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Death and afterlife: where science meets faith

At my brother's funeral several years ago, the duty of performing the last rites fell on my husband. We were in California, far away from all the other male relatives designated by tradition. So it is he who smeared the ghee, drizzled the ganga jal, and in a final act of tenderness, tucked the vashti (dhoti) around his body, as he would a blanket on a sleeping child. In preparing his body for the afterlife – that neither quite believed in – we found a certain sense of comfort, an aid in letting go of what had already been lost.

Death can often reform the hardened athiest faced with the unwelcome prospect of merely ceasing to exist. As recent research has found, even the thought of mortality can make believers of us all.

Across four studies, hundreds of research subjects were first asked to imagine either a visit to a dentist or their own death. They were then asked to read either a description of evolutionary theory or that of Intelligent Design, which claims to use scientific methods to detect the hand of an greater intelligence, i.e. god, in the creation of all life.

The results for the general sample are hardly surprising: "For the diverse adult sample, thoughts of death were enough to turn people against evolutionary theory, with its mechanistic account of life, and to turn them on to ID, with its appealing idea of a superior intelligence. These effects held regardless of the participants' religious status or educational background."

More interesting is the finding that for natural science students "thoughts of death accentuated their support for evolutionary theory and led them to derogate ID." So what does that prove? That people respond to the fear of death by clinging more tightly to their particular worldview.

Richard Dawkins, Sebastian Willnow/AFP

Richard Dawkins has been an outspoken critic of religion and the idea of an omnipotent God. Sebastian Willnow/AFP

In the West, death and therefore the existence of God is a fiercely contested terrain. As I've argued elsewhere, anti-God crusaders like Richard Dawkins champion their own brand of deep-seated fundamentalism, a virulent form of atheism that mirrors the polarized worldview of the religious extremists it claims to oppose.  Yet the intellectual history of the West reveals that this antithetical opposition between Reason and Belief is an artificial and recent construct. Some of the greatest minds have been just as obsessed with the afterlife, often in ways that would strike even a devout believer as absurd.

A new book from John Gray, The Immortalization Commission, reveals a pedigreed line of wannabe occultists:

Eminent Victorians, such as Frederick Myers, inventor of the word "telepathy", and the respected philosopher Henry Sidgwick, got together with the great American pragmatist William James, and the Nobel prize-winning physiologist Charles Richer, to promote the Society for Psychical Research, whose purpose was to examine paranormal phenomena in an "unbiased and scientific way" to discover whether it could prove the existence of life beyond the grave.

This unholy alliance between science and the supernatural later gave birth to techno-immortalists, who aspired not merely to explore the afterlife but cheat death itself.  These 'God-builders' included the very decidedly athiest Bolsheviks in Russia. Their deluded attempts includes the preservation of Lenin’s corpse, in order that future science might restore him to the living.  These then are the worthy predecessors of modern variants of pseudoscientific delusion, including the most famous of them all: cryogenics. This is what we've come to: freezing dead bodies to defy death.

The lesson of this little story is one that most Indians already know: no good can come of either pitting Science against God or wedding the two in unholy matrimony. There's a good reason why most educated Indians are comfortable inhabiting the two different paradigms of science and faith, without ever attempting to reconcile the two.

Such comfort with contradiction may be a stretch for the Western imagination, but some scientists are moving toward a more nuanced philosophy of life, or in this case, death. In his book, The God Impulse: Is Religion Hardwired Into The Brain?, Kevin Nelson uses neuroscience to explain the vast array of near-death experiences that so many people around the world swear by. But more impressive than his research is his reasoning for writing the book:

There is a widening schism between people who think God is an anachronism and regard all spiritual experience as a dangerous delusion and those who consider religion [to be at] the core of their lives, ... I was determined that someone based in neuroscience should try to explain the nature of spiritual experience, not explain it away...So, yes, I might be trying to explain how and why they happen in physiological terms, but I would argue that isn’t incompatible with people believing in God if they want to. After all, who’s to say that these mechanisms weren’t created by God in the first place precisely to provide comfort just when we might need it most — as we approach death.

Wait a minute! Doesn't that sound a bit like Intelligent Design?