There should be an algebraic equation to calculate something we experience far too often in the public square today. It would determine the ratio between a person’s absolute brilliance in one arena – their uncontested expertise – and their regularly articulated ignorance in others. This would then be multiplied by the confidence with which they say such things. It would be applied to things like Stephen Hawking’s pontifications on subjects such as religion being, which he called “a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.”
It would also be super helpful in evaluating a recent tweet by Harvard’s celebrated cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. It’s a stunner.
Pinker, riffing off an equally foolish editorial in the Washington Post, makes this whopper of a claim: “Belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier. Exhibit A: What’s really behind Republicans wanting a swift reopening? Evangelicals.”
Yes, we are all too familiar with the hackneyed charge that thoughts of heaven are delusional. But malignantly so? That’s a new twist. What was merely pitiable yesterday is now malevolent.
But is this really so?
Pinker and Abernathy Make Their Case
Donald Brown, a note anthropologist, has made it his life’s work to study human universals, those qualities found consistently across the grand diversity of human cultures. He explains that religion and thoughts of the afterlife are one of them. Curiously, Pinker presents Brown’s universals in the appendix of his book “The Blank Slate.”
Religion, systems for understanding and relating to God (or gods) and the afterlife, is natural to human experience and practice. People move toward it easily with no external prodding. Atheism, not so much. It’s an ideological construct of which a person typically requires convincing. Thus, if serious thoughts about God, the afterlife, and the supernatural are for hapless rubes, then humans are universally hapless rubes. Pinker, Hawking, and Dawkins, please pray for us.
What about the charge that belief in heaven is not only unsophisticated, but inherently malevolent? Does belief in heaven really diminish the value of life? Is it a death wish? This is what Pinker and Gary Abernathy, the Washington Post columnist basking in Pinker’s Twitter praise, are getting at. Their extended syllogism is as follows:
1. Re-opening our nation from lockdown will kill people.
2. Republicans are the ones calling for reopening.
3. Evangelicals who have their eyes set on heaven are the primary drivers of the Republicans.
4. Evangelicals, and thus Republicans, don’t care if people die.
It makes obvious sense to these two men and the editors at the Post. But for giggles, let’s break it down and see how it holds up. The central meat of Abernathy’s case for why evangelicals don’t care if people to die is found this observation:
The National Association of Evangelicals has identified four statements that it says define evangelicals, the last of which is most pertinent for this discussion: “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” This literal belief in eternal salvation — eternal life — helps explain the different reactions to life-threatening events like a coronavirus outbreak.
He then adds, “As far as many evangelicals are concerned, life passes quickly, suffering is temporary and worrying solves nothing. That’s not a view that comports well with long stretches of earthly time spent waiting out business closures or stay-at-home orders.”
Essentially, believing in heaven makes those evangelicals impatient with life, eager for death. If you’re inclined to judge this reasoning as dumb on stilts, remember really smart people said it. They are right. You are wrong. Regardless, there is a spectacular demonstration of ignorance at work here. Ignorance in science. Ignorance in sociology. Ignorance of any type of entry-level understanding of Christianity. Ignorance of basic linear logic.
Pinker and Abernathy Don’t Understand Christians
Let’s start with fundamental logic. Abernathy tells us that the folks at the Pew Research Center find over 70 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians. Granted, most of these are merely cultural Christians who don’t show up for the weekly meetings nor do the required reading. But it’s no stretch to infer that a basic tenet for anyone calling themselves a Christian is belief in a real heaven. Otherwise, why bother, right? But for Abernathy, it’s only those evangelical types who believe in the great by and by. This is blunt-force ignorance.
He then presents Pew data showing that these Christians are pretty evenly split among Democrat and Republican. But Abernathy skates right past this fact. For him, evangelicals believe in heaven, and evangelicals are Republicans — thus the GOP death wish. Never mind that only 56 percent of evangelicals say they are Republicans. You Christians who are Democrats, Abernathy doesn’t believe you believe in the sweet promise of heaven. Apparently, the Post’s editor saw no reason to balk at this fabulous assumption. Shame on both of them.
It doesn’t even seem worth the time to ask whether a serious belief in and hope of heaven translates into desire for an early death. But for those like Abernathy and Pinker who believe it does, consider this little thought game.
Think of those in your city who provide free clothes, shelter, food, medical help, vocational training, and substance abuse assistance, day-in and day-out for all who need it. Why do they do this difficult, costly, and often unrewarding work? They want to help people live “longer, safer, and happier lives,” to quote Pinker’s tweet.
Now ask who these people are and what’s the belief system that drives them in this work? Place a hundred bucks on whether these services are run by serious Christians because of their faith or by secular humanists. Pinker and Abernathy know which answer will lose them money.
The idea that the Christian belief in heaven is a death wish is dramatically contrary to the plain evidence of what Christians do every day in every city they inhabit around the world. It doesn’t take a rocket — or cognitive — scientist to understand this.
Reopening Doesn’t Lead to More Death
Let’s get to the logic that reopening the nation sooner rather than later leads to death. Pinker and Abernathy believe it will, but this is an unfounded, illogical, and unscientific conclusion.
The same day Abernathy’s column appeared in the Post, two economists, one from Sweden and the other from Johns Hopkins, published their own over at the Wall Street Journal. They explain that public health authorities in Sweden took a very, as they describe it, “laissez-faire approach” to public comings and goings there over the last two months. They explain that nation’s “borders have been kept open, and Swedes are free to travel within the country, visit bars and restaurants (with some restrictions), parks, hairdressers, gyms and most other places.” Essentially, no shutdown.
They continue, “Once the coronavirus appeared, Swedish economists cautioned that a policy of restrictions, such as lockdowns, would impose enormous economic costs to society, and that it might be as bad as the disease itself. Swedes listened.”
Two things are worth noting here. One, the Swedish public health complex is likely to lean on evangelicals in key decision-making positions. Two, the World Health Organization praised Sweden’s approach, explaining it could serve as a model to the rest of the world. According to a sophisticated scientific paper published by The Centre for Economic Policy Research, “a lockdown would not have helped in terms of limiting COVID-19 infections or deaths in Sweden.” Their numbers were no worse, and in many instances were better, than nations such as Italy and Spain that enforced strict lockdowns.
It Isn’t Republican Evangelicals Who Want to Reopen
Finally, and perhaps most important, we all know it’s not evangelical Republicans who are eager for a return to normalcy. This doesn’t take a genius. Nor are they country-club fat-cats who want to get back to lining their overstuffed pockets.
Nearly 39 million Americans were forced to file for unemployment in the last nine weeks, 2.4 million in the last week. These are wait staff, day laborers, hotel maids, retail store clerks, single mothers — people who were barely making it work when they were working. The shutdown is stretching these folks beyond capacity. Of course, just as many of these people are Democrats as they are Republicans, likely more so. These are the folks who desperately want to get back to work this afternoon, precisely so they and their children can continue to live.
So Pinker and Abernathy, go ahead and belittle evangelicals like me if you feel you must. You have that right. But please, at least know what you’re talking about, and do it with some semblance of sound reason.