, but we can get glimpses of it if we work at it.  Reading this book is one way to work at it, and for those of you who have given up on religion it might be the best way open to you.  So let the adventure begin—not the adventure of dying, not yet that, but the adventure of discovering what “dying” means. 

When did you ever become less by dying? AFTERLIFE: The Evidence by Stafford Betty is published by White Crow Books.

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