Seems we've always believed in an afterlife of some sort, usually (but not always) pleasant. Archeologists regularly find richly stocked graves, both human and Neanderthal, dating back tens of thousands of years. Food and drink, weapons and armor, jewelry and ornaments — all the essentials to ensure a safe passage from this realm to the next — frequently accompany skeletons. These grave goods give us a glimpse into what our ancestors thought awaits us after death.
You'd think that after all this time, nothing more could be said about heaven or hell, but the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list tells us otherwise. In Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (topping the list as I write) an otherwise comatose neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, describes cavorting in heaven with butterflies, angels ... and nubile girls. A couple of years ago, a toddler's tale of visiting paradise and sitting on Jesus' lap, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, sold a million copies, also making No. 1 on that same list. "We do not second-guess personal accounts," wrote Deborah Hofmann, senior editor of The Times best-seller lists, in defense of that "nonfiction" classification.
My envy for these get-rich-quick scams, er, books, is only matched by my skepticism. Yet many of the finest minds in history seem to have been convinced of the reality of the afterlife and our ability to communicate with it. Take Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, was the very epitome of cold-blooded analysis and deduction. No hunches or spirit-rapping for him! Rationality rules Holmes' thought process: "From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other." Yet Doyle, his creator, was about as gullible an occultist as anyone before or since, going so far as to enthusiastically endorse the infamous "Cottingley fairy" photographs. (In that hoax, two girls in Yorkshire, England, photographed themselves with pictures of fairies they'd carefully cut out from books.)
Likewise, the late 19th century philosopher William James, father of "radical empiricism," was a hard-headed rationalist by day and a credulous fool by night. He was convinced of the reality of the supernatural realm by a smooth-talking medium, Leonora Piper. Mediums back then encouraged the dear departed to rap on tables, toot trumpets and write reassuring messages on slate-boards. ("I'm fine. Food's great. Send money.")
Then there's Thomas Edison, personification of the pragmatic inventor-businessman — and loyal patron of Madame Blavatsky, founder of the esoteric Theosophical Society. Going back even farther, if anyone can be called the father of the scientific revolution, it's Isaac Newton, physicist, mathematician — and alchemist and believer in apocalypticism. Historians believe that Newton's scientific work was less important to him than the supernatural, with John Maynard Keynes claiming that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians."
I could go on and on, but the question remains: lacking any hard evidence, why do so many of us — 62 percent of Americans (geniuses or not), according to the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey — "absolutely believe" in heaven? Are our brains naturally wired to believe in eternal life? ("Field Notes," Oct. 22, 2009.) Or is it simply that we're having such a good time here that the idea of shuffling off our mortal coils becomes too great a burden to bear? For me, I can see spending a year or two on the Other Side ... but forever? Seems like an awfully long time to fill.
Barry Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) believes in death after life. Carpe diem!