Love over afterlife

I wrote the following in 2012, about a year after my mother, Patricia (Patti) Elaine Brooks died.  I revisited it today, on the fifth anniversary of her departure, and it seemed a worthwhile time to share it. Perhaps because I lived on another continent from her for 15 years before she died,  I haven’t had to look for her in the next room, only to find she isn’t there. The memories be green.

Mum and me, somewhere in Kruger National Park in about 2001.
Mum and me, somewhere in Kruger National Park in about 2001.

I learned a lot about death last year. I kept no count of the number of public figures whose passing moved me, but my impression is they were many. Two close colleagues died, within weeks of each other. And between their funerals, I made two trips to South Africa. One with my children to say a long and very positive goodbye to my mother, and another, barely a week after I had returned to Sydney, for her funeral.

From diagnosis with a brain tumour in late September 2009, Patti lived a little over two years. Not long, but not bad for a stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme patient in her sixties. She enjoyed well over a year of good health, between the initial operation and her eventual decline. She even snuck in a visit to Sydney, inspiring all of us who loved her by climbing the Harbour Bridge.

At the same time as mum was recovering from her operation, enjoying a brief remission, and then deteriorating again, I followed closely the prolific writing of Christopher Hitchens who was, at the same time, “living dyingly”. Hitch shared that brutal pragmatism about the odds he faced. Soon after his diagnosis with stage 4 oesophageal cancer, he pointed out, “the thing to note about stage four is that there is no stage five.” Hitch died less than two months after my mother.

 Hitch prepared us for his impending death with characteristic honest candour, and refused to accept the consolations of religion in a way that gave me, and I am sure many other atheists, enormous strength. He was happy for people to pray for him, as long as they were aware they were doing so for their own benefit, rather than his. And he took immense pains to ensure that nobody had any grounds to claim he’d taken the cowardly Pascal’s wager and converted to religion on his deathbed.

I don’t mean, in writing this article, to compare my mum to Christopher Hitchens. Like any two randomly chosen people they shared many differences and several similarities. One similarity, it turns out, was dying from cancer at similar ages and within two months of each other.

Mum, for one thing, was a practicing Anglican, who drew strength and consolation from the prayers offered by others, and whose faith grew stronger as she recovered from her operation. Yet she died with as much dignity and honesty as Hitchens. It matters nothing to me whether she held any religious beliefs or not.

Between my parents, my sister and I, our family comprised four very different takes on religion. We have always been at peace with this, without constructing artificial rules about not discussing religion. We simply love each other and respect one another’s choices. I despair when I hear of families or communities ruined by religious difference, when everything in my background says it need not be an issue. Mum’s funeral and my many treasured discussions with my Dad and sister gave me plenty of chance to reflect on religion and how it deals with death.


Mum’s memorial rites were steeped in Christian ceremony and the consolations that religion seems to bring so many at these difficult times. Other atheists sometimes profess to envy these consolations, but I did not feel that way myself.

Yet I found myself – a scientist even at the least opportune times – observing and marvelling at the reassurances that death isn’t final, and that this life is but an overture to a more glorious afterlife.

My favourite book in the so-called New Atheist ouvre isn’t Hitchen’s God is not Great, or even fellow evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The one I enjoy most is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. One of the many ways in which religion, according to Dennett, emerges from the cognitive and social machinery that we evolved long before anybody ever conceived a deity, has to do with dying and grieving.

Our species is, by any measure, a supremely social one. In order to operate in our complex human societies, we have evolved the remarkable ability not only to recognise and remember other individuals, but also to conceive and decipher their intentions, wants and needs. Psychologists call this ‘theory of mind’ – one person has an understanding or theory (however limited) of the mind of another.

This remarkable ability allows us to think about and continue our relationships with several people, even when they are not present. This might seem an obvious capacity, but that doesn’t make it trivial. Imagine what your love life would be like if, when you are at work or anywhere else away from home, you were unable to think about or even imagine your significant other, much less remember that she asked you to pick up milk, eggs and some tuna for dinner.

So for each of our relationships, we have a kind of mental filing cabinet for each person, where we stash our concept of them – a concept that we often access and update. The great thing about these files is we can access them whenever we want to – even if we haven’t seen the person for years. When my colleagues go home at the end of the day, I know they are still alive, and I am not surprised when they return the next day.

But what is the difference between somebody dying and somebody simply going away on a journey?

In one sense, there is no difference at all. When somebody – especially somebody close like a parent or a spouse – dies, we are left with that bulging file that contains not just our memories of them, but our entire concept of them.

Somebody who dies is no less real in our social imagination than somebody who has just left on vacation. Anyone who loses a loved one knows how often we make a mental note to share an anecdote with the deceased, how we pick up the phone to call them or even go from one room to the next in search of them only to painfully catch ourselves with the realisation that the anecdote, phone call or search will forever go uncompleted. Only with practice do we come to recognise this.

Dennett points out that religions, as they form, very quickly invent the idea that the deceased has gone on a journey or ascended to some divine destination. Religions invite us to stash our files in the great virtual data cloud, where we can continue to access them, secure in the knowledge that the departed is in a better place. How soothing a thought, that we need only perform the little mental trick we already do hundreds of times a day, of telling ourselves that the departed has left the building, than that we accept the far more obvious fact that she simply is no more.

Religions console the bereaved this way. At funerals the main repeated message is that the loved one is not gone, but that in some form she still exists. I am attracted to the idea that this is the chief purpose of the funeral or memorial service; for all those who knew the departed to align their accounts of where she has gone and to share this one last common memory of her. That way our files, divergent as they are on some of the content of her life, can all end on more or less the same note?

My view on heaven and the departure of any kind of soul from the body, as you can probably tell, is completely materialistic, as it is for most of the growing number of us who hold no religious beliefs. Folks like me tend to fixate, often to the irritation of the religious, on the reality – or the realness of things. So it might seem strange that here I quote Professor Dumbledore, himself appearing as heavenly apparition to Harry Potter, recently arrived in a celestial parallel of King’s Cross station, having departed at the hand of Lord Voldemort’s killing curse:

‘Tell me one last thing,’ said Harry. ‘Is this real. Or has this been happening inside my head?’

Dumbledore beamed at him …. ‘Of course it has been happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’

The most real form of our love is what happens inside our heads. We might not notice this in everyday life, when our love is materially manifested in our actions and the words we exchange, the gifts we buy and the sacrifices we make. But when somebody has died, we have only our memories – our files where we have stashed our concept of that person. We have only the real essence of love that exists in our brains – our magnificent social brains – that enable us to think of somebody who isn’t here as if they were in the next room or the next village.

I never quite trust myself when writing like this, not to lapse into the kind of pseudoprofound garbage that corrupts otherwise honest thoughts in sentimentality or faux spritualism. I had been struggling for a while to articulate my thoughts about this and how it relates to my mother’s death, when I received a wonderful and thoughtful email from my dad. In it, among many things, he speaks of his conception of heaven:

Heaven , to me, is the continuing relationship of love. I have felt that so often [since mum died] …. It is a flow of love from as well to. ….. Those whom we love live on in so many ways, that’s …. in her children and grandchildren and the hundreds of lives which she enriched. Once you have been part of this world you will always be part of this world. She lives on in multitudinous ways and her love also reaches me in so many ways. I pray that mine is reaching her. That would be heaven.

I love my dad’s idea of heaven. It is infinitely more generous and loving than the mean-spirited version peddled by many organised religions. Before I ever identified as an atheist, the idea that there was an afterlife to whom admission was restricted to those who had accepted some mumbo-jumbo account of salvation or submission struck me as a mean and childish form of social exclusion.

What kind of deity would run an exclusive frequent-flier departure lounge only for that small subset of people who had heard, grasped and embraced a particular set of beliefs? If those are the rules for entry, then I don’t want to go to that party. No matter who else is there.

My mum’s cancer illustrated very clearly to me another problem I have with heaven and the idea of any kind of afterlife. In the last few weeks of her life, the growing tumour steadily destroyed not only her motor coordination, but it seemed to me that it also eroded her memory and those parts of her social brain where she filed her sense of other people and of herself.

Many people remarked how she never once bemoaned her fate. When I visited her, and told her how much I loved her and how proud I was of her, she smiled to acknowledge it, and I thought she understood that this was my way of saying a little goodbye every day. Yet she never spoke what those of us around her knew – that she would never get better.

To this day I cannot tell whether she was incredibly stoic or if her disease had insulated her from conceiving her fate. Stoic as I know she was in other matters, my own limited ability to fathom her mental state suggests that the one mercy her tumour extended to her was to spare her deep insight into her rapid decline.

In other small ways, we knew that her social brain was succumbing. Misplacing names, forgetting faces, drawing false distinctions between the young version of my dad who married her in 1968 and the 2011 version who cared for her every day of her illness. The mistakes came and went, but we couldn’t escape the certainty that not all of her – of whatever made her her – was present.

So what does this have to do with heaven? Well, which version of Patti is supposed to have ascended? It may be comforting to believe that somebody who was here yesterday has now stepped into another realm as into another room, but it is harder to imagine this feat for somebody whose sense of self has seriously faltered.

For those of us who accept the prosaic fact that our loved one simply is no more, and that the most real thing about them is the love they had for us and the love we had and continue to have for them, our acceptance is more difficult and yet much simpler. Like the patient who has to endure painful surgery to set a broken limb, the short term agony for me is better than the long-term complications.

Dad wrote to me about how ‘now it is time to dwell not on life without her but on how fortunate I was to have so many years with her.’ For me, that transition sums up everything profound about losing her. I too have come to accept that even though it feels like she could be just a hand’s touch away, she isn’t.

Being able to talk honestly about her and appreciate and be grateful – not to anyone, just grateful – for our time together in the real world is more important and more comforting than easy promises about a cosy afterlife reuinion could ever be.

Atheism snookered by moral snap-judgements

When Jack was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing squirrels and stray cats in his neighbourhood.

As an adult, Jack found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead. He has killed 5 homeless people that he abducted from poor neighbourhoods in his home city. Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement.

Now, knowing what I have just told you about Jack, is it more probable that Jack is: A) A teacher. Or B) A teacher who does not believe in God?

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Commissioning of the Twelve Apostles (1481), from the Sistine Chapel.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Commissioning of the Twelve Apostles (1481), from the Sistine Chapel.

If you answered “B”, you would not be alone. An average of 50 percent of people in a recent suite of experiments gave the same answer. The wrong answer.

Wrong not because Jack believes in God – we have no way of knowing what Jack believes. B is necessarily incorrect because the entirety of group “B” the teachers who don’t believe in God, are also members of group “A”, the teachers. It is impossible for B to be more likely than A, but it is likely that a great many people in group A do not belong to B.

The question about Jack exploits the conjunction fallacy by which additional detail makes a scenario seem intuitively more likely. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman showed that people make this mistake by applying a simple rule called the “representativeness heuristic”; additional detail that seems to match the description biases people toward believing that the detailed option is more likely.

Which makes exercises like the question about Jack an interesting tool with which to study the intuitions people harbour about certain groups.

That’s exactly what the University of Kentucky’s Will M. Gervais did in a recent paper in PLoSONE. He presented subjects with stories of heinous moral transgressions: the one above, one involving incestuous relations between adult siblings, and one particularly imaginative scenario involving a man “making love” to a chicken carcass before roasting it. (Don’t worry, the man used a condom and fully sterilized the carcass before roasting it).

Subjects, after reading one of these scenarios, were then asked to make a choice in a conjunction fallacy exercise. Some subjects, under option B, were given the conjunction “… does not believe in God” that I presented in the example above. Others, however, were presented with conjunctions specifying that the morally suspect protagonist was Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.

The experiment amounts to a comparison of how many subjects made the conjunction fallacy with each group. People make the conjunction fallacy more readily when the additional detail confirms their prior biases about the group involved.

Only 5-20 percent of subjects made the conjunction fallacy with any of the religious groups. Not many people felt a religious descriptor matched neatly with the description of the moral transgression being presented.

But fully half of all subjects fell for the fallacy when the morally suspect person was described as not believing in God. Clearly there is a near-unshakable intuition among much of the public that atheists are morally bereft.

That’s no surprise. The outwardly devout often express disbelief that without a celestial policeman or the threat of eternal damnation or some such, there can be any morality. Gervais opens his paper with a pithy quote to this effects from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:

Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?

Of course that isn’t true: a lack of belief does not necessarily mean that anything goes. But the relative morality of atheists and believers is a subject for another day. What matters here – particularly for atheists – is the overwhelming tendency for people to associate amorality with atheism. A fascinating Pew Centre report showed that world-wide, people tend to hold the opinion that belief is essential to morality.

Believers mistrust atheists and their unconcern for the afterlife. I’ve written before about Will Gervais’ research with Ara Norenzayan showing that this distrust can be ameliorated by gently reminding believers of the existence of secular authorities like the police. The rise in effective secular institutions of justice may well be part of slow dwindling of religious devotion in much of the world.

But the conviction that faith is not only a virtue itself but the source of virtue is a gift that keeps on giving for religions, their leaders, and the politicians who wear their faith on their sleeves. Misconstruing secularists and atheists has long been political sport in the U.S.A. George H.W. Bush, for example, wore his irrational contempt for atheism as a badge of honour:

I support the separation of church and state. I’m just not very high on atheists.

Pre-formed ideas about the morality of those who don’t profess belief are also likely to be important in Australia’s ostensibly secular society. Last week’s budget pain for school and university education was accompanied, to much outrage, by a $245 million splurge on the school chaplaincy program. That decision, and the ongoing battles over Religious Instruction, Special Religious Education and ethics classes, represent part of an ongoing challenge to secularism in Australian public schools and institutions.

Atheists and humanists and various others trying to convince the world that one can be good without God and that societies benefit from secularization face the considerable obstacle of representative heuristics about atheist amorality. Unfortunately for them it isn’t just believers who hold these heuristics. Gervais took a more detailed look at the actual beliefs of his subjects, and found that even the atheists among them tended to make the conjunction fallacy more often regarding non-believers than any of the other groups.

If non-believers themselves jump to the conclusion that immoral deeds are more representative of the godless, then religion has an even bigger advantage in the turf-war over morality than previously thought.

The ConversationTim Minchin reckons we should judge people not by their group membership but by their deeds. How, though, does one overcome representativeness heuristics?


Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

It’s been a while. Meantime, here are some links. (Bullshit jobs, evolution & business, psych studies, atheist family values & evidence-based feminism)

It’s been three weeks, I am told. Time to list a few of my favourite recent reads.

  • By far my favourite read of the last few weeks is David Graeber’s piece about “Bullshit Nonsense Jobs“. Yes, all you generation Xers working in finance, I’m looking at you. Reminds me of a piece I read in the early 1990’s about how the vast majority of the industrialised world would need to be plugged in to entertainment to keep them passive. Cue reality TV and the iPhone. I don’t agree with everything Graeber says, but it’s entertaining, and I leant on it a bit when I wrote a last-minute pre-election piece about research groups and how they resemble small businesses.
  • Jonathan Haidt and David Sloan Wilson launched their Darwin’s Business blog at Forbes with a brief post on multilevel selection, cooperation and business with Sears Ignores the Invisible Band
  • Jamil Zaki makes an important point that most readers of non-fiction, especially popular psychology, evolution & economics stories already get: Psychological Studies are Not About You
  • You’ll know already that I enjoy reading studies in which atheists are compared to fundy’s. This article by Piper Hoffmann explains how Atheists have Better Family Values than Evangelicals. Not sure if that’s really something most atheists want to crow about, but it does bestow a certain schadenfreude.
  • Claire Lehmann, a Facebook and Twitter friend I have never met, posts a well-argued plea for evidence-based feminism.

Watch out! I am (supposed to be) doing some comedy at the Ultimo Science Festival’s Science Stand-Up Comedy night. I’ll be appearing witht he genuinely funny Justine Rogers and Simon Pampena.

Does it matter if atheists are smarter than believers?

News just in, guaranteed to stir smug nods from non-believers and incite irritation among the devout: intelligence correlates negatively with religious belief. You may have seen similar – or contradictory – reports in the past. That’s because scores of studies have asked if religiosity is associated with intelligence. But a just-published meta-analysis in Personality and Social Psychology Review considered the evidence from 63 different studies. Overall, the meta analysis establishes the existence of a “reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity”.

Ricky Gervais, enthusiastic atheist and lampooner of mumbo-jumbo. Smart guy. Funny too. Wikimedia commons.
Ricky Gervais, enthusiastic atheist and lampooner of mumbo-jumbo. Smart guy. Funny too. Wikimedia commons.

University of Rochester psychologists Miron Zuckerman and Jordan Silberman, together with Judtih A. Hall from Boston’s Northeastern University, gathered 80 years of published studies that estimate correlations between religious belief or behaviour (like attendance at religious services) and intelligence. By intelligence, they mean analytic intelligence, also known as the g-factor, which captures the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience”. Only 2 of the 63 studies found statistically significant positive correlations between religiosity and intelligence, whereas 35 showed significant negative correlations.

Intelligence linked more tightly to religious belief than religious behaviour. While some studies showed that smarter children were less likely to believe, the pattern was weakest among school-age subjects. The links grow stronger in adulthood and remained strong at older ages. Intelligence at one age also predicted religiosity some years later – an additional indication that intelligence shapes religiosity.

Here, then, is one of those thorny issues, guaranteed to stir circular discussion. It confirms what many atheists and agnostics have always felt – that the mere flexing of one’s intellectual fibres, particularly when accompanied by the scientific method, leads a great many smart people from the path of religious belief.

And yet the finding, and the very act of me writing this column, drips with confrontational implications. Does the fact that non-believers are, on average, more intelligent than believers also imply that the religious are all low-g? Or that believers are inferior?

Of course not. The ranges overlap, and many very smart people are, or profess outwardly to be, believers. And I’m sure most people know some rather dull atheists or agnostics, too.

It’s what you do with it

There’s a cringe factor at play here, too. Many people who flirt with unbelief can’t quite bring themselves to accept that the vast majority of humanity who profess a belief in one or more deities are somehow missing the obvious fact that gods don’t exist. This – the very embodiment of humanist humility – probably keeps a good chunk of non-practising folk from admitting – even to themselves – their absence of faith.

Daniel Dennett, my own favourite contemporary thinker on atheism and secularism. Wikimedia commons.
Daniel Dennett, my own favourite contemporary thinker on atheism and secularism. Wikimedia commons.

That same unwillingness to call believers dumb, even implicitly, underpins the cringe many secularists experience at the term Bright – an adjective turned into a noun by a vibrant community who organise around their naturalistic worldview. Prominent brights include atheist pin-ups Dan Dennett, Margaret Downey, and sceptic James Randi.

Richard Dawkins – another Bright – gave atheist intellectual superiority a fine point in The God Delusion. I’ve long supported Dawkins, excusing his haughtiness as old-school Oxbridge irascibility. But his clumsy recent tweets about the state of science in the contemporary Islamic societies show just how obnoxiously patronising his view of religious people has become. Perhaps those who doubt but can’t bring themselves to admit that believers are wrong or ignorant, are timid? But perhaps they are wise?

What CAN we learn

Beyond the posturing or smug self-assurances, can any good come from considering the links between intelligence and belief? I believe that it can. In understanding how those associations arise, we learn about the nature of intelligence, the nature of belief, and – just maybe – how to build a world that transcends ignorance, nepotism, exploitation and mumbo-jumbo.

Education, particularly in the sciences, tends also to diminish belief. One can see why some big religious institutions, with the most to lose from the progress of secularism, proudly foster spectacular ignorance like Kentucky’s Creation Museum. That is not to say that all religious outreach propogates ignorance, but only that many organisations – historic and contemporary- do a pretty good job of it, and seem to benefit directly as a result.

The new meta-analysis by Zuckerman, Silberman and Hall does a thoughtful job of considering the processes that might cause the association between intelligence and religiosity. They discuss three main suites of ideas, none exclusive of the others, underlying what might be quite complex dynamics:

  • Intelligent people are more likely than their peers to defy convention and conformity. This makes them resistant to religious dogma and to the social pressures that bind people together in professed belief.
  • Intelligent people adopt analytic thinking styles. Last year I posted about how a few simple exercises in analytic thinking can erode belief. Folks who score lower for g tend to rely more heavily on intuitive thinking styles, which tend to suit religious learning.
  • Religion confers on adherents benefits such as building secure social attachment, mandating self-control and building a sense of self-worth. On top of that it can provide rules by which to navigate difficult social and moral waters: monogamy, loyalty, commitment. People who do well on intelligence tests tend also to find these areas easier to navigate unaided. Nobody does so perfectly, of course, but perhaps intelligent people have less need, on average, for religious belief and practises.

That said, perhaps the high self-confidence and self-esteem that often accompany intelligence give people a confidence – often misplaced – that they can navigate life’s tricker passages without assistance, supernatural or otherwise.

As a not-entirely-on-topic treat for anyone patient enough to reach the end of this article, Tim Minchin’s animated movie, Storm, explores pseudoprofound mumbo-jumbo of all types.

This post is, as always, a mere taste of the material I’m reporting on. If this question interests you, I do recommend you get hold of the meta-analysis, which contains a very full discussion of the complex issues underpinning the religiosity-intelligence association.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.