Catholics believe in heaven. We also believe in hell. Those beliefs are articles of faith, revealed in Scripture and tradition. But, according to a new book by social critic and Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza, Scripture and tradition aren’t the only witnesses to the existence of an afterlife.
In a new book, “Life After Death: The Evidence” (Regnery, $27.95), D’Souza argues that reason and science also bear witness to heaven and hell. Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with D’Souza about his book and the case he makes for life after death.
Our Sunday Visitor: In the book, you set out to prove the existence of life after death by means of reason and science. Why did you attack the question from that angle?
Dinesh D’Souza: We’re living in an age of a new and belligerent form of atheism. These atheists regard religion as not only erroneous but — thanks to events like Sept. 11 — as positively harmful. Where atheists used to say we’ve never seen evidence of life after death, today they say that people who do believe in an afterlife are dangerous: Because of that belief, they fly planes into buildings.
Accordingly, I wanted to write a book that inspired not only the Christian reader, but also showed the fence-sitter or seeker that the very tools of reason and science to which atheists appeal to disprove the existence of an afterlife actually end up proving its existence.
OSV: At their core, what’s wrong with atheists’ arguments against life after death?
D’Souza: They claim that there’s no evidence, no proof, of its existence, but it’s a fallacy to believe that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. If you lived a couple thousand years ago and looked up at the sky, you would see a handful of stars, the moon and, maybe, Venus. Based on that observation, you could conclude that’s all that there was — no more planets, moons or stars, only what you saw.
Today, we can see how shortsighted that conclusion would have been — shortsighted because it mistakenly assumed that “not found” is the same thing as “found not to exist.”
OSV: How unique — historically and culturally — is the denial of an afterlife?
D’Souza: The belief in life after death is universal. There is no culture and no religion that denies it. Some religious traditions, including forms of Buddhism, are “atheist” in that they pay no attention to God, but they still affirm an afterlife. Only in modern times and only in one culture — the West — do we see it. Atheists today are very arrogant. They say: “We know we’re the minority but who cares. The rest of the world is ignorant and will eventually come around to our point of view.”
That attitude is having a lot of influence on our culture, so we need to challenge atheists with their own weapons: history, philosophy, science. If all we do is keep repeating the claims of faith, that allows atheists to claim that they, not us, are the apostles of reason.
OSV: In your book, you use arguments from science, philosophy and morality to make the case for an afterlife. What, for example, does morality have to do with proving the existence of life after death?
D’Souza: As humans, we live in two worlds: the world of the way things are and the world of the way things ought to be. And we seem to be the only creatures who live in these two worlds. It never occurs to a horse or an elephant to say, “You shouldn’t do that,” or “You have a duty to do this.” Why not?
Evolution says we are creatures who exist to survive and reproduce. But morality, far from telling us to go ahead and do what we want to improve our prospects of success in the world, tells us the exact opposite. Morality tells us, “You want to do this, and it may improve some things for you, but don’t do it.” That’s not a voice from the outside, but the inner voice that resides in the heart.
It’s almost like there’s a legal standard built into human nature. But where does it come from? Who passed those laws? Where are those laws going to be enforced?
It’s a great mystery. But if there is another world after this world, a world in which we are going to be judged for our actions, morality becomes completely comprehensible.
OSV: You say some of the most compelling evidence comes from people’s so-called life-after-death experiences. Why?
D’Souza: Atheists recognize the power and potency of this kind of evidence because it’s empirical — it’s the experience of thousands of people who cannot all be written off as kooks or liars.
OSV: What about neuroscience? Can it support a belief in the existence of life after death?
D’Souza: The argument from neuroscience is rooted in something Socrates argued long ago. He spoke about how humans are made up of both the material and immaterial. The material stuff has attributes. It can be weighed and measured. But not the immaterial. No one can figure out the width of our conscience.
Likewise, bodies have expiration dates, but it doesn’t follow that the immaterial part of us has the same limitations. Think about the vapor in a bottle. If you smash the bottle, you haven’t smashed the vapor. Rather you’ve released it.
Atheists, however, have undertaken a supreme campaign to refute that idea. They claim that the mind is the same thing as the brain. And we know the brain dies. So, if our mental faculties — our souls, free will, emotions, etc. — are all reducible to the movement of neurons in the brain, then all those things die along with the brain. Which means there couldn’t be life after death because there was nothing left to live on.
To demonstrate that point, they’ll point to studies that show a correlation between the physical operations of the brain and the mental or emotional consequences. But that doesn’t prove that the mind and the brain are the same thing. Just because two things are correlated doesn’t mean that the physical action causes the mental action.
OSV: Is there a value of believing in an afterlife to individuals and cultures?
D’Souza: This is a deeply practical question. Yes, there is value in at least two ways. First, if there’s no life after death, we’re like passengers on the Titanic. We can rearrange the deck chairs and turn up the music, but ultimately we’re doomed.
If there is life after death, however, everything changes. We can face death with more courage and peace because we can see it as a gateway to another life. Second, a belief in life after death gives us reason to hope in justice. We can hope good will be rewarded and evil punished. We also have a reason to teach morality to children, and it can give our own life a sense of meaning and purpose.
OSV : In your book, you talk about a Western approach to death and dying. What is that approach, and does it make some more susceptible to atheists’ attacks on the idea of an afterlife?
D’Souza: Having grown up in a different culture — Bombay, India — it has long struck me that America and the West in general have a very different attitude toward death than the rest of the world. In most cultures, death is part of life. Funeral processions through the streets are a regular sight. It’s normal to see bereaved widows and relatives. It’s also more normal for children to be exposed to death because most people die at home. Death is accepted as part of the rhythm of life.
In the West, however, it often seems like we’re living in denial of death. People rarely die at home: They die in hospitals. The immediate family often isn’t present, and children are almost always shielded from it. All that suggests that we’re living like we’re never going to die.
That’s a very adolescent attitude. It’s normal for teenagers to live in that stage of temporary insanity where they think they’re immortal, but for an entire culture to remain in that stage is unhealthy. There is a taboo to thinking and talking about death, and, yes, that taboo prevents people from really engaging in thought and discussion about what comes after this life. My book is an attempt to help explode that taboo.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
Reasonable Faith (sidebar)
The danger of abandoning the ground of science and reason, however, is that it compels Christians to live in the land of two truths. There is one truth we hear in church and there is another truth that we hear about in the general culture. Revelation — the language of religious faith — becomes divorced from reason, which is the language of education, work and secular society. ...
To reclaim the hijacked territory, Christians must take a fresh look at reason and science. When they do, they will see that it stunningly confirms the beliefs they held in the first place.
— “Life after Death: The Evidence.”