I am not sure why the New York Times hired a religion columnist who touts not just God but Christianity on a weekly basis, asserting things whose truth she cannot possibly know. I’ve beefed about Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren more than once on this site, decrying her anodyne religious palaver. But this week’s column is the worst, at least from the viewpoint of someone who likes to see evidence behind assertions. And although the NYT picked a genial and semi-liberal pastor to write the column, she’s still making assertions on par with, “I know that someday John Frum will come back to my island bringing us all riches and cargo, for that is what my ancestors told me.” What galls me is that she’s not only getting big exposure for her unevidenced religious claims, but probably making at least half as much money as John McWhorter, who has much more to say, likes to see evidence behind claims, and turns out two columns per week.
This time Reverend Warren tells us why she believes in God, the divine Jesus and His Resurrection, and her certainty that she’ll have an afterlife. (I don’t know if she thinks the rest of us will, as Warren is adhering to the tenets of Christianity.) It’s a prime example of confirmation bias, and something that clearly has no place in The Paper of Record.
Rev. Warren is upset because her friend and mentor Thomas, the priest who supported her through her ascent to the priesthood, died in an automobile accident along with his 22-year-old child (sex not specified). That would be devastating for anyone. But she finds herself unable to accept that such a major figure in her life is gone for good. We atheists may have trouble coming to terms with that, too, but that doesn’t mean we start believing that we’ll see our dead friends and loved ones on “the other side”. Warren:
It feels to me like something went wrong. He can’t die, I think. He’d made plans. He had so much left to do. A journey interrupted.
. . . There is something deep within us that rejects the idea that the road just stops. We feel there must be more. We must be made for more: more conversations, more laughter, more breaths to take, more miles to walk along the trail.
Yes, and there’s something deep within us that thinks that the sun moves across the sky and dips below a flat earth. But science showed that our intuitions were wrong.
Warren then broaches the idea that Jesus himself must have had a story similar to Thomas’s, something like “Prophet, Interrupted”. Thus we get to the confirmation bias: because Thomas simply can’t have just expired forever, he didn’t! Why? Because the Bible tells us so and because Warren wants that to be true:
The truth is, no one — not priests, not scientists, not the most ardent atheist, not the most steadfast believer — can be 100 percent certain about what happens to us after we die. Each week at church, when we say the Nicene Creed, I affirm that I believe in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
I believe that after I die, somehow mysteriously but also materially Jesus will raise me up to live on this good earth, made new. I believe this because I believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. Specifically, I believe the witness of the disciples and others who lived and died for their claim that they (and somewhere around 500 others) had seen Jesus alive again and spoken to and touched him. That’s ultimately why I believe there’s a God at all and why I believe God has defeated death.
Re the first paragraph, no, none of us can be 100% certain that we live on after death. But we can go on what data we have. That data says that there is no evidence for an immaterial soul that would somehow embody our person, that there is no evidence for anybody coming back from death or giving messages from the afterlife (save Jesus, of course). Finally, as Christopher Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
As for the second paragraph, she piles one delusion atop another, all coming from taking the Bible literally. For every assertion she makes is based on the New Testament being literally true. Not only was there a historical Jesus (something that many of us doubt), but also that Jesus was a divine being, both the son of God and a third of God. His resurrection, of course, as well as the witnesses, are views that also come from the New Testament. If those are reasons for believing in God and an afterlife, good luck to Rev. Warren.
After all, we know that both the Old and New Testaments contain historical errors. The census of Caesar Augustus, for example, which made Joseph and Mary return to Bethlehem to be counted and taxed, never took place. Jesus told his disciples, “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28, KJV) That’s pretty plain: he was saying that he’d return for a second time during the lifetime of his disciples, which of course didn’t happen. (This statement of course has now been interpreted by theologians as meaning something else.) We’ve been waiting two millennia, and Jesus still hasn’t come back. Why not? Could it be because the whole story is fiction? And could it be that the resurrection of the dead is also fiction?
I’m curious about what makes Rev. Warren so sure that she’ll see Thomas in heaven instead, for example, of being reincarnated as another life form, as some Buddhists believe. What makes her think that the Christian beliefs are the right ones, and all other scenarios about what happens after death are wrong?
She gives the answer away in the last sentence here (my emphasis):
As a priest, when I talk about life after death with others, I tend to keep it objective, theological and creedal. I worry about making resurrected life sound sentimental, like we are just making stuff up, dreaming of what we wish was true. So I try to be evenhanded and factual. But the fact is, I believe this is true, and I believe there are good reasons to believe it’s true, but I also want it to be true.
We’ve already seen that there are not “good reasons” to believe that there’s an afterlife, as there’s no evidence save the assertions of the New Testament, which are repeatedly erroneous. The real reason is that she wants it to be true. And that’s one of the main reasons we have Christianity.
Two statements are relevant here. The first is by the estimable scientist Peter Medawar:
I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of a conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing over whether it is true or not.
Would only religionists who make assertions like Warren adopt that stand!
And the second is an old proverb:
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
And so, in her peroration, when Warren says, “I don’t want to live in a world where everything good suddenly ends,” my response is, “Well, you almost certainly do, so get used to it.”
43 thoughts on “NYT columnist touts the afterlife”
“but I also want it to be true.”
Yeah…Therein lies the problem!
“I believe that after I die, somehow mysteriously but also materially Jesus will raise me up to live on this good earth, made new.”
She seems to be saying that after she dies that she won’t be going to heaven, but rather will be reincarnated as another person. I am not a Christian theologian. I wonder if this assertion is consistent with mainstream theology.
Yes, it is consistent with traditional Christian theology. This is not a reference to reincarnation or the like. Warren is using a mixture of biblical and traditional Christian symbol throughout the essay. Biblical images sometimes speak of a “new sky and a new earth” (usually translated into English as “new heaven and new earth”). But biblical language is ambiguous and no agreed-upon interpretation enjoys a consensus. Hence Warren’s “on this good earth, made new.” Also, New Testament affirmations of the resurrection are a mixed variety, only some of which involve resuscitation of corpses, which is the reason for “somehow mysteriously but also materially.”
Why? It’s to woo the Christian Right away from the Republicans.
That was my thought exactly.
That is the only reasonable explanation that I can think of, also, for the publication of this tripe by the NYTimes – that they think that there will be some slight good in the future from this. I would prefer them not to publish it because I see no immediate good in it and her words invoke disgust in me.
At least, 𝗜 𝗯𝗲𝗹𝗶𝗲𝘃𝗲 that is why the Times is doing this.
When we cannot immediately, personally do something to stop or prevent physical or emotional discomfort, we imagine scenarios by which the unpleasantness will be understood and so then will be ended, even if there is no evidence that those scenarios will ever occur. Hence gods, karma, conspiracy theories, and endurance of the NYTimes’ publications of religious pablum and other woo.
If that’s the intent, I don’t think it’s going to work. One column per week in a paper otherwise filled with stuff the Christian Right hates?
For the sake of your mental health, Jerry, I think you should give up reading her columns. It can’t be good for your blood pressure!
(I know, we aren’t supposed to tell you what to do, or what to write about, but I probably speak for a lot of your readers when I suggest we don’t want to see you suffer an apoplectic fit over her silly columns! We’d rather keep you around for many years to come.)
“[W]oo” is the right word, Abe!
I wonder if this death of a friend is the first death she has encountered of someone both close to her and unexpected to die. Thirty years ago, when I was a kid of 18, my mother fell ill and died in a short time. Afterwards, I couldn’t believe she was dead. It left such a hole in my life. I was like our dog, who was conditioned to expect her whenever he heard an old vw beetle and would run to the door looking for her when one passed by.
But my dog and I were simply functioning on the basis of our habits, which are hard to break.
I feel sorry for her loss. And I suppose it’s good that she has lived so long without such a loss happening to her.
Unfortunately, there is a reality that often does not conform to put habits and wishes. It’s also unfortunate that the Times expects it will sell more papers based on our wishes rather than on the news of the world.
When you live in bible country, which is a large part of the U.S., it is not surprising to find a g*d person with a regular slot, a column in the local paper. Mostly we just ignore it. A national paper such as the Times should no be selling this stuff. If they want journalism to mean respect they need to let the religious rubbish go. Two thousand year old science fiction is not news.
May I just commend you on a very brutal (but accurate and on point) reference to the cargo cults. That was beautiful.
+ 1 more
I have a handful of pet peeves…religious babble is one of them. I know some find comfort in their fairy tales, but I just lose respect for them because I think they’re off their rocker. Sorry, but I have difficulty being polite when it comes to religions….especially when someone is asking for help and they receive a hundred worthless “thoughts and prayers” instead.
I originally signed up for the Rev. T.H. Warren’s NYT newsletter, just to keep an eye on what the scoundrel was up to. But soon my inbox was bombarded with religious nonsense and other woo. I cancelled Warren’s newsletter and trashed the other stuff, but I still occasionally get related content in my inbox or popping up when I go online.
There is — apparently, unfortunately, and anachronistically — still an appetite and market for such feeble-minded crud.
Wishes may not be horses, but somehow they manage to produce lots of horse manure.
Nor bulls, but somehow….
Warren’s friend and mentor Thomas died in August.
So it goes (as ol’ Uncle Kurt used to say).
I read this, trying not to gag while doing so, and thought to myself, “I hope Jerry responds to this.” Thank you for doing so.
Why is the female character in the illustration going to heaven bare breasted, wearing knee-high boots and bikini bottoms? Is there kinky stuff going on up there that Warren is not telling us about?
I noticed that and thought, there are professional marketeers at work. Sex sells salvation as well as car mufflers and newspapers.
Beats being stuck with 72 virgins, Claudia; I’ll give her that.
Haha – yup, I agree with you there Ken. And ice cream. Please let there be ice cream. Preferably Baskin-Robbins chocolate mint.
Ice cream? Yes please.
Baskin-Robbins – this’d be unfamiliar territory for an Aussie but I’m willing to give it a go.
But chocolate mint? There’d better be other options or I’m not going!
Too right. And what are those fuzzy aircraft doing in the top left corner, eh? Coming down to pick up the sunbather?
Why don’t we all pitch the NYT for a weekly column about the Flying Spaghetti Monster? The Pastafarians can prove 100 percent that pasta in all its forms rules the world in its mysterious devine ways.
“…but I also want it to be true.” This is the sole grain of truth in all the mealy-mouthed affirmations of faith in this day and age, including from someone otherwise as intelligent as Andrew Sullivan. Credo quia consolans is the only “argument” for God left. Thus religious believers need to cease and desist from their efforts to codify their religious beliefs into law.
The great moth-eaten musical tapestry,
Invented to pretend we never die.
Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ (from memory)
One of my favourite Larkin poems – he was, of course, something of a right-wing, misogynistic, racist so doubtless he’ll be cancelled soon. For anyone interested, the whole poem is here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48422/aubade-56d229a6e2f07
Except for telling people all those bits of the bible about how hard it is to get to heaven and how few make it. Those bits of theology and creed are right out!
Even in the context of Christian theology, telling most people their loved ones went to heaven is being sentimental, making stuff up, and telling them what they wish to be true. Because that is not what Jesus said. As my favorite go-to example, if the wealthy don’t make it, and you consider the top 10% of wealthiest people in the world to be ‘wealthy,’ that pretty much means every western adult with a decent job doesn’t make it.
Off topic, but there was an amusing story told in the House of Commons today about David Amess, the MP who was killed on Friday:
So much for papal infallibility…
Perhaps God accepted the offering in the same way Santa accepts a plate of cookies. Perhaps this man went home that day to finds presents stacked about the house. This story is crying out for a Folo…
I have no objection to people believing strange things if it gives them consolation. I do object to people thinking that I must be evil if I don’t agree, or acting to compel me to do so.
I was lucky that my parents explained death to my when I was very young so I have always been used to the idea and never hankered after an afterlife even when, for a while, I believed in God.
I think that it is sad that so many will not value life because they have been led to believe that it is just the precursor to something better.
I’ve found belief in an afterlife less troubling than the typical progressive faith in an inevitable political utopia if we just build a more powerful and draconian system of social control and suppress civil liberties. Opiate of the masses versus a boot stamping a human face – for ever.
What amazes me is that most religious people are perfectly capable of rational thought under most circumstances. They seem to have a blind spot when it regards religious “belief.” When it comes to believing in an afterlife, an invisible being in the sky, a 90 year old woman (Abraham’s wife, Sarah) giving birth to a child, all reason goes out the window. Clearly these delusions are formed when a child is young and their brains are (seemingly) vulnerable to such stuff. They are socialized to suspend rationality in this one area of their lives. Unfortunately, this blind spot has broad, strange, and often dangerous ramifications.
Interesting that the NYT isn’t allowing comments on this wishful thinking essay. When they do allow comments on religious topics the count is about 95% “grow up” and 5% “ooh such beautiful pablum”
“but I also want it to be true.”
I don’t believe desire is necessarily the main culprit here. Much of human reasoning involves projecting ourselves into some alternative reality, asking “What would it be like if X were the case?” In this case X is our non-existence, which, if we don’t grasp the basic contradiction in “what would I experience if I weren’t there to have an experience?”, we end up imagining a cloud of darkness, sadness, and emptiness. So we assume there’s something terribly wrong with it and it can’t be true.
Mark Twain had the far better take: “I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
As for allowing desire as evidence, Richard Feynman said it just right: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
A corollary might be “I do not suffer fools gladly, myself first and foremost”.
I’m surprized the NYT would run an article by a Christian, the ‘Woke’ believe that Christianity is a false social construct created by the White Man to oppress. Unlike Islam, Hinduism Bhuddism, etc it has no genetic basis and therefore no validity.
“Reading the Bible, I notice how Jesus’ death too feels like a journey interrupted. There was so much more he could have explained, so many more people to heal, so much more to be done. After his death, most of his closest friends hid out, lost in grief and fear. And I wonder if this was in part because they thought that this wasn’t how things were supposed to end. They had plans. They were part of a revolutionary brotherhood. And then it was suddenly was over.”
OMG – she actually believes the Bible’s reportage is on the same level as that of the NYT? So she’s not a Jesus mythicist then? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory. Who’da thunk it?
Part of the issue here is that humans have sensations such as pleasure and pain in response to environmental inputs, and there would be no point evolutionarily to being in a state of pain OR pleasure all the time, and for biological reasons, human attempts to maintain those states indefinitely ultimately fail. Likewise, you cannot have happiness without sadness, and the rest.
I don’t see how you can meaningful avoid the duality of existence, life and death, pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, and I do not comprehend what this afterlife where everyone is happy, and healthy, and live forever would actually look like, or how hell could be possible for that matter. Heaven and hell a merely aspects of the here and now.
We can be certain beyond reasonable doubt – in fact, so close to 100 % to make no difference – that individual’s life are delineated by cell division and cell death.
Warren’s is an unreasonable doubt, and that fact should be mentioned whenever a superstitious person makes claims without – or as here, against – evidential basis.