Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia by Michael Shermer; Henry Holt, 320 pp., $30
One-third of American atheists and agnostics believe in heaven. That’s a baffling statistic, but as Michael Shermer explains in his latest book, Heavens on Earth, we shouldn’t be surprised. “The evidence overwhelmingly points to the thesis that belief in a psychological or spiritual afterlife is natural and intuitive,” he writes—a belief hardwired into our psyches, appearing in cultures and religions worldwide, throughout history. Even Neanderthals buried their dead with artifacts, presumably to provide for them in the Great Beyond. As long as hominids exist, we’ll probably always believe in heaven.
But belief is one thing. Is there any evidence heaven exists? After all, “of those 100.5 billion people who have come and gone,” Shermer notes, “not one of them has returned to confirm the existence of an afterlife.” So Shermer, a journalist and professional skeptic, wrote Heavens to examine how well claims for an afterlife hold up in light of modern science. (No points for guessing his answer.) More intriguingly, Shermer turns his skeptical gaze to science itself, especially claims that new technologies might radically extend human lifespans and inaugurate a sort of heaven down here on earth.
One reason to distrust the existence of an afterlife, Shermer writes, is how “obviously culturally bound and geographically determined” visions of Paradise are. The Bible, for instance, speaks of lush gardens and lands flowing with milk and honey, exactly the sorts of things its authors—nomadic desert people—would crave. Inuits, meanwhile, scoffed when Christian missionaries preached about a heaven that lacked seals to hunt.
Shermer is even harder on “eyewitness accounts” of heaven, from people who nearly died and supposedly visited the hereafter. Some of these accounts are easy to explain away: as Shermer says, “sometimes people just make things up.” The 2010 nonfiction book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, for instance, became a national bestseller before the author—the ironically named Alex Malarkey—admitted that he’d fabricated everything. But Shermer acknowledges that most eyewitness reports are sincere, if still probably mistaken. These people really did experience heaven, he argues, but that experience took place entirely within their own heads. He likens their visions to a drug trip or hallucination, brought about by the stress and trauma of almost dying.
That’s not to say that Shermer simply dismisses these supernatural experiences: “The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events,” he writes, “grants them significance regardless of their causal account.” Even if the experience is fictitious, in other words, it can have real meaning for the people involved and change their lives for the better. His is a generous take, and it highlights one of the benefits of the book. Shermer can be hardheaded when necessary: he nearly wears out the thesaurus on some pages brandishing different words for baloney: gobbledygook, woo-woo, nonsense, bafflegab, bullshit. But unlike some militant atheists—Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, for instance, who seethe with contempt for believers—Shermer is willing to engage with religious folk and try to understand their viewpoint. He’s friends with bafflegab-monger Deepak Chopra, of all people, and at one point in the book, he visits a New Age-y spa that Chopra runs, then debates him about the nature of consciousness. This engagement is a refreshing change. Most takedowns of religion simply preach to the unconverted, so to speak, and they hardly ever convince true believers to recant. Heavens might not convince them, either, but Shermer listens to people with spiritual leanings and engages them in legitimate debate.
The book also does a valuable service in scrutinizing modern, scientific visions of the afterlife, some of which are wildly immodest. Shermer quotes one enthusiast saying, “We have achieved two of the three alchemists’ dreams. We have transmuted the elements and learned to fly. Immortality is next.” Easy peasy.
Some approaches to scientific immortality involve eliminating diseases and slowing down the aging process in cells. Others are more outré, like uploading our minds to computers or cryogenically freezing our heads in the hopes that future generations can reboot our brains. As with religious beliefs, Shermer is always game to talk such ideas through, but he pricks the bubble of enthusiasm time and again. Science fiction fans might quibble about the relative degree of impossibility he assigns to different approaches (I find mind-uploading more plausible than Shermer does, for instance), but it seems unlikely that anyone alive today will reach, say, 150 years of age.
So if heaven doesn’t exist, and immortality seems all but impossible, does that reduce human lives to an empty state? Not at all, Shermer argues. Rather than debunking more ideas, he swerves during the last section of the book and lays out how we can still build meaningful lives, both politically and personally.
On the political front, he examines the records of various utopian governments, the terrestrial equivalents of heaven—at least in theory. In practice, utopias often deteriorate into chaos and terror. So instead of utopias, Shermer promotes a related idea he calls “protopias”—governments that aim to improve people’s lives not in one fell swoop but incrementally. Under protopian government, each generation should see a little less poverty, a little less crime, a little less disease. If that sounds familiar, it should: that’s exactly the sort of government the United States, Canada, and much of Europe have enjoyed over the past few centuries.
Given that rate of progress, we might not have to give up on our all-too-human dreams of immortality, simply modify them. There’s a decent chance that human beings will spread to Mars and other planets over the next few centuries, ensuring that our ancestors will live on—perhaps indefinitely—if something catastrophic makes Earth uninhabitable. “It would be too much to say that this form of species immortality satisfies our personal desire to live forever,” Shermer admits, “but it is something well worth working toward.”
There’s an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin asks Hobbes, “If you could have anything in the world right now, what would it be?” Hobbes answers, “A sandwich.” Calvin rails against the stupidity of this, contrasting it with his own grandiose desires for “a trillion billion dollars, my own space shuttle, and a private continent!” But the last frame shows a miserable Calvin and a contended Hobbes, as the latter munches on his sandwich. “I got my wish,” Hobbes grins. In some ways, that’s the real lesson of Heavens on Earth. Our minds and memories almost certainly won’t survive death, and Paradise probably doesn’t exist. But even if these celestial hopes fail us, there are real if modest things to work for down here on Earth. Shermer calls himself a skeptic, but he’s a believer, too, a believer in human potential, and the book rebuts those religious-minded skeptics who think that life without the promise of heaven can’t possibly be worth living. “Heaven and hell are within us,” Shermer insists, “not above and below us.”