Is There Life After Death?

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Last night (Thursday, March 7) I did a debate on “Is There Life After Death?” at the University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. (See video of the debate) The event was sponsored by the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. More than 400 people were in attendance, including students, community members, and many members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, some who drove many miles.

However, the scheduled 7:00 pm event had to begin 90 minutes later than that because Joe Boot, my opponent, had an automobile accident on the way to the debate from the Toronto area. His car was badly damaged, but he was not hurt. He did not have a near death experience. He does believe that “all things work together for good,” and for some reason his God, who controls everything, thought it was important to inconvenience hundreds of people, some of whom had traveled a long distance to be at the debate. Joe Boot is the senior pastor of Westminster Chapel in Toronto and founder of the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

We managed to fill up the hour and a half waiting for Joe with some impromptu speeches. (See the pre-debate remarks.) Shawna Scott, who represented the Atheist group, gave a brief talk about her organization’s activities. Shawna is the student who successfully stopped graduation prayers at that university, a real champion of the separation of religion and government. The Freedom From Religion Foundation gave Shawn a student scholarship award for her activism. (See story).

One of the organizers of Intervarsity then spoke about their efforts to publicize the message of Jesus on campus. The moderator of the debate, Dr. Gordon Drake, a theistic physics professor, spoke about the complete compatibility (he thinks) of science and religion.

Still stalling for time, I got up and described the history and legal activities of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I mentioned that at that very moment Annie Laurie Gaylor was in Champaign, Illinois to participate in the 65th Anniversary Celebration of the McCollum v. Board of Education Supreme Court victory, a legal precedent that removes religious instruction from public schools in the United State. I deliberately steered clear of the debate topic so as not to prejudice the audience in Joe’s absence.

However, I did offer one proof of the truth of atheism. I held up a red paper coffee cup from Tim Horton’s. Little did I realize how powerful that symbol was before that audience. I learned from some of the locals that the Tim Horton restaurant chain is one of the closest things to national pride the Canadians will celebrate these days. Horton was a famous hockey player, and that sport is their other claim to national unity, they told me.

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Before the debate, while the room was being set up, some of us had gone to the Tim Horton’s on campus for coffee and snacks. I ordered a medium regular coffee, which they handed to me in that red paper cup. At the table I noticed that one of the students had taken the lid off his own coffee cup and was rolling up the curved top rim. “Darn, I didn’t win anything,” he said. It turns out Tim Hortons has a contest where some of the cups are printed with prize announcements to lucky winners. So when I finished my coffee I did the same thing, after Currie, one of the atheist students, showed me the arrow on the cup pointing to where the prize might be. When I rolled up the rim, surprise! I won a free caffe latte.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when I held that cup up before that audience, they were impressed. (You have to get your fun where you find it.) “This is proof of the power of non-prayer,” I announced. “I did NOT pray to win, and I won!”

Joe did finally show up, around 8:30, surprisingly composed after his long day, and gave his opening statement first. When it was my turn to speak, I walked over and handed the cup to Joe, as a gift. Not having heard my story, he was a bit perplexed, but quickly asked “Did I win?” The crowd loved it!

The debate was a good show, as these things go. Joe Boot was articulate, attractive and feisty, which makes for a much better event than some other debates I have done where the opponent mainly lectures, or worse, where we agree on too many issues. A debate should be a contest.

But intellectually, it was extremely disappointing. I had prepared carefully, and my notebook was stuffed with information to rebut attempts to provide evidence for the afterlife, including Near Death Experiences and the supposed resurrection of Jesus. But Joe only mentioned these briefly, in passing, and said they are not the real issues. He offered no evidence at all for life after death, admitting “the paucity of empirical evidence.”

Instead, he based his whole case on the supposed philosophical weaknesses of naturalism and atheism and simply asserted that the God of Christian scripture is the best explanation for “a universe of meaning,” and since God exists, then his promise of eternal life must be true. He thinks we have to choose between one of two world views: 1) naturalism, where all reality is one, and 2) dualism, where reality is split between that which is created and that which is not.  (Are you a one-ist or a two-ist?) He admitted that his world view contains assumptions and biases, but claimed that that is no worse than the atheist world view which contains assumptions and biases of its own. Without God, the universe is an “absurdity,” a cosmos with no meaning. But with God, we can entertain the existence of soul, spirit, immaterial objects such as mind and consciousness that can exist apart from the body. “We are more than the sum of our parts,” he insisted, “and more than mere matter in motion.”

And that was it! A debate on one topic was morphed by sleight of hand into something else: “Is there life after death?” became “Is atheism absurd?”

When it was my turn to speak, I quickly pointed out that this is not an either-or contest between two exclusive world views, a kind of cosmic multiple-choice test. He is making a truth claim--“There is life after death”--and in any debate the burden of proof is on the shoulders of the one making the claim. Joe and I both believe in the existence of the natural universe, but he believes in something extra: that there is a supernatural realm populated by immaterial personalities. We both admit that human beings are biological organisms in a natural environment, but he believes that we are also something more than that: souls, spirits, immaterial entities. We both start from naturalism, where we agree, and argue from there. My skepticism about his additional claims about the universe is not based an opposite world view, but on the default world view that we both share, which he is trying to enlarge.

If I claim I have invented a perpetual motion machine, and you ask me for proof, can I simply say, “Prove that I didn’t”?

Not only did Joe fail to meet the burden of proof, he did not even step up to the plate. He did not accept any burden of proof at all. He even admitted, “we don’t have a debate here.” Apparently, the way to show that there is life after death is to simply beat up on atheists. Quoting Christopher Hitchens, I replied that “that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

The debate was much more than that, of course. Broader if not deeper. We dove into epistemology and definitions. I accused him of equivocation and he replied by claiming that my simplistic old-fashioned worn-out biased naturalistic diatribe is nothing more than “cereal box atheism.” I was sorely tempted to reply that I would rather be a cereal box than a flake, but you will see from the video (57:55) that I bit my tongue in mid sentence. I think it looks better if the mud slings from only one side.

During cross examination I asked Joe to define “spirit,” and he side-stepped the question by claiming that my materialistic biases automatically exclude a non-material definition, and anyway, we naturalists don’t know how to define “energy.” He claimed that consciousness is an immaterial object while I insisted that it is not a thing at all: consciousness and mind are labels for functions of an organ that cease to have meaning when the organ stops operating, just like software stops running when you unplug the computer. Science has shown us the complete dependence of consciousness on the brain. I pointed out that asking if there is life after death is like asking if digestion continues to exist after the stomach disappears.

Questions from the audience were astute, directed at both of us. Up to that point I would say that Joe had been keeping his head up, speaking articulately (if not coherently), but when a question was asked about evolution, that’s when he lost the debate, as I heard from many members of the audience. He asserted that humans are a special creation, that all species were created as separate kinds by God, and that there are serious problems with natural selection. “Darwin himself wondered where all the transitional fossils were,” he exulted, apparently not realizing that much work has been done since Darwin first announced his ideas.

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After the debate about 20 of us went to a local Ethiopian restaurant and talked until way after midnight. Shawna handed me a gift from the group -- not a Tim Horton cup, but an elegant personalized pen that I can use to autograph books and sign FFRF legal letters. This event was their first large public meeting, and because it was so successful, they are energized to do more activities on campus promoting reason, science, and real human morality. There may not be life after death, but with so many smart, concerned activist students like the Windsor/Essex County Atheist Society, there is certainly life after debates!

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