Pinker gets flak for tweeting about the “malignant delusion of the afterlife”, deletes tweet but defends himself here

I don’t really follow Twitter, but sometimes it makes news when a prominent person deletes a tweet, as when Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times’s 1619 project deleted several tweets, including one drawing a distinction between being “politically black” and “racially black.” That made news, as did the tweet below issued about two weeks ago by Steve Pinker and then deleted. This puzzled me as I didn’t really see anything wrong with the tweet itself, though I didn’t read the linked Washington Post article.

I found out about the deleted tweet from reader Ginger K., who sent me this article from the respectable-sounding American Council on Science and Health (click on screenshot to read), which says it’s a nonprofit advocacy group but, according to sources cited in its Wikipedia article, is heavily funded by corporations, and takes some bizarre stands that align with corporate sponsorship.

At any rate, the author, a microbiologist, took issue with Steve’s statement that religion is a malignant delusion. Apparently Berezow’s main beef is not that it’s a delusion, but Pinker’s claim that it’s a malignant delusion. But he clearly implies in the last sentence that the idea of an afterlife is also wrong (I’m betting Berezow is a believer, but at least, judging by his critical review of Faith Versus Fact in Forbes, he’s a “believer in belief”). Here’s the heart of Berezow’s beef, his rhetorical filet mignon:

The other day, Dr. Pinker made a rare and unfortunate misstep. In a tweet that has been since deleted (but is still available on Facebook!), he claimed that belief in an afterlife is a “malignant delusion” because it “devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier.” This is total nonsense.

Let’s set aside the debate on whether there is an afterlife or whether any religious beliefs are true. Religious people (who, in general, tend to believe in an afterlife) are happier and more civic-minded than non-religious people. They are also likelier to have better mental health. We appear to be evolutionarily wired for belief in a higher power, so even if religion is a bunch of hogwash and fairy tales, it’s still good for you and for society.

There’s so much more. Research published in the Journal of Medical Ethics shows that “doctors who described themselves as non-religious were more likely than others to report having given continuous deep sedation until death” and “having taken decisions they expected or partly intended to end life.” Yikes. One could easily expect the exact opposite. If a doctor believes in the afterlife, perhaps he wouldn’t be so worried if a patient made the transition sooner rather than later. But, counterintuitively, that’s not what the researchers discovered. It was the non-religious doctors who took actions to end lives.

On second thought, maybe it isn’t quite so counterintuitive. Have you ever noticed how many hospitals are named for Catholic saints? That’s because religious people in general, and Catholics in particular, have an obligation to tend to the sick and dying. During the plagues of antiquity, Christians famously put their own lives on the line in order to care for the stricken.

Simply put, Dr. Pinker’s claims are demonstrably wrong. Let’s hope he comes around to accepting this evidence-based worldview.

Note that Berezow says claims in the plural. That presumably means that religion is not just salubrious, but that there is an afterlife. And if you take an “evidenced based world view on that”, then no, you don’t have to buy heaven or hell.

There is no evidence here save the claim, which can be argued, that religion makes people happier, and makes doctors less likely to sedate people about to die (morphine overdoses and so on).  Whether it’s better to prolong terminal illness or give morphine with the patient’s consent can also be argued, but I’d opt for the latter.  Berezow’s whole argument hinges on religion being salubrious, even if it is wrong.  I’d add, but I must be brief, that you have to take into account not just individual happiness but societal well being, and, as Steve argues convincingly in Better Angels, one of the main impediments to moral progress in the last several centuries has been religion, which is an obstacle not just to scientific advances but to rational thinking about morality. He reprises some of those arguments in his email below, and I’ve argued at length (in Faith Versus Fact, among other places), that true morality as we conceive of it today is not religious morality, but some kind of innate or secular societally-based morality. Plato demolished God as a source of morality (well, piety, really, but it’s the same logic) in his Euthyphro Argument.

And to claim that you should believe in something because it makes you happy and “civic minded” (like American evangelicals?) reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s quote about the “happiness of credulity”:

“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”

I wrote to Steve asking why he deleted the tweet, that I had no issue with it, and added that I was just inquiring and had no intention of repeating what he said. But after he answered me, he said I was welcome to quote him on this site. So I am. Steve’s words are indented, and the quotes he gives indented further. To his credit, one of the reasons he deleted his tweet was because the article he quoted wasn’t as strong an argument as he liked. But read on for Steve’s whole email response (yes, this is the kind of emails he sends):

From Pinker:

As you can imagine, the tweet triggered a flood of obscene and abusive emails. This would not by itself have led me to take down the tweet, but on re-reading the Washington Post op-ed that I linked to (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/20/whats-really-behind-republicans-wanting-swift-reopening-evangelicals/), I realized that the empirical case for attributing resistance to Covid shutdowns to belief in an afterlife was thin — the author cited just one quote from one Evangelical politician. Together with the fact that my tweet-length comment was more provocative than necessary given the space available to explain my views, the lack of data to establish the connection made me reluctant to keep the tweet posted. (With today’s polarization, I don’t think it’s a good idea to piss people off without a strong argument.)

I do strongly suspect that belief in an afterlife encourages a lack of rational concern for societal problems. A similar argument was made in a more recent article in The Spectator https://spectator.us/eschatology-stupid-christianity-coronavirus/ , with a telling quote from Hulk Hogan, though still without data. And we have good reason to think that belief in God’s goodness abets climate change denial — the 2000 Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship addressed the “so-called climate crisis” and other environmental problems by affirming that “God in His mercy has not abandoned sinful people or the created order but has acted throughout history to restore men and women to fellowship with Him and through their stewardship to enhance the beauty and fertility of the earth.”

We also know from Philip Zuckerman and Gregory Paul’s correlations (and additional ones I conducted for Enlightenment Now) that more religious countries and states do more poorly on just about every indicator of societal well-being, even (in the case of my analysis) holding GDP statistically constant. But in comparisons across political units, many variables are intercorrelated, we could use a good data scientist, statistician, or econometrician to squeeze causation out of the correlation matrix and show that religious belief per se leads to policy complacency. I would bet it does.

In addition to societal inaction, there are, of course, even more malignant implications of belief in an afterlife. As I noted in explaining the death toll of the Crusades and Inquisition in Better Angels:

Institutionalized torture in Christendom was not just an unthinking habit; it had a moral rationale. If you really believe  that failing to accept Jesus as one’s savior  is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing  a person until he acknowledges  this truth  is doing him the biggest favor of his life: better a few hours now than an eternity later. And silencing a person before he can corrupt others, or making an example of him to deter the rest,  is a responsible public health measure. Saint Augustine brought the point home with a pair of analogies: a good father prevents his son from picking up a venomous snake, and a good gardener cuts off a rotten branch to save the rest of the tree.[i] The method of choice had been specified by Jesus himself: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:6).

Once again, the point of this discussion is not to accuse Christians of endorsing torture and persecution. Of course most devout Christians today are thoroughly tolerant and humane people. Even those who thunder from televised pulpits do not call for burning heretics alive or hoisting Jews on the strappado. The question is why they don’t, given that their beliefs imply that it would serve the greater good. The answer is that people in the West today compartmentalize their religious ideology. When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years. But when it comes to their actions,  they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful.

And then there are the suicide terrorists…

There have been a couple of other replies to my tweet, including one from the conservative blogger and radio host Dennis Prager:

https://www.arcamax.com/politics/fromtheright/dennisprager/s-2366593?fs and the online edition of Newsweek: https://www.newsweek.com/authors/lee-habeeb-0

(I wrote to Prager offering to debate this with him, but have not heard back.)

These articles recycle the usual secular arguments for religious belief: the religious give more to charity, and so on.

I’d add an additional point in response to the secular argument for religiosity, which I noted in Enlightenment Now:

It’s long been known that churchgoers are happier and more charitable than stay-at-homes, but Robert Putnam and his fellow political scientist David Campbell have found that these blessings have nothing to do with beliefs in God, creation, heaven, or hell.[i] An atheist who has been pulled into a congregation by an observant spouse is as charitable as the faithful among the flock, whereas a fervent believer who prays alone is not particularly charitable. At the same time, communality and civic virtue can be fostered by membership in secular service communities such as the Shriners (with their children’s hospitals and burn units), Rotary International (which is helping to end polio), and Lions Club (which combats blindness)—even, according to Putnam and Campbell’s research, a bowling league.

Just as religious institutions deserve praise when they pursue humanistic ends, they should not be shielded from criticism when they obstruct those ends. Examples include the withholding of medical care from sick children in faith-healing sects, the opposition to humane assisted dying, the corruption of science education in schools, the suppression of touchy biomedical research such as on stem cells, and obstruction of lifesaving public health policies such as contraception, condoms, and vaccination against HPV.[ii] Nor should religions be granted a presumption of a higher moral purpose. Faitheists who have hoped that the moralistic fervor of Evangelical Christianity might be channeled into movements for social improvement have repeatedly gotten burned. In the early 2000s, a bipartisan coalition of environmentalists hoped to make common cause with Evangelicals on climate change under rubrics like Creation Care and Faith-Based Environmentalism. But Evangelical churches are an anchor faction of the Republican Party, which adopted a strategy of absolute noncooperation with the Obama administration. Political tribalism carried the day, and the Evangelicals fell into line, opting for radical libertarianism over stewardship of the Creation.[iii]

Similarly, in 2016 there was a brief hope that the Christian virtues of humility, temperance, forgiveness, propriety, chivalry, thrift, and compassion toward the weak would turn Evangelicals against a casino developer who was vainglorious, sybaritic, vindictive, lewd, misogynistic, ostentatiously wealthy, and contemptuous of the people he called “losers.” But no: Donald Trump won the votes of 81 percent of white Evangelical and born-again Christians, a higher proportion than of any other demographic.[iv] In large part he earned their votes by promising to repeal a law which prohibits tax-exempt charities (including churches) from engaging in political activism.[v] Christian virtue was trumped by political muscle.

And from Professor Ceiling Cat: I’d add that a lot has happened since 2016 to support Steve’s argument that evangelical Christians haven’t improved America, and it can be encapsulated in a five-letter name that starts with “T” and ends with “p”. The malignancy of at least extreme Abrahamic faith as a termite in the foundations of American society is obvious.

 

36 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps it could be called rhetoric, but I wish I had written that line!

  2. GBJames
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    A perfectly reasonable tweet, IMO.

  3. Muffy Ferro
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    It is often pointed at that in Utah the most charitable people are members of the LDS church, because they give away the highest percentage of their income. But who are they giving it to? The LDS church. That’s because the LDS church requires it — 10% of everyone’s income. Otherwise one can’t be a member in “good standing” and will lose out on all kinds of stuff like being allowed in the temple. Which the other members of their church will notice. This must be very compelling, because the LDS church has amassed in excess of $100 billion dollars in its investment reserve, as has been reported on this site. Is the LDS church really a charity? Should their members get all that credit for being charitable?

    • Dan
      Posted June 4, 2020 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      The tithe is all the proof I need that religion is man made. What are the odds that god decided 10% is the perfect percentage? If it was 7.3488238481% I’d be a believer.

      • Muffy Ferro
        Posted June 4, 2020 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

        Ha — that’s funny 🙂

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted June 5, 2020 at 2:00 am | Permalink

        Quite illogical. Obviously G*d decided that 10% was as complicated as the average believer could understand. Conveniently reminiscent of the Ten Commandments. It’s something they can compute on their fingers.

        You wouldn’t expect them to comprehend decimals, would you?

        cr

    • rickflick
      Posted June 4, 2020 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      When asked why they don’t spend some of their dosh on the poor or other good works (how about sponsoring scientific research?), the reply was, we are saving it for some apocalyptic event. One has to wonder what they would need the money for in case the world ends.

      • Helen Hollis
        Posted June 4, 2020 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        Ric, I was raised a JW and they truly belive their “charity” is giving the householder the “truth”

        • rickflick
          Posted June 5, 2020 at 12:12 am | Permalink

          Sounds like agents from the Matrix.

  4. Dawn Flood
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Professor Pinker,

    Two thumbs up, Way up!!

    Dawn Flood

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never been able to understand the claim by the religious that they do so much for charity. Is being a full time tax dodger a charitable occupation? If so, no wonder they all love Trump.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted June 4, 2020 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      In the UK, at any rate, the promotion of religion in itself is accepted as a charitable objective, with all the tax and other advantages that brings with it. The National Secular Society is agitating to get rid of this unwarranted privilege. No chance, for now. But the current of public opinion is flowing the other way.

  6. Mike Anderson
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Alex Berezow:

    Religious people (who, in general, tend to believe in an afterlife) are happier and more civic-minded than non-religious people. They are also likelier to have better mental health.

    Bold claims with extremely shakey support.

    Alex Berezow:

    We appear to be evolutionarily wired for belief in a higher power, so even if religion is a bunch of hogwash and fairy tales, it’s still good for you and for society.

    Non sequitur. This guy isn’t much of a scientist.

  7. Roger
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    “American Council” is a deceptive name, and they know it, and furthermore, specifically chosen because of its deceptiveness.

  8. Posted June 4, 2020 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    My first thought on reading this was about the worldwide protests over the murder of George Floyd. I have no way of tallying evangelical vs. non-evangelical, but I make the assumption that religion was not the guiding force. Concern for equality and humanity in the here and now is more to the point. And many thousands of people of all kinds were willing to stand, kneel or lie down together to make their cases. This had nothing whatsoever to do with an imaginary afterlife. Punishment or torture of non-religious or other religious to save them is/was insane. Caring for humanity of all sorts is what we should be promoting and doing while we are alive.

  9. jezgrove
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Kudos to Pinker for deleting his tweet simply because he felt that the empirical evidence in the article it referred to “was thin”. If only the occupant of the White House behaved so responsibly when it came to the use of that platform (sadly, I suspect that “empirical evidence” would be a stretch too far).

  10. Andrew
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Pinker certainly has a huge point. Let us remember that Jesus himself commands you to hate your life. What better recipe for misery could there be than hating your own existence? What bigger malignant delusion than to think that by hating your own life, eternal bliss awaits you after death.
    “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”. John 12:25
    – “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple“ Luke 14:26

    • Helen Hollis
      Posted June 4, 2020 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

      He wants you to leave your loved ones, and everthing behind. And follow him. If anyone asked you to leave your spouse and children, it would most probably be a human. Or a religion. Or a criminal.

      • revelator60
        Posted June 4, 2020 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

        Exactly. Jesus was a creep!

        • Posted June 6, 2020 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

          If Jesus lived, he is portrayed diversely and contradictorily in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. His timeline, his beliefs, his actions, his death, etc. are all told differently with different times and places. None of these books were written contemporaneous to Jesus’ life or by his disciples. Thomas Jefferson thought Jesus a wonderful philosopher, but didn’t believe the miracles, etc. He made up his own bible (New Testament) of the elements he thought should remain.) If you haven’t, read Bart Ehrman, on the different versions of Jesus.

          • Posted June 7, 2020 at 9:25 am | Permalink

            Don’t forget even more variety in the non-canonical ones.

  11. revelator60
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Berezow sounds like one of those obnoxious faithists who lie in wait for an atheist to knock religion so they can leap out and trumpet its values for the “little people.”
    His attack on Faith Versus Fact is just as contorted and dubious as his attack on Pinker.

  12. Mark R.
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I understand why Pinker deleted the tweet, and that’s a good reason, but at the same time, his argument is sound.

    And are Dominionists like Pence synonymous with Evangelicals? It seems the Dominionism branch has the political power in the U.S. right now and their primary aim is an American Theocracy; yet this once fringe branch of Christianity flies under the radar. Dominionists also relish the end-times, which is germane to Pinker’s point. Anyway, I wish the media would start using the “D” word where it fits as it is truly a powerful movement and needs to be exposed as a dangerous dogma. People like Pence are a lot more demented in their beliefs than the run-of-the-mill Evangelical. Or maybe run-of-the-mill Evangelical is an oxymoron nowadays.

  13. Andy Lowry
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I don’t expect the excellently-booted Dr. Pinkah to change his book over such a minor point, but “…membership in secular service communities such as the Shriners (with their children’s hospitals and burn units)…” is a little misleading. The Shriners are part of the Freemasons, which do require belief in a deity or deities in order to join. I thought about joining up with them a few years ago when I was looking for a do-gooder bunch to work with, and couldn’t because of that barrier.

    • alexander
      Posted June 5, 2020 at 3:32 am | Permalink

      There are several atheistic organizations in the US. I would never join a silly organization like the Freemasons with their idiotic rituals and secrecy.

      • GBJames
        Posted June 5, 2020 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        Unless you join a secret society how would you know the rituals are idiotic? /tongueInCheek

  14. A C Harper
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Pinker and agree that the evidence was thin (you can only say so much in the character limit) and so deletion was appropriate.

    Belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual
    lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier.

    Too broadbrush, even though there are some people damaged by this belief. After all there are plenty of people who ‘believe’ enough to pass social muster, but don’t live as if their beliefs were actually true.

    Exhibit A: What’s really behind Republicans wanting a swift reopening? Evangelicals.

    Could be one of the reasons behind the pressure to end lockdown, but sheer economic pressure could be a bigger driver (possibly dressed up in religious words). As with most things COVID 19 nobody yet knows all the ins and outs of this pandemic.

  15. Posted June 4, 2020 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Pinker’s tweet to my mind is only weak in the sense that it was just a poke at something very real and larger than evangelists alone.
    The world of religion is largely a pessimistic view and its very nature is to remain static and unchanging.
    This planet and its creatures for the parochial view is in a dynamic environment with needs met with creativity and resolve. A bunch of wizen words plasticated over over centuries voiced as truth, is as we now know, a humongous anchor holding human saps to a lie.
    Mr Pinker is right it does not need a ‘tweet’ it needs a kick!

  16. David Evans
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    A related and particularly malignant delusion, seen in churches all over America, is the claim that the faithful are protected from the coronavirus and therefore don’t need to maintain a safe distance from each other and from us.

  17. Jimbo
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    True. Exhibit A: Lindsey Graham.
    He compromised every supposed Christian virtue by selling his soul to Trump for the promise of stacking the Supreme Court with conservative justices to overturn Roe v Wade and erode protections against religious infiltration into our secular republic. Graham has kissed Trump’s ring and ass more times than Trump has kissed Melania. But Graham’s purported Christian ethical ends evidently justify his unethical, anti-Christian, and hypocritical means.

  18. Mark Cagnetta
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Was it good for Giordano Bruno?

  19. Posted June 4, 2020 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Popping in to mention that the idea of an afterlife foes not only have no evidence goingfor it, but has evidence against. Here’s Sean Carroll: https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2011/05/23/physics-and-the-immortality-of-the-soul/

    -Ryan

  20. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    The method of choice had been specified by Jesus himself: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:6).

    Not to mention the bit in Matthew 5:30 that “if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

  21. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted June 7, 2020 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    My immediate response to Berezow’s article is that I thought it was evangelicals that asked for their fabled early ‘rapture’?

    And I have to ask why it is published in American Council on Science and Health? The references were very weak and would not explain why for instance religious are over-represented in US jails.

    On the larger question, the wished for but never observed ‘afterlife’ would now invalidate particle physics. I prefer to retain the current pillar of physics, and meanwhile ask for any extraordinary evidence that would topple it.


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